More correcting of Rob Bell

As more and more people read the real thing, more and more people are realising that “Love Wins” is anything but good news.

What is less obvious is how those who deny the future reality of Hell are much more likely to create hellish situations in the here and now. Rob Bell believes that hell is what we create when we reject God’s love. Amen. But I would want to add the absolutely critical proviso that this love of God (that is so rejected) must be defined as He defines it in the Bible, and not as we would wish it might be defined in our Big Rock Candy Mountain versions of Heaven. In the Bible, love is defined as Christ bearing the brunt of God’s wrath against our sin. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10). A denial of the wrath of God is therefore a denial of propitation (which is bearing the wrath of God), and this in its turn is a denial of love as biblically defined. This means that to deny the reality of Hell is to deny the love of God which saves us from the wrath of that Hell, and to deny the love of God is the first step in creating our own little microcosm of that Hell, which Rob Bell is engaged in doing. He is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, and if he is right about what rejecting the love of God does (and he is), then it would appear that someone is trying to turn that place into Mars Hell.

Too often God’s love is defined the way some pop singer would define it when accepting her Grammy, and she is thanking her live-in boy toy for his “unconditional love.” Yeah, fine, but that’s not what it is.

Perhaps the definitive exegetical analysis comes from Kevin DeYoung. Spend some time reading the whole of his review.

One last general point about Bell’s exegesis: Bell has a reputation for being brilliant and creative, and he probably is in certain spheres. But his use of Scripture exhibits neither characteristic. In fact, it is naïve, literalistic biblicism. He flattens everything, either to make traditional theology sound ridiculously inconsistent or to make a massive point from one out-of-context verse. He makes no attempt to understand metaphors, genre, or imagery (either in Scripture or in his grandmother’s painting). He does not to try to harmonize anything that might rot his fresh take on the Bible. He loves Jewish background and context, but he shows very little familiarity with the actual storyline and the shape of the Old Testament. His style may be engaging to some, but look up the passages for yourself and then pick up a reputable study Bible or a basic commentary series. You’ll seriously question Bell’s use of Scripture.

For the satirical response, Jim Hamilton is your man.

You thought God told Adam not to eat of that tree? You thought he said that in the day he ate of it, dying he would die? Even if the collector of the foreskins did create this world (Really? He did? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?), would that give him the right to take it upon himself to make restrictions on what people could do? Even if he were so presumptuous, who is to say that he would ever follow through on his word? After all, did Adam die that day? What will you say, that we are to take Adam’s eventual death as proof that the one who claims omnipotence will do as he says? Would you consider that just? What does that mean, that this self-appointed judge is to be trusted?

Is there not a better way? Can we not imagine an arrangement we would prefer? Can we not invent a system that would be more palatable to people as sophisticated as ourselves? Would we not prefer to be led by one more like ourselves?

Should there not be a category for a ruler who, even if he said he was going to punish the opposition, would never actually do so? Would we have to conclude that such a magistrate were unworthy of trust? Could we not simply turn it into an interpretive issue? Would we not prefer one who would conduct the affairs of the universe more in the way that we ourselves would? Would we ourselves not alter the state of affairs in order to cast ourselves, for instance, in a better light? Would we not change the terms to our own advantage when necessary? Would not a ruler with such powers be preferable to one who would first presume to make rules and then be so impetuous as to enforce them?

Do I, Bill Z. Bull, not serve just the master I am describing?

Almost finally, a plea. If you must buy a copy of this book (if only to understand all the better what a heretical path Rob Bell has set out upon) then at least make that purchase count. Buy it here and help me continue to fund this little corner of orthodoxy. Alternatively, if you want a great book on eschatology, you can’t do much better then Simon Ponsonby’s And The Lamb Wins.

Last of all, let me know what you think.

[poll id=”6″]



38 Comments on “More correcting of Rob Bell

  1. Watching the one hour stream of last night's promo Q&A from New York, I thought that probably the most revealing thing he said was his reference to the gate in heaven that will be open for all eternity (Rev 21:25). Read in context, there is absolutely no way that this could be construed as a reason for Christians to feel that there is the possibility that people are brought into heaven after the final judgement. But Bell dropped it in in such a way as to make that inference and, in my opinion, gave a clear pointer to his own views.

    Before anyone tears into me for picking out just one point that he made and using it in isolation or out of context (how ironic that would be!), I should note that Bell's studious avoidance of all prompts and questions requiring him to make clear what he actually believes about salvation, judgement and hell was conspicuous. If the gospel is good news (which I believe it is), then it's worth telling. The only reason for a man with a huge public platform not to tell the good news is if they actually don't own or believe that good news, that joy-stirring new-life through Jesus message that announces that sin and death have been defeated and that God, in His judgement and wrath, is holy.

  2. What do you think of the tone of the debate, Peter? Some bloggers, commentators have sought not just to refute him and debate his points, but to demonize him. Stand Frim and Justin Taylor did that, in my opinion. The quote from Jim Hamilton seems to be a bit too close to the line for my liking too.

    Mark Galli of Christianity Today and Tim Challies (who's post was the first I'd read from someone who had read the book –… managed to keep a civil tone and disagree without demonizing. What do you think?

