Category Archives: hell

Crime, Punishment, Hell, and Utilitarianism: Some Lawyerly Reflections on Love Wins

When people begin talking about hell and limited versus universal salvation, one of the first problems that they encounter is one of vocabulary. More specifically, a lot of folks become confused because there isn’t a robust lexicon that describes the different nuances of beliefs about hell.

Case in point: After Rob Bell published his promotional video for Love Wins, many began to assume he was a universalist because of a statement, made in the video, which questioned whether Gandhi was in hell. Universalism, in their mind, meant any system which asserts that non-Christians will not end up in hell. Universalists do believe that, of course, but there are a number of other belief systems that similarly hold to such a teaching. Bell has spent a lot of time denying that characterization, and trying to explain what he really thinks (a point I’ll get to in a minute) because most of us don’t have a vocabulary that can account for more than two beliefs about hell. Either you are a universalist or you believe an an “eternal conscious torment” type of hell. There is no language for an in-between view that questions either the “eternal,” or the “conscious,” or the “torment” part.

For some time, I have been convinced that the terminology that is utilized by scholars who reflect on the criminal law could be useful in this discussion. Why? Because for centuries, now, there has been an ongoing academic dialog about the appropriate motivations for imposing punishment on those who have committed offenses against the State, and that dialog has a robust vocabulary. That vocabulary seems almost ideally suited for similar discussions about divine punishment.

So…what purposes might the State have in punishing someone for a crime? There are 3-4 major streams of thought. They are as follows:

  • Retribution. Retributivists believe that moral misconduct deserves punishment. Such punishment serves no purpose other than to bring harm to someone because they have done a wrong. Retributivists do not care if it stops anyone else from committing a crime, nor do they care if a person is made a better citizen as a result of the experience. The sole purpose of criminal punishment is vengeance. The criminal did something that was wrong, and they “have it coming to them.”
  • Deterrence. Those who believe in deterrence believe that punishment is inflicted to “make an example” of someone, so that others will not commit similar crimes. Their purpose is to benefit society as a whole, not to “get even” with someone.
  • Rehabilitation. Rehabilitationists believe that the punishment is for the good of the individual. Under this theory, punishment should be designed to help the criminal to become a better citizen, so that he can be restored to the community.
  • Denunciation. Those who ascribe to denunciation view criminal punishment as an act, on behalf of the community, which denunciates certain conduct. To the denunciationist, retribution and rehabilitation are both valid reasons to punish.

Deterrence and rehabilitation are utilitarian beliefs.  That is, they holld that punishment is merely an end to a good. Unlike retributionism, they do not hold that, because someone as done something wrong, they “have it coming to them.”

Why does God punish? I think the same terminology fairly well fits the theological spectrum as well. In my mind…

  • Retributivists believe that people who do bad things deserve to be punished for no other reason than that they did something bad.
  • Deterrentalists believe that God “threatens” us with hell to get us to stop doing bad things. (I suspect that some theological liberals are deterrentialists – that is – they think that hell is a divine threat to get our attention, so that we will treat the marginalized with respect; it’s God’s way of saying “Stop acting up right now, or I’ll turn this universe around and we’ll go right back into the primordial chaos!”).
  • Rehabilitationists believe that hell exists to reform us so that we can enter into God’s world as responsible eikons (people made in the image of God).
  • Denunciationists might believe that hell is both a threat/deterrent and a “just desert.”

In the end, however, most of the debate comes down to a debate between retributivism and rehabilitationism. Retributivists believe in a God who is rightly vengeful in His holiness. Rehabilitationists believe in a God who will never abandon efforts to reform a person, no matter how evil they are or how long they resist such efforts. Those who believe that God’s rehabilitation can and must ultimately result in the salvation of every soul are also universalists.

[“Rehabilitationism” as I am using it here is sometimes described in theological circles as “restitutionism.” In my lawyerly mind, that isn’t a good word, because “restitution” is a process by which a criminal literally repays someone for something that they have taken or stolen.]

So there you have the tension: does God punish for punishment’s sake? Or does God punish for our own good? When Rob Bell says “I am not a universalist, because I believe that God gives people choice,” he is saying that he is a rehabilitationist.

