(in this part, I examine the importance the doctrine of hell and whether I’ve been “judgmental” of Rob Bell)
Is Hell an Essential or Core Christian Doctrine?
How are doctrines important? Additionally, where does the doctrine of hell fall when it comes to essential Christian doctrine? Paul warns us in Acts 20:27-31:
For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God. Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
Is this the sort of thing (hell) that Paul would be concerned with? To help with this dialogue and to explain where I have ultimately come to a conclusion, it will be helpful for some definitions. Essential Christian doctrines are the set of beliefs that define Christianity and are represented in the early Christian creeds as passed down by the apostles in the “rule of faith.” To differ with these doctrines would be to place yourself outside of Christianity and has historically been called a heresy or “false teaching.” This following list is not inclusive, but gives you an idea what sort of beliefs would be core to Christianity.
- Deity of Christ.
- Jesus’ incarnation.
- Vicarious atonement.
- Salvation by grace through faith.
- Bodily resurrection of Jesus.
As one obvious example, if a person did not believe that God existed, they obviously would not be a Christian (or even call themselves one). A more subtle example with the same doctrine (Trinity) is a person who does not believe the Trinity consists of three persons (Father, Son, Spirit), but rather just one being/person wearing a different “mask” and simultaneously fulfilling all three roles (modalistic monarchianism). This second example would highlight a heretical belief by an individual (or group) that called themselves Christian. Obviously other religions differ substantially with this list of doctrines and would not call themselves Christian. There are also some obvious organizations that differ on these doctrines and have been considered heretical or theological cults (e.g. Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses). Last, there are those who call themselves Christian and are not part of a theological cult, but would aptly be called a “false teacher” when they teach something contrary to this essential core of Christian beliefs.
Secondary doctrines are those which Christians must agree upon to have a harmonious local body. Examples of secondary doctrine might include method of baptism (sprinkling vs. immersion), church government (congregational vs. bishop) or role of women in the church (egalitarian vs. complementarian). If there is disagreement in these secondary doctrines, the local church typically cannot function agreeably. Difference in secondary doctrines is partly the reason we see the number of Christian denominations, although they agree on the essential doctrines.
The last category of doctrine is called tertiary doctrines. These doctrines are those with which you can disagree and yet have a harmonious local church. Some examples of tertiary doctrines include timing of the rapture, view of creation (young earth vs. old earth) or spiritual warfare methodology.
It has taken me several months to come to a conclusion as to where the doctrine of hell fits into these (hopefully helpful) categories of doctrine given above. What has been difficult for me is the fact that Seventh Day Adventists hold to a view of annihilation (conditionalism) – that after the Judgment, unbelievers will cease to exist or be annihilated. Walter Martin, in his classic book Kingdom of the Cults, defends the Seventh Day Adventists as not a heretical cult since they adhere to the essential doctrines of Christianity. He proceeds to point out places where he believes they are incorrect (such as soul sleep, dietary laws and annihilation).[i] Since I agree with Martin’s conclusions, that would place “some” who differ on the nature of hell into a secondary doctrinal difference (denominational issue). I “tenuously” believe annihilation fits into secondary doctrine, although many of the resources I provide (below) disagree with this assessment (and would place it into the essential category). Since Bell does not argue for annihilation, this conclusion may be immaterial, but I thought this distinction might be helpful.
Since Bell’s view is not only a divergent view on hell, but couples universalism with its conclusions, I’m forced to conclude that his view is counter to essential Christian doctrine. I have to agree with Franklin Graham’s assessment of Bell as a “false teacher” when it comes to this particular doctrine.[ii] In an e-mail conversation with one of my former professors (Dr. Kevin Lewis), he stated the following, which I would generally agree: “On the essential issue, I am convinced the doctrine of divine justice as eternal, conscious punishment is implicitly connected with the doctrines of the holiness of God, the doctrine of the atonement and its necessity as penal substitution, and the doctrines of justification. As such, I believe it is so logically connected with essential Christian doctrines that it must be believed. To deny hell is to deny God’s justice, holiness, and the necessity of atonement.”[iii]
I didn’t come to this conclusion rashly or use it in a sense to call someone a name. Rather, I came to this conclusion after a very careful study of what Bell has written and compared it to the Word of God. I am NOT saying that Bell is not a Christian, but rather that what he is teaching is incorrect and differs from core Christianity such that it is detrimental to the truth of the message that God has provided to us though his Word.
Is This Critique Judgmental?
If you read the early church Fathers and their responses to heretical teaching (cf. Irenaeus Against Heresies) or even the language coming out of the ecumenical councils (cf. anathema pronounced against Origin provided above), you will see that my language in my critique is comparatively mild. However, this is serious stuff. Jesus himself and his disciples insisted that it is necessary to belong to Christ to have eternal life and often it is necessary to know and believe the right things about him in order to belong to him.[iv] There are consequences to incorrect beliefs as evidenced by Paul’s warning to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:16, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” The New Testament writers (including Jesus’ quotes) call out “false teaching” and warn the early church (cf. Matt 7:15-20; 24:10-12, 23-36; Gal 1:6-9; 3:1 [cf. 6:12-13]; Col 2:1-5, 8-19; 2 Cor 11:1-20; 1 Tim 1:3-7; 4:1-5; 6:2-5; 2 Tim 3:1-9; Acts 20:28-30; 2 Pet 2:1-22; Jude 4-13, 16; 1 John 2:18-25; 4:1; 2 John 7-11; Rev 2:6, 14-16, 20-23). Our modern pluralistic culture is not comfortable with disagreement as this is perceived as “intolerance.” However, perhaps the most loving thing for someone to do for Rob Bell is to point out his error (with “gentleness and respect” I Peter 3:15) and pray that he renounces this false view of hell.
It is also worth remembering that judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments. An oft quoted passage from Jesus is in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” This seems to be the tone in Bell’s book and those who support him. If you criticize Bell’s views, then you are being judgmental. With this attitude, I’m not even sure how a conversation can take place – which Bell says he is trying to have. In fact, this view is self-convicting as they are “judging” those they deem judgmental.
Rather, in this passage Jesus is speaking of condemnation of others, rather than judging their ideas. It is a spirit of condemnation. It is setting oneself in the magisterial seat and passing judgment upon that person. It is passing judgment harshly, as I believe John Piper may have done with his “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet (without even reading his book first). Instead, God is the judge of the human soul and motives.
However, Jesus doesn’t call us NOT to make any judgments or use discernment at all. In fact, later in this same chapter, Jesus tells us to use judgment, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). All the passages (listed above) for warnings about false teaching also encourage the listener to use judgment.
A famous saying of John Wesley was “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I believe I have shown that this doctrine is one that demands unity as an essential Christian doctrine. I also believe I have fairly evaluated Bell’s views and represented them accurately without passing judgment on him.
[i] Walter Martin, ed. Hank Hanegraaff, The Kingdom of the Cults (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1997), 517-608.
[ii] Franklin Graham as quoted on Bill O’Reilly show on 4/28/11.
[iii] Kevin Lewis, e-mail dialogue on September 19, 2011. The reader may note that Lewis’ statement would include the view of annihilation.
[iv] Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), xxiii.