# A Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell
James B. De Young
May 12, 2011, rev. August 13, 2011; Nov. 8, 2017
[The following is a lengthy review of Bell’s book. If you lack the time to read it all you may recover the heart of the review by reading the Introduction, the summary of the preface, the summaries at the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion]
In the following review I first give an overview of my impressions, then I give a detailed rebuttal to much of what the book contains.
Having read Brian McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That and William P. (Paul) Young’s *The Shack, *I find it remarkable how all three, and other universalists, write in such a starkly similar way. I’m referring to how they interpret the Bible. It is clear that Rob Bell is a follower of universal reconciliation, as are the other two. Paul Young as early as 2004 wrote a 103 page document in which he explicitly embraced universal reconciliation and repudiated his “evangelical paradigm” (these are his words). Now in his nonfiction book, Lies We Believe about God (2017) Young boldly proclaims his belief. In a dialogue with himself he asks: “Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal reconciliation? That is exactly what I am saying! This is real good news!” (118). [note the exclamation points]. From the content of the works of McLaren and Bell it is clear that they too are on this path and turning from the evangelical gospel.
What binds such writers together? There are several things. First, there is a refusal to explicitly embrace universal reconciliation (although in his unpublished paper and now in his new book Paul Young is the exception). Such writers are deceptively adroit at embracing all the basic tenets of universal reconciliation while avoiding the label (they spurn all such labels, even the name “Christian”). While they may not make explicit statements they raise questions about evangelical faith that intend to show that such faith is suspect in dealing with the great questions of life and faith. Bell even goes so far as to present universalism as the best alternative.
So let’s be clear regarding the meaning of universal reconciliation. Pagan or general universalism asserts that all roads lead to god/God, whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist. Christian universalism, also known as universal reconciliation, maintains that all people come to the God of the Bible, by believing in Christ as the way to God, either before they die or after they die. The idea is that God’s love trumps his justice, that his will that all be saved and experience heaven will not be frustrated. Even the devil and the fallen angels in league with him will finally repent and be admitted to heaven. It is universal reconciliation that the above writers, and many more, are adopting in recent years.
This form of universalism (which term I use to capture Christian universalism) has serious consequences. Since the Bible tells us that the death of Jesus Christ only affects the situation of human beings—that he died not for angels but for humans (see Heb 2:16), then the fallen angels and the devil get out of hell and into heaven by some other means. Universalists claim that it is God’s love that finally is victorious (“wins” in the word of Rob Bell); his love cannot be thwarted. Thus the justice or holiness of God is usurped or overcome by his love. But this is a serious consequence. It means that Christ’s death, called forth by the justice of God to deal with the penalty of sin, is not the means of reconciling all things (so Colossians 1:19–20) but God’s love alone is. Thus in the end the work of Jesus Christ on the cross becomes unessential, unnecessary, unacceptable. And in the end Christian universalism joins in league with universalism in general.
In reading Rob Bell, it is clear that universalism is his basic conviction. Both in his general assertions and affections and in the particulars of how he defends his view he embraces universalism. Also the many questions he raises are common to universalists.
Regarding his general assertions, Bell, as the others, redefines hell so that it is not punishment in the future but whatever sorrows and sufferings one brings on oneself now for spurning God’s love. Hell is whatever a person makes it. In addition, suffering is always remedial, even the bad consequences for our choices that God brings or allows in our lives. God’s judgments are not punitive or retributive but chastisement and correctional. Further, Bell rejects the idea that hell could be forever since the term “forever” only means something for a determined period of time. “Eternal suffering” does not mean everlasting suffering but only suffering for an “age.” He embraces the idea that “eternal” refers to a quality rather than a period of time. Jesus did not believe in an eternal or everlasting hell, but only employs strong, intense terminology to lead people from their own hells to himself.
For all of the claims above I will provide detailed supports below.
Other specific ideas also embraced by all universalists include redefining who a child or son of God is (all people are such); a resistance to the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ as the only way to God (Bell says he is both inclusive and exclusive); a redefinition of the good news (it isn’t if it includes any negative preaching about hell); an attack on the nature of God, since he cannot be both a God of wrath and a God of love; a putting down of evangelical churches and preaching of the gospel; opposition to the institutional church; a renunciation of the name “Christian”; and rejection of evangelical teaching regarding the meaning of the death of Christ.
The hermeneutic, the method of interpretation that Bell and others practice, is deeply flawed in many ways. The common practice is to cite or quote all the biblical texts favorable to their view and virtually skirt or omit discussion of the ones differing from universalism.
Another ploy is to multiply the proposed interpretations of a text to give the impression that one can never know what the correct interpretation, or the most plausible interpretation, is. The idea is that Bell can add his own view into the mix, and his view should be considered as serious as any other. This is a favorite tactic of universalists, similar to the idea of “divide and conquer.”
Another practice is to engage in horrible caricaturizing. For example, evangelicals are portrayed as presenting Jesus as the one “who rescues us from an angry God” (184). Such caricatures pit our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ against the nature of God, which is actually a parroting of the old liberal doctrine that God is a God of wrath and Jesus is characterized by love.
Another significant part of this universalist approach includes glaring omissions, or to down play (so Rob Bell) essential truths. This is especially true as one looks for an explanation of the atonement of Christ. Just what did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Bell takes up the great doctrines of redemption, atonement, justification, reconciliation, and the victory of Christ as metaphors employed in the New Testament to meet the need to communicate to contemporaries. He asserts that these doctrines are culturally determined and have no more significance than other metaphors we may create today. Indeed the old metaphors no longer have relevance. Bell would make relationship with a loving God the supreme message of the Bible. The gospel is not about entrance into heaven but about relationship. His favorite metaphor is expressed in the words, “death and rebirth” found throughout creation (131-135).
There is little if any place given to the role of faith. Faith is rejected as the only way to “become a Christian” or one of God’s children. There is no mention of the Holy Spirit. There is a downplaying of the devil/Satan.
There are also glaring contradictions. For example, according to Bell “trusting” does not bring God’s love. His love “simply is” (187–8). Yet in the same chapter he claims that “our beliefs matter” (184) and that trust is “required,” along with repentance (195–6). But, I ask, what is it that one must trust? Bell says that “we trust love” (195). Yet the Bible never says such a thing. Instead we trust, we believe, a person, the Lord Jesus Christ (“whosoever believes in him”—John 3:16) and we trust God (“believe in your heart that God has raised him [Christ] from the dead” —Romans 10:9–10). It is not love that saves us but the atoning, substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The phrase, “God is love” is not interchangeable with “love is God”; yet Bell and other universalists seem to understand it in the latter way.
Another trait of universalists is to attack the nature of God as traditionally understood. For example, Bell and the other two claim that by evangelical teaching the God of love becomes “vicious” toward people once they die because God will judge those who reject him (174). He stops being the loving God once a person ceases to live.
A major feature of Bell’s presentation, and of others,’ is to raise questions about key doctrines—questions that he fails to answer in order to cast doubt on such doctrines. These concern a multitude of issues. Universalists fail to show how Christians through the ages have given plausible, in not absolute, answers that are satisfying enough to people of faith.
The number one philosophical, emotive, and biblical problem for evangelical teaching is, in the mind of Bell and others, the question: How can a loving God punish people in hell for all eternity for a sin they commit during a brief time of living on earth? Bell raises this issue at least four times (pp. 2, 102, 110, 175). This matter goes to the most basic question: What is God like? What is the nature of God? Clearly, these questions lie behind the writing of Love Wins.
# The Review in Detail
I now turn to the details about the “distortions” (one of Bell’s favorite terms) of Bell’s understanding of the Bible and God’s plan of salvation. I proceed with a chapter by chapter analysis.
There are eight chapters in Bell’s book. Each one addresses a core issue central to Bell’s thesis that Christians have wrongly understood the destiny of all people. Hence the subtitle: “A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
# The Preface
But even before he begins the first chapter Bell in his preface tips us off regarding the topic of his pursuit and the seriousness of the issue. He gives three reasons for his writing. First, he wants to question the various stories told by Christians about Jesus with a view to reclaiming the right one. He claims that “Jesus’ story has been hijacked” by many other stories, stories that claim that only a few will gain heaven while “the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell” (viii). Those who believe that this is a central truth of the Christian faith equate this story with belief in Jesus (Bell claims), and this is “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy . . .” (viii). He identifies with millions whose stomachs churn at such a story. Bell is determined to reclaim Jesus’ story.
Bell’s second reason for his writing is to explore the “big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell” (ix). He faults others for not permitting open inquiry. This is a straw man argument, for few evangelicals shut the door on honest inquiry. They are confident that the truth can be known and that it will set people free, as Jesus promised (John 8:32, 36).
I suspect that most Christians, when they read Bell’s second reason, are a bit perplexed, thinking that what they believe about these topics is pretty well settled for them. What could be questioned about them? Why question them? They read their Bibles and think that these big questions were settled when they became believers, when they became Christians by confessing Christ.
Bell’s third reason for writing is to introduce readers to the “ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus.” He means that the issues he will raise have always been a subject of discussion, implying that to ask questions about crucial questions of the Christian faith is nothing new. To do this is a thrill to him, he says (xi). With this Bell brings his preface to conclusion.
Bell is correct to say that Christians have been discussing these “big questions” for a long time–almost two thousand years. But he implies that these matters are still open and unsettled. For the most part the church has come to a basic consensus on them, even if not a dogmatic position. The issues go to the heart of what our faith is all about—who God and Jesus Christ are, and others—and we embrace the informed discussion of these that begins in the New Testament itself and onward through all the church fathers. Their understanding has weathered all assaults through the ages. But it is typical for universalists to have the attitude that the truth about them has yet to be discovered—through their new interpretations.
Chapter 1: What about the Flat Tire?
In his first chapter, Bell goes straight to an issue that lies behind much of his book. It is the question of how can a loving God “punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2). It is a question to which he will return several times (pp. 102, 110, 175). What kind of faith is it to believe this, he asks, and “what kind of God is that?” (3).
Clearly Bell goes to the heart of Christian faith and to the nature of God.
It is an old, old question ever new to every person of every generation. It is the starting point for Bell, Young, and McLaren, and every other universalist, liberal theologian, and agnostic and atheist. It is common to Christians. But how one answers this determines whether one turns out to be a universalist, liberal, agnostic, atheist, or Christian.
Bell weaves his way through a myriad of issues associated with this larger question, including how this Christian message can offer hope to the world, dying before the age of accountability, and how to avoid this fate. Regarding the latter issue Bell raises all kinds of alternatives, including being baptized, joining a church, accepting Christ, and other popular answers (5-6). He then proceeds to ask what the Christian message is—is it simply a promise of going to heaven, with little concern for the suffering of this world? Bell suggests that the best answer to all such questions is “how you respond to Jesus” (7). But for him this raises a core question: Which Jesus? (7).
For Bell this too is a crucial question and much of his book concentrates on redefining Jesus different from traditional evangelical faith. To justify his new understanding Bell takes on and faults the popular terminology of having a “personal relationship with God through Jesus,” [since it’s not found in the Bible] (10); of claiming that eternal life is a free gift of God apart from works [when the verbs explaining what people do to become Christians—“accepting,” “confessing,” “believing” are all verbs of doing something] (11).