Like Bell (and C.S. Lewis, and many anglicans), I am also a rehabilitationalist…but my reasons for subscribing to this view are going to have to wait for another post.

Beat Poetry for the Revolution (A Review of Love Wins)

imageMy fondest memories from the first year of law school (if such memories are even possible) involve brief quips that were made by Russell Weintraub, a fantastic teacher and scholar who taught my contracts course. One day, during the reading an extended section from a legal opinion authored by an appeals court judge who was famous for his fluid prose, Weintraub paused to remark: “Now…that’s been said many times before, but never in iambic pentameter.”

That’s how I feel about Love Wins. What Rob Bell says in this book has been said many times before, but never like this. It is Bell’s ability to take complex ideas and translate them into simple, conversational English that makes the book so compelling.

It may also be the thing that has caused Bell to draw such harsh criticism. The Great Divorce is a magnificent work of fiction. But it is just that: fiction. And even then, the theological concepts behind it are a little difficult to parse. Bell, however, does not write fiction, nor does he mince words. He comes out and says what he thinks (and what others have been saying for some time) in plain, conversational English. Sometimes, even, in verse. Bell’s mastery of the art of words, together with his popularity, means that his audience is much larger, and much more capable of understanding him. My sense is that Love Wins has become such a lightning rod because of its potential to be read and understood by a large category of parishioners who have never fully understood The Great Divorce, and who have never heard of The Evangelical Universalist or Origen.

And make no mistake, Bell is on the offensive in this book. He believes that the gospel is often presented in a way that is toxic. It paints God as an abusive, cosmic parent who will torment countless billions of people for all of eternity. Bell is concerned that this version of God is driving people away from and out of our churches. At the heart of the book is this simple message: “You don’t have to believe that God is like that in order to be a Christian.”

Bell presents some of his own ideas in the book, but he doesn’t seem all that concerned about whether you agree with him on the details. His main point is simply that there is a broad stream of conversation about how God deals with us after death, and that you don’t have to “buy in” to this particular viewpoint in order to follow Jesus. His disagreement is with those who insist that “eternal torment for countless billions” is the only valid interpretation of scripture.

All of that would seem harmless enough, except that – as I have already pointed out – there are a lot of pastors and scholars whose approach to scripture in general, and evangelism in particular, is deeply dependent on this one, particular viewpoint. For them, taking away this viewpoint of the afterlife is like pulling out a block at the bottom of Jenga tower.

So that is my overall take on Love Wins. Bell is explicitly calling out the “turn or burn” crowd, and he is encouraging people to look to other places for a better perspective on the gospel. Even though its nothing new, it was bound to ruffle feathers because of Bell’s notoriety and his ability to communicate.

In Soundtrack for a Revolution, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman highlight the way music helped to shape the civil rights movement. In some ways, I think  Love Wins fills a similar role in the conversation over hell and the character of God. The conversation was well underway before Bell started writing. His book does, however, give a new, almost poetic voice to those who are challenging its validity.

Pastor Fired Over Bell Book

My wife just showed me this piece on MSNBC that details the firing of a pastor over what appears, in part, to be his support of the ideas in Rob Bell’s now infamous book, Love Wins.

For me, this story underscores the need for a strong laity voice in discussions of this nature, whether it be in blogs, on Facebook, etc. Many leaders who are sympathetic to touchy subjects like this are under pressure to be diplomatic, and it helps when the rest of us are willing to speak up.

Hell is for Bad People (Duh!)

If you are going to carry on a conversation about hell and the way it is presented in the Bible, it helps to begin by considering who actually – in the words of Jesus – is going to hell. Surprisingly (to some), Jesus doesn’t describe the denizens of hell as people who don’t profess faith in him or who refuse to say a sinner’s prayer.

Hell, we are told, is for bad people.

You know, people who, for whatever reason, never buy into God’s idea of justice.

They never feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or care for the sick and imprisoned (Mt. 25). They ignore beggars that they pass by every day (Luke 16). They abuse their religious authority, burdening people with pointless rules and teachings to reinforce their own importance and power, and luring them into the same sense of smugness (Mt. 23).

