Pastor Daryl Hilbert
A Review of
Love Wins–A Book About Heaven, Hell,
and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
by Rob Bell
I. BELL’S BOOK
A. Were you ever in a conversation where you could not get a straightforward answer no matter how simply you asked the question? You may have asked the question repeatedly even though you altered the phrases and still a simple answer eluded you. There are a couple of reasons why you do not get a straight answer.
1. First, maybe the person does not know the answer. Rather than just tell you they do not know, they begin to tell you what they do not know in a way that sounds like they know what they are saying. You know?
2. Secondly, it could be that the question you posed was a False Dilemma, where an either/or question is posed but neither answer is right. Again, they could just state that both are incorrect.
3. Perhaps a third reason would be that they do not wish to incriminate themselves or commit to a position under scrutiny before others. Politicians do this quite successfully all the time. But it is rare for theologians or ministers to skirt the issues, or at least it used to be when orthodoxy was orthodox (Grk orthos – straight, doxa – opinion or position; correct belief or position; defined here as the longstanding and accepted Christian theological orthodox beliefs).
B. At some point in your conversation an epiphany floods over you that you will never get a straight answer because the person is doing everything in their power to keep one from you. That is the sensation we get when we try to understand the Emergent Church. We ask for a specific and the only specific they give is that there are no specifics. Rob Bell, the poster-child for the Emergent Church, is no exception. He is simple and straightforward on how he dresses, dyes his hair, and shaves his head according to contemporary styles, but his theology is anything but simple and straightforward. Bell, the author of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith has come out with another emergent book called, Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
C. In Bell’s book, everything he believes, or postulates that he might believe, comes from three propositions (though he only offers two). The first is that God is love.
1. First, I believe that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere. [Bell includes all other religions and individuals, see Example #1 & #2] (Bell, Love Wins, preface)
2. [Example #1] Several years ago we had an art show at our church …one woman included in her work a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling. But not everyone. Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell…. Really” Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know? (Bell, Love Wins, pg. 1-2)
3. [Example #2] Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her, “So, there’s no hope then.” … No hope? Is that the Christian message” “No hope?” Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is this the sacred calling of Christians–to announce that there’s no hope? (Bell, Love Wins, pg. 3)
4. This was not the same meaning that the apostle John intended when he stated that “God is love” (1Jn 4:8). Bell’s meaning is that “love is God.” The difference is that that the apostle John understands that God is all of His attributes simultaneously, including love. So that when God exercises His love, He does so without neglecting His other attributes. Bell’s meaning however, is that not only is love the preeminent attribute of God, but it is the only attribute of God. Therefore, he can postulate in his book that everyone will go to heaven (Universalism, which he does postulate, but never admits) and that no one goes to hell because that would be inconsistent with God’s sole attribute of love.
D. The second proposition (which he sees a part of the first) is that if it comes from orthodox evangelicals, it must automatically be wrong.
1. There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it. (Bell, Love Wins, Preface)
2. This love compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story. (Bell, Love Wins, Preface)
E. The third proposition is that it is OK to question orthodoxy. This is not the healthy questioning that will strengthen our confirmation in the Word of God and the testimony of biblical theologians from the past. This is the constant and unhealthy questioning that inevitably will end up destroying the basis of truth from the Scriptures and the faith “once handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).
1. I’ve written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them. (Bell, Love Wins, Preface)
2. Some communities don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe: “We don’t discuss those things here.” (ibid.)
3. I believe the discussion itself is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he’s asked with . . . a question. “What do you think? How do you read it?” he asks, again and again and again. (ibid.)
4. The ancient sages said the words of the sacred text were black letters on a white page—there’s all that white space, waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and debates and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights. We read the words, and then enter into the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years across cultures and continents. (ibid.)
5. My hope is that this frees you. There is no question that Jesus cannot handle no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous. At the same time, some issues aren’t as big as people have made them. Much blood has been spilled in church splits, heresy trials, and raging debates over issues that are, in the end, not that essential. Sometimes what we are witnessing is simply a massive exercise in missing the point. Jesus frees us to call things what they are. (ibid.)
6. And then, last of all, please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences. (ibid.)
7. If this book, then, does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity—well, I’d be thrilled. (ibid.)
II. BELL’S BIO
A. Bell’s History
1. Rob Bell was the founder and pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is also the featured speaker of mini video clips seen on YouTube and various other places called, NOOMA (the pronunciation of the Greek word pneuma, which means wind, spirit, or breath).
2. Bell grew up in a traditional Christian environment. His father, Judge Robert Holmes Bell was nominated by Ronald Reagan to the federal judiciary committee.
3. Bell received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College (1992), where he also met his wife Kristen. Bell later received a M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary, which is known for its biblical inerrancy debate and liberal professors and students.
4. After serving for a time at Calvary Church as an assistant pastor to Ed Dobson, Bell branched out on his own to start a new kind of community called, “Mars Hill.” This was the place of Paul’s sermon to the Athenians, “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Ac 17:23).
5. Bell’s popularity escalated and a 2006 article in the Chicago Sun Times called him “the next Billy Graham”. A year later, TheChurchReport.com named him No. 10 on its list of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America.” He also made TIME magazine in December of that same year.
6. His church is a culture jump for many and known as a culturally relevant church.
a) Clearly cultural relevance was part of the reason for planting a church whose worship team requires a bass player who can play “in the style of Jimmy Eat World and Coldplay.” No generation has ever been more alert to such nuances than the media-fed children of the 1980s and ’90s, who can sense uncoolness at a thousand paces. As Rob Bell’s wife, Kristen, tells CT in a joint interview after the service, “It’s a cultural jump for our friends to come to church. It’s a cultural jump for us, and we grew up in the church.” (Crouch, Andy, “The Emergent Mystique”, Christianity Today)
7. However, culture is not the only thing that is jumping at Mars Hill, it would also include Rob Bell’s view of Christianity and his view of the Bible itself.
