No Holiness, All Love

I read an interesting article in TIME Magazine (online) today entitled “Is Hell Dead?”  It’s ostensibly about a book written by author Rob Bell, who is also the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan.  His book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” posits that evangelical Christianity is too theologically rigid, and we really don’t know what happens after death.

“Bell insists that he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity—and thus a faith of exclusion—is a dangerous thing.”  In essence, Christianity ought to be much more universal in its acceptance of people.  “’When we get to what happens when we die, we don’t have any video footage,’ says Bell.  ‘So let’s be honest that we are speculating, because we are.’”

There’s a slightly comical section of the article that seems to compare Christianity to other religions of the world (currently, and in history) in order to make the point that Christianity is different from all the other religions in this regard, and therefore is wrong:

“It is also true that the Christian tradition since the first church has insisted that history is tragic for those who do not believe in Jesus; that hell is, for them, forever; and that love, in the end, will envelop those who profess Jesus as Lord, and they — and they alone — will be reconciled to God…

“Still, the dominant view of the righteous in heaven and the damned in hell owes more to the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake, than it does to history or to unambiguous biblical teaching. Neither pagan nor Jewish tradition offered a truly equivalent vision of a place of eternal torment; the Greek and Roman underworlds tended to be morally neutral, as did much of the Hebraic tradition concerning Sheol, the realm of the dead.”

Criticism of Bell from the Christian community has been harsh—“Farewell Rob Bell,” tweeted John Piper;  Al Mohler said the book was “theologically disastrous,” and says, “We have read this book before. Not the exact words, and never so artfully presented, but the same book, the same argument, the same attempt to rescue Christianity from the Bible.”

Here’s my bottom line: views of Christianity that leave out hell, condemnation, and eternal punishment must commit exegetical gymnastics in order to arrive at those conclusions: selective interpretation, explaining away clear passages about hell and condemnation, and broad interpretation of passages that talk about God’s redemption and reconciliation.  Bell’s book seems to affirm God’s love, but extricate God from his justice and holiness.

What are your thoughts on Universalism?  Should Christians de-emphasize teaching on hell?

Other Resources:
Rob Bell: Universalist?” by Justin Taylor @ The Gospel Coalition
Two Thoughts on the Rob Bell Brouhaha” by Kevin DeYoung @ The Gospel Coalition
Rob Bell Outs Himself” by Denny Burk
God Is Still Holy And What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True” by Kevin DeYoung
Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell” by Aaron Armstrong

  • Matt Yonke

    Hi Bob,

    I think Rob Bell is a silly, small little theologian who has not read deep enough nor engaged seriously enough with 2,000 years of Christian thought.

    That said, taken at his word, I don’t think much of what he’s suggesting is completely heretical. He affirms that there’s a place called Hell and that there’s probably people there. The eternal nature of Hell has long been the subject of debate — it’s not nearly as cut and dry as the article makes it seem, at least in terms of what Christians have talked about in terms of possibilities over the years.

    I mean, think about it, how cut and dry of a statement is, “Where the worm shall not die nor the flame be quenched”? It’s clearly at least possible that there’s a metaphorical component to it.

    Also we know God is full of more love than we ever expect Him to have and more surprises than we’ve ever imagined. To say that it’s somehow impossible for God to decide that he wants to abrogate Hell or to speculate that residency in Hell is based largely on choice are both very real possibilities not explicitly ruled out by God’s revealed character or anything in Scripture that I’m aware of.

    But what’s really silly to me is that anyone is takes Bell’s traveling medicine show approach to theology seriously or that anyone is worried that this is somehow a threat to the faith. Smarter people than him have asked these questions before and, marvel of marvels, the gates of Hell have not prevailed against the Church.

    My opinion in brief: Move along, kids. Nothing to see here.

  • Broc

    Much of this discussion is going to center around God’s nature…what and who He is. Yes God has unconditional love for people. God’s love is amazing and eternal, however God is always unable to tolerate sin. It was R.C. Sprowl who wrote in his book “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” that God CAN NOT act outside of his character. This was discussed when writing about the question, are there any limitations on God? The answer being; yes God can not act out side of his own character, in other words God can not act like anyone but God. Now to put that in a common saying; could God create a rock so big that he could not move it? No, God could not, not because the question is not balanced on its face, but because for God to create something he could not move would mean that there is something out of his control and thus God would not be all powerful which is not who God is. Now what does that mean about the topic at hand while God’s is love, God is also always pure. God does not and can not tolerate anything less than perfection. Which puts us imperfect and very flawed mortals in a bit of a tough spot, however enter Jesus Christ. The Crucifixion of Jesus and what that has done for us speaks perfectly to God’s ultimate love and righteous vengeance on sin. God because of his love for man gave up his son Jesus Christ to die on a cross. At the same time that God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus for the sins of all mankind he was also pooring out that wrath and righeous anger because he loved mankind; so while God’s love for us is great and never ending so is God’s righteous anger and intolerance of sin. While we can not in comprehend this fully, His duel nature is the essence of what makes God, God.