Bell here begins his repeated practice of multiplying alternatives to cause the reader to think that there is no certain or more plausible answer. For he cites over a dozen texts from the New Testament that give almost that many different answers to the question of how one is saved or becomes a Christian, and a variety of interpretations as to who Jesus is. He never suggests that all these ideas may be variations on a theme.
So Bell returns to the subject of his preface where in his second point he explained that he wrote his book in order to raise questions about big issues. Again he identifies these as heaven, hell, the afterlife, salvation, believing, judgment, who God is, what God is like, and “how Jesus fits into any of it” (19). But he adds that this is not just a book about questions but a book of “responses” to these questions (19). The first matter he takes up is heaven.
So it is clear that Bell writes his first chapter to raise serious doubts about the Christian faith—that such core issues of how to become a Christian, who Jesus is, and who God is raise questions that produce answers that are unclear, disputed, with a variety of alternatives having no clear guide as to which is the best answer. In this way he validates his attempt to come up with new alternatives [but these are common to all universalists and go back to the third century].
Chapter 2: Here Is the New There
Bell’s point in this chapter is to question what heaven means. He concludes that it is not far off and distant but a future reality on earth itself.
His point of departure for coming to this view is an opposite idea captured in a painting in his grandmother’s house that left an indelible impression on Bell from his childhood. The painting pictured a huge cross stretching from earth to heaven over a great chasm of red and black. On the cross were people travelling toward a beautiful city. Bell builds his case to present heaven not as an eternal residence but as entering a deeper life by citing Jesus’ conversation with the rich man in Matthew 19. The man’s question about what he must do to get “eternal life” is explained by Bell as a question about “the age to come.” Bell goes to great lengths to define “age to come” as a defined, limited time in the future when eternal life is experienced. It is equal to the presence of the kingdom.
Bell resorts to a bit of Greek instruction. He argues that the Greek word aion (which is actually transliterated Greek—using English letters to equate to Greek sounds; the Greek is aiwn) has at least three meanings, which he takes up over several pages. But the first meaning he expounds is that of “a period or era of time.” Bell believes this is crucial for it allows him to define heaven and hell as not forever but as having a beginning and an end (32).
Bell argues that this limited temporal meaning for “age” began before Jesus in the Old Testament in texts from Isaiah 2, 11, 25; Ezekiel 36; Amos 9. Thus the “new age” of the prophets is “literally” “heaven on earth” (33). This new age will include “everybody” (italics his) and “staggering levels of diversity” (34). It will be quite “earthy,” although “rescued, transformed, and renewed” (34). There will be a renewal toward something like Eden in which God partners with people to care for the earth and brings to an end such things as war, rape, greed, injustice, division, and other things (36). Bell says that God will exercise judgment in this “day of the LORD” against all kinds of injustices including institutions that “step” on people because they are more interested in “profit than people” (38). [This is similar to Paul Young’s and Brian McLaren’s opposition to all institutions because they violate relationships]. Bell also includes reference to “our own sins” that must be dealt with in that future day. God will engage in judgment in that day. God will then exercise both “justice and mercy.”
Yet this whole section fails to tell us how God will exercise judgment, how he will bring about this future age of peace. The Bible says that the day of the Lord will be the triumph of God over evil, that the rebellious nations of the earth will be destroyed (so Psalm 2), so that Jesus Christ himself and his people will reign on earth. The Old Testament describes this as the rule of God that transpires before the New Heavens and the Earth which will go on forever (Isaiah 66). In the Revelation this is called the reign of Christ that will last a 1000 years (Rev 20:1–6; also 5:10) and precedes the eternal reign of God and the Lamb on the new earth and where the wicked and unbelieving are in a place of judgment called the second death (Rev 21:1–8).
Bell then moves to define what Jesus meant when he used the word “heaven” (42). A repeated refrain is that earth and heaven will be one, when earth and heaven will be the same place, when God dwells among his people (42–3). It is a time/place when life’s sorrows will be gone not because of our bringing in a utopia but because “God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere” (45).
Yet Bell fails to spell out why the change for the good in human history occurs. He never brings us to the cross of Christ. He never links the change for the good to what Peter the Apostle says, that the times of refreshing will come only upon repentance and the removing of sins because of Christ’s suffering (Acts 3:17–26), and to what Paul the Apostle says, that the redemption of all creation is linked to the redemption accomplished by Christ on the cross by which the children of God are saved (Romans 8:18–25).
Bell claims that “eschatology shapes our ethics” (46). This is certainly true. The study of last things does shape how we live now. But he unfairly suggests that people who are hoping for heaven as a place somewhere else care nothing about the present world. This is an obvious “dig” at evangelicals. However, history has shown that evangelicals have been at the forefront of some of the most significant social changes in the world, such as the end of slavery in the Western World, and the founding of the American republic/democracy.
Evangelicals explain what Bell is trying to say by declaring what Jesus Christ did, that the kingdom age has begun, that the new age to come has impacted the present because of Christ’s death. Yet the new age is not fully here. So we speak of it as “here but not here” or “here but not yet.” Eschatology has been inaugurated; but much more must take place, including the putting down by force of all evil and the judgment of Satan.
But it is even more true that soteriology (the doctrine of how people are saved) shapes our ethics; and Bell says nothing in this chapter about the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross around which all the New Testament is oriented. It is because Christ has paid the penalty due our sins (Romans 6:20–3) that we can appropriate forgiveness and the power of a new life of victory over sin (Romans 5:18–9; 6:17–8). Christ has delivered us from both the penalty and the power of sin, and thus because we are in Christ we have no condemnation (Romans 8:1-4).
Bell allows for development and constant learning and growth in heaven (50-51). While this is true it is also true to affirm that there will be no sin and there will be none who do sin in heaven (Revelation 21:8; 22:14–5).
Bell cites several texts (Matthew 7; 25; Luke 14; 18) that show that who gets to heaven may be surprising (not many religious people, sinners, the undeserving, the unprivileged, the last instead of the first). His idea here is to clarify who gets in, to warn of making “rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out” (54). But his use of some of these texts, especially that of Matthew 25, fails to clarify what is really being taught. I’ll return to further discussion of this text below, because it becomes a bedrock for what Bell will say about the meaning of “age.” Yet the primary and crucial condition to “getting in” is faith in or trust in Jesus Christ, as Jesus himself said (John 14:1), John said (John 3:16–8), Paul said (Romans 10:9–10), and Peter said (1 Peter 1:3–9), and on many more occasions than the ones I’ve cited.
Turning from the issue of the “who” of heaven to the “when of heaven” (54) Bell seeks to renew his claim that it is not a question of time—of forever. He cites various texts that make heaven take place in the next few hours (so the thief on the cross) and also when heaven and earth become one in the future. He also suggests that heaven is more real than what we experience now (56–7). It is another dimension of reality. With this all Christians should agree.
Near the end of the chapter Bell returns to a summary of his understanding of what heaven means and links this to his definition of aion again. This term, he argues, does not mean “forever” (since this suggests unending time) but means “eternal.” He is quite sure of this, saying: “Let me be clear: heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever . . . That’s not a category or concept we find in the Bible . . . By this they [Bible translators] don’t mean the literal passing of time; they mean transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether” (58). Thus “eternal” means a “quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God” (59). I’ll challenge this dogmatism in the comments below.
Near the end of this chapter Bell summarizes the various meanings for heaven. It can be a substitute for the name of God. Sometimes it refers to the joining of heaven and earth, of finding life in the age to come. And finally, Jesus was talking about heaven as “our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come” (italics his) (58–9). Thus it is not a reference to temporal time but about a “quality and vitality of life lived now in connection with God” (59). In support of this idea Bell appeals to the potential of seven additional dimensions of reality that, so science speculates, may exist in addition to our knowledge of four of them. He suggests that extra dimensions point to the “divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us all the time” (61).
This again is standard fare for universalists. Eternal has nothing to do with time, they say, but refers to a quality of life. Yet will this hold up to close scrutiny? What about the descriptions of God as “eternal”? We need only think of the end of the Lord’s prayer where we confess that “yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” (Matthew 6:13; an addition found in many texts). When the word describes God or his attributes in several contexts it is fittingly appropriate to point to endless time—beyond time—or time without end. Here the meaning “forever” is an appropriate translation of the same Greek word aion that Bell would limit to “eternal” as an idea of quality.
And the Greek resources explicitly affirm this meaning. The standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) lists four main uses of the noun: (1) a very long time including eternity (“time to come which has no end”); (2) a segment of time; (3) the world as a spatial concept; and (4) the Aeon as a person. In support of (1) this lexicon cites several references that are found in secular Greek, the Greek Old Testament (known as the LXX, the Septuagint), the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Jewish non-canonical literature from the period between the Testaments), the New Testament, the Jewish writer Josephus, and early church fathers. Altogether there are about fifty occurrences in the Bible and in early church fathers. This source gives special attention to those places where the term occurs in doxologies, where God is worshipped “forevermore.” It lists a few places (three or four) where the idea of quality is possible.
This is my summary of chapter two. Bell insists that heaven has several meanings; that we cooperate with God in bringing peace and justice to join heaven with earth; that heaven is not a future destination being prepared by Jesus Christ for his people; that heaven is not forever (without a temporal end) but eternal (a “quality and vitality of life”). While much of this is true it soon becomes apparent that Bell’s portrayal of heaven is distorted because of what he omits; and the omission is substantial. In the next chapter it becomes apparent why the idea of endless time is rejected for the word aion, since the same term is used to describe hell, and universalists reject an eternal or forever hell.
This is a typical argument by universalists, to prove that there is no eternal judgment but only corrective chastisement in a future age which will come to an end when all repent out of hell and enter heaven.
Yet strangely, Bell does not discuss Jesus’ direct words to his disciples just shortly before he was crucified. He promised that in his Father’s house were many “dwelling places,” that he was going to prepare a place for them, and that he would return to take them there to be with him (John 14:3, 23). This certainly seems to point to another realm of reality that is different from earth. At the least this promise needs to be integrated into our understanding of heaven, as well as Paul’s instruction about Jesus’ return from heaven to take us with him somewhere (1 Thessalonians 4). But Bell virtually ignores these promises.
In addition, Bell’s attempts to define *aion *leave out something quite conspicuous. First of all, he cites no authoritative source for his definitions—no Greek dictionaries or commentaries on the Greek text. In addition, he avoids the most essential principle for determining meaning in a particular text. He never mentions the fact that meaning is determined by context; and there are several texts where the context makes it quite obvious that aion means eternal, having no end in time. This must be so when it describes God’s kingdom or God himself. He is by nature, eternal.
Chapter 3: Hell
Much of the territory that Bell traversed in the previous chapter to prove that heaven is not a far-off place that lasts forever, Bell will retrace to prove that hell is not beyond death and does not last forever—at least this is the logical conclusion anyone who reads this chapter will find.
Bell begins by bringing into question whether the person who refuses or fails to confess Christ will experience “eternal torment,” will be punished by God “forever.” He makes it quite clear that two issues are at stake: whether hell is eternal or forever; and what God’s nature is if he punishes people there. For he implies that a loving God could not punish forever, that God ceases to be loving if he punishes, and that this violates the “Christian story” (64).