B. Bell’s Influence
1. The Bell’s admitted that they became disillusioned with the traditional church and its teachings.
a) In fact, as the Bells describe it, after launching Mars Hill in 1999, they found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with church. “Life in the church had become so small,” Kristen says. “It had worked for me for a long time. Then it stopped working.” (ibid.)
2. So what led the Bells to change, or what caused an already internal change to surface? It was the postmodern Christian views of Brian McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian and guru of the Emergent Church.
a) And how did the Bells find their way out of the black-and-white world where they had been so successful and so dissatisfied? “Our lifeboat,” Kristen says, “was A New Kind of Christian.” (ibid.)
3. What is the Emergent Church? It is a postmodern approach to Christianity.
a) What is postmodernism? Postmodern thought is, in its very essence, an adventure and an expression of life experience. From its modernist beginnings, Postmodernism is an attempt to question the world that we see around us and especially not to take other people’s views as the final truth. Postmodernism puts everything into question and radically interrogates philosophies, strategies and world views. There is no such thing as a definition of the postmodern. It is a mood rather than a strict discipline. Postmodernism, with all its complexity and possible excesses, is an attempt to find new and more truthful versions of the world. (www.essortment.com)
b) What is Postmodernism in Christianity? The modern period of history… is coming to an end. We are entering “postmodernity,” an as-yet ill-defined borderland in which central modern values like objectivity, analysis, and control will become less compelling. They are superseded by postmodern values like mystery and wonder. The controversial implication is that forms of Christianity that have thrived in modernity – including evangelicalism – are unlikely to survive the transition. (McLaren, A New Kind of Christian)
c) “Right now Emergent is a conversation, not a movement,” he says. “We don’t have a program. We don’t have a model. I think we must begin as a conversation, then grow as a friendship, and see if a movement comes of it.” (McLaren, “Emergent Mystique”)
d) [The Emergent Church] is something new in the cultural-identifying churches. The seeker-sensitive church loudly proclaimed that they were fine-tuning the methodology but were not tampering with the message of the evangelical church (even though they were). The emergent church is concerned about methods but they are even more concerned about the message. They believe that conservative evangelical Christianity has it all wrong. From the Scriptures to essential doctrines to the gospel itself, the church so far just doesn’t get it. And the emergent people include themselves in the same camp. As Brian McLaren states, “I don’t think we’ve got the gospel right yet. What does it mean to be saved?… None of us have arrived at orthodoxy.” (Gilley, “The Emerging Church – Part 1”)
C. Bell’s Change
1. Bell himself admits that the Emergent Church is not so much concerned with methodology as it is the message.
a) This is not just the same old message with new methods. We’re rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. (Crouch, Christianity Today, “The Emergent Mystique”)
2. It was impossible for Bell’s view toward Christianity to change without also changing his view on the Bible.
a) The Bells started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself “discovering the Bible as a human product,” as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. “The Bible is still in the center for us,” Rob says, “but it’s a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it.” (ibid.)
b) “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible,” Kristen says, “that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means. And yet I feel like life is big again like life used to be black and white, and now it’s in color.” (ibid.)
3. A postmodern view cannot co-exist with a view of the Bible that teaches orthodoxy, dogma, doctrine, and theology.
a) Ask me if Christianity (my version of it, yours, the Pope’s, whoever’s) is orthodox, meaning true, and here’s my honest answer: a little, but not yet. Assuming by Christianity you mean the Christian understanding of the world and God, Christian opinions on soul, text, and culture I’d have to say that we probably have a couple of things right, but a lot of things wrong, and even more spreads before us unseen and unimagined. But at least our eyes are open! To be a Christian in a generously orthodox way is not to claim to have the truth captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. (Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 293)
b) The Bible is absolutely equivalent to the phrase “the Word of God” as used in the Bible. Although I do find the term inerrancy useful I would prefer to use the term inherency to describe my view of Scripture. (McLaren, The Last Word, p. 111).
c) “There is more than one way to ‘kill’ the Bible,” McLaren says. “You can dissect it, analyze it, abstract it. You can read its ragged stories and ragamuffin poetry, and from them you can derive neat abstractions, sterile propositions, and sharp-edged principles.” (McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, p. 158)
d) D. A. Carson answers why the Emerging Church has to take such a position on expository teaching: At some juncture churches have to decide whether they will, by God’s grace, try to live in submission to Scripture, or try to domesticate Scripture. (D. A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, p. 164)
4. If Bell cannot trust in the Bible’s truths, then he must seek to find “new truths.” Such new truths are supposedly sought after in a sort of new reformational spirit.
a) I can’t see church history in any other way, except this: “reformanda”, continually being lead and taught and guided by the Spirit into new truth. (McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, p. 193)
b) It is our turn to step up and take responsibility for who the church is going to be for a new generation. It is our turn to redefine and reshape and dream it all up again. (Bell, Velvet Elvis, p. 164)
D. Bell’s Mission
1. Now if Bell and McLaren are starting a New Reformation, are they not declaring that the old one was wrong? This answers the question why Bell is attempting to remove the “toxic” Reformation beliefs and Reformation preaching.
a) This love compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story. A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (Bell, Love Wins, Preface)
2. According to bell reformational beliefs and reformational preaching is the reformational culprit which has turned off the masses.
a) I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be part of that. You are not alone. There are millions of us.” (Bell, Love Wins, Preface
3. Rob Bell’s mission then is to reclaim the real truth of God and promote it, even though his emergent views do not define what that truth is. Therefore, Rob Bell can only be dogmatic about two things: 1) traditional Reformation Christianity and its proponents are wrong, and 2) only he and few select others are the ones to teach it … er…uh …suggest it.
a) There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it. (Bell, Love Wins, Preface)
E. Time to Ring the Bell
1. False teachers had crept in unnoticed among Jude’s readers (Jude 3-4). It was such a problem that Jude was compelled (anágkê – pressed tight, constraint) to write concerning them. Jude was so compelled to write that he changed his subject matter from “common salvation” to “false teachers.”
