With that common ground shown, I must point out that I strongly disagree with Bell’s conclusion about the eternality of Hell. Ultimately, using Bell’s own scriptural examples, we see that Hell is eternal. Likewise, God doesn’t always get what He wants. However, before giving my own treatise on Hell and God getting what He wants (or not getting it), let me go through his arguments on Hell, summarize them, and show how he is misguided.
He believes that part of Hell is to be disconnected from God and to be in despair (66). Thus, Hell (or one type of Hell) is far more psychological for Bell than physically torturous. In fact, he even states in a roundabout way that the fires of Hell are metaphorical (68). Another type of hell is one we experience on earth that is caused by sin and evil (73), but he does believe in a Hell after death (76). This stems from his belief in “multiple hells” (which ties into his view of hell as a psychological state). In fact, he writes,
“What we see in Jesus’s [sic] story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.” (p78)
Now, there is nothing really wrong with what Bell is saying here. After all, many conservative theologians believe that the “fire” mentioned in the parables of Christ is metaphorical, referring either to the Divine presence and light or something else (I am one of them; after all, how does a soul, which is immaterial, feel fire, which is material?). Likewise, it’s true that there is a psychological element to Hell; certainly we feel a type of hell on earth when we suffer from sin or from evil. So on these counts, Bell isn’t wrong.
But then Bell goes on…
– Hell is not eternal
In explaining his view of Hell, Rob Bell says he believes in it, but that it’s not eternal. One of the first major points he makes in defending such a position is when he turns to Ezekiel 16 where it states that Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored (83-84). He argues that even Sodom and Gomorrah, two of the prime examples of evil in the Bible, will eventually be restored to God’s grace. But is this what is being said in Ezekiel 16?
Unfortunately, like many other passages that Bell uses, he’s taking the Scripture vastly out of context. The passage itself is dealing with temporary judgments and temporary restorations, things that happen within lifetimes. God is promising that through His covenant with Israel, Sodom and Gomorrah will be redeemed; but the imagery presented is obviously figurative. Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist at the time of the prophecy God promised to Ezekiel, so when God says “Sodom and Gomorrah,” He is using these cities in a figurative way to convey that even the most sinful can be forgiven (but aren’t necessarily forgiven). He uses the imagery of Sodom and Gomorrah to show Israel that they are far worse than either city and He does this to shame Israel, not to say that everyone will eventually be saved.
But what do we do about other nations that aren’t promised redemption? We look at Babylon or Canaan, neither of which are promised redemption. Why is this? Because they are destroyed, so they can’t be redeemed. What we have then is Bell taking Scripture vastly out of context in order to make his point; sadly, Bell does this quite a bit throughout the book. Many of the Scriptures he uses to show that God will universally draw everyone to Himself often refer to a “future restoration.” But this restoration is generally referring to the coming salvation of Jesus and the eventual resurrection.
These passages have historically been interpreted to justify the belief that Heaven will eventually exist on earth. That the evils perpetuated by Egypt, Canaan, Babylon, Sodom, or in our modern day the United States, North Korea, or any other nation, would not be perpetually committed. At some point, so the Biblical narrative goes, every inch of the earth will praise the Lord. But does this necessarily mean that everyone who currently resides in those nations will partake in this resurrection? The answer is no, but I’ll get to that later.
Another way Bell attempts to justify his belief in a temporal Hell is when he points to Matthew 25 and shows that the Greek word aion can refer to an “age” or a “period of time” (90). He is very correct that aion refers to a long period of time, but not necessarily “forever.” We get our own word aeon or eon directly from the Greek word aion.
But his mistake is that Jesus doesn’t use the word aion in Matthew 25. When Jesus says that those who depart from Him will go into eternal punishment (25:46), He uses the word aionios. While it’s true that aionios is derived from aion, that doesn’t mean it has the same meaning or that its root word determines its meaning. The English word “today” is made up of the words “to” and “day,” but it’d be silly to use the definition of “day” or “to” as the same definition for “today.” So what does aionios mean?
In Greek, aionios can mean one of three things; it can refer to something without a beginning, it can refer to something without an end, or it can refer to something without a beginning or end. Thus, the context determines what definition is best. But here is the kicker, in all three instance it refers to “eternal” or “forever.” When he argues that Jesus isn’t talking about eternal punishment, Bell is wrong because he’s looking at the wrong Greek word; the word aionios can only refer to something that is either eternal or forever.
In fact, aionios is used 71 times in Scripture. If we remove the Scriptures where it’s used in conjunction with punishment and look to all other passages where it’s used, it only refers to actual eternity or forever! 2 Thessalonians 2:16 uses it when speaking about hope. Romans 16:26 uses it to refer to God as eternal. Hebrews 9:12 uses it in reference to our redemption. Are we to believe that God isn’t eternal, that our redemption is only for an age, and that God’s love is temporary? All of these questions would be answered in the negative for Rob Bell and he would argue vehemently against the idea that God’s love isn’t eternal or that God isn’t eternal. But then why would he suggest that aionios, when used in conjunction with punishment, is somehow temporal? There’s no other justification for such an interpretation beyond, “Well I don’t like the idea of eternal punishment.” That being said, aionios can only refer to something that is eternal or goes on forever.
