Two observations about Rev. Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins**
The First is critical; The Second is positive.
By Neal Punt
THE FIRST ― One of the basic tenets of the theology espoused by the Rev. Rob Bell in his book Love Wins is his view of hell. According to Bell those whose “wickedness, rebellion and sin” is forgiven by God nevertheless endure the reality of hell in the suffering they experience during their lifetime on earth. The intensity and duration of this “hell” is determined by choices we make as a consequence of the freedom God gives to every person.
In this article we are speaking only about the hell, that is the suffering and judgment, that Bell claims is endured by those whose sin is finally forgiven. Bell’s view of hell is, in the final analysis, an insult to the name of God.
It is impossible to overestimate the value that the Bible places on the name of God. The name of God is the reputation he establishes for himself by the things he does. Exodus 34:6, 7 reveals a pivotal truth about God’s name as revealed in what he does in relationship to sinners:
“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming [His Name vs. 5], ‘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;’” (Ex. 34:6, 7).
God speaks here about two distinct groups of sinners, that is, those who are finally saved and those who are finally lost. The one group experiences the gracious abounding love of God in the forgiveness of their “wickedness, rebellion and sin.” The other remains in their guilt. The continuing existence of these two separate groups has to do with “proclaiming” something about God’s name. To deny the existence of these two distinct groups is to take God’s name “in vain.”
The one group experiences the pure “grace” of God and their salvation is not based upon anything they have done. It is grounded only upon God’s sovereign goodness to them so that “no one can boast.”
No one in the other group (those who are finally lost) is lost solely on the fact that they were constituted sinners by the sin of the first Adam. All mankind (including those who are finally saved) were constituted sinners by the first Adam’s sin “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
Those finally lost are those, and only those, who, in addition to their sin in Adam have “persistently, knowingly, and willfully rejected or remained indifferent to God’s truth, kindness, and company, however it was revealed to them during the lifetime on earth” (For the biblical basis of this truth see Posting # 2*.).
The Bible has many stories (accounts) about these two distinct groups. These two groups are never joined together and no one ever passes from one group to the other. We use the terms “heaven” and “hell” as metaphors (figures of speech) when we say that sometimes we seem to experience “heaven” the other times “hell” on earth.
Bell melds these two groups into a single mass of human beings that at times really experiences Gods “abounding love” (“heaven”) and at other times really experience “hell” on earth. Even those finally saved experience “hell” according to Bell. Whether we experience this real “heaven” or “hell” depends on how we use the freedom of choice that God has given us.
Bell uses the two metaphors (“heaven” and “hell”) throughout his book as though the finally saved and the finally lost experience the reality of heaven and hell in this present life. Bell has deceived himself into thinking that these metaphors are real.
The Bible does not tell us that those who are finally saved really endure “hell” in this present life. With the exception of Jesus Christ no one has ever actually endured “hell” or even little parts or pieces of it and recovered from it. “Hell” is not something that those who are finally saved actually experience during their lifetime on earth.
What we have said in the preceding paragraphs is expressed in the words: “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.” Bell correctly observes that sinners often learn from their wrong choices. This learning process is not a judgment against their sin for those saved by the blood of Jesus. This is not an endurance of real “hell” as Bell claims. Jesus bore all the judgment against all the sins of his people.
Only a small portion of the extensive biblical evidence for this fact can be cited here: "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). "It is finished" (John 19:30). “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). "The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
The sacrifice Jesus made is neither inadequate nor imperfect. To claim that God’s people still suffer some of the penalty (“hell”) for their sin is to demean the perfect sacrifice made by Jesus Christ. In this way God’s name is taken in vain. This observation negates a very large portion of what Bell says in his book and of the theology he advocates.
THE SECOND ― Bell correctly recognizes that for many centuries Christians have, for the most part, worked with the exclusive assumption that: “All persons will be finally lost except those the Bible declares will be saved.” This assumption, together with the teaching that hell is where unrepentant sinners will suffer physical torment throughout all eternity, has provided Bell the occasion to ask a host of disturbing questions. His purpose is to get the church to think about the devastating consequences of these teachings and to determine whether the Bible truly teaches these commonly accepted ideas.
Are these two concepts soundly based on what the Scriptures say? There is nothing wrong with Bell’s questions; even the one about the flat tire. Many of his questions should be seriously addressed by members of the church. Although not nearly as effectively, I have asked similar questions such as:
“Has God determined that no one will be saved except by human
proclamation of the gospel? Will the size of our missionary budgets
and the quality of our outreach programs determine the number of
people in heaven? Will the eternal destiny of some persons depend
on whether or not someone made the effort to bring the gospel to
them? Our salvation is not dependent upon our good works; does
the salvation of millions of those living in non-Christian lands
depend on our good works?” (Posting # 8*).
Bell recognizes that most denominations have been formed as a result of disputes about what a person must do, say, think, confess or be, in order to enjoy the “abounding love and faithfulness” of God. Answers to this question have been garnered from the Bible, from theological schemes, from common sense and from vivid imaginations. A large portion of Bell’s disturbing questions are aimed at these many proposals in the hope that all of them will be abandoned.
The Bible is totally silent about the question of how those who are “dead” in sin come to new life in Christ other than to tell us that “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18). Bell correctly notes that there is nothing the sinner must do, no condition that must be met, in order to persuade God to save him or her. Sinners are called upon to simply trust that God has saved them. Therefore no saved person can “boast” (Eph. 2:9). It is God “who has saved us and called us to a holy life―not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” (2 Tim. 1:9). It is for this reason I called my first book Unconditional Good News (Eerdmans, 1980).
Bell would not have occasion to ask his disquieting questions if, instead of the “exclusive” view of the plan of salvation (mentioned above), the church had understood and faithfully proclaimed the “inclusive” view of God’s redeeming work namely that: “All persons will be finally saved except those the Bible declares will be lost.” With this "inclusive" view the church would have had no reason to argue about “how” God brings salvation to his people.
Those the Bible declares will be lost are those, and only those, who in addition to their sin in Adam have “persistently, knowingly, and willfully rejected or remained indifferent to God’s truth, kindness, and company, however it was revealed to them during the lifetime on earth” (For the biblical basis of this truth see Posting # 2*.).
The “inclusive” view (Evangelical Inclusivism) says we have biblical warrant for assuming that all persons are elect (among those who will be finally saved) unless we have evidence to the contrary. Such evidence to the contrary will not be given us until the last day. Therefore we have “biblical warrant” for calling upon all sinners to believe they are recipients of God’s grace and to live a life of repentance, belief and joyful obedience consistent with that belief. Final refusal to do so ends in eternal death.
Bell’s basis for calling upon sinners to believe that God has forgiven their “wickedness, rebellion and sin,” is not made clear in his book Love Wins. His implied (never stated) absolute universalism (that is, all sinners will be finally saved) is apparently the only basis Bell leaves open for proclaiming the “good news” to all sinners.
Biblical evidence for the inclusive view (Evangelical Inclusivism) of the plan of salvation can be found at Postings # 1*, 2*, 3*, 4* and 14*).
For a careful, biblical, response to Bell’s disturbing questions about God being a torturer throughout all eternity see Posting # 19*.
Without these and similar corrections to Bell’s book many sincere believers will be greatly disturbed by it and rightly so.
* Postings at: www.evangelicalinclusivism.com
** Posting # 29 at www.evangelicalinclusivisim.com
© Copyright 2011 by Northland Books. Box 63, Allendale MI 49401. Unlimited permission to copy and distribute this document without altering text is hereby granted if this source is acknowledged.