Most of you are probably aware of the controversy swirling around Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins.” Videos, interviews, and especially blog posts are moving across the web at lightning speed, so much so that Bell has been invited to appear on MSNBC and Good Morning America among other places. I think his live webcast even broke some online viewing records.
I didn’t intend to weigh in on the Rob Bell stuff, especially not before reading the book. This kind of controversy typically offers more heat than light. But I’ve had numerous folks from within our church ask me about it. We’ve made use of his Nooma videos on numerous occasions, and at times recommended his books. So I’m offering these thoughts as a pastor to the people in our church, though obviously some outside the church will read them. Once again, I have not yet read the book — I ordered a couple of copies from Amazon but they’ve been delayed. So I won’t be talking about the book. Instead I’ll be offering some thoughts about the issues Bell raises in general, as well as some of the things Bell has already said in videos and interviews.
THOUGHTS ON WHO WILL BE SAVED
First, the primary issue seems to revolve around who all will “be in heaven.” While this isn’t exactly a perfect question, it’s clear enough and does speak to realities Christians have always believed in — that life will go on after this one into eternity, and that some people will spend eternity with God (“heaven”) and others will not (“hell”). What I want to offer is a brief summary of the various positions taken on this question. So far as I can tell, roughly speaking there are four (excluding those more modern Christians who deny an “afterlife” altogether, which I can’t see as in any way “Christian” in a historical sense). [One caveat: for the purposes of this post, I will refer to being “saved” in relation to where people will spend eternity, even though this is only one aspect of the biblical picture of salvation; just know that salvation is about much more than just this.]
- Universalism (or Pluralism or Relativism) – The different names for this position explain it clearly enough. It is the belief that everyone will be “saved” in the end. All human beings who have lived will live forever in some glorious afterlife. Jesus’ role in this is that he is one of the many (or plural) ways people are granted access to this new world. Whether a person gets in is relative to what religion or life-principle they follow. Jesus is one of many ways. This is not an evangelical position in that it denies the centrality of Christ for salvation. I include it here merely so that I can distinguish the next one from it, since the two are often wrongfully identified as the same thing.
- Christian Universalism (or Universal Reconciliation) – Like the first one, this position teaches that everyone will be saved in the end; unlike the first one, it teaches that everyone will only be saved through Jesus. It believes in the necessity of Christ’s atonement on the cross, and takes some occurrences of the word “all” more literally than most of us (such as in Romans 5.18). Often (but not always) this is connected to a post-death opportunity for people to acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord. This view is compatible with belief in hell, although hell will obviously not last forever (or at least humans won’t be there forever). Though very much a minority position, variations of this view have been taught at times throughout the history of the church. I don’t know that I’d consider it a specifically evangelical option, but I admit that I haven’t read ready any of the books arguing that it is. (See the end of Greg Boyd’s post here.)
- Inclusivism (or Accessibilism) – In short, this position teaches that all who will be saved will be saved through Jesus, but some will be included in that number who don’t explicitly affirm faith in Christ before they die. Salvation is only in Christ but it is accessible to some who didn’t come to know him until after this life. This is one of the two most popular views among evangelical Christians, and anyone who denies it as an evangelical option is wrong and should rethink their boundaries. Names such as C. S. Lewis, John Stott, and Billy Graham have been associated with this view, among others. Again, this position teaches that Jesus’ death and resurrection are absolutely essential for salvation and that people will only be saved through him. It also teaches that not everyone will experience this salvation (differentiating it from Christian Universalism) and as such will experience hell. A crucial distinction is made here between being saved only through Christ (ontological necessity) and being saved only by knowing in this life that we are saved only through Christ (epistemological necessity). The inclusivist view holds to the former but not the latter. It argues that some will find that they have been saved by Christ even though they didn’t know ahead of time that this would be how they were saved. This is the position that most needs to be better taught in our churches, even by those who disagree. Some important books are John Sanders’ No Other Name and Terrence Tiessen’s Who Can be Saved? (the latter is a conservative Reformed theologian).
- Exclusivism (or Restrictivism) – This is probably the most well-known view associated with evangelicals. It teaches that people can only be saved through Christ, and that only those who explicitly confess faith in Christ in this life will be saved (usually with the important exception of infants or those with mental developmental challenges). Everyone else will be excluded. (It should be noted, however, that the “inclusivist” position also excludes many people; this shows the inadequacy of these terms, but alas they are all we have at this point.) Salvation is restricted to those who have heard the gospel message in this life and have responded by placing their trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Even if they make this decision in the closing seconds of their life, exclusivists believe that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is wide enough to include them. This is the position of most of those publicly chastising Rob Bell. It has a long and rich history in evangelicalism and the church at large.
