Raise your hand if you like the biblical teaching on the existence of hell. My hand is not raised. No, I am not enamored with what the Bible teaches about hell. I take no joy knowing a person I care about may spend eternity in conscious torment, separated from God. I am not sadistic nor do I enjoy seeing people suffer.
In light of my dislike of this biblical teaching, I have two choices. I can accept what the Scriptures teach about hell or I can revise the doctrine until I feel comfortable with it and share my watered-down version with others to make them less comfortable as well.
Welcome to the wild and wacky world of Rob Bell, author of Love Wins. Bell, a competent writer, who has a way with words which he employs to weave a tapestry that makes his hearers feel warm and fuzzy about difficult biblical concepts, but his quilt is filled with broken threads and mismatched patterns.
In chapter 7 called, ”The Good News Is Better Than That,” the pastor grapples with the questions, “Why would a compassionate God send good people to hell? Is He really a good God? Isn’t it unfair for a person to spend a brief life span of 70-80 years committing sins and then receiving an eternal punishment that lasts forever?
Bell asks good questions. I don’t like his answers.
Throughout his chapter “The Good News Is Better Than That,” Rob Bell leans strongly towards the view the hell the Bible warns us against is experienced during this life not the the afterlife. The conclusion about hell drawn by the writer of Love Wins, is that hell is our experience of life on earth.
We start with an examination of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. Bell correctly observes there are several stories within the one story of this parable.
God Sees His Redeemed People As Sons and Daughters
We have the story of the younger son who asks his father for his inheritance, then takes the loot and squanders it all in “wild living.” The younger son comes to his senses and arrives at the conclusion that he’s “no longer worthy to be called his father’s son” (Love Wins, pg. 165).
In contrast to the younger son’s view that he’s no longer worthy to be called his father’s son, the father gives his wayward son a different story – one of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the eyes of the compassionate father, his rebellious son is redeemed and worthy of being called his son. The son has a choice to believe the father’s story about who he is or to continue to believe he’s not worthy to be called a son of his father (pp. 165-166). If he chooses not to trust the story the father says about him, then he will live in a hellish reality.
God Sees His Redeemed As Objects of Grace
Next Jesus introduces an older son into the parable. The older son never squandered his father’s financial portfolio. Rather, he perceives himself as slaving for his father and working hard for him without fail. He’s unlike his younger brother who wasted the inheritance the father gave to him. What’s worse is the father never threw a party for him. In his eyes, his father is unfair. The older son feels the father shafted him (pg. 167).
Then we examine the father’s perspective towards the older son. In the father’s point of view the older son never needed to work for his favor. To this angry son, the father says in Luke 15:31, ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”
To anyone observing this story, one cannot help thinking “grace” appears to be unfair (pg. 168).
Listen to the older son in vv. 29-30, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
Bell concludes, “That’s how it is in God’s world. People get what they don’t deserve. Parties are thrown by God for people who squandered their lives.”
God Warns The Unredeemed Of A Real Hell Not A State of Mind
From Bell’s examination of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he concludes that “the difference between the two stories is the difference between heaven and hell” (pg. 169). They are both different places far apart from each other.
Bell’s reasoning is valid up to this point, but then he espouses, “hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.”
To Pastor Bell Hell is clinging on to the false view you are unworthy of the Father’s love and redemption. Hell is grabbing on to our flaws, sins, failures and shame and refusing to accept God’s forgiveness for our bad behavior and choices. Once again, the author is confusing and uncertain about the reality he’s attempting to explain – hell. Is hell only our refusal to accept God’s offer of forgiveness or is there a consequential place in the afterlife where we are assigned if we die without embracing Jesus?
God Makes Us His Redeemed Through The Death Of His Son
In Bell’s view, in the gospel God confronts the stories we choose to believe about ourselves. (pg. 171). God’s story is that He has made peace with us (pg. 172).
Bell sounds right on the money up to this point. However, when he proclaims God has made peace with us, he fails to say where this peace can be found and how it was purchased. In other words, Bell describes a Hallmark version of God with kind and encouraging words, but without a clear message of salvation through the cross.
