For Whom the Bell Tolls: Heretic or Hero? Part II

4 04 2011

What does hell mean to you these days? Can hell change with who writes about it? Is hell an endless nightmare for sinners and unsaved souls? Or do we create a hell on earth by our choices that lead to addictions, despair, depression and worry? Those ideas are receiving fresh scrutiny from some believers after a prominent evangelical pastor, Rob Bell, founder and senior pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, questioned the traditional idea of hell in his new book Love Wins.

It seems that this book is quickly becoming a kind of 21st century “Last Temptation of Christ.” If you don’t remember that movie, that’s understandable—it was one of those B movies that very few would have attended, but the depictions of Christ were sacrilegious enough to create quite a stir among evangelicals, who protested with signs and bull horns at every theater, thus boosting sales and giving it a cult following among atheists and anti-God types.

The difference in this case is that the biblical and theological truth about hell matters.  And the newest “temptation” is coming from a reputable evangelical.

Today, after church, I came home and read the book in about 3 hours. Observations from my reading:

1.    Rob Bell is an engaging and creative writer

2.    Rob Bell is sincere in his beliefs

3.    Rob Bell has some very interesting, creative and innovative arguments

4.    Rob Bell makes the salvation teachings of Jesus complicated, contradictory and inconsistent

5.    Rob Bell creates a straw man argument against some of the salvation, heaven and hell convictions of creedal Christianity

6.    Rob Bell is a master at using metaphor, images and creative thoughts to portray a new, unorthodox way of viewing Jesus, love and salvation

7.    Rob Bell takes massive leaps in scriptural logic to support a claim that in the end all will be saved

8.    Rob Bell believes that we will have many chances to come to God’s love after death—a close runner-up version to purgatory

9.    Rob Bell can’t support his main theme—that of universal salvation, i.e. “Love wins”—with a shred of scriptural evidence or historical precedent

10.   Rob Bell claims that his thoughts are mainstream and consistent with Christian thinking throughout history (by the way, he is correct—he is consistent with several heresies of the first four centuries, but I don’t think that’s what he meant)

11.   Rob Bell takes prophetic passages of the coming millennium for God’s people, and uses these passages to support his contention that everyone will eventually be saved

12.   Rob Bell seems to be ignorant (or is cloaking his disbelief) of the fundamental teachings of church fathers, synods, systematic theology, creeds and convictions of the Church (which makes Eugene Peterson’s quote on the fly leaf even more perplexing)

13.   Rob Bell makes broad claims that significant church fathers and reformers believed in eventual universal salvation, but doesn’t (and can’t) support it with any quotes, references or writings (convenient)

14.   Rob Bell is confused in his understanding of God’s glory, especially as it is revealed through judgment

15.   Rob Bell feels that classic western Christianity lacks creativity, is too narrow and is not open to new ways of viewing God’s love

16.   Rob Bell doesn’t believe in a literal hell, but rather believes that we create our own hell on earth by our choices

17.   Rob Bell refutes hell partially from the argument that hell is not a compelling enough story (huh?)

18.   Rob Bell doesn’t believe in the plenary substitutionary atonement of Christ as the only way to a relationship with God and the obtaining of eternal life

The most shocking quote and the theme of the book:

“At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God” (page 107).

So, there it is folks. I’ve never been a fan of Rob Bell and even less so after reading this book. I can’t recommend the book to anyone who isn’t mature in church history, systematic theology and their Bible. Discernment and wisdom are needed. If one is lacking in any of these areas, this book can be confusing and misleading. Proceed with caution.


My friend Brian Carlson has written a provocative blog on the controversy, including video footage of Pastor Bell in his much talked about conversation with Martin Bahir on MSNBC last week. Brian has been a pastor for the past sixteen years and is currently the Assistant to President Bill Armstrong at Colorado Christian University. His last pastoral staff position was at Woodmen Valley Chapel. Brian and I met up last week at California Pizza Kitchen and I thought it might be fun to hear his perspective on the theological debate. Here is Brian’s opinion for your enjoyment.