This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 04 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Pastor and author Rob Bell is a phenomenon hard to avoid. His best-selling books (e.g., Velvet Elvis) and his popular Nooma video series have made him an attractive figure for many Christians during the past six or seven years. Ten thousand souls attend his Mars Hill Bible Church in a suburb of Grand Rapids. Hailed as either an enfant terrible or on the leading edge of evangelicalism, Bell is deliberately provocative, iconic, and charismatic. He appeals to “hipster Christianity”—a younger, edgier, and less traditional form of church that challenges established patterns of worship, teaching, and Christian practice.1 While attending a talk he gave to a packed room, I noted that Bell draws in many through his postmodernist ethos—informality, humor, storytelling, and questioning. In an interview Bell said, “I have as much in common with the performance artist, the standup comedian, the screenwriter, as I do with the theologian.”2
His recent book, Love Wins, has propelled Bell to a new level of notoriety, partially due to various prepublication leaks and speculations concerning its content. Pastor and author John Piper wrote a tweet saying, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” which sparked great interest, as did the strong endorsements given by Eugene Peterson and Greg Boyd. The burning concern was whether Bell was a universalist, someone who claims that all human beings will be redeemed in the end. Since some hipster or emergent Christian writers and speakers have seemed to embrace universalism, many wondered if Bell would join the ranks.
Having read part of Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, a few of his articles, and having watched several Nooma videos, I did not expect a careful, logical, deeply biblical, or theologically knowledgeable account of the perennially urgent question of the afterlife. My expectations were met. While this is not a review of all of Bell’s writings or videos, it is fitting to comment briefly on some points in Velvet Elvis, Bell’s first book, as they pertain to ideas expressed in Love Wins.
Velvet Elvis’s thesis is that Christian faith is never a finished affair; it is always exploratory, conjectural, and provisional. Bell likens it to jumping on a trampoline as opposed to standing on a foundation. For Bell, a constitutive part of this playful and bouncing faith is paradox and mystery, the unresolved and irresolvable enigmas at the heart of Christianity. By about thirty pages into Velvet Elvis, Bell assures us that all the major doctrines of Christianity (Trinity, Incarnation, salvation, etc.) are matters beyond rational knowledge. Bell even questions (but does not outright deny) the virgin birth of Christ, by drawing parallels between it and birth narratives from pagan religions.3 Notwithstanding, the virgin birth is deeply rooted in historical documents and has no real parallels in mystery religions.4 By his invocation of mystery, enigma, and paradox, and by questioning doctrines firmly established in history, Bell dismisses the historic discipline of apologetics: faith needs no rational support to be genuine. In fact, it cannot accept such apologetic assistance and remain real. Rather, Christians must celebrate unknowing. (I side with Christian philosopher Gordon Clark who said a paradox is “a charley horse between the ears”—something to correct, not to celebrate.5) Apologetics is, however, both intrinsic to the biblical sense of mission and well served by apologists through the centuries, such as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and, more recently, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland.6
An even more disconcerting feature of Velvet Elvis is Bell’s endorsement of Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything. Bell says, “For a mind-blowing introduction to emergence theory and divine creativity, set aside three months and read Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).”7 Bell gives no indication that Ken Wilber affirms pantheism, a worldview that negates the Creator creation distinction intrinsic to biblical Christianity (see Gen. 1:1; John 1:1; Rom. 1:18–21). Wilber, on the contrary, believes that everything is divine.
This is a bad sign, since it reveals that Bell either cannot discern the difference between pantheism and Christianity (see Isa. 5:20), or does not think the difference is worth noting. How unlike the apostle Paul who, while before a thoroughly pagan audience of Greek philosophers, was able to contrast Christianity cogently with the Greek worldview, and to commend Christ and call for conversion (Acts 17:22–34). A teacher of the Bible should be well-studied (2 Tim. 2:15; Titus 2:7–8; James 3:1–2) and able to refute demonic doctrines that oppose biblical truth (2 Tim. 2:24–26; 2 Cor. 10:3-5). Scripture also warns us of spiritual counterfeits: teachings that seem pleasing, but betray the truth (2 Cor. 11:14; 2 Tim. 4:3; 1 John 4:1–6).
Love Wins will be pleasing to many who embrace postmodern culture and its ways of thinking and feeling. The postmodern spirit avoids most certainties, plays with ideas more than carefully argues for conclusions, favors impressions over convictions, and tends toward glibness as a virtue. In this spirit, the text of Love Wins is not laid out like an ordinary book. There are few words per page, most of which do not consist of complete sentences. (This style is similar to that of Velvet Elvis.) An inordinate number of questions appear throughout the book (often one after the other), usually without resolution. The style often aspires to poetry, but falls short. It is rather a fragmented and affected prose. There are no clearly stated premises leading to a conclusion through some identifiable form of argument. One finds instead impressionistic and staccato discussions—and without any supporting documentation. There may be a place for this kind of writing, but it is ill-fitting for matters as consequential as heaven and hell.