These are the main Christian — and especially the latter two, evangelical — positions on this question. I’m guessing Bell will land somewhere between Inclusivism and Christian Universalism. There are biblical and theological arguments for both of these positions (more so for the former IMHO). If he is an Inclusivist, he still believes in the central necessity of Jesus for salvation, and is quite firmly encamped within the center of evangelicalism. And if that is the case, there is no reason to worry or fret about whether he’s teaching sound doctrine. But I’ll have to wait and see.
THOUGHTS ON THE “DURATION” OF HELL
The second issue raised by Bell and his book is the question of hell’s existence and “duration.” Two main questions here: (1) Is there a place/reality called “hell” — not just the hells we make on earth, but hell as an afterlife destination? (2) Will hell last forever or is it temporary? To deny the existence of hell takes one outside any recognizable boundaries of being “evangelical” and most of us would say “Christian” as well.
But the second question is not at all the same in this regard. As with inclusivism above, many prominent evangelicals have questioned the belief that hell actually lasts forever as a place of conscious eternal torment for those who reject Christ. Here I just want to offer a few very brief thoughts as to why they believe this. I won’t offer reasons in support of the “traditional” hell because this post is already too long and most people reading it are familiar with that view. For a solid book detailing both positions, check out Two Views of Hell by Edward Fudge and Robert Peterson. (If you’re at RLC and you want to borrow my copy, let me know.) Also, it is the other view that is being attached as un-evangelical and even un-Christian, neither of which are true. This other view is typically called “annihilationism,” named for their belief that those who reject Christ will in the end cease to exist rather than being kept alive to suffer in hell forever. This isn’t a denial of hell or that people will go there, but it is a denial that people will stay alive there forever. The annihilationist destiny is no less tragic, even if less painful in some relative sense.
Keeping things as simple as possible, I think there are four main arguments for this position. I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones that stick out to me:
- Most — if not all — of the New Testament references to hell are based on allusions to Old Testament teachings or events where people actually died (as in, where no longer around). For instance, Peter teaches that the events of Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prefigure final judgment (2 Peter 2.4-10). So annihilationists argue it would make sense to believe that final judgment will be an actual termination of existence, since this would keep the parallel parallel. Also compare Revelation 14.10-11 & 20.10 with Isaiah 34.9-10, where “forever” language doesn’t literally mean forever (also Gen 49.26; Exod 40.15; Num 25.13).
- Traditionalists would likely reply that regardless of the background, the New Testament teaches “eternal destruction,” and that eternal means eternal, period. This takes us to the second argument for “annihilationism,” which is that eternal can refer to the permanent result of the destruction rather than the permanent ongoing experience of it. The question is which to take more determinative in the phrase “eternal destruction”: eternal or destruction. When traditionalists argue that eternal means eternal, annihilationists often argue back that destruction means destruction (that is, obliteration or annihilation). Anyway, either is a possible interpretation.
- The top two arguments are the main ones, because they’re based on “exegesis” (interpreting Scripture). But there are two others. Third, these folks argue that immortality is not an inherent quality of humanity. The idea that our souls are immortal (that is, will live forever) is more Platonic than Biblical. Why does this matter? Because if we are not inherently immortal, than we are only kept alive by virtue of our connection to God. And if hell is foremost a place of God’s absence, then life cannot continue to exist there. Therefore, people who get far enough from God (their life source), they cease to exist. The only other option would be if God actively keeps people alive simply in order to continue unleashing torment on them for punishment of their sins.
- This takes us to the fourth argument, which is more theological than exegetical. That is, it’s more about the character of God as Love than any specific text. The argument is that it would not be compatible with God’s love for God to punish in this manner and to this extent. On its own this argument isn’t enough for an evangelical, but when taken as the fourth and based on the above biblical arguments, these folks argue that it does belong as one point in this debate. God will not force himself on anyone, it is argued, so he will allow people to separate themselves from him to the point where they no longer exist. Annihilationists do not rule out conscious suffering in hell, they just say God won’t let it last forever.
Anyhow, I’m not taking a stance one way or another, but those are the arguments. And as you can see, this position is about much more than simply trying to please people who don’t think God can be loving and judging at the same time. This position takes judgment and hell seriously, and it takes its primary cues from the Bible itself.