2. His appeal (parakaléō – strong encouragement) was that his readers were to “contend earnestly” for the faith. Jude uses epagōnízomai to appeal to his readers to put forth an emphatic effort and strenuous struggle on behalf of the truth. Metaphorically, they were to wage war for the truth.
3. We will not apologize for waging war over the truth. This we will do as we contend with Bell’s view of heaven and hell.
III. BELL’S HEAVEN
A. The Dismantling of the Traditional View of Heaven
1. Rob Bell begins to discuss heaven from his book in chapter 2. He is finally going to tell us what he really believes about heaven, or is he? He would assure us that he is in our camp of orthodox evangelicals, but is he? Bell will make subtle attempts to state beliefs that seem similar to orthodox vernacular, but his beliefs are anything but orthodox. His beliefs are revealed by his not so subtle explanations of heaven and hell.
2. First he begins with heaven. Or should I say that he begins by making derogatory comments about the orthodox position on heaven.
a) Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended there in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire? I say yes, there are. (ibid., pg. 26)
b) A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. (Rob Bell, Love Wins, Preface)
3. To Bell, this traditional view of heaven is at best “misguided,” better described as “toxic,” or worst of all described as contradictory and subversive to the real gospel.
a) [About the last paragraph]…This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (ibid., Preface)
4. Underneath all of his thin layered orthodoxy lies some dreadfully sacrilegious thoughts. Most orthodox Christians would say that the prospect of heaven would be of utmost importance in this fleeting earthly life. But Bell questions not only the very foundation of such orthodox perspectives, but he actually questions if the message of heaven in the afterlife is the best God could do.
a) This raises even more disconcerting questions about what the message even is. Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven. Is that the message? Is that what life is about? Going somewhere else? If that’s the gospel, the good news – if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else – then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life other than getting what you need for the next one. (ibid., pg. 6)
b) Which of course raises the question: Is that the best God can do? (ibid., pg. 6)
5. Even if Bell were attempting to sound like the world in order to reach the world, he is so overboard that he becomes the world. In fact, some of Bell’s views are so opposed to the traditional view of heaven, that he actually reverses the description of heaven as hell.
a) I’ve heard pastors answer, “[Heaven] will be unlike anything we can comprehend, like a church service that goes on forever,” causing some to think, “That sounds more like hell.” (ibid., pg. 25)
B. The Rich Young Ruler (Mt 19:16 -22)
1. Eternal Life Equals Earthly Life
a) Bell attempts to justify his position from Scripture. He begins with the “Rich Young Ruler” in Mt 19:16-22. Bell will argue that when the young ruler asked about eternal life, he did not have the concept of heaven that orthodox Christians have, rather he was asking about earthly life. Furthermore, according to Bell, when Jesus was speaking of eternal life, He was merely speaking of earthly life.
(1) When the man asks about getting “eternal life,” he isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to “go to heaven.” It wasn’t what Jesus came to do.” (ibid., pg. 30)
b) Bell’s concept of eternal life is concerned with the here and now. This concept of eternal life is critical of anyone who does not take part in the here and now. He would suggest that orthodox Christianity is so erroneously heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.
(1) How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age. Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world. [Note: the “new world” does not mean the “new heaven”] (ibid., pg. 44)
(2) Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere. (ibid., pg. 45)
(3) It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jesus taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die. (ibid., pg. 45)
c) Unbelievably and erroneously for Bell, the terms “eternal life” (Mt 19:16), “treasure in heaven” (Mt 19:21), and “kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:23) are all synonyms for earthly life.
2. The Correct Interpretation of the Rich Young Ruler (Mt 19:16-22)
a) When the young ruler came to Jesus, he was indeed referring to the orthodox idea of eternal life. However, his was a concept of obtaining eternal life through good works (Mt 19:16).
b) Jesus’ first response was to get the ruler to come to the realization that Jesus was the Son of God, who alone (was the “One”) who was good, righteous, and sinless (Mt 19:17). His next response was to show the man that all men are sinners, including the young ruler. The intent of the Law and the Commandments was to reveal man’s sin (Ro 3:29; 7:7).
c) The ruler asked which commandments were the most important, showing that he still did not grasp Jesus’ point. Nevertheless Jesus continued to recount the commandments still desiring the young man to understand that mankind has violated all of the commandments if only in his heart (Mt 19:18-19).
d) Still the young man did not grasp Jesus’ message (Mt 19:20). However his own sin became more apparent in that his answer was self-righteous and arrogant (“All these things I have kept”).
e) Jesus responded with a statement that was intended to reveal the man’s sinfulness. Jesus told him to sell all he had to feed the poor and follow Him (Mt 19:21).
f) Sadly, the rich young ruler had more attachment and trust in his riches than in trusting Christ as Savior and following Him. Therefore the young man went away from Jesus and grieved because he had too much attachment to the false god of riches (Mt 19:23).
g) Since the rich young ruler is in the context of salvation, “eternal life” would mean anything but “earthly life.” None of this would make sense if “eternal life” did not come from a heavenly perspective. In addition, there is nothing to suggest that this event in the life of Jesus removes the orthodox view of heaven.