ADJUSTING THE GOSPEL
Love Wins begins by telling a short story that leads Bell to wonder whether Gandhi is in hell. He asserts that traditional ideas of heaven and hell have repulsed many from being Christians. As he writes later in the book, “Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the right things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story” (p. 110). The biblical view of the afterlife, therefore, should be readdressed in the hopes of reaching those who have rejected Christian faith.
This is a noble intention, but intentions are insufficient for virtue. We should be like Paul, who said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22–238). Zeal for evangelism should meet two conditions. First, one must realize that many people reject the gospel of Jesus Christ not because they have been presented with a defective version of it, but because they do not want to bow their knee to God. As Jesus said, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). The gospel is always offensive to human pride (see 1 Cor. 1:18–2:16). We must understand the bad news that we are sinners before a holy God before we can receive the good news that we can be restored through God’s grace in Christ. We should not shy away from the implications of biblical teaching. Second, we should never redefine and so diminish the gospel for the sake of winning a larger audience (see Gal. 1:6–11). Adjusting the gospel to placate human rebellion against God transforms the good news into a compromise with worldliness, something we should earnestly avoid (Rom. 12:1–2; James 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15–17).
Before examining Bell’s assertions, we should commend him for two things. First, he rightly emphasizes that salvation, biblically understood, involves the present as well as the future. There is a this-worldly dimension to the Kingdom of God that some Christians miss. God created a good world and will recreate it with the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21–22). Christians should bring shalom (God’s justice, peace, and well-being) to all of life. In this, Bell is influenced profitably by the writings of N. T. Wright.
Second, Bell addresses some biblical texts that seem prima facie to teach universalism, which some evangelicals have not taken seriously enough. If we believe that the entire Bible is authoritative, we need to interpret these passages rightly as well as the rest of Scripture. Bell’s competency in this regard will be addressed below.
THREE CONTRADICTORY IDEAS
Bell’s claims about heaven and hell, however, are fairly difficult to discern, given the impressionistic, interrogative, and scattered nature of much of the book. But he does clearly challenge the view that death seals our destiny (by advocating postmortem possibilities for salvation) and suggests that all people may be saved. Unfortunately, the book affirms three contradictory ideas: (1) Since God is love and God gets what God wants, all are saved. No one is in a permanent hell. (2) Since humans are free, they may resist God’s love. Some will end up in a permanent hell. (3) We cannot know whether or not everyone will be saved.
Of course, these three statements cannot all be true. Statement (1) contradicts statement (2). Statement (3) affirms that we cannot know whether (1) or (2) is true. Therefore, these statements do not cohere with one another logically. Nevertheless, I will address each of these three points, spending the lion’s share on (1).
1. No Hell.Bell first claims that he cannot reconcile a God of love with the punishment of hell immediately after death. How could God offer His love to us during this earthly life and then end up punishing people forever after they die? Bell says that we cannot love a God like this (174). In many cases, God’s judgment would be grossly unfair, since one may not have had ample opportunity even to hear the gospel message. What if the missionary’s car got a flat tire, thus causing someone not to hear the gospel before he or she dies (9)? Would God send that person to hell? In three different places, Bell also questions how an eternity of punishment could be suitable for one limited lifetime of sinning (2, 102, 174).
If God is love and all-powerful, then God is able to win every creature to Himself. Bell cites some biblical texts that speak of the universal effects of Christ’s work, and claims that many prominent Christians throughout church history have believed that everyone would be saved. He asserts that one can be a Christian and believe this, since Christianity is wide enough for all manner of divergent beliefs (108).
Bell also avers that biblical passages speaking of eternal punishment do not literally mean unending, conscious punishment. The Greek word for “eternal” may mean a time of pruning or trimming (91; see also 31–32), and the Hebrew word for “eternal” may mean “long lasting” (92). Bell says, “So when we read of ‘eternal punishment,’ it’s important that we don’t read categories and concepts into a phrase that aren’t there. Jesus may be talking about something else” (92).