Before you get into a hell-related conversation, then, be clear: whatever hell is, the Bible tells us that people are sent there because of what they did (Rev. 20). Hell is never, to my knowledge, associated with something that someone believes.

[Another interesting feature: Even among those who survive the cut, we are told, there is a great deal of complaining about how others didn’t do enough, or got in on the whole thing too late. That is, some of the hardest “workers” will apparently have a much more narrow view of who should be “in” and who should be “out” than God (Mt. 20).]

So…wait a minute! Aren’t we saved by grace through faith? How can we be judged by works, yet saved by grace?!

That, to me, is the million dollar question.

Paul, in his letters, talks quite a bit about salvation through grace. He also talks about God’s judgment and wrath. Never about hell itself, however. We should be careful about conflating the two concepts. When Jesus talks about hell, he is talking about God’s judgment; but we shouldn’t assume that, every time Paul mentions judgment or wrath, he is talking about hell.

One way of answering the works/judgment versus grace/salvation question is to say that faith in Jesus provides a sort-of “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Just keep it tucked in your wallet or purse, then pull it out on judgment day. But the Bible’s accounts of hell aren’t stories where everyone is condemned, but then a few manage to slide by because they have one of the Jesus coupons. They are stories about good people and bad people. And it’s the bad people going to hell. Good people don’t.

Which has made me wonder, for a very long time: What if judgment by works and salvation by grace aren’t two diametrically opposed things? What if its not one or the other? What if God does both of these things to and for each of us? And what if the message of the Bible is this – while God can and must do both of these things, it is his grace, in the end, that is supremely triumphant?

Questions like that seem to point in a better direction, and I hold to some speculations about how all of this might work out in a wonderfully spectacular way. But many of the ideas I hold to are just that. Hopeful speculation about the next world.

What I can say for certain, in the meantime, is that Jesus is intensely interested in what we do in this life. If we want to avoid hell, he tells us, its time to start doing works of justice.

Love Wins: Just Got It!

My initial impression from the jacket, Table of Contents, and Preface: this is not a book that will gingerly poke at the idea of conscious eternal torment for millions. It’s a full frontal assault.

From the back cover:

“God loves us.

God offers us everlasting life
by grace, freely, through no
merit on our part.

Unless you do not respond the
right way.

Then God will torture you forever.

In Hell.”


More to come.

Another Rob Bell Interview on MSNBC


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I am astounded by the interest the mainstream media has in Bell and his new book. As I’ve said before, Bell isn’t offering anything new (he says it himself in this interview); he is just doing a better job of making it understandable… and, by complaining, the folks who don’t like what he is saying are only increasing his visibility and influence.

The down side of all the publicity: the book is selling like hotcakes, and Amazon hasn’t yet shipped my copy (which I preordered)!

Bell and Bashir on MSNBC–Wow!

As I was browsing my Facebook feed tonight, I stumbled across a link from Curtis – one of our readers – to this YouTube video, which I think is best characterized as a carefully laid ambush of Rob Bell on his new book, Love Wins:


The video title – and comments that follow – say that Bell “squirms” during the interview. They also say there is a lot of inconsistent double-talk. I am not sure I agree with that assessment. He is obviously uncomfortable and caught by surprise, but his answers – which deal with fairly complex theological and scriptural issues – come across to me as quite coherent. Then again, I’m already familiar with Bell and his views, and the interview moves at a fairly quick pace, so I can see how others might struggle to follow him.

Many of the comments that follow (I glanced through 50+ pages before I gave up reading them) are – to put it mildly – vicious and dismissive. And surprisingly, there is very little substance to most of them. Many of them seem to do little more than celebrate the fact that Bell seemed uncomfortable. One commenter made a dismissive remark about Bell’s “God is love” philosophy, citing two passages that he claims contradict it. This was bizarre to me because that phrase – exactly – is a central theme in the Gospel of John and in 1st and 2nd John.

Commenting on this same controversy, Scot McKnight recently said that: “I find some people can get intoxicated on wrath and it can lead them in a triumphalist dance of anger.” Makes sense to me. If you think you live in a universe where “wrath wins” for the vast majority of humans, then…well, that cosmic view is going to come out in the way you respond to this stuff.