  3. ""This means that to deny the reality of Hell is to deny the love of God which saves us from the wrath of that Hell,

    Ah, so is the Vatican and (post "Mystery of Salvation") C of E heretical too? It would be nice if Calvinist Fundamentalists would realise that they are, well, Calvinist Fundamentalist not (God help us all) the Last, True, Hope of 'Orthodoxy'.

      • I'm suggesting that there's a legitimate spectrum of theological opinion on Hell, rather than the easy false dichotomy between those who believe in literal "eternal conscious punishment" and the heretics who don't. I'm not a universalist. As for the Bible: it cracks me me up when people quote passages that invariably mention words like 'destruction'. If something is destroyed it ceases to exist no? ? Isn't that annihalationism? Is someone who *believes* in Hell but does not believe in "eternal conscious punishment" a heretic? More generally, I think there's lots and lots of Christians who believe in Hell but very much do not believe in eternal conscious punishment. So it's slippery when some evangelicals try to have it both way (i.e. by pointing out that most orthodoxy christians believe in Hell even though most believer's model of Hell is frankly closer to annihalationism than it is to 'eternal, conscious punishment'.).

        And "'Eternal *destruction* for those who reject Jesus Christ" is a model that fits with 'wrath' pretty well.

            • alethron aionion lit. destruction unending or destruction for all time.

              You could argue in favour of unending punishment or annihilationism from this verse.

              The real point of contention is Mark 9:43 – "unquenchable fire" – pur to asbeston lit. fire that is unquenchable. The debate hangs around whether the unquenchableness of the fire is that it is *never* quenched (i.e. eternal torment) or that it cannot be quenched by human agency (which leads some, in combo with verses like 2 Thess 1.9 to argue for annihilationism).

              I'm of the opinion that it doesn't matter which of the two it is – going to hell is a bad thing. I tend to the annihilationist view, but do not think the eternal torment position undermines the justice and holiness of God (and we also need to remember that "eternal" does not simply mean "a very very long time").

              • Whether fire lasts 10 minutes, 24 hours, a hundred years (or eternally?) its nature is to burn things to destruction. Unquenchable fire need not imply that those who bear its effects are in a sense 'unquenchable' too and so are bearing torture, eternally, rather than being destroyed.

                I don't think God *destroying* people undermines his justice and holiness either – I think one of the blogs you cited stresses that prior to the 19C most Chrsitians believed in the 'eternal conscious punishment' model, which supports my point that , these days, there is in contrast a legitimate wide spectrum of theological opinion on Hell. I certainly don't regard *myself* as a heretic for being an annihalationism, but I'm sure that much Calvinist fundamentalists have and would! I'd also stress that the passage cited is surely *more* suggest of annihalationism than it is "eternal, conscious punishment" – supporting rather the liberal protestant's contention that 'orthodox' thinking on Hell is indeed worth challenging, irrespective of whether people have been espousing a particular doctrine for 100, 500 or over a 1000 years.

                And I think many people would prefer destruction to eternal life, and that many within the Church might struggle with trying to think like a person who's going to live forever. So it's a greater pastoral challenge to try and indict them for their flesh-y thinking without the ultimate carrot-and-stick of the old Heaven and Hellfire model.

                • Whether fire lasts 10 minutes, 24 hours, a hundred years (or eternally?) its nature is to burn things to destruction.

                  No, you are imposing on the scripture a particular understanding of the English word "destruction" when the real argument is what the Greek alethron means. The word means "destruction" or "ruin" and can refer to either the elimination of something or (for example 1 Tim 6:9) the dimunition of something (but not it's elimination). The first understanding would tend to annihilationism, the second to eternal torment.

                  The key point though is that once someone is in hell, they stay there. Whether the description of the rich man burning in hell while Lazarus is in the Bosom of Abraham is a literal understanding of eternal torment or a symbolic representation of being eternally cut-off (and annihilated), it is very clear that the rich man will never leave hell – his fate is completely sealed. This is one of the major issues on which Rob Bell is utterly incorrect.

                  • I'm painfully monolingual, but I do find it curiously…unevangelical?….that a word that gets translated as "destruction" in nigh-on *every* translation has a secondary, subtler meaning in the original greek and this is the one that should be translated. Is there not a word that could more clearly indicate perpetual anguish ('ruin' has connotations of destruction, or at least near-destruction) that the author could have used to indicate that meaning?

                    And if Lazarus is 'just' a story then its rhetoric has implications far beyond the literal. One can claim that the consequences of rejecting God are *like* eternal separation from a loved one, or perpetual torture, or both, without implying a literal (albeit metaphysical) 'location' that enacts such situations. For example, one could argue that, if one had a taste of the beatific vision but was then denied it, the greatest pleasures of earth would seem *as* torture, even if they consisted of romantic love and temporal hedonism that most people would call closer to 'paradise' than 'hell'. Christ was, of course, divine but He was still preaching *to* humans whose cognition of divine realities is necessarily limited.

