Some things just won’t go away. For Pastor Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, the scriptures that mention “hell” and God’s judgment and punishment are a thorn in his side.
Slickness is Bell’s middle name when it comes to slithering out of having to sign a doctrinal statement that adheres to the Christian orthodox belief in hell – a doctrine he rejects.
Only Hypocritical Religious People Are Sent To Hell
Bell argues Jesus was mostly speaking to very devout, religious Jews who saw themselves as God’s elect people and thought they didn’t need to accept Christ. In fact, when Jesus spoke about hell, He addressed individuals who “considered themselves ‘in,’ warning them that their hard hearts were putting their ‘in-ness’ at risk . . . ” In other words, the religious people.
The people who would qualify as people who hardened their hearts during Jesus’ time were the Jewish religious leaders – the Pharisees, the scribes and teachers of the law. In Bell’s vernacular Jesus was not like most Christians today who use hell to warn people they’re going to eternal damnation because they aren’t Christians (pg. 82). Instead, Jesus used “hell” to speak to people who considered themselves spiritual and saved. In today’s world that would be “Christians.”
A few problems exist in Bell’s attempt to excuse himself from speaking about hell to non-Christians.
First, Jesus was a Jewish person living among Jews. Yes, He spoke to religious Jewish leaders who fit the description as given above. However, he did not only speak to “religious Jews.”
When Jesus performed miracles in the town of Capernaum, the townfolk did not respond in faith to Him. Instead, Jesus says to His disciples in reference to Capernaum, “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15).
Later in Matthew 11:23 Jesus refers to Capernaum again with stronger words, “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.”
In these passages there is no proof offered by Bell that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, but the general town people of Capernaum . Jesus’ concern was their failure to place their faith in Him as Israel’s Messiah. Bell falsely assumes he is speaking to “committed, pious, religious people” in Capernaum that wlll experience hell.
Also, Jesus came to speak to the lost sheep of the house of Israel initially (Matthew 10:6). Later the Gospel went out to the gentiles. Is Bell willing to say “hell” should not be preached to non-Christian gentiles? Not according to the Apostle John. In Revelation 20:15 John says anyone [Jew or Gentile] whose name was not written in the Lamb’s Book of Eternal Life would be thrown into the lake of fire.
The Judgment of God Is Reserved For Refinement Not Punishment
Since Jesus said, “It would be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than them [the people of Capernaum] on judgment day,” Bell concludes God will restore and provide new life to all the Sodoms and Gomorrahs out there.
Can’t God restore the “hypocritical, religious people” as well? God did not redeem, but pronounced judgment on them. The same is true with the following list of people or nations not experiencing refinement: Cain, Babylon, Judas Iscariot and others. Bell is trying to prove no one goes to hell or falls under God’s judgment, and he’s done a poor job making his point by not going through all the Scripture.
Bell is confused when it comes to God’s anger and wrath when it comes to the discipline of a person or the nation of Israel. God does judge people – sometimes with no restoration in mind and at other times for only a period of time (Seventy years of Israel in Babylonian Captivity).
The point of divine punishment, says Bell in quoting from Jeremiah 5:3, is correction: ”You crushed them, but they refused correction.”
Bell adds, “According to the prophets God crushes, refines, tests, corrects, chasens and rebukes – but always with a purpose” of correction. Bell is trying to argue that judgement is not one of God’s tools He has in his tool belt. nO matter how oppressive, brutal and painful things get for God’s people, the Word of God assures people, it “won’t be this way forever’ (pg. 86).
Bell fails to read further in Jeremiah 5:18-19 where the prophet states makes it clear he is speaking to Israel as a nation not as individuals, “Yet even in those days,” declares the LORD, “I will not destroy you [the nation of Israel] completely. And when the people ask, ‘Why has the LORD our God done all this to us?’ you will tell them, ‘As you have forsaken me and served foreign gods in your own land, so now you will serve foreigners in a land not your own.” These are words spoken by the God of Israel who has made a covenant with Israel to never destroy them completely as stated in Jeremiah 31:35-36:
This is what the LORD says,
he who appoints the sun
to shine by day,
who decrees the moon and stars
to shine by night,
who stirs up the sea
so that its waves roar—
the LORD Almighty is his name:
“Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,”
declares the LORD,
“will Israel ever cease
being a nation before me.”
This is a major problem in Christianty. Bell is trying to prove all judgment is for correction purposes and that people do not die in judgment, separate from God – hell. He uses a passage from Jeremiah that is not applicable to everyone but only the Jewish nation.