However, the error that Bell makes goes well beyond his misuse of the Greek. The error can even be seen in English. In verse 46 Jesus says that those He casts away will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life. We could ask Bell why he believes that when “eternal” is used with “life” it obviously means eternal, but when “eternal” is used with “punishment” it means temporal. Unfortunately, I don’t think he would have an answer.
The irony is that when we look at Matthew 25 in its proper context and interpretation, it acts as a defeater for his theory. If Jesus is saying that the punishment is eternal and we know that aionios has to mean “forever,” then no matter what Bell writes, he has to be wrong (if we are to believe Jesus). But perhaps he could get around this by arguing that while aionios may mean “forever,” “forever” isn’t a category that Biblical writers understood.
In fact, he states that the Biblical writers didn’t understand “forever” like we do when he writes, “…forever is not really a category biblical writers used” (91). If heis right, then what I argued about Matthew 25 becomes irrelevant because the word “forever” would have meant something different to Jesus than to us.
Upon closer examination of the Scriptures, however, it’s easy to see that Bell is wrong when he says that Biblical writers didn’t write with a “forever” category. He ignores the Hebrew word qedem, used most notably in Deuteronomy 33:27. The word qedem is idiomatic, because its literal meaning is “one from the east.” But this is an Ancient Near East idiom to refer to “one before the beginning” or “eternal.” Since the sun rises in the east, for one to come from the east means one comes before the sun. The point being that the Hebrew writers and Jewish culture itself understood the idea of eternity, so when Jesus said “punishment forever” He meant “forever” just like we understand it.
Even the Hebrew word olawm (or as Bell spells it, olam, with both transliterations being correct) still holds “forever” in its meaning. While it can refer to an age, it only does so when used in a past form, or when referring to the past. When olam is used in referring to the future, it’s always interpreted as “forever.” This means that Bell’s argument is incomplete; while olam (the primary Hebrew word translated into “eternity” in the Old Testament) can refer to an age, it can also refer to a “forever time,” showing that even the Old Testament writers understood what “forever” meant.
Since the Biblical writers understood what “forever” mean, when Jesus told the crowds that those who He casts away would be “forever punished,” He knew what He was saying as did the crowd. The crowd understood that Jesus wasn’t referring to a limited time, but instead was referring to something that would be ongoing and forever. While this might be unpalatable to the modern mind, we must face the fact that this is what Jesus taught.
– God gets what God wants
Bell moves on in his justification of a limited time span in Hell when he argues that God gets what God wants (this is the entirety of Chapter 6). He uses numerous Scriptures that refer to the power of God and to the Will of God in order to show that God gets His way (eventually). Then he points out that God loves everyone and wishes everyone to be saved. Thus, he ends up with what seems to be a logical conclusion:
Whatever God wants, happens
God wants all people to be saved
Therefore, all people will be saved
In fact, Bell proposes a question that seems to put orthodox Christians in a bind when he writes, “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end” (97)? So orthodox Christians are left with one of two choices; say that God wants to send some people to Hell, which denies Him as loving, or say that God doesn’t get His way, which denies Him as powerful. Under such scrutiny, Christians must abandon their view of an eternal Hell.
Yet, his question is a prime example of “begging the question.” The classic example is, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” No matter how someone answers this question, one is stuck admitting that one beats his wife. The only proper answer is, “Well I’ve never beaten her,” which introduces an answer that the question did not presume. He commits the same flaw in the question he’s asking.
The question assumes that God is a failure if He doesn’t get His way, but this is a loaded assumption. One possible argument could be that God wants us to have free will and a free moral choice where we suffer the consequences; if this is the case, then by allowing Hell God does not fail because He has succeeded in giving us a choice. I’m not saying that is the answer, I’m simply pointing out it is a possible answer to Bell’s question. There are other answers out there that avoid the false dilemma he presents, meaning that his question is invalid.
Perhaps he foresaw this problem and chose to use Scripture to back up the question, to show us that God always gets His way, so for Him not to get His way means that He fails. Certainly he uses a plethora of Scripture to attempt to make his point, but even here we see the same flaw that plagued him with Matthew 25 and Ezekiel 16; he takes the Scripture out of context or reads his own desires into the Scripture. For instance, he quotes from Ezekiel 36 where God says all nations will know that “I am the Lord.” Bell interprets this to mean that God will eventually cause all people to recognize Him as Lord, which means they’ll go to Heaven.
But he is reading far too much into Ezekiel 16. Simply knowing that God is God doesn’t mean one is redeemed. Ironically enough, he uses the idea of a propositional faith (knowing certain things saves us) to justify his belief in universalism as opposed to a relational faith (following Jesus saves us). Thus, simply knowing or even confessing that God is God doesn’t save someone; after all, James says that the demons know God is God and shudder at the thought.