I expect Bell can deal with this adversity. My worries are about all of the people in fundamentalist and reformed churches who have questions about this issue, and who are listening to the harsh absolutism that is coming from their peers, pastors, and leaders. Their questions are going to continue to go unasked because this sort-of tone is intimidating and silence-inducing. No one wants to be branded a heretic or dismissed from their church with a curt “farewell.” Better to keep your questions and anxieties to yourself.

And one final note: I haven’t read the book yet, but based on the interviews I’ve seen, it sounds like Bell is not saying much of anything that is different from NT Wright, CS Lewis, and even the aforementioned Scot McKnight. If he is on shaky ground, he is not alone, and if you want to prevail in a debate over the issue, it isn’t enough to simply discredit Bell. You’re also going to have to take on a classic Christian writer and one of the most highly respected New Testament scholars of our day.

An Overview of Evangelical Universalism


In a discussion on the subject of universalism, it can be helpful to distinguish between several varieties of universalism. Among those varieties are:

- Unitarian Universalism, which holds that all faiths are more or less all equal ways to find God; and

- Christian Universalism, which holds that the Christian God is the “true” God, but that God saves all of human kind. In this view, scriptural references to hell are often ignored or treated as a metaphorical description of the current human condition.

Because they don’t understand the difference, critics and proponents of universalism often conflate these two concepts, which serves only to confuse the conversation. Whether you agree or disagree with universalism, its important to distinguish the difference in a conversation on the subject. Most Christians who talk about universalism are Christian universalists, not Unitarian universalists.

The criticisms of Christian Universalism come in many varieties, but the two strongest ones are…

  • It ignores texts that talk about hell (after all, why talk about a place where no one will ever go?); and
  • It leaves people with no incentive to “evangelize” others (again, if no one is going to hell, what is the urgency in following the Biblical imperative to make disciples of all nations?).

In recent years, however, a new stripe of universalism has been emerging, it is called Evangelical Universalism. Espoused by Robin Parry, writing under the pseudonym George Macdonald in this book, Evangelical Universalism attempts to address the two criticisms listed above by articulating a theological framework for universalism that is consistent with with a respectful understanding of the Christian scriptures.

Here is the short version of how it works:

  • At the end of our age, Jesus does in fact return, and all people are judged;
  • As a result of this judgment, many people are consigned to hell;
  • However, hell is not a permanent state of punishment, nor a place of literal fire, but merely a location “outside” of God’s world where people are continually given an opportunity to embrace God and join the redeemed;
  • As a result, over time, all of humanity gradually emerges out of the anguish of hell and into new life;
  • Thus, eventually, “every knee bows” to Jesus, and “all things” are brought back into God’s fold (to borrow two phrases from Paul’s writings).

Under this framework, the word “eventually” is the key: all people are eventually saved. Hell exists, and – because it is apart from God’s world – it is a terrible place. Christians therefore have every motivation to evangelize. However, because it is not a “forever-and-ever” phenomenon, we can still envision a future in which all people are saved.

Does this make perfect sense out of every text on hell and judgment? Not quite, but I think it does a better job of dealing with the New Testament as a whole than the traditional six-line narrative that is familiar to most Christians.

I should also add that I am not, strictly speaking, myself an evangelical universalist. However, my own perspective does draw on this approach quite heavily.

The main reason I like it is because I think that conservative and evangelical Christians who are struggling with issues involving God’s love and hell can find hope in it.

Rob Bell and Hell: What is at Stake?

The net was abuzz last night over a video from Rob Bell that promotes Love Wins, a book that will be released at the end of March. Here is the video:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

In the video, Bell asks a series of questions about the doctrine of hell, the most pointed of which is this: will the vast majority of humanity will suffer conscious, eternal torment?

The questions alone seem to be enough to hit some hot buttons. Commenters on Vimeo, for example, are quoting scripture back at Bell, as if his complete teaching was laid out in the video (its not). Likewise, noted Christian leader John Piper has now famously tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” linking to a blog post by Justin Taylor which suggests that Bell’s teachings on the subject are “false doctrine.”

The general tone of the critics has been something like this – “Okay, we’ve seen the video, we now know that Bell is a universalist. Now that he has come out in the open, our suspicions of his heresy are confirmed.”