Bell first examines the Old Testament texts that mention “hell”—words that refer to death and the grave, and finds but five or six texts (Psalm 6; 16; 18; 103; 1 Samuel 2; Deuteronomy 32). But there are other texts that affirm the existence of Old Testament saints after they die, and Bell acknowledges this (as in Exodus 3). But Bell claims that God’s challenge to Israel to choose between life or death (as in Deut. 30:11–20) is not a choice about being alive or being dead but about “two ways of being alive” in prosperity or being in a state of despair and destruction (loss of crops, etc.) (66).
What Bell writes is basically true. But it isn’t the whole truth. For just the context of Deuteronomy shows that physical death is also involved in the curses to come on Israel for disobedience (28:26—“carcasses”; 28:27, 35, 59, 60—incurable diseases; 28:48, 51, 61–3; 31:29; 32:35—personal destruction and ruin; 28:66—uncertainty about life; and Moses mentions “death” in 32:22, 24, 33, 39, 42, 43).
Yet even spiritual life and death must also be involved. For Deuteronomy 30:20 speaks to spiritual life, not physical, when Moses says: “For the LORD is your life . . .” The opposite of spiritual life is spiritual death, not physical death. Also, 30:6 suggests spiritual life since the promise of life comes to those who have spiritually circumcised their hearts, not just having circumcised their physical bodies.
Finally, the Apostle Paul takes the words of Deuteronomy 30:11–5 as referring not [alone] to physical life but [also] to spiritual life, found by confessing Christ, when he quotes them as presenting the word of salvation—spiritual salvation, in Romans 10:6–10. He claims that Moses’ words constitute the “word of faith” which he preaches about finding salvation in Christ (v. 8). The manner in which Paul uses this Old Testament text urges us to realize that the promise of God given to Moses was really ultimately about a deeper, spiritual, life, not physical life.
Another thing needs to be said. Scripture says that most of the kings of Judah—David, Solomon, and that line of kings, upon their deaths, “rested with his fathers.” This suggests a future state of repose rather than judgment. And David wrote of going to his dead son someday.
Bell reads his biblical texts much more like an unbeliever would than a believing Jew or Gentile.
So while Bell writes that the Hebrew writers were not “terribly concerned with” what happens after a person dies there is some evidence that they knew that there was a spiritual state of existence following physical death that could be good or bad. The mention that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still existing when Moses met God at the burning bush (Exodus 3) attests to a spiritual life after death.
But truly our fullest information about Jewish understanding of the “afterworld” comes from Jesus in the New Testament (as Bell acknowledges, at least as far as the mention of “hell” is concerned) (67). Bell makes much of the fact that the Greek word *gehenna *refers to the garbage pit found in the valley outside of Jerusalem and means the Valley (ge) of Hinnom (henna). The word occurs also in James 3. In addition, 2 Peter 2 uses the word “tartarus,” borrowed from the Greeks, to refer to the underworld. Finally, “hades” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol,” and is used by Jesus (Matthew 11; 16; Luke 10; 16), Peter (Acts 2 quoting Psalm 16), and by John in Revelation 1, 6, and 20.
Bell identifies with the belief that the teaching about hell is a holdover from “mythic, primitive religion that uses fear and punishment to control people” (69–70); and he pokes fun at the idea of the devil seen in red tights with a pitchfork lurking below the earth (70).
Yet he claims to “believe in a literal hell” (71). But what he means is the terrible suffering and pain that come in this world, that people make their own hell or come to experience hell as inflicted by other people on them. He interprets Jesus’ teaching about hell by his using hyperbole, as using “intense, loaded, complex, and offensive” words (72) to reflect the “realities they describe”—the “experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity” (73). But Bell would limit these consequences to what people experience in this world, not in an afterworld.
Bell interprets the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) as Jesus’ showing that the roles embraced in life (the rich man being served) continue on after death, or so it seems. There is “torment and agony” because the “chasm” of the man’s heart hasn’t changed (74-75). Bell notes that the story occurs in Luke and that one of Luke’s themes is that Jesus brings a “social revolution” (75). So the “new social order was to reject Jesus” (76).
The fault of the rich man is that “he’s dead, but he hasn’t died. He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life” (76–7; italics his). In other words the rich man hasn’t come to the end of himself to serve others, to love his neighbor. Bell finds in this story individual sin and societal sins, individual hells and society-wide hells—“all kinds of hells” (79). So there is a “hell now and there is a hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79).
Whether Bell takes the future one seriously we find out in the next chapter.
Again Bell repeats his indictment of those who are “most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now” (78–9).
Interestingly I don’t think that there is a single place in the New Testament where Jesus or Paul or James or John speaks about hell as already present, in this life; they uniformly present it as something future. At least in this regard Bell has already begun distorting the Bible’s teaching about hell. There is suffering now, in this life. But the Bible never calls this hell. And the Bible always associates hell with what happens after death, after one dies. So hell is future and linked to death or judgment (Matt 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13).
In the rest of this chapter, Bell takes up the other texts that speak of judgment and punishment but do not use the word “hell.” He first shows that there are texts (such as Matt 26; I would add Luke 21) that speak of political judgment, that the Jews will suffer under Roman conquest (so it was fulfilled in AD 70). Then there are texts that speak of judgment coming on the religious leaders (whatever their “chosen-ness” or “election” meant (82)) who are indicted, not for wrong beliefs, but for failing to show people God’s love (82).
In the next section Bell cites several texts that seem to refer to hell but don’t use the word. He takes on the “poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok,” Sodom and Gomorrah (83). After citing their fall (as recorded in Gen. 18), Bell turns to Ezekiel 16 to argue that these cities will be restored from their destruction.
But Bell is wrong here. Ezekiel the Prophet is metaphorically using the names of the cities for Israel and Judah; he is not referring to the historical cities of Genesis 18.
Then Bell cites Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18 that it will be more bearable in the judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Capernaum and other cities of Galilee. Bell uses this text to hold out hope for these cities. Yet he again misses the point. The point is that there is a day of future judgment coming; and those who have been given much light about who Christ is will be held more accountable than those who never knew him. But there is judgment coming for both. The point in both Genesis and from Jesus is that God is just and various ones will be judged according to how much light, how much truth, they have rejected. Thus there are degrees of judgment in hell.
Bell appeals to the texts of Jeremiah 5 and 32 to show that God intended the judgment of Israel, including its exile, to “correct” the nation so that it would come back to him. Bell uses this to discover the principle that judgment, punishment, is for the purpose of correction, for love; it is not punitive or judicial. Judgment won’t be “forever” (86–8). He cites in support several texts (Lam 3; Hos 14; Zeph 2, 3; Isa 57; Hos 6; Joel 3; Amos 9; Nahum 2; Micah 7; and Zechariah 9–10) that promise restoration for Israel and texts that promise blessing for Gentile nations (Isa 19: Egypt). He then moves to the New Testament and applies this principle to several texts. Paul refers to a turning people over to Satan so that people learn not to blaspheme (1 Timothy) and to be corrected from sin (1 Cor 5).
It is here that Bell takes up the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) and makes remarkable discoveries. The “eternal punishment” (so the NIV of 25:41) to come on the goats is only a period of time (one of the definitions for aion Bell advocated in the previous chapter) and the word “punishment” means only a time of pruning, trimming, an “intense experience of correction” (91). Bell acknowledges that a good number of translations render it as the NIV does but he contends that “forever” is not “really a category the biblical writers used” (92). Strangely he gives no proof for this.
Even more strangely he appeals for his defense to the Hebrew word *olam *and argues that most of the uses of this word in the Old Testament refer only to a particular period of time (92). But what does this use of a Hebrew word have to do with the Greek word of Matthew 25:41? Furthermore, there are other uses of the Hebrew word that clearly do mean “forever,” especially when describing God, as in Psalm 90:2. Bell acknowledges this but rejects the meaning of “forever” in other texts.
The point I wish to make is not that we add up the occurrences and go with the most frequent meaning; instead, we should examine every text in light of its context to discover meaning at every single place.
Again the hermeneutics of Bell come under deep suspicion as special pleading and subterfuge. But this is exactly what all universalists, including Young and McLaren, do with these same words and texts. And note how Bell discovered the principle, “punishment is meant to be corrective,” in places concerning Israel and believers; and then applies it universally elsewhere, for all punishment for the wicked after they die. This is a giant leap.
So Bell concludes this chapter by saying that Jesus’ pronouncement about eternal punishment in Matthew 25:41 “may be talking about something else, which has all sorts of implications for our understandings of what happens after we die” (92–3), which he’ll take up in the next chapter. So all of a sudden we go from some occurrences of a Hebrew word in the Old Testament to the principle of punishment for correction and then to what hell is like after death. It is a standard procedure for universalists.
Bell concludes that “hell” is a word worth keeping, but not for the usual reasons. It is useful to describe both the “terrible evil” arising in the human heart and the “society-wide collapse and chaos” that comes from failure “to live in God’s world God’s way” (93).
The problem is that the Bible never uses the word “hell” in this way. Only modern man does.
We will see from the next chapter just how far Bell wants to take his dubious conclusions developed in this chapter.
But I must point out one more thing regarding two destinies. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus himself said that there are two destinies for all people—a broad way on which the majority are going which leads to destruction; and a narrow way on which few are going, but this leads to life (Matthew 7:13–4). And the Apostle Paul says that it is just with God to pay back those who persecute Christians at the return of Jesus Christ when “he will take vengeance on those who know not God and do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus”; they will “pay the penalty” of “eternal vengeance” or destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:6–9).
These are passages that warn of destinies of eternal suffering; but Bell ignores them.
Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants?
In this chapter Bell writes of the destiny for all human beings, that it is a destiny of eternal life for those who choose it, and of hell for those who don’t want it. Yet hell is not forever or eternal, but on earth. People make their own hells. Indeed, he argues for the universalist view that asserts that all will eventually repent and turn to God, that a loving God could not allow any to spend an everlasting separation in judgment from him. Using the verse, “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” Bell asserts that God gets what he wants. Universal reconciliation brings greater glory to God than that the wicked suffer eternal judgment.
Bell begins by faulting implicitly how in their doctrinal statements many churches speak not only of the love, mercy, and power of God and other truths but also of eternal, conscious suffering in hell. For him this raises a serious challenge to the biblical quote that is the theme of this chapter and is reflected in the chapter’s title: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
Bell asks: “So does God get what God wants”? It is a provocative question. If God is loving and all powerful, how can there be some who seem to thwart God’s nature and power and will and end up in hell? Why don’t all become saved? Bell asks: “Will God not get what God wants?” Will God “fail in the end?” (98).
This also is a favorite text, and question, of all universalists. Bell asserts that the “writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family” (99). Of course this is true—on one level. We are, Paul says, the created offspring of God (so Acts 17:28–9); but this does not mean that we are all in the family of faith which is the condition for having eternal life. Paul continues the above message by saying that “God commands all everywhere to repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge humanity in righteousness by the man whom he has designated [=Jesus Christ], having granted proof to all by raising him from the dead” (17:30–1). Here again is a case where Bell fails to cite all of a text that gives fuller understanding as to what the “same family” means.
To heighten the conflict between God’s desire and what he gets Bell quotes several texts that affirm God’s care for all or that all belong to God (from Psalm 24; Isaiah 45; Malachi 2; Acts 17; Romans 11; Ephesians 3; Philippians 2). He continues with a list of texts that say that all will know and come to God, that God will be “united and reconciled with all people” (100) (Psalm 22; 65; Ezekiel 36; Isaiah 52; Zephaniah 3; Philippians 2). In addition, God’s purposes will not be thwarted (Job 23; 42; Isaiah 46; 59; Jeremiah 32; Psalm 30; 145; Luke 15; and other texts).