There are multiple examples of this common theme of Bell misusing and misapplying Scripture. I could easily go through and point it out, but I simply don’t have the space for it. Suffice it to say that from the few examples I’ve given, even the most ardent supporter of Bell’s works should approach his evidence critically to see if the evidence really says what Bell claims it says.
I will deal with whether or not God gets what He wants later on in my review/response, but for now I want to point out that Bell hasn’t done a satisfactory job of showing us how God always gets what God wants. The Scriptures he uses are out of context or are interpreted through the thick lenses of his theology.
– Why create the damned?
Bell moves on in the book to make a logical argument against the eternality of Hell, asking how could we call God loving if He creates people knowing He’ll send them to Hell. Bell writes, “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?” (101) Certainly such a proposal seems reasonable; how could stealing bread, or even leading a life of crime for sixty years somehow justify an eternity in Hell?
Bell’s argument (even if it’s in the form of a question, it is an argument) is flawed on two accounts. First, he ignores the role free choice plays in our eternal destiny and secondly he vastly underestimates the impact of our sins. Calling our sins “finite” betrays Bell’s incorrect view of sin.
To deal with why God would even bother to create people who would spend eternity in Hell, it is beneficial to turn to John of Damascus. He dealt with Bell’s question in the 8th century. The answer he gave was extremely complex in its time and, unfortunately, is even more complex today. So let me quote what he says concerning why God would create those He would send to Hell and then unpack the answer:
“God in His goodness brings into being from nothing the things that are made, and He foreknows what they are going to be…For the object of knowledge is existing things; and that of foreknowledge, absolute futures…However, had God kept from being made those who through His goodness were to have existence, but who by their own choice were to become evil, then evil would have prevailed over the goodness of God.” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter XXI)
A prima facie reading of what John of Damascus is saying might confuse quite a few people, but once we dissect it, it makes far more sense.
The first thing to understand is that God created us out of His goodness so we are good. Even now, though we sin, we are still good in our nature because God cannot create anything less than good. Every human being you look at is, in his or her essence, good, even if he or she is morally evil by choice.
What John then argues is that had He chosen not to create us because of the evil we would commit or because we would reject Him (which is evil), then evil would have prevented God from doing something good; evil would have defeated good. So if God knew that Johnny would reject Him and go to Hell for eternity and therefore chose not to create Johnny, God would have allowed evil to dictate what He would do, meaning He would be controlled by evil.
Had God only created those who would embrace Him, then what would He be saving us from? What evil would exist? For evil to exist, free will has to exist; for free will to exist, consequences have to exist, for consequences to exist, Hell has to exist. Why must Hell exist if there are consequences? Because if our consequences are purely temporary then they aren’t real consequences, eventually we’ll get over it and continue on doing what we want to do. God allows us to commit evil acts because in our essence we are good. Morally we might be evil, but as God created us we are good. Even though God knows we would chose evil He still created us out of His own goodness.
To argue further along these lines we must address Bell’s second problem, namely that our sins are finite. This is a gross error in Bell’s argument. The fact is, our sins are not finite, but are “infinite” in that they are infinitely evil. Consider this:
- God is infinitely good (we can’t add or take from His goodness, He cannot become more good or less good)
- Anything less than God is infinitely less than Him (nothing is slightly less, nothing is “almost God,” everything is infinitely below Him)
- Anything that violates His goodness is in infinite violation to His goodness (God is infinitely good, meaning anything that violates His goodness is infinitely against His goodness)
- Thus, our sins are infinite.
God allows us to have free will, but there are consequences for this free will. As John of Damascus argues, because God will triumph over evil He will continue to create us because we display His goodness. But in creating us He allows us free will, meaning there are consequences for our sins. Our sins are infinitely contrary to God, but we are finite so we can’t possibly make up for those sins, only Christ can. If we reject Christ then what other recourse do we have to be free from our sins?
In all of this, Bell could say, “I agree, but who’s to say that we can’t repent in Hell?” However, he defeats his own argument when he points out, “Lots of people in our world right now choose to be violent and abusive and mean and evil, so why won’t they continue to choose this path after they die?” (104) He is pointing out an argument that some people would make against his belief, namely that when people go to Hell they’ll simply choose to continue living in rebellion.
For whatever reason, he offers no other response to this other than, “God’s love will win because God gets His way.” But as we’ve seen, this isn’t much of a response and has little to no justification. He points out that this is merely a perspective, that some people perceive that people will remain sinful. Yet, his own proper interpretation of the parable concerning the rich man and Lazarus proves this perspective!
He accurately points out that in Hell, the rich man is unrepentant and still wants Lazarus to serve him (75). This shows that even in torment the rich man is unwilling to change his ways, to recognize that he abused and mistreated Lazarus. It shows that the rich man is still sinful even in eternity. So we have a Scriptural example of a man continuing on in his sinful ways even in death (an interpretation Bell agrees with), but he wants us to believe that people will change, despite all the evidence?