Hell’s Bells – Oh Hell. Heretic or Just Wrong? (Part 5)

The charge of “heresy” has been flying ever since Bell released his promotional video for his book. Simply by questioning if Gandhi was in Hell, the fires were kindled across multiple blogs and twitters with a sign on them saying, “Reserved for Rob Bell.” But has some of this been an overreaction? I would contend that it has been quite the overreaction.

What do we mean when we say “heresy”? Typically, we’re referring to the denial of an essential and established doctrine. Thus, doctrines like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or salvation through Christ alone would be essential and foundational doctrines; to deny them is to become a heretic. That’s not to say we should burn people for being heretics, merely to describe them as what they are; if they don’t like it, then they should change their beliefs.

Some might argue that Bell is denying Christ as the only way to Heaven, but he’s not. He spends all of Chapter 5 explaining that Christ is the only way to the Father. The difference is that he believes people will eventually come to recognize Christ as the Messiah.

Thus, Bell isn’t a heretic for believing that Hell is temporal. Let’s put out the flames, calm down, and approach this issue rationally and lovingly. Sadly, the critics haven’t been able to accomplish this. While I understand why John Piper tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” I must ask how this helped the cause of Christ. I understand that Martin Bashir was extremely frustrated with Bell’s half-truths and false history, but what good does it do if you treat Bell like a child on your television program?

What we’ve seen in the controversy surrounding Bell is further polarization. Those who like Piper will agree with what Piper said and did because they have no vested interest in protecting Rob Bell. Those who dislike Piper and love Bell will see nothing wrong with people who mocked Piper because they have no vested interest in protecting John Piper. The irony is that in writing a book called Love Wins, we actually see love losing quite badly in the controversy. It would better for everyone involved to stop running to their respective sides and instead discuss their differences. Even if such discussions include firmness, no one wins when neither side is willing to approach the issue with an “I could be wrong about this” attitude.

The two main issues I think Bell is wrong about go back to what I wrote when responding directly to his book. I don’t agree that everyone eventually repents and I don’t agree that God gets what He wants all the time. I would contend that Scripture actually speaks against both points.

–       Ultimate Reconciliation

As I pointed out earlier, the idea of ultimate reconciliation seems highly unlikely as Scripture gives us no reason to believe we’ll ultimately be reconciled to God. Matthew 25 shows that the punishment in Hell is eternal. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man shows the rich man still treating Lazarus with disdain even in Hell, showing the rich man hasn’t repented.

What Bell ignores, however, is that while Hell is the result of our choice those in Hell are there because God rejected them. This seems like a cruel and harsh statement, but we must understand that God rejected them because they rejected God. Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the very early second century, wrote, “Yet there are some who in their blindness still reject Him – or rather are rejected by Him, since in fact what they are contending for is not so much the truth about Him as their own final extinction (Early Christian Writings, Penguin Press, p. 102).” But what does it mean to be rejected by God?

To be rejected means to be disapproved of or repudiated. One idiom that was often used in the ancient world for rejection was “to spit out.” To get the connotation, we look to someone who is in charge of inspecting widgets at a factory. As they come across the line, the ones he approves continue moving. The ones he rejects get cast aside and thrown out. That’s what it means to be rejected by God. Unlike the widgets we are not rejected for any intrinsic flaw within us, but instead we are rejected because we rejected Him.

If we are rejected by God and therefore lack the power of God, how can we repent? Once we are in Hell we no longer have the Spirit with us, so how can we possibly repent? Turning to Psalm 6:5 (or 6:6 LXX), we read, “For there is no remembrance of You in death; and in Hades who will give thanks to you?” In other words the Bible answers Bell’s entire argument; we don’t even give thanks to God in Hell, so how can we possibly repent? Basil the Great takes this a step further when he argues,

“On the day of judgment, however, He [the Spirit] will be completely cut off from the soul that has defiled His grace. That is why Scripture says that in hell no one confesses God and in death none can remember Him, since the Spirit’s help is no longer present.” (On the Holy Spirit, St. Vladamir’s Press, p 67).

We forget that the power to repent doesn’t originate in us, but rather in the Spirit. Ezekiel 36:26 shows that the Spirit aids us in repentance. 1 Timothy 2:25 proves that God is the one who begins the process of repentance in us. Hebrews 12:14-17 shows that even if we have a desire to repent, we must act on that desire in order to truly repent; but often times we are so stuck in our sins that we won’t act on the desire. Thus, while we must act on the desire to repent and also build up such a desire, that desire originates with God.

