When Rob Bell speaks you have to listen. He is so compelling, so likeable, so confident. He has a contagious love for Jesus. He uses images, and metaphors, and ideas with incredible dexterity. So when he poetically probes questions about hell, we question too. He rightly wonders about people who feel they must declare proudly and noisily that Gandhi is in hell. He does a great job of deconstructing the hellfire and brimstone people, ones who see God getting glory out of people burning in hell. There are frustratingly many of these, though it’s much less common in the evangelicals associated with Western Seminary or the churches I minister in.
He outlines his view: At the end of the age, God’s love overcomes every objection and everyone comes to know and accept Jesus. This is not the “all roads lead to God” type of universalism, but a Christian universalism with salvation only through the name of Jesus. He cites passages like Philippians 2:10 and Colossians 1:20.
Bell centers on the deep deep love of God. Ironically this is one of his weaker spots. When he insists, “love wins,” he makes God more like the dominating husband demanding his own way than the triune God of the Bible, the God who will let you choose, the one who will let you love someone else. The God of the Bible is something like a jilted husband, grieving for His lost covenant partner. Bell’s God largely does a pass on the anger that love raises up when confronted with persistent sin and evil, the God who is like an outraged father whose daughter has been abused. Forgiveness and reconciliation come only at great expense and are easily derailed through one party’s resistance.
He asks a good question: Does God want all to be saved? My answer is absolutely. The God who seeks Adam and Eve out after their sin seeks everyone. John 3:16, 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9 are very clear. Then he asks does God get what he wants? My synthesis of the biblical data says He does not. God draws (John 12:32), convicts (John 16:8-11) and leads (Rom. 2:4-11) every human being toward His kindness. Anyone who responds to this drawing will find a God who initiates in grace, eager to reveal Messiah Jesus through various means. Those who like Jesus and want to be like Him and with Him doing the cool things He likes to do will be there and do that forever.
But He also allows the many of the ones He draws to persist in their demand to run their own lives as they see fit — often for very bad reasons — and reject His love. if you don’t like doing the things Jesus does, then you get to live in a place we call hell. Bell correctly says that there are many Middle Ages pictures of hell that are very non-biblical and shreds them. But he also shreds the fact of the self centeredness that makes people reject the self-giving way of Jesus. He shreds the biblical concept of sin, which Luther termed curvatus in se, bent in on self. This means separation from God for all and punishment for evil doers.
I believe there are different levels of hell. Matt. 11:20ff is one place this is clear. So for many, hell is the place of ultimate selfishness after God gives them over (Rom. 1:24ff) to their own desires, an ultimately self-centered place they think they want. But that’s a very alone existence, completely absent of the self-giving love of God. For evildoers, especially those guilty of spiritual evil, that will be a place of terrible punishment. It will be existence – not living – under His curse, in the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Mat 25:41)
What really hacks me is that Bell actually changes the very text of Scripture to fit his view (Matt 25:46; details below for those who want specifics). He does it without any justification or even telling us that he’s doing it. And then he accuses people who follow the text of reading foreign concepts into the text. Astounding. Absolutely astounding. And completely unacceptable.
The other big scale issue is that he has virtually no gospel left. As he deconstructs the whacked gospel of the hell fire and brimstone preachers, he makes the Bible seem as if there’s just total confusion and then never says what Jesus’ provision is nor what our response should be. His discussion bypasses the whole issue of sin and stays quite vague about what Jesus accomplished on the Cross. Not good.
Finally he begins his book with Gandhi because most people think him a super good guy and therefore must be headed to heaven. Anyone who says he’s in hell obviously is a bigoted fundamentalist. But Gandhi investigated Jesus and rejected Him, choosing to be a Hindu and worship the Hindu gods. His form of non-violence led to a civil war in which vast numbers were injured and killed. The division and hatred continue to this day. Now contrast Gandhi with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King investigated Jesus and embraced Him. His revolution was largely blood free and the reconciliation which he initiated, though incomplete, continues to this day.
What should we do with hell? Denying it’s existence is like denying that I have cancer. I appreciate Mark Driscoll’s sermon on Luke 16. I resonate deeply with his tears at the thought of people going to hell and his passion to spread the old old story of Jesus and His love given freely so they can find life. Then it will be true that LOVE WINS.
The best review of Love Wins is by Ben Witherington of Asbury Seminary does a chapter by chapter review. The links are here:
There is a chronology of written and video reviews on Resurgence.com
I particularly like John Mark Reynolds of the Torrey Honors Institute: here: .
Now some details: According to every English translation of Matthew 25:46 – Jewish , Catholic, mainline, and evangelical – Jesus says that goats go into eternal punishment. Anyone who goes against every single translation has to give really good reason for it. Let’s take a look. In Greek the words are aionion kolasis. No matter what lexicon you select, the only translation is “eternal punishment” or words with the same meaning. But Bell changes the text to aion kolazo. Rather than an adjective modifying a noun, it’s two nouns which really makes no sense. He has to add “of” to make it work. Why does he do that? There are no textual variants, no manuscript evidence, no scholarly questions behind the change; just Bell’s chutzpah that wants to update Jesus. What’s the significance? If you look up the changed words in Bauer, Denker, Arndt & Gingrich, the standard Bible era lexicon, the meaning will still be “eternal punishment.” But if we go to Liddell & Scott, the standard lexicon of classic Greek, the language of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle from some 400 years prior to the biblical era, you can find a rare meaning, “prune.” So Bell constructs the meaning “a period of pruning.” But if the word modifying punishment (or pruning) is for a period of time that ends, then it has to have the same meaning when it modifies life. Does Bell really believe our life with God comes to an end after a while? The big offense here is that he never mentions the fact that he changes the biblical words. And then he accuses people who follow the Jesus’ words of reading categories and concepts into the phrase that aren’t there.