Major Problems with Love Wins
As stated in my introduction, I will be unable to address every one of the problems found in Love Wins. However I will address three major errors I found around Bell’s notion of God’s will, his interpretation of the word “eternal” and his understanding about hell being “here and now.” I would refer to the reader to the resources section of this paper for more detailed critiques of his book.
First, Bell proposes an obvious false dichotomy regarding God’s will and his omnipotence. He does this by first stating that God is all-powerful and “in control,” which is true. He also states that God desires that all be saved (I Tim 2:4), which is also true. He then poses the dichotomy, “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?”[i] The conclusion is inevitable to the reader that because God is all-powerful, He does get his way, thus all will be saved. This is wrong-headed for multiple reasons. One, when one speaks of God’s omnipotence, what we mean is not that God can literally do anything (unqualified), but that He can do anything that is possible. For anyone familiar with the logical problem of evil, it is conclusive that God cannot create free-willed creatures that will in fact always choose good. This does not take away from God’s omnipotence. Two, any first year seminary student recognizes that there are two different notions of God’s will – one is his moral will and one is his sovereign will. When we speak of his moral will, we are referring to actions or desires of God consistent with his moral nature. It is God’s will (or desire) that we do not sin, but yet we also understand that we do in fact sin because of our fallen nature. We also understand that God’s sovereign will is what God either foreknows will occur or what he has determined to occur based upon the divine creative decree. In one example, God’s moral will was that Adam and Eve did not sin, but we can also speak of God’s sovereign will in foreknowing that this would occur and was part of his plan (sovereign will). God is still in control, still all powerful, and yet sin did occur in the garden. So Bell’s dichotomy is a false one. God is in control and all-powerful, but yet many will choose not to follow Him and will not be saved.
A second major problem with Love Wins is Bell’s translation of the phrase aionios kolasis as found in Matthew 25:45-46. Bell asserts, “Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.”[ii] With this interpretation in place, it allows Bell to support his view that the afterlife (or hell) is really a period of time for restoration to take place (i.e. purgatory for unbelievers). This translation is problematic.[iii]
I’ll start with the meaning of the word kolasis. It is used three other times in the New Testament and clearly means punishment (1 John 4:18, Acts 4:21 and 2 Peter 2:9). Also, this “everlasting punishment” (aionios kolasis) refers to the same place (“everlasting fire”) in verse 41 where the Devil on his angels are to go. Bell is silent about whether Satan and fallen angels also get a second chance, but it seems more difficult to assert this based upon Revelation 19-20 which states that they will be tormented forever and ever (using different Greek words). Francis Chan has documented ten commentators and fifteen different translations that have all translated this word as “punishment”.[iv] Although all these people could be wrong, there seems to be worldwide consensus on this, which puts Bell on very shaky exegetical ground.
For the word aionios, there certainly is a qualitative and quantitative aspect to this word and scholars have debated the meaning of this word for a while. However from the context of this specific passage, it seems clear that this is meant to mean “everlasting.” It is used twice in verse 46 in referring to “everlasting (aionios) life” and “everlasting (aionios) punishment” and includes the notion of never-ending time. To be consistent with the Bell translation, if “aionios” life is not meant to be “everlasting,” then what does that mean for those who are saved? Does this mean they could reject God as well in the afterlife – since this “aionios” life is not meant to be forever? Verse 41 of the same chapter in Matthew also shuts the door on this temporal interpretation because the “aionios” fire is prepared for the devil and his angels and Revelation 20:10 refers to this same punishment as never-ending. When Jesus refers to this place for unbelievers to suffer the same punishment, it logically follows that this will be never-ending as well.
Third, Bell redefines hell as both here and now in the same way that “eternal” life is here and now. He set up this interpretation by already establishing (chapter 2) that the Kingdom of Heaven (or God) is a present reality and equates this with heaven. Thus, hell is the same type of thing, a present reality and a potential future reality. For Bell, hell is not a place of punishment, but rather the consequences of rejecting “God-given goodness and humanity,”[v] whether in this life or the next. I believe Bell has confused the Kingdom of Heaven (God’s “reign and rule”) with the concept of heaven (something experienced after death), but I can agree with Bell that there is an “already, but not yet” component to the Kingdom of God that reflects the future consummation of heaven.
The problem is that this cannot be done for the concept of hell. This is complicated by the fact that our culture uses the term “hell” to describe difficult events or experiences in our life, but hell is never used this way by NT writers to describe their sufferings. As one contemplates the idea of suffering, pain and evil, there are surely some stuff that are the result of rejecting God, but this reflects a minority of the suffering one experiences in life. Most of the events and experiences we would describe as “hell” are caused by others who sin against us or even natural evil (like Hurricane Katrina). Furthermore, we can look at the experiences of the early church and easily recognize that many of those who followed Christ suffered greatly because they were following God, not because they rejected his goodness.
Consider Paul’s sufferings listed in this passage: 2 Corinthians 11:23-27
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” Surely Paul could have described his experiences as “hell” (using our current vernacular), but he definitely did not have this in mind as the concept of hell in his writings. These difficulties experienced by Paul were obviously because he was participating in expanding God’s Kingdom, not because of rejecting God’s goodness.
Bell also attempts to show that heaven and hell are the same place (both now and the future) by appealing to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) and the parable of Prodigal Son. I’m not confident that the first parable (Lazarus) is supposed to be meant as a literal place, but even if it is, Bell misses the entire meaning of the parable – Jesus is warning his listeners that there is no second chance in the afterlife. If there was, then the rich man would not ask to return to his brothers. It is also clear in the parable that there is no crossing over from hell to heaven (if this is a literal place) – Abraham states, “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26). The point of this parable is that choices in our lifetime are locked in eternity (cf. Hebrews 9:27).
Regarding the parable of the Prodigal Son… as one reviewer commented… if you can get this parable to mean heaven and hell are in the same place, you can get the Bible to say anything you want it to.[vi]
[i] Ibid., 98.
[ii] Ibid., 91.
[iii] I am using the arguments provided by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (Colorado Springs, Colorado: David C Cook, 2011), 83-86.
[iv] Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up, 85.
[v] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, 73.