Rob Bell’s latest book ‘Love Wins: A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived’ has caused quite a stir in some circles. While Time magazine posted quite a favorable article on Bell’s new book local Christian magazines such as Joy, Today and Charisma wrote strong articles against it. Some may be particularly surprised to read the forward by the respected Eugene Peterson (author of The Message) stating that Bell speaks of God’s justice without “a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction” (Cover of Love Wins). I write this post simply for those who have noted the ruckus and questioned Bell’s theology.
What’s the book about?
The primary thesis of the book is this: the Bible doesn’t really speak about hell as a future experience but rather as a present experience of judgment. Eternal life and the kingdom of heaven “doesn’t start when we die; it starts now” (pg 59 Love Wins). Life is tough and can be hell. As for the future judgment, God will probably melt every heart eventually with his love. People will be given infinite opportunities to choose God post-mortem. And if some do resist God’s love, if that is possible, well then we are not really sure what happens to them. The Bible doesn’t speak clearly enough about this for us to know. Here’s an example of his rhetoric:
“Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions – and the people who do them – from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people? Keeping the gates, in essence, open? Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom? Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” (pg 115 Love Wins)
Is Bell accurate?
Are we really not able to answer them because we can’t?
Does the Bible offer no clear teaching on hell?
And if it doesn’t why does the Apostle Paul state in the imperative “consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” (Romans 11:21-22)?
Perhaps the obvious answer is that hell is offensive. And some might be so offended that they turn away.
What does Jesus say about hell?
Many today are trying to remove hell from Christianity. Yet it is Jesus himself, more than anyone else who used the most shocking, most horrific, most terrifying language to warn us about hell. Consider these word pictures off the lips of Jesus. Hell is:
- The eternal fire – Matthew 25:41
- Eternal punishment – Matthew 25:46
- The unquenchable fire – Mark 9:43
- Place of torment – Luke 16:28
- Where their worm does not die – Mark 9:48
- A place of weeping and gnashing of teeth – Matthew 25:30
- Outer darkness – Matthew 25:30
Any parent reading this knows that if you taught any child about the doctrine of hell as Jesus spoke of it, you will disturb that child and they wouldn’t sleep for a while.
Because children get it.
Jesus meant to frighten. The thought of hell should drive us to fear and tremble. Picture Jesus saying; “it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck” than effectively to experience his judgment at his return (Luke 17:2).
That’s violent language, any way you read it.
Jesus is the Judge
Why does Jesus more than anyone else speak this way? Why is it that Jesus, not the apostle Paul, not Peter, not even John who wrote Revelation, but Jesus spoke about hell most vividly? Perhaps it’s because he will be the judge who will send people there? Perhaps he has been there himself and knows what its like? Perhaps he would rather see people saved from this fearful place than spend an eternity in conscious torment?
What do I mean he has been there?
Did Jesus literary descend into hell?
I do not mean that he literary descended into hell. Some have taught this over the ages. It states in the Apostle’s Creed that “he descended into hell”. This phrase was only added late in the development of the Apostles Creed and there have been a wide variety of interpretations associated to it, but the most common is that before his resurrection Jesus descended into hell and preached to the dead giving them a second chance for salvation. This view has developed from one verse in particular 1 Peter 3:18-20. And while there are four other verses that have been used to justify this interpretation, 1 Peter 3:18-20 holds the strongest argument.
Does this verse teach that Christ preached to those who were prisoners in hell? And if it does why did he make a once off appearance in hell? Furthermore why did he only preach to those who disobeyed long ago in the times of Noah?
No, I believe the correct interpretation, consistent with Scripture, held by many evangelicals is that the spirit of Christ enabled Noah to preach to those who perished in the flood and are now prisoners in hell. God waited patiently and anointed Noah with the Spirit of Christ to preach repentance. This is a consistent theme in the Bible. God anoints people to preach repentance, because he doesn’t want people to perish in their sins. And Genesis tells us that they did not heed Noah’s warning and they did perish in their sins and are therefore now prisoners in hell. The truth is we have one life and one opportunity to choose repentance. There is no purgatory, no second chance post mortem. We have this one life to live for God. One life to bow the knee in repentance. And when we die, not if, but when we die, every single person will give an account to the one through whom everything was made; the great judge Jesus Christ. This is incredibly sobering. So, what do I mean Jesus has experienced hell?
The Cross was hell
Consider this, Jesus died to pay the penalty for sin. Now, if just one person put their faith in the atoning work of Jesus on the cross they would escape the wrath of God; which is hell. If you were that one person who put your faith in the work of Jesus you would escape the wrath of God. That’s what the cross is for me. It’s the excruciating punishment, my punishment, for my sin, poured out on Jesus. Therefore I would escape hell. The cross was Jesus experiencing hell in your place. Now consider that Jesus carried not only my sin, but your sin and the sin of every believer who has ever lived.
The doctrine of hell gives expression to the depths of the suffering of Christ. An eternity of punishment and torment, of weeping and gnashing of teeth that should have been mine was condensed, intensified and placed upon Jesus. Acknowledge the horror of hell and we will start to understand the glory of Jesus and the wonder of the cross. Do away with hell and we minimize the sacrifice of Jesus, the suffering of Jesus, the atoning work of Jesus that saves us from the wrath of God.
He has been through hell in that he endured the cross.
But is Bell accurate in saying that hell is a present experience?
What is Hell?
Firstly, hell is judgment for unbelievers and demons.
The Bible speaks of fallen angels. Satan and his demons have rebelled against God and their due punishment is hell. I’m not sure if Bell believes that they too will eventually turn to God, but the Bible clearly states that hell is their punishment.
31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory… 41 “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. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46
Both unbelievers and demons will be sent to hell.
Secondly, hell is eternal conscious torment.