C. The Age to Come is the Next Earthly Age
1. Rob Bell does however talk about a second aspect of eternal life as the “age to come.” One might think that this is where Bell is going to side with the orthodox view of heaven. But sadly, the “age to come” for Bell is the next earthly age to come.
a) Life in the age to come. If this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally. (ibid., pg. 33)
b) When we talk about heaven, then, or eternal life, or the afterlife—any of that—it’s important that we begin with the categories and claims that people were familiar with in Jesus’s first-century Jewish world. They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth. (ibid., pg. 40)
c) When Jesus tells the man that there are rewards for him, he’s promising the man that receiving the peace of God now, finding gratitude for what he does have, and sharing it with those who need it will create in him all the more capacity for joy in the world to come. (ibid., pg. 33)
2. Bell even suggests that the next earthly age is equivalent to the “day of the Lord,” not at all referring to that period in God’s redemptive plan to bring final judgment upon man for rejecting Christ.
a) Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day the “day of the LORD.” The day when God says “ENOUGH!” to anything that threatens the peace (shalom is the Hebrew word), harmony, and health that God intends for the world. (ibid., pg. 37)
3. If Bell had any orthodoxy running through his veins he could have at least said that he thought the “age to come” was a reference to the Millennium where Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years. Whether Bell holds to a heaven in the presence of God is tentative at best. He explains nothing in clear terms, but is vague and cryptic. Instead, Bell leaves his readers wondering and asking more questions about the “age to come” than they originally had. Make no mistake, for Bell; “the age to come” is nothing more than the next generation that cleans up the earth, environment, racism, tolerance, and any “toxic” religious jargon.
a) Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water. People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come. (ibid., pg. 45)
b) First, they spoke about “all the nations.” That’s everybody. That’s all those different skin colors, languages, dialects, and accents; all those kinds of food and music; all those customs, habits, patterns, clothing, traditions, and ways of celebrating— multiethnic, multisensory, multieverything. (ibid., pg. 34)
c) Central to their vision of human flourishing in God’s renewed world, then, was the prophets’ announcement that a number of things that can survive in this world will not be able to survive in the world to come. Like war. Rape. Greed. Injustice. Violence. Pride. Division. Exploitation. Disgrace. (ibid., pg. 36)
4. In summary, Bell’s heaven is an earthly perspective where the here and now is the most important consideration.
a) To summarize, then, sometimes when Jesus used the word “heaven,” he was simply referring to God, using the word as a substitute for the name of God. Second, sometimes when Jesus spoke of heaven, he was referring to the future coming together of heaven and earth in what he and his contemporaries called life in the age to come. And then third—and this is where things get really, really interesting—when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Heaven for Jesus wasn’t just “someday”; it was a present reality. Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now. (ibid., pg. 59)
D. The Aionian Age
1. In order to support his beliefs, Bell attempts to define the Greek word aion, “age.” He suggests two main meanings, 1) a measured period of time with beginning and end, and 2) an intense experience not measured in time. But no matter which definition Bell uses, to him, they all take place on earth. He says nothing about the age of eternity in the presence of God (i.e. heaven or eternal life).
2. Bell uses the first definition, “a measured period of time with beginning and end” to describe both this time period that we live in and a coming earthly time period described by Bell as “the age to come” (See note III. C. The Age to Come is the Next Earthly Age)
a) So according to Jesus there is this age, this aion— the one they, and we, are living in— and then a coming age, also called “the world to come” or simply “eternal life.” (ibid., pg. 32)
b) Seeing the present and future in terms of two ages was not a concept or teaching that originated with Jesus. He came from a long line of prophets who had been talking about life in the age to come for hundreds of years before him. They believed that history was headed somewhere—not just their history as a tribe and nation, but the history of the entire universe—because they believed that God had not abandoned the world and that a new day, a new age, a new era was coming. (ibid., pg. 32)
3. The second definition Bell said is, “an intense experience not measured in time” and refers to the kind of life Jesus wanted the rich man to experience now. It was an aionian eternal life (zōến aiṓnion, Mt 19:16), not the eternal life in heaven held by orthodoxy.
a) To understand this, let’s return to that Greek word aion, the one that we translate as “age” in English. We saw earlier how aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end. Another meaning of aion is a bit more complex and nuanced, because it refers to a particular intensity of experience that transcends time. (ibid., pg. 57)
b) To say it again, eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death. (ibid., pg. 59)
c) But when Jesus talks with the rich man, he has one thing in mind: he wants the man to experience the life of heaven, eternal life, “aionian” life, now. For that man, his wealth was in the way; for others it’s worry or stress or pride or envy—the list goes on. We know that list. (ibid., pg. 62)
4. What does the Greek word aiōn mean from a biblical perspective? That is the perspective that Rob Bell would like us to believe he has used, after all, he is a pastor of a Bible Church. However, the most significant uses of aiōn are those which refer to God’s eternality or the believer’s eternal life in the presence of God. The biblical meanings of aiōn are as follows:
a) A time period(s) or age(s) under the sovereign control of the purposes of God.
(1) This can be understood from passages such as Mt 12:32; Ro 16:25; 1Co 2:8; Ep 1:2, 2:7,3:9.
(2) This usually refers to the ages to come, but can refer to this present age.
b) A quality of life here which partakes of the future quality of life in heaven.
(1) It is true that when a believer trusts Christ as Savior he is given eternal life which begins immediately (Jn 5:24, 17:3).
(2) But it is a heavenly quality of life for believers (no others) here, which will consummate in the future quality of life in heaven.
c) The idea of all the future ages gathered together to represent eternity.
(1) It is translated by expressions such as “from eternity to eternity” or “forever and ever” (eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn – “into the ages of ages”).
(2) It is understood from passages such as Ep 3:21; Php 4:20; 1Ti 1:17; 2Ti 4:18; Heb 1:8.
d) The eternality as an attribute ascribed alone to the Godhead.