In light of a covenant promise to never totally destroy Israel, the Lord God will judge Israel for a period of time. Even if this passage did apply to Christians, we cannot ignore the fact during the time of Israel’s chastisement many people of Israel die in judgment and do not see redemption. However, the judgment is lifted at a certain point in time, God reinstates His covenant commitment to the nation and those alive at that time are fortunate enough to enjoy God’s blessing.
Bell can only write what he says because he is not familiar with the biblical teaching on God’s commitment to Israel. He sees God’s covenant relationship to Israel as applicable to all followers of the Lord.
Bells problem is that he rips verses spoken to Israel out of context and tries to apply them across the board to everyone. Unfortunately, Bell is typical of many Gentile pastors unfamiliar with the Old Testament’s teaching on Israel.
The Fallacy of Applying Principles of God’s Earthly Judgment to Eternal Punishment
On pages 86-87 Bell quotes a list of passages from the Old Testament prophets to demonstrate the theme of restoration is dominant in the Hebrew Scriptures. I agree. However, these passages were directed to the covenant nation of Israel and refer to God’s earthly dealings with the Jewish people.
Bell goes further into other passages in the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate how God will restore the enemies of Israel such as Egypt (Isaiah 19:19-21). The Egyptians, according to the prophet Isaiah, will worship the God of Israel.
Therefore, judgment, according to Bell, has a point – correction. However, Bell uses passages that relate to God’s judgment on people or nations on earth and makes a quantum leap to say “eternal punishment” is for correction as well
Believe it or not, with these words Bell is teaching the unbiblical doctrine of purgatory. His confusing view of eternal punishment that turns evil people into good people affects his view of Satan as well.
Pastor Bell argues Satan is used by God for His transforming purposes (pg. 89). I wanted to toss Love Wins into the garbage when I read, “Whoever and whatever he [Paul] means by “Satan.” pg. 89. Is Satan real to Bell? Is he confused about the the biblical doctrine of satanology and demonology?
Consequently, the writer is convinced that severe eternal judgment falls in the same class as the redemptive purposes of God. I’d like to see how he handles all the judgment that happens in the Book of Revelation when myriads of people fall under the wrath of God in the seal, bowl and trumpet judgments. What about the individuals who are sent to the lake of fire? Where does the Book of Revelation says that these wrongdoers become “rightdoers” after swimming in the lake of fire for several centuries?
What You Read In The NT About Eternal Punishment Is Not What You’re Reading
Reading Love Wins becomes tiring when the author plays around with Greek words in Matthew 25:46 where Jesus sends the goats (those who failed to demonstrate the validity of their relationship to Jesus by their works) into eternal punishment.
Bell argues the words “eternal punishment” refers to an “age of refinement.” Of course, Bell ignores verse 41 where Jesus says to the goats, “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” According to Bell’s skewed thinking the punishment accorded to the devil and his angels would also be an age of refinement. Where does Scripture support that idea?
Is There Such A Place As Hell in the Scriptures?
What is hell, according to Pastor Rob Bell? He says “hell” is a good but serious word that describes “the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life God has for us” (pg. 93).
Is hell a real place? From the concluding remarks in his chapter on hell, Bell feels this word is necessary when we want to refer to the “big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way. And for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well.” (pg. 93).
Did you gain a sense of Bell’s belief in a literal hell from his conclusing words? I didn’t. Bell remains non-commital and uncertain when it comes to a belief in hell. He does not believe in the eternal nature of hell, but rather adheres to the belief that hell – whatever or wherever it is - is temporary and a place of refinement.
From these words I have to conclude Bell has placed himself outside the evangelical camp with the rest of the progressive, theologically left-leaning theologians that are causing confusion in the church today.
If Bell were honest, he would come out and say he no longer considers himself a conservative evangelical in his theology and not try to deceive his readers into thinking his position on hell is in harmony with the scriptures. Regardless, he does not teach nor believe in the traditional Christian doctrine of eternal punishment for those who reject Christ.
I do not say these words flippantly. I do believe hell is a real place meant for those who enter the afterlife rejecting God’s gift of eternal life through Israel’s Messiah. Yet it grieves my heart to think that anyone would spend eternity in this awful existence void of God’s presence.
Hell is not a place reserved for bad people, and heaven a place only meant for good people. Instead, heaven is a place for bad people who have been redeemed by the atonement of Yeshua; hell is a place for bad people who are only bad because of their rejection of the gift of God’s Son.