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April 08, 2011

Rob Bell’s “Love Wins,” and the Biblical Doctrine of Hell

Love WinsI mentioned in an earlier post Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. I read it several weeks ago. It contains some good and accurate things here and there, but unfortunately its central message is in explicit contradiction to Scripture and historic Christianity.

Oddly, Bell insists that he’s not a universalist, yet his book indicates that he believes exactly what universalism does—that every human being will ultimately be saved, and that none will experience Hell. To teach this and yet claim you’re not a universalist (just because you disagree with some things that some universalists think) is like saying that though you cheer for the Red Sox you’re not a Red Sox fan, or though you own a dog, you are not a dog-owner. I mean, come on, go ahead and qualify the brand of universalist you are, but don’t deny you’re a universalist when your core belief is the core belief of universalism. The very fact that Bell can make such a statement and get away with it is indicative of the sort of cloudy thinking that has taken hold.

I recommended before Kevin DeYoung’s excellent detailed critique of Love Wins. I want to add my recommendation of Dan Franklin’s new and outstanding 35-minute podcast concerning Love Wins. Dan is a clear-thinking, biblically-based pastor at my home church. (He is also a fine husband to my daughter Karina and a loving father to my grandsons Matt and Jack, but that’s not why I’m recommending this audio commentary!) Dan does a weekly podcast called Groupthink Rescue, and Love Wins is his subject this week. He’s also written a more detailed critique, but I found his podcast particularly clear, thoughtful and easy to listen to. If you’re going to invest just a half hour on this issue, I can’t think of a better way to do it. You can also listen to or download from iTunes, and subscribe to his podcast, which has other equally good episodes.

I posted earlier a link to the chapter on Hell from my book If God is Good. Someone who read Bell’s book and then my chapter said to me that oddly, it appeared to them as if I had made an attempt at refuting every major point of Bell’s book. Obviously that wasn’t the case, since I wrote it two years before Bell’s book came out. But when I read Love Wins, at times I saw why this reader thought that. I suppose Rob Bell has successfully set forth all the modern presumptions that people bring to this issue, and that keep them from trusting the biblical teaching about Hell that has been part of historic Christianity. In addressing those presumptions, without knowing it, I was anticipating Bell’s book. This also shows that, as Bell admits, he’s not saying much that’s new. Unfortunately, he is reaching a huge audience, and his book sales have been further fueled by the controversy. But I would rather have more books sell and more people equipped to refute his teachings, then avoid the controversy—some things warrant controversy, and this is one of them, since the gospel itself is on the line—and not just before the watching world, but inside churches.    

What most breaks my heart is that, when it comes down to it, Bell is actually saying “Jesus was wrong.” Now, of course, he would never actually say that in those words. Nor does he consciously believe it. But because (as I show in both Heaven and If God is Good) Jesus is absolutely emphatic on the reality and nature and eternality of Hell, it is impossible to disbelieve in Hell, and to believe in universal salvation, and actually believe what Jesus said.

Why? Because Jesus referred to Hell as a real place and described it in graphic terms (see Matthew 10:28; 13:40–42; Mark 9:43–48). He spoke of a fire that burns but doesn’t consume, an undying worm that eats away at the damned, and a lonely and foreboding darkness.

Christ says the unsaved “will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Jesus taught that an unbridgeable chasm separates the wicked in Hell from the righteous in Paradise. The wicked suffer terribly, remain conscious, retain their desires and memories, long for relief, cannot find comfort, cannot leave their torment, and have no hope (see Luke 16:19–31).

Our Savior could not have painted a bleaker picture of Hell.

C. S. Lewis said, “I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven.”[1] The biblical teaching on both destinations stands or falls together. If the one is real, so is the other; if the one is a myth, so is the other. The best reason for believing in Hell is that Jesus said it exists.

Some will say, “Okay, maybe Hell exists, but no one will go there, or if they do it will only be temporary; surely Hell is not eternal.” But Jesus said, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). Here in the same sentence, Christ uses the word “eternal”(aionos) to describe the duration of both Heaven and Hell. Thus, according to our Lord, if some will consciously experience Heaven forever, then some must consciously experience Hell forever.

The best reason for believing Hell not only exists, but will be inhabited by people and is eternal, is that Jesus said so in the clearest possible language.

It isn’t just what Jesus said about Hell that matters. It’s the fact that it was He who said it.

“There seems to be a kind of conspiracy,” wrote Dorothy Sayers, “to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of Hell comes from. The doctrine of Hell is not ‘mediaeval priestcraft’ for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin.... We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ.”[2]

Why do I believe in an eternal Hell? Because Jesus clearly and repeatedly affirmed its existence. As Sayers suggested, you cannot dismiss Hell without dismissing Jesus.

Atheist Bertrand Russell wrote, “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in Hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”[3]

Shall we believe Jesus or Bertrand Russell? For me, it is not a difficult choice.

C. S. Lewis said of Hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”[4]

We cannot make Hell go away simply because the thought of it makes us uncomfortable. If I were as holy as God, if I knew a fraction of what He knows, I would realize Hell is just and right. We should weep over Hell, but not deny it.

Rob BellRob Bell is a pastor, and has a lot of influence on other pastors, and not only in emergent churches. And that is perhaps the greatest tragedy in this. Titus 1:9 says this of the church leader: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” It is every pastor’s job to correct doctrinal error, particularly in the central issues of the faith. When a pastor actually promotes doctrinal error, this is particularly serious. And it puts a heavy responsibility on other pastors, who understandably don’t want to appear to be critical, to correct and refute doctrinal heresy.

It grieves me how many people are reading Rob Bell’s book and books such as The Shack (where universalism is not explicit but clearly flirted with) and other writings contradicted by Scripture, whose pastors don’t consider it their job to enter into controversy. We have elevated tolerance over sound doctrine, and appearing to be nice, over being truthful. As Jesus was, we should be full of grace and truth, not choose one over the other.

We dare not act as though love demands we be quiet about the truth. In fact, Scripture calls upon us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). I would encourage all pastors to address this issue. Consider going to your pastor and asking him to preach about the biblical doctrine of Hell in light of all the fuzzy thinking on this issue that is out there, and has been galvanized through Bell’s book. (Fifteen years apart, I spent hours in dialogue, citing passage after passage, to two different highly influential former pastors, each of whose books have sold millions of copies to evangelical Christians. Both of these men gradually became universalists, and they believe most of what Bell is now teaching; perhaps one of them influenced him, I don’t know.)

It is not loving to be silent when people are told the lie that they need not turn to Christ in this lifetime to be saved from their sins. If people believe that there is no Hell, or that they cannot end up in Hell, or that Hell is not their default and fully deserved destination, then it virtually guarantees they will end up in the Hell that Rob Bell doesn’t believe in.

In the final day no one will stand before me in judgment. No one will stand before Rob Bell in judgment. We will all stand before Jesus in judgment. And it is His view of Hell, not mine or Rob Bell’s,  that will be proven, forever, to be true.

If Rob Bell is right and there isn’t an eternal Hell, or no one will end up there, then Jesus made a terrible mistake. And if we cannot trust Jesus in His teaching about Hell, why should we trust anything He said, including His offer of salvation?

We may pride ourselves in thinking we are too loving to believe in Hell. But in saying this, we blaspheme, for we claim to be more loving than Jesus—more loving than the One who with outrageous love took upon himself the full penalty for our sin.

Who are we to think we are better than Jesus?

Or that when it comes to Hell, or anything else, we know better than He does?

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[1] C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002), 76.

[2] Dorothy Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante (London: Methuen, 1954), 44.

[3] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), 17.

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 118.

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