(1) It is an attribute of God (The Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew word ōlam with the Greek word aiōn (Is 26:4, 40:28; cf. Ro 16:26).
(2) It is used of God’s eternal name (Ge 21:33; Ex 3:15; Is 63:12).
(3) It is used of God’s eternal rule and kingdom (1Ti 1:17, 6:16; 2Pe 1:11).
(4) It is used of God’s eternal salvation (Is 45:17).
e) The eternal life of living eternally in the presence of God in heaven.
(1) This is the definition that Rob Bells avoids at all costs. This is the definition in which Bell identified as toxic and harmful to the message of the gospel. This is the definition that is not only emphasized in the New Testament, but the one in which Jesus and the apostles emphatically promoted. In addition, it is the idea of eternal life contained in the orthodox view of heaven.
(2) It is eternal life that will come in the future (Jude 21).
(3) It is eternal life that is contrasted with eternal punishment (Jude 7; Mt 25:46; Jn 3:16, 36, 10:28-29).
(4) It is eternal life that consists of a future hope of heaven (Tit 1:2, 3:7).
(a) It is eternal life that speaks of future salvation and glory (2Ti 2:10; 1Pe 5:10).
(b) It is eternal life that is not the temporal life on earth but the eternal life in heaven (2Co 4:18, 5:1).
(c) It is eternal life that reveals an eschatological view of heaven (Jn 6:40).
(d) It is eternal life with a view of heaven in the book of Hebrews (“eternal salvation” – Heb 5:9”; “eternal judgment” – Heb 6:12;” “eternal redemption” – Heb 9:12;” “eternal inheritance” – Heb 9:15;” “eternal covenant” – Heb 13:20).
(5) It is extremely clear from these passages and others in the New Testament that one should interpret the majority of passages with aiōn as “eternal life in living eternally in the presence of God in heaven.” Rob Bell not only takes the most remote definitions of “eternal life” and runs with it, but he even alters that definition to fit it into his progressive and open theology.
IV. BELL’S HELL
A. Down With Sheol
1. First heaven, now hell. Bell does the same thing with “hell” that he did with “heaven.” He changes the traditional interpretation of “hell,” changes Jesus’ meaning on “hell,” and changes the meaning of the Bible verses and Greek words.
2. He begins with his common disdain for traditional evangelical thinking and rhetoric, a major underlying theme in his writings.
a) I noticed that one of the protestors had a jacket on with these words stitched on the back: “Turn or Burn.” That about sums it up, doesn’t it? Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish. Hell. That’s all part of the story, right? Trust God, accept Jesus, confess, repent, and everything will go well for you. But if you don’t, well, the Bible is quite clear . . . Sin, refuse to repent, harden your heart, reject Jesus, and when you die, it’s over. Or actually, the torture and anguish and eternal torment will have just begun. That’s how it is—because that’s what God is like, correct? God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy—unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever. That’s the Christian story, right? Is that what Jesus taught? (ibid., pg. 64)
3. At this point, Bell will attempt to look at the Scriptural use of the word “hell.” He will begin in the Old Testament with the word Sheōl.
a) First, the Hebrew scriptures. There isn’t an exact word or concept in the Hebrew scriptures for hell other than a few words that refer to death and the grave. One of them is the Hebrew word “Sheol,” a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die. (ibid., pg. 65)
4. Most scholars agree that Sheōl is not a detailed word, but a general word containing numerous meanings. This is nothing new or earth shattering by Bell.
a) Just as Bell stated it can mean the grave (Ge 37:35; Job 17:16).
b) It is also a metaphor for death of all people (2Sa 22:6; Ps 18:5; Is 57:9; Hos 13:14).
5. What Bell does not bring out, even though he said, I want to show you every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word “hell.” (ibid., pg. 64), is that Heaven and Sheōl are contrasted and that Sheōl can refer to the place where the wicked are, along with God’s wrath.
a) Sheōl can be contrasted with Heaven and imply Hell (Job 11:8; Ps 139:8; Is 7:11).
b) Sheōl can refer to where the wicked and sinners go when they die (Job 24:19; Ps 9:17).
c) Sheōl can refer to the place where God’s wrath toward sin resides (Dt 32:22; Pr 15:24).
6. In addition, we find that the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew Sheōl is the Greek word Hádês. Hádês can mean “death” but carries more of the idea of a place of awaiting judgment.
a) (1) the place of the dead underworld (AC 2.27); (2) usually in the NT as the temporary underworld prison where the souls of the ungodly await the judgment (LU 16.23); (3) personified as following along after Death (RV 6.8) (Friberg)
b) In Re 20:11-13, Hádês is specifically the place where the sinful dead await the Great White Throne Judgment. Verse 14 teaches that Hádês, after the Judgment, is cast in the Lake of Fire, and is equivalent to the “Second Death.”
7. While we agree with Bell in that Sheōl has various meanings without great detail, they have more meanings than he gives and more allusions to hell than he lets on. Therefore we disagree with his conclusion.
a) But, simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined. Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a bit vague and “underworldly.” For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with. (Bell, Love Wins, pg. 67)
B. Gehenna the Dump
1. Next, Bell deals with the Greek word geheena. Géheena, or the valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem, was a place where fires were kept burning to consume the dead bodies of animals, criminals, and refuse (Friberg). But Bell stops there and believes that that is all there is to Gehenna and to Hell.
a) Gehenna, in Jesus’ day, was the city dump. People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constant to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out. (Love Wins, pg. 68)
b) Gehenna was an actual place that Jesus’s listeners would have been familiar with. So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, “Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere . . .” (Bell, Love Wins, pg. 68)
c) Gehenna, the town garbage pile. And that’s it. Those are all of the mentions of “hell” in the Bible. (ibid. pg. 69)
2. What is puzzling is how Bell can see several figurative meanings in Sheōl but when it comes to Gehenna he becomes a hyper-literalist. The majority of Bell’s emergent and progressive interpretations are spiritualized and given figurative meaning. Bell rarely takes the Bible literally.