So Bell asks again the question: “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?” (102). Bell volunteers one perspective that many evangelicals embrace to explain this. This perspective emphasizes the freedom to choose that love must have. If this is the case then God doesn’t get what God wants because “love, by its very nature, is freedom” (103)—giving an option not to love. God respects this freedom to choose (103).
But then God does get what God wants. His will is that human beings be free to reject his will by exercising their wills independently of his.
This perspective holds that it is only in this lifetime that we can choose one of two possible futures. But Bell raises a supposition that, after hundreds and thousands of years, some people who have chosen a path away from God may awake one day and decide to choose God’s way (105). But Bell offers no biblical texts to support this idea.
Bell suggests another way to soften the effects of holding to this perspective by suggesting that the image of God in which God created all people continues to disintegrate in people who reject God’s love. Eventually, after a long time, people cease to be human and thus (by implication) they as people cease to exist. Of course, there is no biblical support for this idea.
Bell suggests the universalist idea, that there is a second chance for people who reject Christ during their living to believe in him right after they die. Again no biblical support is offered.
Bell finally suggests a fourth alternative. There will be “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God” (106–7). God’s love will melt every hard heart so that eventually all will give up resistance and turn to God (107).
Bell thinks that this view has much to commend it—the standard universalist view—and claims that from the early church onward there have been those who advocated this view (another universalist claim). He cites texts (Matthew 19; Acts 3; Colossians 1) and those church fathers from the third century on (Clement of Alexandria; Origen; Gregory of Nyssa; Eusebius) who held this and others (Jerome; Basil; Augustine) who acknowledged that many did hold it (107).
Bell cites the reason why “very many” (his claim) held it (108). It was for the greater glory of God. “Reconciliation brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t” (108).
There are major problems with Bell’s claims. First, this universalist view was a minor view. Out of the vast majority of the church only a few held it, and among the former are all of the earliest Greek Apostolic Fathers of the era (A.D. 50-150; I’ve taught the Apostolic Fathers for thirty years and know whereof I speak). Further, and supporting what I’ve just said, those holding to universalism were condemned as heretics, including Origen (in the fifth century). Bell does not tell the reader this. Third, the biblical texts he cites say nothing, absolutely nothing, about having a chance after death to repent out of hell and go to heaven. Matthew 19:28 speaks of the “regeneration,” “rebirth,” or “new age” to come when the twelve apostles will “judge the twelve tribes of Israel” when Jesus is enthroned in his glory (probably a reference to the reign of Christ on earth; see Revelation 20). Acts 3:21 similarly speaks of the time of “restoration of all things” on earth. Finally, Colossians 1:19–20, which speaks of the reconciliation of all people and things, is conditioned by the Colossian believers’ exercising their faith in Christ (1:23). Prior to this they were not reconciled but enemies of God (1:21–2), even though Christ had died for all. In other words, there is universal reconciliation as a potential for all—Jesus Christ has done what is necessary to provide reconciliation—but it is not applied or actualized for anyone apart from believing. And nothing is said about reconciliation being applied on the basis of faith after one dies. Death ends all opportunities to be saved (contrary to universalists).
Thus Bell makes several defenses of the idea of a post-mortem repentance; but neither church history nor the Bible gives support to them. And a post-mortem repentance, having no biblical basis, does not bring greater glory to God. The truth does!
As typical of all universalists, Bell appeals to two defenses to support universal reconciliation: to church history and to the love of God. He appeals to an “untold number of serious disciples of Jesus Christ” (108) who have held to universal reconciliation. But as I’ve just shown this a serious distortion of the truth. Then he appeals to the love of God (appealing to 2 Timothy 2 [which says nothing of the love of God; but affirms that God cannot deny/disown himself]; and Genesis 18). The latter is an important text for it affirms that God is just and will do what is right (verse 25); and this meant the destruction of the wicked of Sodom and Gomorrah and the deliverance of righteous Lot and his family.
Bell concludes that “at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” (109). But, as I’ve shown above, this is a serious, perhaps uninformed, distortion of history and the Bible. It is untruthful for Bell to say that universalism is “at the center of the Christian tradition” and that such a belief began in the “first church.” Besides, it is not tradition that is finally determinative for what Christians believe but what the Bible says. And there is not a single verse, when read in light of the larger context, that supports universalism or a second chance to believe after dying. In fact, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, as pointed out above, proves just the opposite. Jesus said that a “great gulf is fixed” between the state of the rich man after death and the state of the poor beggar, and none can go from one realm to the other (Luke 16:19–31). Destinies are set at death.
Bell moves forward, however, to further support his beliefs. First, he argues that people have answered the questions about destinies after death in many different ways, and that it is “a wide stream we’re swimming in” (110). In addition, one doesn’t have to believe that there is no chance after death to be a Christian. “The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives” (110, also 111). Yet, I ask, what if Jesus Christ says there is no chance to be saved after dying? Can I truly be counted as a follower of him if I don’t believe what he says about heaven and hell? And all these perspectives cannot be true. Each excludes the other. Only one can be true. We must remember Jesus’ words: “I am the truth, the way, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Second, Bell appeals to the idea of story (he talked about this in chapter one). He asks: What makes a better story (more loving and beautiful)—the one of universal reconciliation that exalts the love of God? Or the one that tells of “unrelenting punishment” because people “didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life” (110; the repeated question that was first raised in chapter one)? This “isn’t a very good story,” he says.
But the question is not what is more loving or a better story. The question is: what is the truth? Is the story true? Indeed, most other religions in the world today (Buddhism, even Islam) may tell a “better story.” But this is not the issue. The issue is what Jesus Christ, the Son of God who cannot lie, said; and he said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Bell adds another universalist touch. He asserts that even if one objects to universalism, “one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it” (111). This is standard universalist speech again. Even Origen of the third century said that we should “hope” that universalism is true. But should we have a longing for universalism or anything else, for that matter, to be true when Jesus Christ doesn’t have such a hope or longing nor instruct us to have such? Could we ever be more loving or caring than the innocent One who cared so much for us that he went to the cross to die for us, to suffer the eternal consequences of our sin?
Bell concludes his chapter by citing reflections from the book of Revelation. First, he observes that in the new city, the New Jerusalem (chapters 21–2), there is allowed no evil of any kind. People are free to reject and rebel against God. “We can have all the hell we want” (113). Here Bell sounds quite orthodox, but the last words hint at his belief that there is not an eternal hell prepared by God to which the wicked and the devil and his angels are destined (so Jesus says in Matthew 25:41). He confirms this hint by saying that people choose “their own hells all the time” (114). But he admits the “possibility” and the assumption (114) that people will continue to say no to God’s way in the next life.
But this glimmer of orthodoxy from Bell is soon snuffed out by his second point from Revelation. He appeals to the fact that the gates to the new city are never shut (Revelation 21:25). Thus he suggests that people who are outside the heavenly city may finally choose to go in (this would be after dying, of course). In answer, then, to the question, “Will everybody be saved?” (115) he decides to call it one of the tensions which “we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires” (115).
But where is such freedom given in the Bible? Where is love ever linked to a freedom to believe whatever you want about the final destiny of people? Should not the final word be given to God, not to love. Again, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) is not the same thing as “love is God.” Bell, and other universalists, make the latter their mantra. They deify love rather than worship the God who is love.
Also, the very verse that mentions the open gates is followed by the verse that says that the wicked of various kinds do not enter the city (21:27). Only those “who have been written in the Lamb’s book of life” enter it (21:27).
This same text of Revelation 21–2 says that the wicked, outside the city, have their part in the lake of fire “which is the second death” (21:8). How can they be in a second death, and then move out of it into the city where true life abounds, where there is no death and people partake freely of the water of life (21:4–6; 22:1–2, 14)? The very final picture of the Revelation is the ongoing existence of the wicked outside the city (22:15). There is no hint that their destiny can ever change.
Also, the “second death” is earlier identified as the lake of fire where death and hell (hades) are finally dispatched (20:14). It is the destiny of all those whose names are not in the book of life of the Lamb (20:15). So it seems quite final. There is no idea that one can have his name placed in the Lamb’s book of life at a later period. Hell and heaven must be final for other reasons.
Bell’s third point from the Revelation is to claim that the words, “Behold, I am making all things new” (21:5), allow for all kinds of possibilities and shows the limits of our speculations about the future. But what Bell has written above is speculative; and the clear statements of Revelation 21–2 do not support him.
Bell claims that “the one absolute we can depend on” is another question: “Do we get what we want?” (116). He asserts that the answer is clearly “yes.” Thus if people choose to reject God’s love and to be their own god, God graciously grants this option. People may live in a “reality free from love” (117). So heaven or hell is ours for the choosing (118). “We can have what we want, because love wins” (119).
It seems strange that Bell identifies this as our only absolute, when all statements of Scripture are absolute or authoritative. Indeed, in the last two chapters of Revelation John is told that what he records about the final state is “faithful and true” (21:5; 22:6). Also interesting is the fact that love is never mentioned in these chapters. But Bell, for his own reasons, wishes to insert it as the basis for why God should allow those outside the city to get in!
In his final statements Bell again exalts love over God’s authoritative word. While what Bell says is true, it is not that love wins but that God does. For Bell to exalt the abstract quality of love after abundant instances of his calling into question clear statements of Scripture about the final destiny of the righteous and the wicked is a distortion.
There seems to be a misplaced affection on the concept of freedom as well. Love wins, not because it allows freedom of choice, but because it exalts the glory of God. Freedom is not the ultimate value; God’s glory is. Theoretically, God is the freest person in the universe. But even he is bound by his nature as holy and loving and other wonderful attributes held in perfect balance. He is not free to choose whatever but only that which brings him glory. So we are to seek his glory above all else. Always, this is our best choice.
Finally, there is an issue that Bell seems to miss. That is the matter of making multiple decisions after death. If a person after death can change his destiny upon repentance, and go from hell to heaven, why could he not change his mind (“repent”) again in heaven and choose freedom and independence from God, and so be cast out into hell again? There is no logical reason why the choice should go only in one direction, once, and no biblical reason as well. But of course, the Bible is silent on any choices after death to change one’s destiny.
Also, if such passages as Philippians 2:6–11; 1 Corinthians 15; Psalm 2; Revelation 19 speak of the fact that God will force into subjection those who reject him, making them the stool of Christ’s feet (fulfilling Psalm 110:1 which Jesus claimed spoke of him; Matthew 22:41–6), is this a violation of love? Indeed, Colossians 2:15 claims that Jesus triumphed and conquered all hostile forces to bring them into submission to him. In other words, Bell leaves people to be free in their opposition to God. Yet the other half of the truth is that this freedom is brought to an end when humanity in rebellion against God is forced to do homage to him and submit to him. No ongoing rebellion is allowed. Everlasting separation from God is the judgment for refusing to submit willingly to Christ.
Thus in this chapter Bell argues that love must be free, that those who choose to reject God while alive may have the possibility of changing their destiny after death. From “God gets what he wants” he ends up with “we get what we want.” It is a movement from a theo (God)-centric theology to an anthropomorphic (man)-centered one.