  4. I agree with you about whether the punishment is eternal or the fire. I don't think it matters either- both are bad.

    Clearly re: my earlier comment, demonising was the wrong word to use. Let me adjust it to day that there had been a spirit of triumphalism in declaring Rob Bells error (Challies, Galli and Driscoll aside). John Piper's tweet of "farewell, Rob Bell" was unbecoming of a man of his stature and position. Other blogs have been written with an undertone of triumphalism, almost saying "Ha! I was right about that dodgy Rob all along!". This has come from various blogs and certainly from their commenters. It's as if the desire to be right exceeds the desire to speak with grace about other Christians with whom they disagree. I wonder what a non-Christian listening in might think about the way in which Christians have seemingly been laying into each other? Not a great advert for the gospel.

  5. Peter,

    I think the poll at the end of your opening post is a bit much – what about John 7:51? 'Love Wins' isn't even on sale here til tomorrow (so sez Amazon), so how could any of us have read it to give the man a hearing? At minimum you'd need to quote chunks of Bell's text so we can see what he says, surely? And echoing what Tallandrew wrote: "If unanimity fails, that is a pity. If charity fails, if we no longer listen and speak in love, that is a disaster; we deny our fundamental identity as members of the one Body and as children of the one God" (Gareth Moore OP, from A question of truth, p3 – he was talking about Christians debating the gay issue but it might well apply here).

    in friendship, Blair

    • I think we've heard loads from Rob Bell and we know what he's doing. Are you honestly suggesting that with so many reviews out on the web (of people who have read it) saying "this is universalism", you're going to buy a copy and find out Bell isn't a universalist? Did you read the Kevin DeYoung review? That has all the quotes you'll need.

      • Hi Peter,

        I'm not trying to suggest that, no (although I can think of worse things than being a universalist…). And yes, I skimmed thru the Kevin DeYoung review and take your point that he quotes Rob Bell's text extensively. I don't think that vitiates my point above completely though – I for one haven't "heard loads from Rob Bell" so some paragraph-length quoting would still have been good. Just tried to see if there's a preview on Google Books – there isn't, but I giggled when the search brought up a Barbara Cartland novel from 1981 with the same title. Perhaps time for a compare and contrast of the two Love wins' theologies? ;)

        in friendship, Blair

      • Hi again,

        just a couple more things I didn't think of earlier…

        – is Bell saying, there's a hell but it's empty, or there isn't ultimately a hell at all?

        – also just thought of the words of 'Let all mortal flesh keep silence', which date from the Liturgy of St James (whatever that was) in the 4th C. The third verse runs:

        Rank on rank the host of heaven

        Spreads its vanguard on the way,

        As the Light of light descendeth

        From the realms of endless day,

        That the powers of hell may vanish

        As the darkness clears away.

        Any thoughts on how to understand this?

        Also, was going to post something based on James Alison's Rasing Abel, but will leave that for now.

        in friendship, Blair

        • I think that's more a reference to the demonic hordes fleeing at the presence of the Almighty. In particular, the hymn comes at a point of eucharistic devotion, so it may refer to the substantiation of Christ in the host and fleeing of demons in the presence of that.

            • Well, I'm simply reflecting what the writers of the Liturgy of St James would have thought.

              It's is transubstantiation which is condemned in the 39 Articles (though some Anglicans do believe it). My personal position is somewhere between Luther and Cranmer – the host is substantially Christ when it is (received by one filled with the Spirit) and it isn't when it isn't.

              • Consubstantiation? Isn't that what Luther thought and modern Lutheran's believe? So it's more than just a memorial for you but not something you'd stick in a monstrance.

                  • O/T, and perhaps a more suitable question for Ask Peter, but what do you think is going on, spiritually and sacramentally, when a mentally disabled person receives Holy Communion? Or should mentally disabled persons not receive Holy Communion?

                    • Another possibility for a separate thread… Thinking of 'ex opere operato', if the person is open to the grace given in the sacrament, isn't the same thing 'going on' whether that person has a learning disability or not?

                      in friendship, Blair

  6. Peter, what do you think of something like Lewis' "The Great Divorce"? That book was seminal in helping me to understand hell, and it's usually highly regarded as orthodox, but it also leaves open the door to the possibility of a post death change of heart a la Rahner.

    • I think my problem with "The Great Divorce" is that I can't find anywhere in Scripture that supports it. The teaching of the clear separation of heaven and hell seems to me to be absolute in Scripture.

      • Assuming then that your problem with "The Great Divorce" would be shared by other Evangelicals, particularly those who have come out so strongly against Rob Bell, why then is Lewis celebrated as a pillar of orthodoxy and Bell is denounced as a heretic and a false prophet?

        • That's a very good question. I think the difference between Lewis and Bell is that Lewis is wrong on a few things like this (and let's remember that The Great Divorce is fiction so it's *not* an exact theological statement by Lewis) whereas Bell seems to deny pretty well every single core Evangelical belief.

          I don't think Lewis really is an Evangelical. He's more properly described as a biblically minded Anglo-Catholic. This link has some interesting analysis of his theology.

  7. Are you saying that the reformed, Calvinistic, conservative evangelicals alone are "right" and everyone who holds views differing are "wrong" (or heretical)?

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