3. A principle in Biblical Hermeneutics tells us to take everything literal unless it becomes obvious or absurd. In such cases look for the figurative meaning. I wonder how far he is willing to be a hyper-literalist?
a) When someone sinned and was, “guilty enough to go into the fiery hell,” (Mt 5:22), were they in danger of being abandoned to the Dump?
b) Or if a sinner did not gouge his eye out (Mt 5:29), would his whole body would be thrown into the Dump?
c) Bell admits later on that Jesus used “hyperbole” in reference to gouging out the eyes. Hyperbole is exaggerated figurative language with the purpose of raising people’s attention level. Why are we to interpret only the one as figurative language but are prohibited by Bell on the other?
d) Almost everyone, except Rob Bell, takes Gehenna, as figurative language for Hell.
4. Does the word Gehenna have a figurative or second meaning?
a) … figuratively in the Gospels and James for hell, a fiery place of eternal punishment for the ungodly dead (MT 5.22) (Friberg Lexicon).
b) … the valley of Hinnom, which represented the place of future punishment, N.T. (Liddell Scott Lexicon).
c) … Gehenna, Valley of Hinnom, a ravine south of Jerusalem. Fig. a place of fire for the punishment of the wicked, hell Mt 5:22, 29f; 23:15; Mk 9:45, 47; Jas 3:6 [pg 38] (Gingrich Lexicon).
d) …a place of punishment for the dead – ‘Gehenna, hell’ (Louw-Nida Lexicon).
e) … Gehenna, in most of its occurrences in the Greek New Testament, designates the place of the lost Mt 23:33 The fearful nature of their condition there is described in various figurative expressions Mt 8:12 13:42 22:13 25:30 Lu 16:24 etc. (Easton Bible Dictionary).
f) … Originally the Valley of Hinnom, near Jerusalem, Gehenna became among the Jews the synonym for the place of torment in the future life (the “Gehenna of fire,” Mt 5:22, etc. (ISBE).
g) The Greek word Gehenna, “hell,” commonly used for the place of final punishment is derived from the Hebrew name for this valley… in later Jewish thought it became an image of the judgment of the wicked by fire, darkness and gnashing of teeth (Ryken, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery).
5. How is the word Gehenna to be interpreted when used by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament?
a. When Jesus spoke of Gehenna, He did so with the same secondary meaning that His listeners held and understood. They were not to fear man who could only destroy the body, but fear God who would destroy both the body and soul in Gehenna (Mt 10:28). It must refer to Hell, because how could a soul be cast into the Dump?
b. The Pharisees were referred to as “sons of Gehenna” (Mt 23:15). Certainly Jesus did not mean to call them “sons of the Dump.” He meant that their evil character was akin to the place of punishment to which they would be sent (cf. Ep 2:3)
c. The evil and the wicked were sentenced to Gehenna (Mt 23:33). Did Jesus imply that because they were sinful they had to become city employees and work at the Dump? No, all those who reject Christ are sentenced to eternal punishment in Hell.
d. In order for Jesus to convey the reality of eternal punishment, he used a figurative picture of Gehenna, the Place of Refuse.
(1) It was “unquenchable” (asbestos), signifying that it was continuous (Mk 9:43).
(2) It was where the “worm does not die”, signifying the putrid nature of the second death (Mk 9:43, 46, 48).
(3) Though Gehenna is not used here, Mt 13:42 described Hell as a place of excruciating fiery punishment, continual anguish and weeping, and eternal pain (internal and external) in the act of “gnashing of teeth.”
C. Hell is Here and Now
1. Bell, as with Heaven, sees Hell here and now, Hell on Earth. Hell is what pitiful human beings endure because of evil our world. Hell is what happens to drug addicts, rape and incest victims, and all the injustices in our world.
a) [Speaking of children who were mutilated by the machetes of Rwanda guerilla armies] Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs. (Bell, Love Wins, pg. 71)
b) Have you ever sat with a woman while she talked about what it was like to be raped? How does a person describe what it’s like to hear a five-year-old boy whose father has just committed suicide ask: “When is daddy coming home?” How does a person describe that unique look, that ravaged, empty stare you find in the eyes of a cocaine addict? (ibid. pg. 71)
c) And that’s what we find in Jesus’s teaching about hell—a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone. (ibid., pg. 73)
2. Bell dismisses any kind of belief in a literal eternal Hell (or Satan) as primitive superstition. Therefore he has no problem making fun of the idea of Hell and Satan.
a) For many in the modern world, the idea of hell is a holdover from primitive, mythic religion that uses fear and punishment to control people for all sorts of devious reasons. And so the logical conclusion is that we’ve evolved beyond all of that outdated belief, right? (ibid., pg. 69-70)
b) I get that. I understand that aversion, and I as well have a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages. (ibid., pg. 69-70)
3. Bell concludes with…
a) To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way. And for that, the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it. (ibid., pg. 94)
4. Closing thoughts on Bell’s Hell
a) Rob Bell does his best to remove any kind of literal eternal Hell. For Him Hell is inconceivable with a God of love. There is no need for Hell, a place of eternal punishment for mere bad choices in this life. Such concepts for Bell would, mar the character of God and the goodness in man. It is interesting how Bell can be against any kind of dogmatism, yet be so dogmatic that God is basically love, man is basically good, and Hell is basically a myth.
V. Bell’s Salvation
A. Disdain for the Gospel Presentation
1. True to his Bellisms, Rob writes in great detail to be vague. But to be vague on salvation reveals his true beliefs. Well, I guess there is no real eternal danger if there is no literal Hell, at least according to Bell.