THOUGHTS ON ROB BELL
Then there is the question of Rob Bell and his videos, interviews, and book. Bell has had a long and powerful ministry among us evangelicals, and he is well known for communicating creatively in ways that grab hold of both bored insiders and disinterested outsiders. He has been a blessing to many of us. Personally speaking, he is one of the American pastors I have admired the most, largely because he reads some very good scholars and communicates their message to a popular audience. Not having read his book yet, I can’t say much about where he will land or how well he will communicate himself, but I can offer a few other thoughts.
First, I have to admit that he’s not a great interviewer IMHO. I’m actually fine with him not really answering questions on their own terms if he thinks there is a problem with the question. I think that is what he’s been trying to do much of the time. But I’d much rather him just say, “That’s the wrong question” or “There’s a problem with the way you asked that” and then follow that up with “and here’s why…” Then he could tell us all what he thinks is the right question, and how he answers that one. Again, I think that’s some of what he’s doing with all the “well I start with heaven and hell on earth” stuff. That’s great, but why? And once you’ve established that, go ahead and answer what you believe about heaven and hell beyond this life (or not, but either way tell us a little more). I’m sure he is constrained by time as well as by wanting people to read his book, but I do think he could do a better job teaching through these small question-and-answer sessions.
Second, Bell has always been a difficult-to-label kind of guy, a poetic voice in the church, and a boundary pusher of sorts. For instance, he’s never identified with the “emergent” crowd in any way, but he’s obviously more than a traditional conservative evangelical. I’m fine with all of these things and even appreciate them, but this does impact how I read him. I’m not excusing him on this basis, but the body of Christ is big enough for all sorts of gifts and callings, and if he is called by God to be a pot-stirrer or sorts (even if this isn’t what he intends), awesome. I do like that people in our church are asking important questions about hell. If all he does is cause people to rethink some things , then I applaud this as something the Spirit will use to sharpen our thinking. And quite frankly, we evangelicals need our thinking sharpened on the issues he’s raising. We believe all sorts of unbiblical junk about heaven and hell, and it is certainly time to clear some cobwebs.
Third, the crux of the whole thing for him is the character of God. God is Love, and Love Wins. For starters, this is good. It seems wrong to me to say, “Yes God is love, but he’s also just and holy and wrathful.” God’s attributes are not in competition with one another. God’s justice and his love do not compete; his justice is an outworking of his love, etc, etc. And love does belong at the center of how we see God. The Bible never says that God is holiness, or that God is justice. It says that he is holy and he is just. These, properly speaking, are attributes. But love is taken to a different level. The Bible doesn’t just say that God is loving. The Bible says that God is love. Love is essential to the being and character of God. So arguing from his love is the best place to start. The difficulty is that “love” is not a self-defining word. Moreover, we can never simply start with what kind of a picture of God’s love will be comforting or beautiful to people. Truth is always beautiful, but not everything beautiful is true. The danger with Bell is that he might indeed fall into a common sin, one which is rightly associated with theological liberalism but just as often occurs among us evangelicals. That sin is taking our cues from the world around us rather than the Christ-centered story of Scripture. Scripture is manifold and complex and confusing, but it is the story by which God has chosen to give shape and substance to the revealed truth that God is love. Another way of saying this would be to say that we can’t let our desire for relevance outweigh revelation. God doesn’t reveal himself in the response of unredeemed people to the gospel message. This message is good news to hurting people, but hurting people on our own don’t get to define what is ultimately good news.
Anyhow, that’s about as much as I can say without reading the book. There are so many things that need to be clarified before getting a proper grasp of the issues raised in all this. In some cases, we are indeed some distance from even asking the right questions in the right way. But we’ve got to start from where we are, and we trust that God’s grace is big enough to save even us — in spite of both our confusions and our certainties.
I am not defending Rob Bell. He doesn’t need me for that, and I don’t yet know if he deserves to be defended! But I do hope I’ve clarified some of the issues surrounding what he’s talking about. There is a certain group within the evangelical family who want to define our boundaries in a way that excludes too much. If Bell comes down as an inclusivist or annihilationist or both, he is neither a false teacher nor unevangelical nor dangerous. You might disagree with him and you might be right, but then again you might not.
Or he might follow the tragic path of others and go too far in the direction a faith that is less and less distinctly Christian. If so I will be very sad for many reasons, one of which is that the things I’ve shared in this blog will receive even more of a bad name simply by association (not to mention the very powerful and biblical little mantra “Love Wins”). It’s obviously good to believe that untruth is wrong, but be careful not to run so far from untruth that you run past the actual truth to the opposite untruth. And be gracious to those with whom you disagree, especially if the disagreements are internal family disputes and not matters of essential theological significance.
Peace of Christ