We have already seen from the passage in Matthew that Jesus teaches that hell is not annihilation. It’s not the cessation of life, but rather that it is eternal conscious punishment. Annihilation which is taught by many Christian leaders simply means that hell is death.
Picture Satan and Hitler and Stalin on the day of Judgment. And Jesus passes his judgment saying; “you have oppressed and tortured millions of my people. Your punishment is death.” Satan and Hitler would smile and celebrate such a verdict. To someone who wasn’t even expecting life after death to begin with and receives death, they are merely getting what they wanted. To not exist brings about no remorse, it isn’t punishment. As John Piper has noted has anyone ever felt regret for not existing? No.
Hell is not cessation of life, it is a place of continual torment. Day after day, week after week, year after year, millennium after millennium, age after age. Some will go to experience eternal life and others eternal punishment.
Jesus tells of the Rich man and Lazarus and he makes the point in Luke 16:22. The Rich man is in hell and he still wants Lazarus to be his slave. “Send him to get me some water” He says to God. He is in hell and he is still not repentant, still thinks he can order Lazarus around. He doesn’t even understand that he is there because he treated Lazarus with indifference and contempt. So God says to him “no, there is a fixed, eternal chasm between heaven and hell”. There is no escape, no end, it is fixed for eternity. The door is not open.
One of the most disturbing verses is found in Revelation 14:11.
“And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.”
The doctrine of hell is the hardest doctrine to accept. There is no way to soften the blow that these verses deal. The more we think about eternal punishment the more the weight of this doctrine should disturb us. The apostle Paul’s point is that by considering, beholding, thinking about God’s sternness we are brought back to a sober view of who we are in light of who he is.
Common Objections to hell
Many object to the view of hell on the basis that they cannot emotionally bear the thought of it. It drives some away from Christ when it should drive us, to desperately cling to the gospel of hope and to greater discipleship. It should drive us:
Can a God who would send people to hell really be a God of love?
Isn’t this a contradiction? There is no contradiction. There is only a choice. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. God sent Jesus through hell as an unmatched act of love, so that we would not have to experience hell. It is a choice to cling to the cross of Christ, to love him for the cross, to worship him as our redeeming love, to experience his love or to shun him.
Aren’t people who speak about hell just judgmental and unloving?
Some are and they do lack the heart that Paul had, when he said “I wish I could be cut off and accursed for the sake of my brother’s” (Romans 9:3).
Picture for a moment you and your friends on Judgment day. Picture their faces as they are sent away to experience eternal conscious torment and you are sent to experience eternal bliss. There is no greater motivation to do all that you can do to rescue those you love with the gospel, than the fact of hell.
If we are not moved, if we sit through sermon after sermon and nothing changes, if studies and boyfriends and jobs and parties and book clubs are still a bigger priority than making disciples then we speak without love. But the answer is not to bury our heads in the sand and stop speaking about hell. No, the answer is to love more radically, to give our lives to the purpose of God and to do all we can to share the gospel with as many as we can.
Doesn’t the doctrine of hell promote violence and segregation?
A common objection is that belief in a God that sends people to hell leads to a violent, judgmental, intolerant society. That could not be further from the truth. Tim Keller makes the point in his book “Kings Cross. Here’s an extract from a Croation theologian who has seen war ravage his own people in his home country. This is a man who has been through much:
“If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence – that God would not be worthy of worship… The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God… My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many in the West but it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence results from the belief in God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die with other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.”
Miroslav Volf is saying that people who know that God will bring judgment are able to withhold judgment. “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord. If you have been sinned against by a non-Christian person then forgive them and pray for them, because God will hold them accountable and he will judge them for their sin. That’s what he’s saying. If you have been sinned against by a Christian person then forgive them because Jesus paid the price for their sin. If you have been hurt and you wish that you could see blood; Jesus shed his blood in their place for their sin against you. Only those who accept hell can honestly live with a posture of mercy and compassion towards those who hurt them.
Surely if God is love he must give us the option to choose him now and post-mortem?
Some would object and say surely if God is love then he should give me the choice to accept him and not force me to accept him by threatening me with hell.
The real objection to hell is rooted in Western individualism. Individualism is putting your goals above the goals of the group.
‘I have the right to choose my own destiny’.
‘I have the right to live the way I want to live’.
Again Tim Keller points out that our culture has no problem with a God of love who supports us no matter how we live. Our culture does have a problem with a God who would judge us for our beliefs.
The history behind this cultural value of free choice is rooted in a desire for power and control. The ancient world believed that the universe had a specific order, specific metaphysical laws that governed it. Therefore, it took wisdom to understand the way things worked and to conform yourself to these laws of the universe. There’s an entire genre in the Bible called Wisdom literature. In the modern world though, we try and conform the universe to our goals. Instead of seeking out order or to use biblical language the ‘path of wisdom’ in a reality that is greater than myself, I make my own reality, I do it my way.
The very idea that a God exists who has ordered the world in a certain way and expects me to conform my life to fit into his world is repulsive to many. That God would judge me for sleeping with my girlfriend is considered archaic.
The point is this; the god of the 21st century needs to be a God of love, who will let me choose, how I want to live my life.
Has some of this cultural sin filtered into the church in Cape Town? Do people say with their actions ‘I will come to church when I feel like coming to church’.
‘My personal goals are more important than the mission of God in the church of Christ’.
‘I will submit myself to God’s purpose for my life in as much as it lines up with what I had planned already.’
‘Do we value churches that practice church discipline?’
The greatest sadness is that this path of control that we seek is the same pathway to much of the loneliness that we experience in the city. The individualism we fight for is the individualism that hinders true biblically shaped community.
Is it true that we are unsure about the consequences of rejecting Jesus and living in sin? Or has he made it perfectly clear?
If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus Matthew 5:29-30