Chapter 5: Dying to Live
In this chapter Rob Bell exposes the various meanings given to the death of Christ on the cross conveyed by various metaphors and literary devices that were culturally determined. He implies that these are now passé to modern people and need to be replaced by new metaphors. There is nothing necessary or authoritative about the biblical metaphors. Bell asserts that the meaning of the coming of Christ and his work on the cross is found in following his example of the “pattern of death and rebirth” as “the way of life” (136). This chapter will allow Bell in the next chapter to interpret Christ as the way to God (so John 14:6) in new, expansive ways.
Bell begins by citing the various metaphors that Scripture uses to picture the death of Christ—as a sacrifice, as providing reconciliation (making peace between hostile parties), justification (freeing guilty sinners), victory over rebellious forces, and redemption (paying the price to purchase something). All of these metaphors, he says, are correct and true but they were chosen by the New Testament writers because the people of the world contemporary with the New Testament could identify with them (127–8). Bell claims that the first Christians looked around them and “put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand” (129).
This approach to biblical metaphors reveals a major element in how Bell interprets the Bible, how he does hermeneutics. For he makes the metaphors chosen by the New Testament to be culturally determined by the readers. Implicitly he is saying that these metaphors are accidental and arbitrary and have no necessary or intrinsic connection to the meaning of Christ’s death. They are culturally determined by people, not authoritatively determined by God.
But if this is the case then what is the intrinsic, essential meaning of Christ’s death?
Just the opposite of Bell’s view is true. For the New Testament did not get its understanding or interpretation of the death of Christ from the contemporary culture but from the Old Testament. It just so happened that the contemporary culture had similar metaphors. But clearly the New Testament gives depth and significance to the metaphors never realized in contemporary culture.
For example, in the idea of reconciliation the Bible is unique. Non-Christian cultures never contemplated that reconciliation would be a one-way street, with one party doing all the reconciling. These peoples wanted to earn their reconciliation. But the Bible makes it clear that we don’t come half way to God, that we don’t do part of the reconciling. Rather we were hostile toward God when he did it all and we receive it as a gift from God by faith (see Colossians 1:19–23; Eph. 2; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
So while the ancients had some concepts connected with these metaphors, as do we, the Bible instructs us in particular, special meanings that non-Christian people never knew or imagined. The Bible corrects distortions of them. And the source for these ideas is the Old Testament, not contemporary culture. The similarity with cultural ideas may actually witness to the fact that Adam and Eve’s descendants over time have distorted the original truth.
Second, Bell takes a similar approach to explain the resurrection. He claims that there were and are all kinds of metaphors pointing to the change from death to life. There are trees reproducing leaves in the spring, dead seeds producing produce from the ground, spring following winter, new skin cells replacing old ones every week or so, the some dying on behalf of others (as firefighters on 9–11). His point is to show that the cross and resurrection are events “as wide as the world, extending to all creation” (132).
Bell next appeals to the literary devices employed in the Bible to communicate truth—devices such as using the number seven (as the seven signs in John’s Gospel and in the record of the days of creation, Genesis 1).
Bell uses these texts about metaphors and literary devices to argue that God has inaugurated in the resurrection a movement to renew, restore, and “reconcile everything” in creation. Thus people should see their story in the context of the greater story that brings reconciliation to all (134). He cites several texts (1 Corinthians 15; Titus 2; Romans 5; John 1; 1 John 2) to show the cosmic scope of Jesus’ work.
The problem is that such texts, in light of their contexts, teach that people must exercise faith to be part of God’s plan to reconcile people (so 1 Corinthians 15:2, 11, 15, 17, to explain v. 22; Titus 1:1, 2, 4, 6, 13-15; 3:8, 15 to qualify 2:11; Romans 5:17 to qualify the verses around this one; John 1:7, 11–2 to qualify 1:9; and 1 John 2:3; 3:23–4 to qualify 2:1). While Bell faults a gospel proclamation that leaves out a universal or cosmic scope as “small,” not the “full story,” and not “true” (135) what should we call a gospel that ignores the essential role of faith found in the contexts? Further, the way that Bell treats the resurrection leaves open the possibility that for him it was not a historical fact but only another metaphor for death followed by life.
Bell moves to a third point, that the cross and resurrection are personal. There is need to “renounce, confess, repent” from the old ways and embrace the “example” of Christ in pursuing a “new way of life,” which is “the pattern of death and rebirth” (136).
Bell here identifies for him what the meaning of the cross is. Having pointed out that certain metaphors and literary devices are temporally and culturally determined, he comes down to defining the gospel as cosmic and personal and devoid of the metaphors of Scripture. All that is left is Jesus’ giving us the pattern of death and life which if we will follow we will receive new life. “Lose your life and find it, he [Jesus] says” (136).
Note that there is no word about confessing sins (1 John 1:7), about Jesus’ removing the guilt of our sins by taking the full weight of our sins on himself (2 Corinthians 5:21); of his paying the price for our sins so that we might receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23); of receiving Jesus Christ so that God may give to those who believe the power to become sons of God (John 1:12). Bell’s gospel is the old liberalism which finds the meaning of Christ’s death merely an example. It is powerless to transform and empower for deliverance from the power of sin. The metaphors of the past are passé and an embarrassment for modern and postmodern people.
And it is a betrayal of the teaching of the Bible and 1900 years of church tradition.
In summary, chapter 5 is Bell’s rewriting the gospel in terms dictated by modern concerns for meaning without telling how the death of Christ meets the need to change alienation to reconciliation, to end enslavement to sin to liberation and redemption, to remove guilt by being declared righteous, to have a sacrifice that takes my place and covers my sin, to have victory over all the forces of evil.
The old metaphors of Scripture, which Bell relegates to the old world of the Bible, represent great truths that arise in the nature of God himself and what he has decreed for having a relationship with him. They are not human oriented, nor human derived. But they reflect the nature of people and what they need. They are not temporal but everlasting (even if Bell does not like anything to be forever).
The proof of their everlastingness is found in Scripture itself. For when the future is unfolded in the book about the future, the book of Revelation, Jesus is still pictured in the same metaphors—as a sacrificial Lamb, as a victorious King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah (in the very presence of God himself; Revelation 5:5–6, 9; 7:10, 14, 17; 12:11), as the Redeemer (Rev 14:4), as the victorious One who makes his people victorious (Rev 15:2), and as the righteous One (Rev 15:4; 16:5–7; 19:2). Thus at the end of history the very same five metaphors are still the means of expressing the meaning of Christ’s death. But Bell prefers to pass over them for his idea of the “pattern of death and rebirth.”
While the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection can be called a “pattern of death and rebirth,” it is much, much more. In fact without the other meanings it is powerless to remove our sins, forgive us, redeem us, justify us, reconcile us, and give us victory (note Paul’s promise of victory in Christ: 1 Corinthians 15:51; Romans 8:37: “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”).
In his attempt to reach modern people Bell feeds up a poverty-stricken, empty gospel ultimately void of truly helping modern people. But this chapter with its “pattern of death and rebirth” lays the basis for Bell in the next chapter to interpret the exclusive claims of Jesus in John 14:6 to mean that he “is saving everybody.”
Chapter 6: There Are Rocks Everywhere
In this chapter, Bell shows that there are many unexpected ways by which Christ comes to people. He is bigger than religion including Christianity. Bell pursues his universalist tendencies by asserting that Jesus draws all to himself (John 12), that the gospel is proclaimed to all, and that Jesus Christ is neither the exclusive nor inclusive way to God. He asserts that Jesus “is saving everybody.” Jesus is expansive, a generous mystery. The aim of the chapter seems focused on making John 14:6 much more expansive than its wording will tolerate. This text is a major hurdle for universalists. But Bell believes that there are many rocks in the desert from which water (relationship with Christ) may gush forth to provide refreshment for all.
Rob Bell relates many accounts of how people confess that they have had special visitations of Jesus Christ that have transformed them. He cites the biblical example of how God supplied water unexpectedly from a rock during the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert under Moses (Exodus 17). The surprising thing is that Paul the Apostle identifies Jesus Christ as the rock (1 Corinthians 10). This incident opens the door for Bell to assert that Jesus was there in the desert, that he is everywhere. Bell asserts that what others call the energy in everything, the life, the Spirit or the “force” is what the Bible calls the Word of God who gives life to everything (144–5). Thus the incarnation of Christ is the incarnation of this “life-giving energy” (John 1). Bell goes on to cite other texts that assert that it is Christ who brought all things into existence prior to his incarnation (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Ephesians 4:7ff.; 1 Corinthians 8) (146–7).
Bell defends the orthodox view that Jesus Christ is God (147). But in light of my above critique, and in light of what Bell is yet to say in this chapter, one wonders why Bell does not let his understanding of Christ as divine influence the regard he has for him and his word.
Bell correctly points out the significance of the fact that Scripture treats the new revelation of Christ and God’s plan through him as a “mystery”—something hidden in God’s plan in the past but now revealed for the benefit of all people, Jew and Gentile alike (Ephesians 1, 3; Colossians 1, 2; Romans 11, 16) (148–50). Bell uses this biblical truth with its emphasis on universality to push his universality even further—as the basis to conclude that Jesus “is bigger than any one religion” including Christianity (150).
This again is standard universalist fare. Both Young and McLaren declare that Christianity is passé and a new understanding—relationship”—needs to take place. But “Christian” began in the New Testament (Acts 13) and is a good word to keep. And all “mystery” has been now revealed and accomplished in Christ, including his second coming (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff.); there is no more mystery to be unfolded.
Bell faults the word “Christianity” because he wants to present Jesus Christ as bigger than even it; it limits Christ and his people to just one group. He wants to make him supracultural (which he is), including “any Christian culture” (151). But he goes further and asserts that “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s” (152). He cites several texts (John 12: “I will draw all people to myself” [a favorite text of universalists]; and John 6) to show that Jesus saves, rescues, and redeems “everybody” (151), that “he is for all people” (151). He asserts that “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s” (152). But this universalist claim is a bit overdone if Bell seeks to include here the enemies of the cross. Jesus makes it very clear that his disciples have a special place in his esteem—they are his friends—and that the world hates him and his people (see John 15–6). Also the Apostle Paul makes it clear that Jesus Christ is for his people (not for just anyone as Bell claims) whom he has redeemed—he is on their side (Romans 8:31) and therefore whoever may be against them are powerless.
Bell cites John 10, that Jesus has “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen” (probably a reference to the Jews) and cites Colossians 1 (verse 6) to show that the gospel has been proclaimed to everybody under heaven (which is true). But the very next verse (v. 7; cf. 4:12–3) makes it clear that they did not “learn” the gospel until Epaphras came and told it to them. Thus there seems to be a difference between hearing the gospel, hearing about the gospel, and appropriating it by believing only after it is preached (note that the Apostle Paul says this very thing: Romans 10:14–5).
Bell seeks to show that all religions have somehow received the proclamation of the gospel. This leads to an extensive discussion (154–5) of the crucial text, John 14:6, in which John records Jesus words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” I’ve discussed this verse before in rebutting some of Bell’s universalist teachings. But now Bell explains this verse in a remarkable way.
Bell cites three different ways to take the text: an exclusive way (all are excluded from coming to the Father except those who come to him through Christ—which is the most natural way to understand the verse). This means that there are just two groups in the world—those favorably related to God through Christ and those who are not, and hence unsaved and lost. There is also an inclusive way (all people get to heaven by many paths, by all religions). This hardly finds support in this text.
