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.


Death Be Not Proud

21 10 2009

My friend Lewis died this month. Early in the morning, while studying, I received one of those dreaded phone calls telling me that Lewis had died in the early morning hours. As I drove to his home, I found myself praying for the extended family, for the girls (two precious girls of 11 and 18), and for his steadfast and unwavering wife of twenty years.  I asked the Lord for grace, peace, and faith over each person.  I asked the Lord for wisdom in what to say and how to say it.  None of us knows the right way to discuss death. 

Death, whenever it comes up in a conversation, is the show stopper.  No one wants to talk about death.  The topic has a unique way of sneaking up and surprising you.  Just when everyone is enjoying each other, someone mentions that that person just died or this person was killed in a car accident, whatever it might be, and no one can talk after that. From that point, everything else is, might I say, trivial. The jokes aren’t as funny, the story about the trip, not as interesting.  Death trumps everyone, everything, everytime.  It’s the grim reaper in the room.

Death is the specter in the night, dressed up as a kind of dark hooded medieval monk, appearing and then disappearing in the dark trees of our mind.  It is often the dreaded nightmare of fear, darkness, and aloneness.  We fear death don’t we?  Admit it.  We all have a deep dark secret…we fear dying.  We fear our loved one’s dying even more.

Death seems to be the end of everything, so conclusive, so, so, final.  Because of our finiteness and our own mental limitations we just can’t fully grasp death.  All we know is what we’ve experienced here on earth.  All we understand is what we’ve been taught, here in the three dimensional world.  Comparisons and abstract thoughts blend into the stories we’ve heard about death and dying.  What will it feel like?  Who will be there?  Is it true that there are angels in heaven? Is St. Peter really the main greeter at those pearly gates?  Are there really gates?

There is the story of Billy Graham, standing by the bedside of his maternal grandmother, who had been in and out of consciousness, when suddenly in a surprising moment of clarity, sat up and exclaimed, “I see them, they’re all there, and the angels, so beautiful…” and then she died.  What was that?  Was it one of those many supernatural moments that God gives to remind us that everything he’s been saying about eternity is true?  Could it be that God cares enough that he would want Billy Graham, arguably the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, to have a firsthand witness of the eternity he so boldly preached about? 

I think God knows that we can’t fully grasp death.  We can feel love, feel friendship, feel forgiveness, but whoever heard of feeling death? Death is not easy to understand.  It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  I believe that God in His created order, never intended death for His creation.  Death wasn’t the perfect plan in the creation of Adam and Eve.  Death is not natural. Our hearts and minds were never created to fully comprehend death.

Life was the original purpose and plan. We get life.  Our minds and hearts enjoy thinking about life.  We love talking about it, experiencing it, reveling in it.  Life is cool to talk about.  Life is all about running, laughing, joking, falling in love, and friendships.  Life is three dimensional and fun.

Jesus taught us about life.  He even said, “I came that you might have life and that you might have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b)  Jesus, with consummate insight, is offering wild possibilities in His invitation.  Jesus wants to give us life, His brand of life, His way of living.  He wants us to really live.  Jesus is all about living.

On another occasion Jesus also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)  Jesus seems to be saying that “the way,” and “the truth,” and “the life” are all somehow wrapped in the same package.  Could it be that Jesus has given us a “way” of living?  Could it be that Jesus has given us the “truth” about life?

Jesus understands our questions, our false hopes, our fears about death.  And he has placed himself as the ultimate anecdote for fear.  He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. (John 11:25)  No grand teaching on fear.  No expansive sermon on dying.  Just a simple statement about faith and trust.  Jesus is placing himself as the answer to the sum of all our fears.  Not a theory, not an explanation, not a formula.  Jesus wants us to know that He is the resurrection from death.  He is the life. 

Do you see it?  Death has nothing to be proud of.  Death has no sting, no power, and no allure (1 Cor 15:55).  Jesus has conquered death with life (Romans 6:9-10).  Jesus is the life and he has defeated death on his terms. Jesus died on the cross, went down into hell, took the keys of death and the fear of death away from satan and has secured life (Hebrews 2:15; Ephesians 4:9).  Life is secure because Jesus secured it.

For the Jesus follower, death is now swallowed up with life!  Death means life.  Death cannot be proud for life has overtaken it.  We have nothing to fear.  Fear is ravaged by the hope of life.  Life rules in our minds if Jesus reigns in our hearts.

My friend Lewis isn’t dead.  Lewis is alive.  Lewis passed from the three dimensional world into the fourth dimension of life the way I want to pass someday.  He passed from this life in his sleep, in his bedroom, with his family nearby. Lewis passed with faith, with joy, with a purpose.  Lewis is healed of his brain tumor.  Right now Lewis is living the most active, joyful, productive life he has ever lived.  C.S. Lewis once said that death is just passing from one room to the next; from one reality to another.  My good friend Lewis got up out of his bed at 4am yesterday and walked into another room and met Jesus face to face.  Now that’s a great life!