This is the final of a three part book review of "Love Wins" by Rob Bell. If you haven't already, you can read the first two parts by clicking the links below.
Rob Bell paints an unconventional, and, frankly, attractive, picture of how the eternal fate of mankind will play out. A part of me would love to embrace Bell's optimistic framework, but I'm hesitant to welcome his views with open arms.
Before I could adopt Bell's theology, there are at least three major hurdles I would need to overcome. These are certainly not exhaustive of the many, many problems I had with Bell's book. But for the sake of time and space, these three will have to be sufficient.
Perpetual Chances for the Unsaved After Death
Bell maintains that since the gates of heaven are never shut, the potential for reconciliation of the unsaved remains open well into eternity. Or, to put it another way, nobody is going to be "banned" once and for all to hell.
There are at least two passages of Scripture that make this idea of perpetual chances into eternity hard for me to believe.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
This passage seems to make clear that (at some point in the future) the saved and lost will be separated once and for all. Sure, you could throw in a second, third, or even fourth chance to be saved after death - but eventually there's going to be a final judgement that separates the "sheep" from the "goats". One day, you'll be out of chances, and your destiny can't flip-flop anymore.
"Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
Again, this passage seems to be saying that eventually, you have a final destination. There comes a point in the future when you're either in, or you're out.
The Object of Faith for Salvation
Bell believes that salvation comes through Jesus Christ. However, he finds a loop hole by arguing that since Christ is God - you only have to believe in God in order to be saved.
Taking it a step further, Bell seems to argue that since God is good and powerful and right and loving - then when you believe in those good and wonderful ideas, you are actually believing in God. Which, means that you could actually believe in Christ without knowing it. This (in theory) opens up the door for people of any faith to be saved - whether they use Christ's name or not - so long as they believe in God.
To sum up then, Bell cleverly shifts the object of our faith for salvation from the historical person and work of Jesus Christ (specific revelation) to the more universally accessible idea of God (general revelation).
The problem I have with Bell taking this logical jump is that the NT writers don't take this logical jump.
The NT writers affirm that Jesus is God - but they still insist that the object of our faith (that which we are to believe in for our salvation) is the person of Jesus Christ specifically, not the person of God generally.
John 3:18 "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
"This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
"...if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
I John 5:11-12 "And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life."
Furthermore, if simply God in general is the object of faith necessary for salvation, why would Paul say in Romans,
"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"
What about the tax collector in Luke 18, his object of faith for salvation wasn't Christ. Couldn't the tax collector looking to heaven and praying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" - and being "justified" -be pointed to as an exception?
Even so, it's just that - an exception. The NT writers didn't view this as the normative means of salvation, and neither should we. Time and again in the NT, Christ is named as the object of faith for salvation. If we find one exception to this and make a massive paradigm shift theologically, and make it the rule - we're playing a dangerous game with the text.
Would we start recommending people go skydiving without parachutes just because we read about one person surviving a jump without one? Of course not.
A Good God Wouldn't Send People to Hell
The title of Bell's book, "Love Wins", alludes to the overall premise in the book that it doesn't make sense for a loving God to condemn people to hell. In fact, Bell argues that if history were such that the majority of people went to hell, it would be as if God failed. (page 98)
The emotional side of Bell's argument is perhaps felt the strongest on page 102 when he asks,
"Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spend on earth?
Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father - or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father?
Is history tragic?"
Isn't this the question that, if we're honest, haunts us as believers?
As emotionally difficult as it might be for me to say it, the bottom line is this - God can do whatever he wants.
When I'm confronted with who God is, I have to find a way to stand under (not over) His character.
I have to conform my view of God to align with what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture, not conform God to my sensibilities and expectations.
In other words, the question of whether or not God will send people to hell isn't a question we can leave up to our emotions. It's a question we have to try to answer by looking at the text of Scripture.
Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that sin has consequences. Twice in human history (first with Adam's family; second with Noah's family) everyone on earth had access to a knowledge of God. However, due to people rejecting this knowledge of God (and by consequence, a knowledge of Christ) there are now entire nations of people who will never know God.
If we're going to believe that God won't banish anyone to hell, it needs to be because we're convinced it's Biblical, not because we're convinced it's a better picture of history.
Furthermore, the issue of God's character, heaven, and hell are too important to rely on what we've always believed, or what we've always been taught. Relying on what we think the Bible says about hell is just as dangerous as relying on how we feel about God sending people to hell.
How is it Going to End?
The question Rob Bell and I have to ask ourselves is the same -
"Am I willing to submit my views about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived, to God's Word?"
Am I really interested in the truth?
It's tempting to finish a book like "Love Wins" and ask, "Is Rob Bell a heretic?"
I think that this question has it's place, and that it's way more complicated than a 'yes' or 'no'.
But, the question that ought to take precedence in my minds is, "Am I a heretic?"
It would be easy, and justifiable, to focus on the many places Bell got it wrong. The problem is, I'm not responsible for Bell's theology.
I am responsible for mine.
And you are responsible for yours.