Scot McKnight has thankfully weighed in on the subject, cautioning us to wait and talk about Bell’s ideas after the book is actually released. Likewise, Tom Batterson, who has actually read an advance copy, has quoted from segments of it. The snippets Batterson quoted do not suggest to me that Bell is a universalist, but his apparent rejection of the teaching that people’s fates are “sealed” at death will not win over many of his critics.

The flurry of emotion over the entire subject is, I think, itself somewhat telling. For better or worse, Bell has hit a note that marks a significant break between Christians in our culture.

Often, in heated debates, I think it is helpful to try and understand what is going on behind the scenes. Why is this a message so many people want to hear? Why are people so upset over what amounts to nothing more than a series of questions in a promotional video?

To set the right tone for a debate of this magnitude (and make no mistake, once the book is released, such a debate will occur), I think its important to get in touch with why we are all so emotional about it. That helps us to keep our cool while we try to understand where the other side is coming from. So lets work through that for a minute.

From the perspective of traditional evangelicalism, and even moreso from the reformed perspective, the gospel is first (and, to some, exclusively) about being “rescued” from hell. Jesus’ work on the cross, his atonement, is an act that allows those who believe in him to avoid an eternal fate in hell. This is a perspective on the gospel that Brian McLaren has characterized as a “soul sort narrative.” Ultimately, everything you read in the Bible is about saving people from hell.

If we come to believe that hell doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t affect all nonbelievers, or that “good people” who are nonbelievers can be saved, then this entire perspective falls apart. The entire understanding of the gospel is built on the premise that we need to be “saved from hell.” Take that “need” away, and the whole thing collapses like a tower of blocks. Kevin DeYoung, for example, has more or less said this. He can’t make sense of anything in the Bible if his concept of hell is challenged. And I believe he is sincere.

So it’s a scary thing. If the tower collapses, then you either have to say it was all a fraud to begin with, or you have to pick up the pieces and try to put them together in another way. Either way, your entire worldview must go through a dramatic, jarring shift.

Its also worth mentioning that reputations of leaders are on the line here. If they are getting the hell question wrong, then it follows that there are problems with a lot of other things that they have said as well. That could be really embarrassing. I am sure that many leaders who disagree with Bell are going to do so with great (and appropriate) humility, but there may also be some egos, and some pride, involved on the part of his critics.

That is one side of the debate. What about the other?

For others of us (and I include myself in this group), the tower of blocks looks pretty wobbly to begin with. The notion that, ultimately, the vast majority of humanity will spend eternity in eternal suffering just doesn’t jive with all of the Biblical talk about God’s love. Something seems deeply wrong with this scheme.

This is what is at stake for the other side: What is God really like? How can God’s essential nature be trusted as one that is loving, if it is God’s intention to do this act of (to us) unimaginable horror? We don’t really want to see the tower stand as it is, because it presents its own, frightening view of cosmic history.

Thus, some of us are eagerly (and silently) waiting for someone to come along and, like the child who observed that the Emperor was naked, finally yank out the block that pulls down the tower. We think that Bell is going to do that for us.

But pulling this block is a very serious thing. If we hold any respect for scripture, we are going to have to account for God’s judgment and wrath and, yes, the Biblical texts that refer to hell. In other words, the “hell” block may not fit well at the foundation of our faith, but – when we eventually rebuild the tower – its going to have to fit into it somewhere.

While the “traditional” side is frightened that no new worldview can emerge once we pull the block, the opposite side of the debate may underestimate how difficult its going to be to put together a new tower. We need to approach the subject with sobriety, and respect for the prior generations who handed this perspective to our own.

To summarize, then, here is what I think is at stake: We aren’t just arguing over a few minor points of doctrine, we are arguing over a key component which is central (even essential) to the faith of a large number of Christians. A great number of things depend on how we answer the “hell” question.

This storm has been brewing for a long time, and – as you might expect – some are spoiling for a fight. Lets not allow the tension to cause our discussion to spiral out of control, into name calling, mischaracterizations, and dismissiveness. This means a great deal to all of us. Lets address each other with (1) a genuine desire to understand what people are saying and why it is important to them, (2) mutual respect, and (3) humility.

As followers of Jesus, it is the very least we can do.