But Bell suggests a third way that is “on the other side” of both exclusivity and inclusivity. He argues that Jesus is the way but that the “all-embracing, saving love” of Jesus Christ will include “all sorts of unexpected people” (155). Bell contends that this view insists that it matters what one believes. But that Jesus “is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open” (155). Jesus is “as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation” (155).
It is not exactly clear what Bell means by all of this. So additional quotes are helpful. He asserts that if people use the name “Jesus” then it is important to ask “who they’re talking about” (156). He notes how the reference to Jesus could be tribal, imperial, political, economical, or military—just to justify greed and a lust for power. So “Jesus is both near and intimate and personal, and big and wide and transcendent” (156). He appeals to the Christian sacraments of baptism and the eucharist (communion) as uniting “everybody” (157), that they are signs of “what is true for all people in all places at all times—we simply name the mystery present in all the world, the gospel already announced to every creature under heaven” (157).
By these last words Bell returns to the text of Colossians 1:6 where I pointed out that the gospel had to be taught by a preacher and people had to believe it in order to come under its umbrella. Here Bell says nothing of receiving and believing the message about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ (=the gospel). And his words, “what is true for all people,” “name the mystery,” and “announced” are words universalists use to say that the role of the preacher is to merely announce that people have already been reconciled to God by Christ’s death. There is no need for people to repent and appropriate the gospel by believing in order to become saved (or, Christians); they already are saved.
Bell’s terminology, then, lines him up with universalists. His explanation about John 14:6 is just “double-talk.” He is not an exclusivist after all but an inclusivist, just like all who are liberal in theology. What seems to be distinctive about Bell is his attempt to give new meaning to old terms in order to cloak what he is saying. He embraces what most would understand to be impossible interpretations.
Bell moves on to link this view of John 14:6 (inclusiveness “on the other side of” exclusiveness) to the theme of his chapter and of his book. What does it have to do with heaven, hell, and the fate of every human being? He presents three ways.
First, it means that people “come to Jesus in all sorts of ways” (158), often without knowing who he is and without using his name, often because they are offended by it. We should not “discourage or disregard an honest, authentic encounter with the living Christ” (159). Yet one wonders how this accords with Scripture when Jesus told his disciples to preach him and the “gospel, teaching them to observe all the things which I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). Are we not disobedient to our Lord’s commands if we fail to teach adequately? Paul instructed the Colossians to walk—to live—in what they were taught (1:10–2; 2:6–9), including the fact that Jesus is the incarnation of deity.
Second, it means that “none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will” (159). Jesus is continually “widening the scope and expanse of his saving work” (159). This is true. But it is not true if “widening the scope” of his saving work is meant to include an inclusiveness of those who somehow in their religion merely give place to the principle of “death through rebirth” and that this broad religious idea actually opens the door of an eternal heaven for them.
Third, Bell cautions that his view of John 14:6 means that we need to be careful about “making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies” (160). He cites John 12 (that Jesus did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save the world) as his basis for this point. He says that we can name Jesus while at the same time “respect the vast, expansive, generous mystery that he is” (160). Bell also cites the parables of the “mysterious” growth of the kingdom (Matthew 13; 25) as support. Bell concludes the chapter: “He is the rock, and there is water everywhere.”
Yet it is noteworthy that Bell has in the words he uses redefined “mystery” as strange or foreign, departing from the biblical idea of true revelation hidden in the past but now revealed. Indeed, Jesus is not a “mystery” in the biblical sense; he is never called such in the Bible. Rather it is the revelation of the gospel about how salvation has come in Christ to the gentiles that is the mystery (as shown above). Finally, John 12 needs to be balanced against statements that Jesus makes about the Father’s having entrusted him with all judgment of mankind (John 5:22; 8:16, 26; 9:39; 12:48) and that all believers will stand before his judgment seat (2 Corinthians 5:10; Roman 14:10–2).
** **Thus in chapter 6 Bell has sought to give an expansive, really inclusive, view of John 14:6. He built the basis for this by showing that we should find Christ everywhere, that salvation is for all people, that the gospel has been proclaimed already to all, that our task is to announce this gospel as though all people have been already been brought under its umbrella. It seems that the whole chapter was focused on his new view of how to understand John 14:6: not exclusively, nor inclusively, but “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (155). This novel view seems simply a slight modification that wants to cling to exclusivity (to remain “Christian”—although Bell doesn’t like the term) while having a committed disposition toward inclusivity. Jesus is “as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (155)—opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists.
Chapter 7: The Good News Is Better Than That
** **In many respects this chapter is the culmination of Rob Bell’s book. It is the focus he has been aiming at all along. Using the parable of the Prodigal Son Bell defines the modern counterpart of the younger son who wasted his inheritance, the older son who did not, and will show how the father defines for us the nature of God, who he is. As he began his book with the concept of story, Bell brings it forward impressively here. But his conclusions raise serious doctrinal questions. The chapter is Bell’s most aggressive confrontation and disavowal of the God of the Christian faith. He will make heaven and hell the “same party.” He will accuse the evangelical preaching of the gospel to be the preaching of a “violent God” and a “vicious tormenter,” and unlike an earthly father who forgives a wayward son. He will again accuse God as being unfair because by evangelical preaching we say that one suffers infinite separation from God because the unbeliever commits a finite sin—refusing to believe during a few years on earth. Bell would define the gospel as that of relationship not entrance. Hell is what we create. The traditional gospel pits Jesus against God, as he who rescues us from God. God’s love “simply is”; trusting or believing doesn’t “bring it” or “make it happen.”
The theme of the chapter is to present the unconditional love of God for those who cannot grasp it. Bell finds his illustration in the parable of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15. Each person in the parable has his story. The prodigal son who has wasted his inheritance thinks he is unworthy of his father’s love for a son and hopes to become a servant to his father. But the father exalts him as a returned son; he tells a story of reconciliation and redemption.
The older son expresses his story—one of being loyal to his father and never being appreciated. He thinks his father is unfair in welcoming back the wayward son with a party and never giving a party for him. But this son is wrong about his father, for he promises that all the father’s inheritance is for him. So, as Bell tells it, there is unfairness all around: it is unfair for the wayward son to receive the welcoming reception; and it is unfair for the complaining son to inherit it all.
Bell is seeking to show that people get what they don’t deserve (168). He asks whether both sons will trust, believe, their own stories or their father’s story about them. For Bell, the difference between the two stories is the “difference between heaven . . . and hell” (169). Because both sons are at the same party, Bell takes this to mean that heaven (what the prodigal son experiences) and hell (what the elder son experiences) are not separated but the same. Heaven and hell “are within each other, intertwined, interwoven” (170).
But Jesus never said such a thing about heaven and hell! How ridiculous this would be, for example, in the parable itself. The prodigal son would be confessing, “I’ve sinned against heaven and hell and you, father.” Bell says that “heaven” is often a substitute for God. Then would it not also be true that “hell” is a substitute for God?
From the parable Bell draws three conclusions. (1) Hell is “our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (170). Some people think that they are not good enough for heaven; others proudly think that they don’t need God and people. Neither believes the gospel, “God’s version of our story” (171) which affirms that “God has made peace with us” (172). “It is finished” Bell declares, citing Jesus’ last words on the cross.
Bell says that we “create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story” (173). And the reason people don’t trust God is because they have a “distorted view of God” (173). Bell identifies the distortion as preaching, on the one hand, that one can have a relationship with God if he/she accepts and believes in Jesus, but on the other hand proclaiming that if one dies before accepting Christ God “would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell” (173). This is the evangelical gospel and Bell faults it as distorting the nature of God. For God would, in the latter instance above, “in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death” (173). In the blink of an eye a loving father would become a “cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony” (173–4). No earthly father could ever be like this without being brought before the state, Bell adds. If God can “switch entire modes of being that quickly” then questions are raised whether God could ever be trusted or be good (174). God is “loving one moment, vicious the next” (174). No one, Bell asserts, can bear with a God who “becomes somebody totally different the moment you die” (174). Bell asserts that because of this form of the gospel many people, including Christians, “don’t love God” (174) because “they can’t” (174-175). He is “terrifying” and “unbearable” (175).
Bell winds up his tirade against God by writing: “Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing . . . will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality” (175).
I’m not sure how Bell can mix the word “true” with “untenable” but this is at least the third time that he refers to an “eternity for sins committed in a few short years.” It is answered first, by saying that the Bible says this; and second, by saying that perhaps we don’t understand the enormity of sin viewed through the eyes of a holy God (Leviticus 19:1). Bell scarcely ever mentions the holiness of God while extolling the love of God. But God is both and to exalt one over the other ends up distorting God. Third, what Bell is expressing is his sense that God is unfair. But what of the judgment that came on Adam and Eve in the Garden? For committing one [little] act of disobedience [eating from one tree in the Garden], Adam and Eve died spiritually and physically; they were expelled from the Garden, the ground was cursed, and all of humanity was judged as having committed their sin (note Romans 5:12–21). Fourth, the greatest act of unfairness is for the Father to make the sinless Son to become sin for us in order that we, the guilty and worthy of eternal separation from God, might experience mercy and eternal life simply because we make a brief decision in time (2 Corinthians 5:21). Finally, who are we to doubt God’s ways? Will we as creatures question the plan, the wisdom, the ways of our Creator (see Romans 9:14–21; 11:33–6)? This is how Paul answers the questioning of the fairness of God. If it is unfair for the wicked to spend an eternity of separation from God, then it is even more unfair that we the forgiven and pardoned wicked should spend an eternity with God. If fairness is the issue, then none should escape hell for all eternity.
Bell’s words suggest several more comments. Basically Bell recreates the message of the Bible to suit his own liking—how he would like the Bible to read. More importantly he is redefining God to suit his liking and avoid unpleasant thoughts. Yet he directly contradicts the Bible here.
To take just one example from the Old Testament and then from the New. In Exodus 34:1–7 we have the account of Moses having received the second set of the Ten Commandments after he had broken the first set when Israel rebelled against God and Moses had broken them. In this text God reveals who he is to Moses. These verses became one of the most frequently cited texts found in the Old Testament. And it carefully affirms that God is both a God of judgment and of love. Verses 6–7 read: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
In the New Testament the book of Hebrews applies Old Testament texts from Deuteronomy 32 to Christians to warn them that God is a God of judgment. In 10:26–30 several verses, some of which quote Deuteronomy 32:35–6, warn Christians and others that if one continues to sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth there is no sacrifice left but a fearful expectation of “judgment and of raging fire” that will consume God’s enemies. He goes on to say that those of the New Testament era are more accountable: “How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” He concludes: “For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
These examples from the Bible could be multiplied by many texts.
It is noteworthy to remember that Jesus spoke four times more frequently about hell than he did about heaven. This is the same loving Jesus that Bell and other universalists applaud. Repeatedly in these pages Bell identifies the nature of God as love (174–8) but he never mentions also that God is holy. Is this not distortion of the most serious kind?
Bell continues to link hell with a distorted understanding of God. He says: “Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God” (175). It is noteworthy that Bell is partially correct here—that people refuse to believe the gospel because they have a wrong view of God. But the resolution is not to redefine God but for people to come to repentance and believe Christ. And hell is not to be equated (note “is”) with failure to trust but it is the consequence of the failure to trust. Jesus said that hell was prepared (by God) for the devil and his angels, and those who reject him go to this place (Matthew 25:41). People make the choice and there is consequence for this decision. Bell’s way of putting it makes hell a present reality, as he asserts so often, rather than an everlasting consequence.