2. As we look at the topic of Bell’s belief on salvation, let us once again begin with his derogatory remarks about traditional evangelicalism. He derides the traditional evangelical presentation of the gospel. He scorns the fact that traditional evangelicals see two groups, those who are saved and going to Heaven and those who reject Christ and going to Hell. Furthermore, he mocks the God of the Bible in that any God who would lovingly hand out the invitation of salvation, but punish those who reject it, is not a loving God at all.
a) On the websites of many churches, there is a page where you can read what the people in that particular church believe. Usually the list starts with statements about the Bible, then God, Jesus, and the Spirit, then salvation and the church, and so on. Most of these lists and statements include a section on what the people in the church believe about the people who don’t believe what they believe. This is from an actual church website: “The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell.” This is from another: “Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.” And this is from another: “The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment. … All this, on a website. Welcome to our church. (Bell, Love Wins, pg. 95)
b) Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or the other, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it . . . forever. …Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives. (ibid. pg. 110)
c) But there’s more. Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (ibid. pg. 173-174)
B. Universal Character of Universalism
1. Universalism is the belief that everyone will be saved at some point, no matter what the circumstances. Its main argument is the skewed view that God is only love or that love wins over all of God’s other attributes. Or as Ryrie states in his “basic Theology, pg. 67,
a) Simply stated, universalism states that sooner or later all will be saved. The older form of universalism, which originated in the second century, taught that salvation would come after a temporary period of punishment. The new universalism of our day declares that all men are now saved, though all do not realize it. Therefore the job of the preacher and the missionary is to tell people that they are already saved.
2. Though Bell has claimed on numerous interviews that he was not a Universalist, yet when you read his writings and those of other Emergent writers, the conclusion is the same, namely, God saves everyone. Bell questions why billions of people have been created only to be punished in hell.
a) Is history tragic? Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth? Is our future uncertain, or will God take care of us? Are we safe? Are we secure? Or are we on our own? (ibid. pg. 102)
3. He even goes on to give the origin and argument for Universalism from within the church in a positive way.
a) In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well. In their day, Jerome claimed that “most people,” Basil said the “mass of men,” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God. (ibid. pg. 107)
b) Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t. (ibid. pg. 108)
4. From his own opinion as a serious disciple of Jesus, he states that God’s love will melt all hearts.
a) To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts. (ibid. pg. 108)
5. Another argument for Universalism, this time coming from Bell, suggests that Jesus is for all people, denominations, and theological systems even if they are contradictory to the Bible.
a) He is for all people, and yet he refuses to be co-opted or owned by any one culture. That includes any Christian culture. Any denomination. Any church. Any theological system. We can point to him, name him, follow him, discuss him, honor him, and believe in him—but we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s. (ibid. pg. 152)
b) What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. (ibid. pg. 155)
6. If one is unsure from reading “Love Wins,” Bell has thrown his hat in the same ring with the Universalists from previous writings and interviews.
a) “So this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. . . . Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for. The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust. Ours or God’s.” (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 137)
b) “Jesus is the representative of the entire human family. His blood covers the entire created door. Jesus is saving everyone and everything.” (Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 147)
c) [In response to the question, “Do you believe in a literal hell that is defined simply as eternal separation from God?”] “Well, there are people now who are seriously separated from God. So I would assume that God will leave room for people to say ‘no I don’t want any part of this.’ My question would be, does grace win or is the human heart stronger than God’s love or grace. Who wins, does darkness and sin and hardness of heart win or does God’s love and grace win?” (Rob Bell, Ooze Interview (July 2007)
7. What does the Bible have to say about salvation? Is it universal or exclusive to those who are in Christ?
a) Universalists appeal to verses that appear to suggest universal salvation to “all:”
(1) “who desires all men to be saved” (1Ti 2:4 – Bell, pg. 97)
(2) “every tongue will confess” (Php 2:11- Bell, pg. 99)
(3) “in Christ all will be made alive” (1Co 15:22, Bell, pg. 135).
(4) “will draw all men to Myself” (Jn 12:32 – Bell, pg. 151).
b) But what they fail to do is read the entire Scriptures and see that not everyone will be saved.
(1) “but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (Jn 3:36).
(2) “will judge him at the last day” (Jn 12:48).
(3) “who is to judge the living and the dead” (2Ti 4:1).
(4) “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (He 9:27).
(5) “their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Re 21:8).
c) The Scriptures are clear that only those whose faith is in Christ’s atoning death will have eternal life (Jn 3:36a) and escape the wrath of God in Hell (Jn 3:36b; Ro 5:9).
(1) A person can only be “in Christ” if they have come to the Father through Christ (Jn 14:6). This is exclusive, not all-inclusive as Bell suggests.
(a) [Bell’s interpretation on this verse] This is as wide and expansive a claim as a person can make. What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (Love Wins, pg. 154)
(b) Bell twists the Scriptures to teach that everyone is already in Christ and therefore all will be saved, in Christ all will be made alive. (1Co 15:22, Bell, pg. 135).
(2) However, the Scriptures teach that only those who call on the name of Christ are sanctified “in Christ” (1Co 1:2).
(3) Only those who have been justified by faith, are” in Christ,” possess every spiritual blessing (Ep 1:3), and will not experience condemnation (Ro 8:1).
VI. BELL IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING?
A. Making a Judgment on Bell
1. Rob Bell has been a good disciple…a good disciple of Postmodernism that is. He questions everything and defines nothing. The problem is that Postmodernism questions absolute truth. Therefore, they have no truth, no guidance, and no direction. Their only absolute is that there are no absolutes and they are absolutely sure of it. In reality, Postmodernism is absolutely adrift.