Bell feels comfortable describing a gospel that offers a whole new life without guilt, shame, blame or anxiety. I’m hooked and so are other people. However, I need a Savior. I want to know how God forgives my sins. I need to know how God’s justice is satisfied in light of my sins which deeply offend Him.
Romans 5:9-10 describes a gospel opposite to the gospel of Rob Bell, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Without being reconciled through the death of God’s Son, we are still under God’s wrath due to our sins and we are enemies of God, whether Rob Bell feels comfortable with that or not.
Hell is not, as Bell teaches, an experiential condition we create in this life by refusing to accept God’s story about ourselves. Hell is a place of eternal torment for those who reject all that the Father has done to save us from His wrath against our sins through the death of Jesus. Hell is a place for God’s enemies who oppose Him that exists in the afterlife.
My concern is not so much whether we believe God’s story about ourselves according to Rob Bell. Rather, I am greatly perplexed by the story Bell himself believes about God. His story of God’s character lacks biblical content. Like the older brother, Bell has a distorted view of God.
God Calls Us Into A Relationship With Him on His Terms
Pastor Bell does have some right ideas about God’s character – divine love, compassion, mercy, goodness and kindness. However, he likes to skip over biblical passages that speak of God’s anger, wrath, judgment and accountability. As a result, His view of God is seriously warped.
The author makes an attempt to retell the story that Christianity has already told millions. It appears Bell does not like the good news of Christ and feels he has a new and improved version.
Here’s how the gospel sounds to Bell: if a person refuses to accept Jesus, God has no other choice other than to send that person to hell. In a “moment of death” God becomes a different being, a different being forever” (pg, 173). He goes from a loving Father who goes to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with us to a God who is a tormentor who can send someone to endless agony.
If Bell did not know Christ, I could understand his line of questioning. Yet this man is a pastor trained in one of our esteemed Christian evangelical colleges – Wheaton College. He should know better than to struggle with such fundamental and elementary truths about God.
Bell makes the God of the Bible out to be abusive. He’s a God who loves you one moment and then sends you to eternal torment the next. Someone needs to call Child Protective Services and have God checked out!
According to the well known author of Love Wins, the God preached by Christians who share the gospel as stated above, cannot be trusted. He’s right! Can you imagine going to sleep, having your father tuck you in, read to your your favorite bedtime story, pray with you and give you a kiss goodnight. Then the next morning Dad becomes a crazy, vicious tyrant.
If Jesus sends a person who rejects His love to hell, is Jesus then a cruel tyrant? According to Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus will judge the nations when He returns. At that moment He will settle the eternal destiny of those who never knew him, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). What will Bell do with a Jesus like this described in the Bible? Can He be loved or trusted?
The ultimate question for Rob Bell is quite serious. What kind of a God does he believe in? Does he believe in a God who is loving one second and then cruel the next? Is that the kind of deity he thinks traditional Christianity teaches? Evangelical Christianity does not teach this misconception Bell tries to pass off as the Christian gospel.
It is obvious Pastor Bell has trouble with the Gospel taught by Christianity. He admits that he wonders whether God is fair in punishing people for all eternity for sins they committed in a few short years.
Pastor Bell fails to remember there is only one sin that can consign a person to eternal separation from God. It’s not theft, adultery, lying, pride or greed. It is the one sin that is above them all – it is the sin of rejecting Christ’s offer of salvation for our sins. God’s love is not fickle. He demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, He sent His Son to die for us. Why doesn’t Bell mention this fact?
If Bell thinks our sins can send us to hell, then our good works can keep us out of hell hypothetically. That’s a works theology, which is what Bell preaches. Rob Bell does not grasp the wrath of God against sin and what the Father has done to pay for our sins in allowing His beloved Son to die for us so we can spend eternity in heaven.
Since Rob Bell skips over such biblical essentials of the gospel message, I am perplexed. Love does not win in Love Wins. The reader who has never read the biblical message of God’s redemptive in Christ and trusts the gospel of Rob Bell is the loser.