Finally, when Bell says that a refusal to believe is often rooted in a distorted view of God he fails to point to a more general reason. The refusal of people to believe comes from an internal rebellion, a resistance to conviction of sin brought by the Holy Spirit (see John 16:8–11). The Bible pictures sin as transgression, rebellion, coming short of the divine standard, as pride, independence, and many more evils lodged in the human heart (see Romans 1:18–32; 3:1ff.).
Really, what Bell does in these pages is blasphemous. He judges God by our sense of fairness, suggesting that an earthly father is more loving than the God of evangelical believers who, in submission to all the Bible, believe in hell as well as heaven, in a God of holiness as well as love.
Bell acknowledges the significance of choice. He writes that people are “free to accept or reject the invitation to new life that God extends to us. Our choice . . . Heaven or hell” (176). Yet where he errs is to define hell as “misery,” and “a form of punishment, all on its own”; it’s “another reality. Now, and then” (176–7). The “consequences of rejecting and resisting that love . . . creates what we call hell” (177). While one could find here a glimmer of a belief in an eternal or everlasting hell (note “then”), it is clear from his earlier chapter that he allows no such meaning for “eternal” or “forever.” And he confirms this understanding by repeatedly saying that people create their own hell. But he is wrong. Jesus said that God prepared hell for the devil and his angels, and those who reject the good news of salvation and live their own way will join with them (Matthew 25:41).
Bell also says that God has “no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone” (176). But he is wrong again. God did so in Israel’s history throughout the Old Testament, and on people before Israel came into being. Do you remember the Flood of Genesis 6–8? Or, the destruction of the original inhabitants of Canaan, because they were so wicked (Genesis and Exodus)? Or, the destruction of the Egyptians at the Exodus? Or, the destruction, the captivity, of Israel and their being taken to Assyria and Babylon because of their departure from worshipping God to the worship of idols (the books of Kings and Chronicles)?
And from the New Testament, just a review of the five texts of warning from the book of Hebrews (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:8; 10:26–39; 12:25–9) shows how often the Lord and his Apostles thought of the reality of future punishment.
If God does not “inflict pain or agony on anyone” then he is not just and holy; and he is not a God of love. For all of God’s attributes must be perfect and complete. If one is not, then the rest are not. In the end, it is the universalist who distorts the nature of God, not the evangelical who faithfully teaches the Bible.
In addition, we want government to fulfill its “divine purpose” by exercising “retribution” or “vengeance” on those who commit crimes, especially on those who deserve the death penalty (see how Paul the Apostle presents this description of government in Romans 13:1–7). Government serves as God’s agent of wrath (13:4). Now if we expect such from government, should we not expect such from the Ruler of the Universe, God himself? Indeed, God’s judgment of the wicked on the day of judgment gives the justification and is the basis for government to do judgment on earth. Thus every time government “inflicts pain or agony on anyone” it does so as the agent of God—acting on behalf of God and doing what God would do! Bell is far from the truth here.
All of the several preceding pages are my evaluation of Bell’s first point in seeking to define hell as refusing to trust God’s story about us (170–7). His second point is to explain the difference between “entrance and enjoyment” (178). Bell asserts that those who explain the gospel as a question of whether or not a person “will get into heaven” reduce the good news to a ticket. But the good news “is better than that” (178–9). Rather it is entering into a joyous relationship with the creative God, about “thriving in God’s good world” (179). Thus discussing about “how to ‘just get into heaven’ has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus, because it’s missing the point of it all” (179), of missing the joy found in this “good world” (179).
Once again Bell speaks half truths. While Christians enter into a relationship when they become believers, this relationship is with Christ; and only by virtue of this relationship does the Christian have a relationship with God. Typically, Bell and all universalists emphasize God the Father over the person of Jesus Christ. He does this with the parable of the Prodigal Son—where the concentration is on the father of both sons. But Jesus Christ is the only avenue by which to find relationship with God. It is the most intimate relationship available on earth, but it is only with God by virtue of being with Jesus Christ; and this relationship is equated with, exercised by, the indwelling Holy Spirit.
While Bell never mentions the Holy Spirit in his book, the Spirit is essential to having a relationship with God. Jesus promised that he would send the Spirit to be with his disciples “forever . . . for he lives with you and will be in you . . . I will come to you” (John 14:17–8). In addition, as far as the world is concerned, it is the Spirit’s role to “convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (16:8). The world of Bell may be good, but not the Bible’s.
This most intimate relationship with God is a primary point in these chapters of John’s Gospel. Jesus said: “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (14:20). In this way both the Father and the Son will come to the believer and make their home with him (14:23). It is in Jesus the vine that one must abide as a branch to bear much fruit (15:15). Always the relationship is Jesus’ being in the disciples, and because the Father is in Jesus, then they have a relationship with God (so also John 17:21, 23).
Furthermore, Jesus did not identify the world as “good.” Bell has a distorted understanding of the world. Rather Jesus identified the world as a place of hatred and from which the disciples could not find peace (14:27). He identified the world under the rule of Satan (John 12:31; 16:11). The devil during the temptation of Christ (in Matthew 4:8–9) certainly believed he possessed “all the kingdoms of the world”; and Jesus did not challenge him on this issue.
The world hates Christ and will hate his followers. Jesus said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18–9). Jesus added: “the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (17:14). Jesus did not belong to this world (John 8:23). John the Apostle tells us: “Do not love the world, neither the things that are in world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The world is in process of passing away (2:17). John, often designated the Apostle of love, tells us that those who are born of God—have a spiritual birth—who believe that “Jesus is the Son of God,” “overcome the world” by their faith (1 John 5:4–5).
All of these texts make Bell’s description of the world as good to be bad. The early Apostolic Father, Ignatius, said it more truthfully: “Christianity is its greatest when it is hated by the world” (Ignatius, Romans 3.3).
But Bell goes even further to fault an “entrance understanding of the gospel” (179). He says such “rarely creates good art . . . Or a number of other things. It’s a cheap view of the world, because it’s a cheap view of God. It’s a shriveled imagination” (179–80). He identifies this view of the world as the “gospel of the goats”—an obvious allusion to the parable of the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25:31–45. Yet the goats in this parable belong to the realm of hell “prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41), and Jesus identified the devil (Satan) as the ruler of this world. So Bell’s understanding of the world as good puts him in league with the side opposed by Jesus Christ.
Let’s take Bell’s own words, that one’s view of the world parallels one’s view of God. If I’ve shown that the New Testament characterizes the world as opposed to God and to Christ and under the domain of Satan, then Bell is wrong about the world; and ipso facto, his view of God is wrong or at least greatly suspect. If he is going to reject the authority of the Bible about the world, then, by his principle, he is rejecting the authority of the Bible about God and about Jesus Christ.
So Bell wants to fault those people who believe the Bible about relationship with God and the world and asserts that they have a “shriveled imagination” (180). I personally reject such a characterization. Church history shows his characterization as false. But is not an imagination that creates its own definition of God, of heaven, of hell, of judgment, of salvation, and rejects or distorts the Bible’s, an even greater evil? It is not just an expanded imagination but an arrogant, prideful one. It is “shriveled” into what is rotten!
It is very much similar to the great lie of the evil one (the serpent, Satan) who when tempting Adam and Eve in Eden, said: “Did God really say . . . ?”
Bell further faults the evangelical view of expressing salvation as “entrance” rather than “enjoyment” by claiming that missionaries and pastors and other Christian workers have found no joy (as Bell would describe it), that they have picked up the “toxic notion that God is a slave driver” (180), that they become resentful and bitter (180). For Bell the good news is better than that God is a slave driver.
But while some Christian leaders suffer from various failed expectations, this is not the common experience found in the service of Christ and within the New Testament itself, especially as found in the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles. In several of his epistles, Paul saw no conflict between finding his greatest fulfillment in serving Christ and designating himself as a “slave” or “servant” of Jesus Christ (see Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; 3:7–14).
Then Bell moves to show another implication of the distinction between entrance and enjoyment. It concerns “how we tell the story” (181). He characterizes Christians who proclaim the “entrance” kind of salvation as suffering under guilt and fear of “a slave driver” who with an “ominous voice” whispers “you’re not doing enough” (182). Bell exhorts: “Have nothing to do with that God” (182).
But this is again a half truth. For Jesus said that the way we can identify anyone who loves him (such as Bell) is whether he keeps Jesus’ commandments. “If you love me, you will obey what I command” he said (John 14:15; cf. v. 12 and many others). John 14:21 records: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.” Again, Jesus said (v. 23): “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.” Finally, at his parting with his disciples, he commanded them to teach the nations to obey all that he had commanded them (Matthew 28:18–20). While Christians don’t obey Jesus Christ for ulterior or improper motives—to be saved or to be sanctified, or out of pride or arrogance—they humbly and gratefully want to obey Jesus Christ with all their living. This is the essence of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:1–2—that Christians present themselves as “living sacrifices” wholly devoted to God and wholly non-conformed to this world.
This distinction on how to preach the gospel leads Bell back to a recurring question, “What is God like?” (182). He faults those who preach the gospel in terms of rescue, that God is holy and must punish sinners, but because Jesus has paid the price for our sins we can have eternal life (182). Bell observes: “However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God” (182). Bell observes that we don’t need to be rescued from God, that God is the rescuer. Bell uses this description to argue that such beliefs are violent and they shape God as violent. “We shape our God and then our God shapes us” (183) so that we act violently toward others. Bell goes further and says that such a violent understanding of God has become institutionalized in “churches, systems, and ideas” (183). The result is that “God’s religion becomes a system of sin management” to avoid the “coming wrath” (183).
Now while there are some people and some churches who sadly practice or preach violence, it is totally inappropriate to link this to the preaching of judgment for sin. For God himself engages in judgment for sin, yet he is still loving (note the discussion of Exodus 34 above). Furthermore, abuses of the preaching and application of the gospel do not characterize the majority of Christians, nor do they represent the pattern of the New Testament. Note that the early apostles preached that gospel as evangelicals do today, calling for repentance and faith in Christ, and warning of coming judgment. And God honored such proclamation (Acts 2:22–47; 3:11–26; 17:22–31).
Further, Bell apparently would have us disregard the truth of the gospel if people draw wrong conclusions from its proclamation. But people often draw wrong conclusions if they are not committed to the truth and the God of truth (note how Paul insists on the truth of the gospel in Galatians 1: 6–10; 2:14—even when it was distorted by another Apostle).
Bell takes this topic of how the gospel is preached to articulate a principle that “our beliefs matter” (184). He maintains that the preaching of a violent God of judgment causes fear in those who preach it—fearing that God will turn against them in displeasure for stepping out of line (184). Jesus frees us from this fear because “his kind of love simply does away with fear” (184). But we’ve given many examples above that show that Jesus Christ clearly spoke of judgment as well as love, yet it did not lead him to live in fear of his Father. Similarly, as shown in the preceding paragraph the apostles did not shrink from preaching the judgment that both God and Jesus Christ will one day exercise. Finally, the Apostle Paul asserted: “Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). There is a place for reverential awe. Apparently this idea is foreign to Bell.