In worrying about humans not getting a fair shake from God, it appears that Bell has little sense of God’s sovereign purposes in salvation. Yet God works out “everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). He places people where He wants them (Acts 17:26), reveals His existence to all (Rom. 1:18–21), and holds us accountable for our moral character (Rom. 2:14–15). “Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save” (Isa. 59:1). When I heard Bell speak, he asked why God would send people to hell because they had not heard the gospel. I was surprised that a forty-year-old pastor and author would utter words so often on the lips of ignorant unbelievers. God holds people accountable for what they know, not what they do not know. The argument in Romans, chapters one through three, is direct and emphatic on this point.9
Bell is wrong that “an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed…that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever” (108). While some with a high view of Scripture have embraced universalism, it has been a minority position and has never been affirmed by the historic creeds and confessions of any of the three branches of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant.10 Moreover, simply because some people identify as both Christians and universalists, this does not lend credibility to universalism. Truth is not a matter of counting noses. The issue is not whether one can be a Christian and also a universalist, but rather: What does the Bible teach on the subject? (On the importance of making Scripture the ultimate source of truth, see Ps. 119; Matt. 5:17–20; John 10:33; Acts 17:11; 2 Tim. 3:15–16; 2 Pet. 3:16.) Despite Bell’s complaints, it is not intrinsically unjust for God to sentence unrepentant sinners to a conscious and eternal hell for their sin. As the great American theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards emphasized, human sin is an offense against an infinitely holy God (see Ps. 51:1). As such, the punishment must be perpetual. Edwards took this question up in his essay, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners.”11 Edwards argued that because God is “a Being of infinite greatness, majesty, and glory,” He is therefore “infinitely honorable” and worthy of absolute obedience. “Sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations, must be a crime infinitely heinous, and deserving of infinite punishment.” D. A. Carson puts things into perspective: “I doubt if any of us is equipped to assess what is an ‘appropriate’ punishment for defiance of the holy and sovereign God, save God himself.”12
Even apart from this impeccable theological reasoning, the Scriptures repeatedly speak of God’s judgment, either unto eternal life or eternal punishment. While Bell skates over the text (91), the clearest New Testament passage on hell as a conscious state of eternal punishment is Jesus’ teaching on the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31–46). “The righteous,” who respond rightly to Jesus (by serving Him in serving the “least of these”) will go into “eternal life” (v. 46). But “the cursed” (v. 41) go into “eternal punishment” (v. 46). As Walter Martin often said, this passage is the clearest and most cogent teaching on the eternity of hell in the Bible. The logic is straightforward. If “eternal life” means the everlasting experience of the redeemed, then eternal punishment means the everlasting torment of the damned, since the Greek constructions are symmetrical.13 No major translation of this passage speaks of hell as being of limited duration or as a time of purging, as Bell suggests several times in Love Wins (more on this below).
Further, Jesus spoke of eternal punishment more than any other character in the Bible (see Matt. 5:30; 8:10–12; 13:40–42, 49–50; 22:13; 24:51; Luke 16:19–31). He also warned of the sin against the Holy Spirit, which would never be forgiven (Matt. 12:31–32; Mark 3:28–30; Luke 12:10).14 Bell ignores this teaching of Jesus. He further omits a strong reference to eternal judgment found in Daniel: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2).
What of Bell’s claim that postmortem salvation is possible? Bell avoids the usual verses used (wrongly) to support this view, but appeals to a statement by Jesus. Since Jesus said that it would be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than in a Jewish town that rejected the gospel (Matt. 10:13–15), Bell infers that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah still have hope of redemption (84–85). But the text never suggests this. Rather, Jesus speaks of the heightened culpability of God’s own people in rejecting the Messiah. (He also indicates in Luke 12:47–49 that there are degrees of punishment.) Jesus says nothing about hope for the destroyed cities. Further, Jude contradicts Bell’s interpretation by saying that Sodom and Gomorrah “serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7–8; emphasis added).
Bell simply posits postmortem salvation as a solution to the problem he finds with God’s eternal judgment of humans on the basis of their response to Him in one lifetime. But the burden of proof is on Bell, since orthodox Protestant thinkers have traditionally affirmed that judgment immediately follows death and there are no biblical texts that even suggest otherwise.15 Consider Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees: “If you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:24, emphasis added; cf. Heb. 9:27).
2. Hell Is Real.Despite his (poor) case for universalism, Bell also develops the idea that some humans may freely and finally resist God’s desire to save all people. “Love demands freedom” (114), and freedom means we can say no to God in this life and the next. This, Bell claims, even demonstrates God’s grace, since God lets us have what we want (117). This is an odd understanding of grace, since the Bible always presents grace as God granting salvation to those who do not deserve it: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9; cf. Titus 3:5–6). According to Scripture, those who are redeemed experience God’s saving grace; those who are condemned experience God’s justice.