2. However, the bigger problem is that Rob Bell adds Christianity to Postmodernism. Now he questions not only the historical orthodox Christian position, but especially the Bible, God’s absolute truth. As a result, he has no biblical truth, biblical guidance, or biblical direction. He is absolutely adrift in regard to doctrine and truth.
3. To add to this dilemma Rob Bell is not only a teacher (in a pulpit) but he is growing in popularity. In fact this month, it had been added to his increasing popularity (called “the next Billy Graham,” and voted No. 10 on the list of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America”), according to Time Magazine, Rob Bell is the 114th most influential person in the world today. ). That means that Rob Bell is leading the masses hopelessly adrift spiritually. No matter how far Rob Bell or the masses put their heads in the postmodern sands, they are going to have to face the reality of a literal eternal hell.
4. This would definitely put Bell in the category of Jesus’ warning, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Mt 7:15).
a) Rob Bell is a “false prophet” because he falsely presumes to speak for the Lord and clarify God’s truth, though he clarifies nothing. He teaches that Heaven is on earth, Hell is in a Dump, and salvation for all is in the bag.
b) Rob Bell is a “ravenous wolf” because he has an insatiable appetite to devour the truth from as many people as he can, including undiscerning Christians.
c) Rob Bell is in “sheep’s clothing” because he would claim to be one in the flock who follows the Shepherd. But he heeds not the words of the True Shepherd.
d) Bell may claim to be soft, cuddly, and a part of the group, but he is devouring the very body of truth upon which the True Shepherd is building His church (Mt 16:18).
B. Judgment of Other Evangelicals
1. If my comments seem a bit strong, listen to what the majority of conservative evangelical leaders are saying about Rob Bell. And we would do well to heed their admonitions.
a) Evangelical pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell,” unilaterally attempting to evict Bell from the Evangelical community. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Bell’s book is “theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.” (Time Magazine, April addition)
b) Justin Taylor, argued that Bell “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.” (World Magazine)
c) When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world,” says Mohler, “then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism, and it’s Rob Bell’s tragedy in this book too. (ibid.)
d) A careful examination of Bell’s teaching suggests, however, that his profession of faith is not credible. His claim that he is “evangelical and orthodox to the bone” is, to put it bluntly, a lie. Bell’s teaching gives no evidence of any real evangelical conviction. If “each tree is known by its own fruit” (Luke 6:44), we cannot blithely embrace Rob Bell as a “brother” just because he says he wants to be accepted as an evangelical. (MacArthur, “Rob Bell: a Brother to Embrace, or a Wolf to Avoid?”)
e) In his books, sermons, and videos, Rob Bell has consistently promoted views that are antithetical to biblical Christianity and hostile to historic evangelical principles. (ibid.)
2. As clear as it may seem to us, there are still those within the evangelical camp that apparently are still under Bell’s spell.
a) Given those facts, you might think any true evangelical would reject Bell and his teaching outright. But evidently many in the American evangelical movement think they are obliged simply to accept at face value Bell’s claim of orthodoxy. No less than Mart DeHaan, voice of Radio Bible Class, decried Bell’s critics, portraying them as the divisive ones for pointing out the unsoundness of Bell’s teaching. DeHaan wrote,
(1) I’m left wondering… are we allowing love (and truth) to win now… by using threats of group pressure and blackballing of brothers like Rob, and those who openly or secretly stand with him? Is that really the best way to maintain a strong and healthy orthodoxy? (MacArthur, “Rob Bell: a Brother to Embrace, or a Wolf to Avoid?”)
C. The Believer’s Responsibility
1. The believer’s responsibility remains the same to Rob Bell as to any and all false teaching, maintains John MacArthur.
a) We have a duty not only to expose, refute, and silence Rob Bell’s errors, but also to urge people under his influence to run as fast and as far as they can from him, lest they be gathered into the eternal hell he denies. It won’t do to sit by idly while someone who denies the danger of hell mass-produces sons of hell (cf. Matthew 23:15). (MacArthur, “Rob Bell: a Brother to Embrace, or a Wolf to Avoid?”)
2. The believer’s response to false teaching should be biblically-based. The New Testament teaches that believers are to be on guard and proactive against false teaching from without and within.
a) Expect false teaching (Mt 7:15; Ac 20:29; Php 3:2; Col 2:8; 2Pe 2:1-2; 3:17).
b) Evaluate all teaching (Ac 17:11; 1Jn 4:1; 2Jn 1:7; 1Th 5:21).
c) Expose false teachers (Ro 16:17; Eph 5:11; 2Th 3:14; 2Jn 1:10-11).
d) Equip the saints (Ps 1:1-2; Eph 4:11-14; 2Ti 4:1-4).
3. The believer must realize he is presently engaged in a spiritual battle for truth (Ep 6:10-17), that Satan comes like an angel of light in false teaching (2Co 11:13-15), Satan’s objective is to devour souls (1Pe 5:8), and Satan must be battled wherever he is attacking.
a) If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point. (Martin Luther)
D. Concluding Remarks
1. Does Rob Bell’s emergent love-god win? Here are my emergent-like answers; “Yes, No, and Maybe.”
2. Yes, Rob Bell’s emergent love-god wins only in the mind of Rob Bell and those like him who are doing their best to muzzle the truth of God’s Word and reinvent the God of the Bible with the prevailing attribute of love at the expense of His other attributes.
3. Maybe, Rob Bell’s emergent love-god wins if Christians do not become more biblically discerning and test every teaching through the grid of Scripture.
4. No, Rob Bell’s emergent love-god will never win because only the God of the Bible wins who is loving, but also is righteous and has provided mercy only in Christ.
5. In conclusion, the only kind of love that wins is the love that loves every person enough to tell them the biblical truth about Heaven and Hell.
Used by permission.