There is another thing. The fact that God will judge humanity does not make him violent. It makes him just. “Violence” suggests unjust, extreme attitudes or behavior; but all of God’s actions are just and in line with his character as both holy and loving. It is those who diminish the nature of God who “do violence” to the Bible’s witness.
In addition to the implications for the nature of God that flow from a preaching of a gospel of entrance rather than relationship, Bell advances to another implication—how we view people and what they believe about themselves. He reverts to the parable of the Prodigal Son again, and claims that the story that each brother believed about himself was wrong. The younger believed that he was bad; his sins had separated him from his father. The elder brother, Bell believes, was also separated from his father because he believed that he was good because of his “rule-keeping.” Thus goodness can separate one from God.
I’m not sure that the characterization that Bell makes of the older son is in keeping with what Jesus says about him. The younger is in need of repentance for sins, and expresses such. The older brother is not so characterized and is not separated from his father. It seems that Bell has fitted the older son into the role that Bell wants him to play—how one’s “goodness can separate us from God’s love” (187) when there are none good, none righteous. It seems that Jesus shows that the elder son is culpable for not rejoicing over the lost son being recovered, that this is so significant as to call for rejoicing from all. This interpretation is in keeping with the two other parables (the Lost Sheep; the Lost Coin) just before this one. The point is that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7). The elder needs to repent of his anger and jealousy. He is self- righteous.
But Bell wants to use the parable about how we preach the gospel and how we should view people. He wants to make the older brother represent those who in just a few pages earlier he identified with those who preach the gospel as entrance rather than a relationship, who live under fear of God as angry and a slave driver (183). Because they proclaim judgment they make God violent and become violent themselves. But Jesus is talking about two brothers, two responders to the gospel, not a brother and preacher to the other.
So Bell concludes that neither son understood the Father’s love, that the Father’s love could never be lost because of “badness” nor earned because of “goodness.” God’s love “just is” Bell concludes (187). Sins and goodness are “simply irrelevant” (187). “God’s love simply is yours” he says (188).
Bell expands on this assertion, but becomes contradictory. He says: “There is nothing left for both sons to do but to trust . . . The father has taken care of everything” (188). Then he proceeds: “Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God’s version of our story doesn’t bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is” (188).
So does trusting matter? It seems that Bell does not think so.
Bell goes one to say that from the cross Jesus forgave all those crucifying him “without their asking for it” (188). He concludes that forgiveness is done “before we could even believe the right things. Forgiveness is unilateral” (189). He defends this view by citing several texts that speak of Christ’s saving us when we were sinners (2 Corinthians 5:21), apart from works (2 Timothy 1), when ungodly (Romans 5), and unrighteous (Titus 3).
Yet even the thief on the cross had to make a confession involving identifying who Jesus was before Jesus pronounced his destiny as paradise. The other thief, unrepentant, no doubt went to the place of judgment.
So at this point Bell clearly embraces universalism, that all are forgiven apart from trusting Christ. But contradictorily, a page later he adds that the “only thing left to do is trust” (190). But his very next words seem to belie this, for he says: “Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us” (190). He concludes that this a better story than what he has earlier indicted as the standard evangelical proclamation of the gospel. The “good news is better than that” (191).
As a summary of the chapter I think it is correct to say that this is perhaps the most informing of what Bell has written thus far. Since it is the final chapter of substance in his book, he seeks to bring to completion his revision of major doctrines. Hell is what one makes it; heaven is here and now; God is a God of love not judgment; the gospel is one of relationship not entrance, etc. It is also standard universalist fare to identify the good news as bad news if it includes a warning to repent of sins lest one spend an eternity separated from God.
Again the approach is to express half-truths or one side or aspect of an issue without expressing the other side. For one example among many, salvation is conditioned upon exercising faith or belief in the truth about Jesus Christ: “. . . whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). And Paul adds: “That if you will confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Before I leave this chapter I wish to note what I think is the best argument for the eternality or everlastingness of hell. It is the meaning of the death of Christ. What other reason can there be for the death of Christ on the cross if it isn’t that he, as the God-man, suffered the eternal consequences of sin and guilt? His death was not merely physical but spiritual, in the sense that he experienced the full thrust or effect of eternal separation from God as he took the weight of all human sin upon himself. Remember his cry of anguish as he took our sin upon him: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Separation from God is, then, the meaning of hell. He could die a death having the value, the weight, of the eternal judgment for all sins for all time because he died as both a human being and as the eternal God. In ways ultimately beyond human understanding the eternal God became human (at the incarnation), and then died a billion deaths that we deserve. As a result we who believe receive eternal or everlasting life.
Those who defend universal reconciliation diminish the meaning of the death of Christ, making it a mere example of surrender and sacrifice that we should follow. In Bell’s words, it only signifies death and rebirth (as so many other things in creation do). There is nothing of the depth of Wesley’s thoughts: “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldest die for me!”
Chapter 8: The End Is Here
** **In these pages it seems that Bell seeks to recover the legitimacy of some of his traditional, evangelical spiritual upbringing, somewhat in contrast to much of what has gone before. It’s as if he does not want to go out totally heretical. Yet there remains much of his universalist tendencies that he does not revoke or question.
Bell begins his last chapter by telling of his inviting Jesus Christ into his heart during his elementary school years. This is squarely an evangelical understanding of the gospel. He acknowledges, however, how he was shaped by his environment, that he was young and naïve. Yet he says this experience had a “profound significance” on him, that it was a “defining moment” in his life (194). He says that this story accords with Jesus’ invitation to “trust, believe, embrace, and experience” God’s love, to say “yes to this love of God” (194) repeatedly. Bell goes on to say that love allows us to embrace all of our history, including earlier naïve parts of our lives.
It seems that with these words Bell seeks to question whether his earlier understanding of God’s love and the gospel were proper. But in keeping with the avoidance of judging religious experience he will accept all.
Bell proceeds to expand on the idea that we are to “trust that we are loved,” that “Jesus invites us to trust that the love we fear is too good to be true is actually good enough to be true” (195). Jesus “calls us to repent” and be transformed “so that we see everything differently” (196).
It is interesting that thus far Bell’s terminology is that we “trust” love, whereas the Bible never says this. Rather we are called to trust Jesus Christ and God. As I said in an earlier chapter above, Bell seems to operate on the premise, “love is God” rather than “God is love.”
Also Bell does not tell us what people are to repent of. His understanding of Jesus’ call to repentance is a call to trust love, not to repent from sin, as in the Bible (see the Acts 2, 3, 17 texts cited above). Jesus said that all are sinners in need of repentance (Luke 13:1–5). Even in the parable of the Prodigal Son (especially significant for Bell) there is an awesome confession. The prodigal son says to his father that he had “sinned against heaven” (a clear reference to God) and “against his father” (Jesus states this twice in the parable). Bell leaves out what the substance of the repentance should be.
Bell stresses that the invitation to trust is infinitely urgent, as several of Jesus’ parables stress, producing “shocking images of judgment and separation” (197). “History moves on,” Bell asserts, and we need to make our choices now so that people don’t “miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities” (197).
Bell winds up his book by an extended praise of love. “Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come . . .” (197–8). He adds: “Love is why I’ve written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with. May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along” (198). Bell concludes: “And may you know, deep in your bones, that loves (sic) wins” (198).
Again Bell expresses a half truth. It is both truth and love that are essential, for there are all kinds of false love. Truth means that there is a need to discern and discriminate true or genuine love from false. John the Apostle of love makes constant mention of practicing both truth (doing God’s commands and believing) and love (1 John 2:4–5; 3:23; 4:1–5:3; plus many references in John 14–7 I’ve cited above in the previous chapter) as does Paul (Galatians 4:15: “speaking the truth in love”; note the whole text of vv. 20–32, that begins with the truth and ends with love). In addition, John says that God is true (“we know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life”; 1 John 5:20) and not only love (1 John 4:8, 16).
Again the biblical terminology is that we have a relationship with God, not with love. And to say that love has been ours all along shows Bell’s universalism. We come to experience God’s love as a result of trusting God and his provision for our sin found in Christ’s death on our behalf. We believe the gospel about Christ; we believe him. Only when we exercise our faith do we become children of God.
Since Bell relates his personal experience of inviting Christ into his heart as a boy one wonders why he discounts such a way of appropriating salvation in Christ in his earlier chapters. Does he do this so that he gains a hearing with those who oppose such a personal religious experience? Is he simply disenchanted with the evangelical faith? Is it something he now no longer believes in? If he does believe that this way of understanding the gospel is still valid, why does he withhold it from his readers for his first seven chapters?
There are some good points about Rob Bell as a writer. He writes succinctly, sometimes colorfully, and on a level that resonates with many. He offers novel ideas for understanding the gospel.
But the content of what he writes is seriously flawed. I think it is appropriate to use the biblical term “heresy” (see 2 Peter 2:1) for what he offers. This content outweighs the merit of his writing style. The Bible warns of the deceitfulness of speech and writing (Col 2:4, 8), of those who under the deception of Satan will preach to believers to receive a different gospel. These false teachers are “false apostles, masquerading as apostles of Christ” under the tutelage of Satan himself who “masquerades as an angel of light” (so the Apostle Paul, 2 Corinthians 11:3–4, 13–4).
Finally, the major problem with Bell’s theology is his failure to tell the truth about how people can find the Truth—Jesus Christ as Savior. This great omission is a sin—it leaves countless multitudes without a respite for their guilt of sin and without redemption, justification, atonement, and reconciliation. It leaves people without hope and destined for eternal separation from God. In the great call of the gospel to embrace Jesus Christ this kind of love does not win; it loses.
I think that the person who is seeking how to have a relationship with the God of the Bible will not find the answer in Bell’s book. For on his course to write “A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” Bell only provides confusion about a lot of alternatives without providing clear direction for finding the God who loves. And this is the greatest failure of the book.
And this conclusion leads to another observation I feel constrained to address. It concerns those who are Christian leaders (Eugene Peterson, Greg Boyd, Andy Crouch) in various realms. Peterson praises the book for its “biblical imagination” that “takes in the eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation.” He adds that the book “accomplishes this [a biblical imagination] without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news . . .” His words are hardly believable in light of the review I’ve presented above. Yet they are understandable if he himself embraces universal reconciliation. His earlier endorsement of The Shack would suggest this.
It’s clear why no leading evangelical theologian or biblical scholar endorses such a book as this.
 I’ve now published a book in direct response to Young’s nonfiction. It is Exposing “Lies We Believe about God” (Abbotsford, WS: Aneko Press, 2017). My larger book on universalism, dealing in particular with Young, McLaren, and Bell, will be published in early 2018.
 This is from BDAG, which is Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 27. The adjective form (“eternal”) of this noun has uses similar to the noun, especially to describe God’s judgment, life, and the glory of the next life (28).
 See also my papers and forthcoming book on universalism in which I devote a whole chapter to refuting the claims of universalists regarding the early church.
 See my fourth appendix in Burning Down the Shack: How a “Christian” Bestseller Is Deceiving Millions (Washington, DC: WND Books, 2010), for why hell and heaven must be eternal or everlasting. If not, then heaven is not secure from another rebellion by Satan; and God’s work at the cross to redeem all who believe in Christ is for nought.
 There are some metaphors of lesser consequence that are not found in the Old Testament but derived from contemporary Roman culture (such as a last will and testament [Hebrews 9:16]; the idea of adoption [Galatians 4:5]). But none of these are used to explain the meaning of the death of Christ. See my paper on this.