Bell defines hell as “our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (170). He also writes of hell as part of the evil of the present world. After seeing many teenagers who had their arms and legs hacked off in the Rwandan civil war, Bell says, “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs” (71). Bell believes that hell is real in the present world, but only speculates that it might continue forever for some in the world to come.
Bell’s discussion of hell trades on the human refusal (whether temporary or eternal) to trust and be healed by God. Bell nowhere articulates the biblical concept of hell as God’s active punishment of incorrigible sinners. Consider Jesus’ warning to pseudo-Christians, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7:22–23; cf. 8:11–12). Jesus also said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (John 3:36). He also prophesies a day when the dead will be raised and evil-doers will be condemned (John 5:28–29). Many other passages on this theme of divine condemnation could be cited, but Bell either avoids these passages or misses their meaning.
While Bell suggests that some kind of hell may exist, it is not obvious what he means by “hell,” especially since he refuses to speak of divine wrath, rejection, or punishment. Given Bell’s emphasis on postmortem salvation and God’s desire for restoration, pruning, and refining, he may think of hell as a kind of purgatory—a temporary state prefatory to final redemption. If so, he has no biblical leg to stand on. Carson makes the point forcefully. “There is no shred of evidence in the NT that hell ever brings about genuine repentance. Sin continues as part of the punishment and the ground for it.”16 This is why the New Testament emphasizes the urgency of repentance in this life: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 3:4; cf. 4:7; Matt. 4:17).
3. We Cannot Know.Having argued for two logically incompatible statements concerning hell, Bell then waxes agnostic: “Will everybody be saved or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?” Bell answers, “These are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t” (115). One should ponder the significance of this statement. Bell implies that God’s revelation through Christ and the Bible cannot answer the most important question possible: Who will be saved? Thus, the force of Love Wins is to confuse and withhold certainty from needy sinners, since Bell has given up on knowledge in this area (cf. Mal. 2:7).
In the end, Bell mutes and muzzles biblical revelation through his 198-page confession of ignorance. Should we join him? We should not. The biblical God reveals saving and sanctifying truth in the Bible (John 17:7). This revelation is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12; cf. Isa. 55:8–9), “profitable for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:15), and should not be twisted or adjusted (2 Pet. 3:16). One central means by which Christians grow in the knowledge of God (1 Pet. 3:18) is through understanding the truth of the Bible (Ps. 119).
FURTHER PROBLEMS NOTED
Space forbids me to criticize further Bell’s view that salvation is available in other religions (see Eph. 2:12), his endorsement of the pantheistic book, The Soul of Christianity by Huston Smith (201),17 his deficient views of Christ’s atonement (chap. 5), or to do more than note that he fails to explain adequately justification by faith, which is the heart of the gospel itself. Suffice it to say that despite his popularity and desire to reach unbelievers with God’s love, Bell has withheld knowledge from the very people he desires to reach. As Jesus said, “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge” (Luke 11:52).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of many books on apologetics, including Christian Apologetics (IVP Academic, 2011).
1 See Brett McCracken, “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity,” Wall Street Journal, August 13, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704111704575355311122648100.html.
2 Michael Paulson, “Rob Bell on Faith, Suffering and Christians,” The Boston Globe, September 26, 2009, http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles_of_faith/2009/09/rob_bell.html.
3 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 25–26.
4 On the case against Christianity being influenced by mystery religions, see James R. Edwards, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 132–39.
5 Gordon Clark, quoted in John Robbins, Trinity Review, March-April 1986, 8.
6 See Douglas Groothuis, “The Biblical Basis for Apologetics,” in Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011). For the case against New Age pantheism in general, see Douglas Groothuis, Confronting the New Age (1988; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010).
7 Velvet Elvis, 192. I reviewed A Brief History of Everything in the Christian Research Journal, http://www.equip.org/articles/a-brief-history-of-everything.
8 All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
9 For an excellent exposition of Romans 1–8, see Francis A. Schaeffer, The Finished Work of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998).
10 See Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: An Historical Survey,” Themelious 4, 2 (September 1978): 47–54.
11 Jonathan Edwards, “The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners,” in Puritan Sage: Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards, ed.Vergilius Ferm (New York: Liberty Publishers, 1953), 293–326.
12 D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 10.
13 See D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 586.
14 I am not here explaining what the unpardonable sin may be, but Jesus says that at least some people in His day had committed it. If so, they go to hell.
15 See Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R, 1995), 150–52.
16 Carson, 587.
17 See my review in Christian Research Journal 29, 4 (2006): 48–49 (http://journal.equip.org/articles/selling-the-soul-of-christianity). Smith also endorses the use of LSD for spiritual enlightenment.