Follow-up on Rob Bell and the Hell Controversy

Rob BellThis is my third and possibly last blog on this. But given its importance to the gospel of Christ and the health of Christ’s body, I make no promises.

Someone placed my Friday blog on their site. A journalist who read it posted this response:  “Alcorn's piece has a pretty major error of fact in the post. It's in this statement: ‘every human being will ultimately be saved, and that none will experience Hell.’ That's not what Bell says in Love Wins.”

Now, people frequently disagree with me online, and I rarely respond, but I’m glad this was said, because I’ve seen similar statements in response to others who criticize Bell. People say the critics are wrong, that Bell really believes in Hell and isn’t a universalist. After all, that's what he says.

I am sympathetic to the confusion. As I read Love Wins I felt portions were slippery, and very difficult to nail down. I think the truth is this—Bell believes in Hell as HE defines it. That includes bad experiences in this life and a period some may face in the afterlife before turning to faith in Christ and being transferred to Heaven where everyone will spend eternity. My point was that Bell doesn’t believe people will experience the Hell that the BIBLE talks about—a place of eternal punishment.

In other words, Bell does not believe in the REAL Hell, as Jesus defines it, and has been accordingly affirmed by historic Christianity. Jesus said, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt.25:46). Christ also says of Hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:47-48).

So why do I think Bell does not believe in this Hell, the one that Jesus affirmed? Why do I and many others think Bell believes every human being will ultimately be saved? Because I read his book, Love Wins. He says, on page 107, “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.”

Bell then goes on to defend “this perspective” with passages of Scripture which, in my opinion, he mishandles. In context “this perspective” Bell speaks of, which he defends, even if unconvincingly, seems clearly to be his own. You can argue that he doesn’t emphatically say that, he just presents and defends it. But I think it’s fair to say that the position we vigorously  defend is our position. In fact this position is what leads him to call his book Love Wins. For if any were damned, then in Bell’s mind love (and therefore God) would have lost, not won.

Rob BellAs Bell states the position, there are no exceptions. “The love of God will melt EVERY hard heart” and the worst sinners will eventually give up resisting and turn to God. And be in Heaven, not Hell, for eternity. That includes Hitler, Mao, and sinners like you and me (part of the same stock as Hitler and Mao), and the utterly unrepentant who died in complete rebellion against Christ.

Bell couldn’t make a clearer statement of universalism, that all will be saved and that there will be no such thing as the eternal Hell Jesus said some will experience.  Whether it is the fire being quenched, the worm dying, or the people being removed from fire and worm, the bottom line is that Bell affirms there will be for human beings no such thing as “eternal punishment.” That is Christ’s term in Matthew 25:46, using the same word “eternal” for punishment as he used in the same sentence for “eternal” life in Heaven—as is the duration of the one so will be the duration of the other. Rob Bell says no person’s experience in Hell will be eternal. That’s why I said in the previous blog that either Bell is wrong or Jesus was wrong.

Consider Luke 16:19-31. 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. Note that when the rich man, in Hell, cries out for relief, he is given no hope whatsoever.

But if Rob Bell is right, why doesn’t Abraham, or Christ who told the story, say to the man in Hell, “I can’t send Lazarus to relieve you, but don’t worry, you have as many second chances as you wish. And your suffering will certainly end. All you have to do is give up your resistance and turn to God; let God melt your hard heart. In fact, you WILL end up doing that eventually, because love wins. All people in Hell will cross this chasm to Heaven, so why not just repent now and save yourself the misery you so desperately wish to escape? And as for going back to warn your brothers, don’t worry, they’ll end up in Heaven too, regardless of their spiritual state when they die.”

I’ve read a lot of blogs and articles defending Rob Bell. Now, I can understand why some people don’t believe the Bible, including its teaching on Hell. I grew up in a nonchristian home where we didn’t believe it. But what I can’t understand is how anyone can read Luke 16, Matthew 25 and Mark 9, and other passages in which Jesus and the inspired writers of Scripture affirm eternal punishment in Hell, and still claim 1) “there is no eternal Hell, all will eventually go to Heaven” and 2) “I trust Jesus and believe God’s Word” and 3) “it is not heretical or inappropriate for Rob Bell, as an evangelical pastor, to teach what he does in Love Wins.”

If Rob Bell is right, many biblical passages become meaningless. For instance why does Peter explain the Lord’s delay of his return on this basis: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise…but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). What is the point of this statement if there will be endless opportunities for people to repent after Jesus returns, and if eventually all people will come to faith in Christ, none will ultimately perish,  and all will inhabit Heaven, with no one in Hell?

Though I know a few influential Christian leaders who have become universalists, I haven’t met Rob Bell and I have nothing personally against him. Part of what makes this worth addressing is that Rob Bell doesn’t stand alone; there are thousands of other churches where believers are wrestling with these same issues, in which the gospel is at stake. And don’t get me wrong, if I had a vote, given my natural preferences, I would vote for Bell’s position, not Christ’s. The only reason—and it’s a compelling one—that I wouldn’t vote against Hell is this—I know Christ is infinitely smarter and better than I am. And than Rob Bell is.  

In any case, while we are all free to have our own personal opinions on this—as a dozen blogs I’ve read on this emphatically affirmed—I just don’t think God gives us a vote.

HumilityI am tired of hearing how people haven’t really read Bell’s book, that we have misunderstood him, and Bell is being persecuted, like Jesus was, and how it is wrong to call Love Wins heresy. Doug Wilson, in his usual engaging form, responds to the accusation that people are behaving arrogantly when they criticize Rob Bell. This four-minute video is spot on. If you watch it you'll understand why I'm placing this take on humility.

I listened to Rob Bell online reassure his church, in response to his critics, “We affirm everything the Bible affirms.” He said it is inspired and authoritative. Good words. He said, “Jesus is our only hope.” He seemed genuinely hurt and mystified at why people could be troubled by what he said in his book. But I don’t understand why any thinking Christian would not be troubled by it. If it were written by Bart Ehrman, it’s only what we’d all expect. But this is an evangelical pastor.

I don’t think it’s consistent for Bell to deny the biblical historical doctrine of Hell, as stated by Jesus, then wave off critics by saying, “But I believe in Hell.” Any more than it is okay to affirm the central teaching of universalism, that all people will end up in Heaven and none in Hell, and then wave off critics again by saying, “I am not a universalist.” And when he denies clear doctrines taught repeatedly in the Bible, it does not make everything okay to say, “I believe everything the Bible affirms.”

Christian leaders shouldn’t do what politicians do, invoke one set of words to cancel out another set unless we are truly taking responsibility for and altering the position we previously stated. We should not attempt to cover our bases by appearing orthodox while denying orthodox doctrine. When we speak words we must realize that meanings are attached to them even though we don’t want the label that comes with our meanings. We can’t have it both ways.

If Rob Bell wishes to refute the heresy of universalism, and withdraw or retract what he says in Love Wins, I would be thrilled. But he can’t just nullify it by saying “I believe in Hell,” “I am not a universalist,” “I believe the Bible,” and “I am not a heretic.” In the face of what Love Wins actually says, those words carry no weight.

Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). I often think about this and try to apply it to myself before anyone else. I don’t want to have said anything untrue or dishonoring to Christ in this post or in anything I write or say. If I have, may God enlighten me and may I own up to it and  correct it, for the glory of God and the good of His people. 

Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. 1 Timothy 4:16

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries