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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.


  1. February 27, 2011    

    This whole thing is so thoroughly unbelieveable… and yet not surprising at all. I wish that people could just relax a little bit. Do they think that God is not big enough to handle whatever it is that Rob may be teaching? Personally, though, I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    Great post, as usual, Matt. Keep it up!

  2. February 27, 2011    

    Thanks for commenting, Curtis. I agree.

    I’m also looking forward to reading it.

  3. Jonathan Sharp's Gravatar Jonathan Sharp
    February 28, 2011    

    First, let me commend you on your use of thanatocentrism as a tag. I’d love to know how many hits that generates!

    Second, I find it interesting how fast the reformed theologians throw out the “false doctrine” card. It seems to me that no productive debate will come from that starting point.

    Third, I don’t pretend to have any answers to the question of hell and who will be there, but I would love a reformed explanation of Ezekiel 16:53, that God is going to restore the fortunes of Sodom. I think that must hint at something non-thanatocentric about the eschaton and judgment, but I don’t know what.

  4. March 1, 2011    

    Jonathan- Just checked. No hits on the “thanatocentrism” tag so far. But we can always hope. I do think, before we get to the end of this, if people are willing to listen to each other, it is going to be a debate between inclusivists/non-thanatocentrists and the “traditional” hell people.

    I agree that we need to get rid of the “heresy” and “false doctrine” labels. Not helpful. I’m thinking about putting together a post on that subject.

    Your point about Ezekiel 16 is well-taken. Eschaton and judgment don’t always seem to be the “end” of the story. The closing chapters of Revelation are another good example.

  5. Levi's Gravatar Levi
    March 3, 2011    

    I came to read what you had to say as soon as I heard people were angry about Bell’s new book. Then I learned that the book isn’t actually out yet. If im ever famous, II’m going to write a controversial book about universalism and liberal politics and homosexuality. I’ll wait for everyone to rage about my heathenism before it’s released, and then reveal that the entire book is pictures of kittens and monkeys on miniature bicycles and the like. That’ll teach them to read before judging.

  6. March 3, 2011    

    You left out the most important thing: by the time they figure out it is only kittens and monkeys on miniature bicycles, you will have sold a LOT of books.

  7. Walt's Gravatar Walt
    March 15, 2011    

    Matt, it seems to me that Rob’s (and your) view is premised on a particular interpretation or definition of “love”, that is, God’s love, that smacks completely of a narrow North American culture-driven view: love is what makes me feel good, nothing more nothing less. Too bad! Maybe it’s time to re-discover – if not from the Bible itself, then, if needs be from a secular source, the band Nazareth, that “love [indeed] hurts”!

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