This means that Bell’s entire argument is contingent upon one thing; do people in Hell have the power of the Holy Spirit? If so, then they can repent. If not, then they can’t repent because they won’t even have the desire to repent. While the presence of God will be in Hell – people in Hell will perceive Him – His power won’t be there. Part of being rejected by God means that we lose the power of His Spirit and it is His Spirit that places the desire to repent within us. Well if we lose that desire to repent, how can we repent? If Psalm 6:5 is true in that we can’t even remember God in Hell, then repentance is impossible because we wouldn’t know that we need to repent.

Let us assume, however, that somehow the power of the Spirit is present in Hell. Even then, passages such as Hebrews 12:14-17, the story of the rich man, or even the parable of the rich young ruler all indicate that people are unwilling to change once they are dead in their sins. It shows that people in Hell are there because they have rejected God and will continue to do so.

The other problem with denying an eternal Hell is that if Hell isn’t eternal, if we all inevitably be assimilated into God’s “Borg Army,” then why not live like hell now knowing I’ll get Heaven later? In fact, Bell anticipates this argument in his book (154). He responds to the argument by writing, “Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.” The problem is that’s his entire response!.

He never tells us why the objection is untrue, he simply says that it is. The objection is left without a sufficient response; and in all the interviews he has given he hasn’t offered one. We are then left asking, “Does a denial of the eternality of Hell make our beliefs irrelevant?” The answer is, “yes, it does.” But unlike Bell, let me offer a reason as to why.

If I can live like hell now, knowing that I can avoid it in eternity (or at least get out of it eventually), then why bother submitting to Christ? I’m not talking about living an incredibly wild life, but just living for myself. Why not live for myself now? Why not accumulate riches here on earth so I can enjoy them while I’m here? Why not put myself before others for the temporary period? Why do I have to start living for eternity when eternity can wait? Bell gives us no answer to these questions.

Ultimately, he can’t give us a reason because Heaven and Hell keep such desires in check. While salvation extends well beyond Heaven and Hell (which Bell accurately points out), Heaven and Hell are still part of the equation (which Bell forgets). Thus, while I accept Christ for far more than my desire to avoid Hell, hell still does exist as a consequence for rejecting Christ. This means that I start living in eternity now because the Eternal One has come to live in me; I do not partake in the things of the world because they will eventually be burned up and I don’t want to be burned up along with them. Even when the Christian is promised eternity he doesn’t begin to live like the world, knowing Heaven will come, because a true child of Christ rejects the things of the world so that he doesn’t suffer their same fate.

–       Does God always get His way?

Bell argues that God always gets His way, but I would argue that God doesn’t always get His way. Such a statement might sound odd or close to open theism, but let me explain.

First, I’m not an open theist at all, I simply recognize that while God is sovereign, He doesn’t always act on that sovereignty. That is, just because He can do something doesn’t mean He will. Turning again to John of Damascus, we read,

“And, finally, there is the fact that all that He wills He can do, even though He does not will all things that He can do – for He can destroy the world, but He does not will to do so.” (An Exact Exposition, Book I, Chapter XIV)

To summarize it, all that God wills He, He can do, but He does not will all things He can do. Elsewhere in his exposition, John goes to great lengths to show that God actually allows His will to be circumvented by humans in their free choice, though at times He will act against our free choice (not always). This means that God’s will can be contradicted, but only if He allows it.

Thus, does God will everyone to salvation? Sadly, while Scripture says God wishes that all were saved, it does not say that He has willed all will be saved. 2 Peter 3:9 does say that God is not “willing” that any should perish, but the word used her (boulomai) refers to a desire and not necessarily God’s will. There actually is a difference between what it means to will something and what it means to desire or wish something. For instance, if I will that I have a pizza that means I am actively attempting to gain a pizza. If I say I wish I had a pizza, it means that though I might desire having a pizza, I may not be trying to get one. That means while He desires people not to perish and will work against them perishing, He will allow it if it is our choice.

But in a less theological viewpoint we can easily show that God doesn’t always get His way. For instance, did God will that a woman should be brutally raped? Did God will that an earthquake should happen off the coast of Japan? Did God will that Adam and Eve rebel against Him? Did God will for us to be in rebellion to Him? If God always gets what God wants, does that mean that God wanted us to suffer? Though Bell has good intentions, by arguing that God always gets what God wants he actually makes God seem less loving than if we believe that God sends people to Hell of their own volition.

In looking at the two views it is easy to see that the Scriptures teach that Hell is eternal because no one will repent in Hell; they can’t. They’ve rejected God in this life and therefore are rejected by Him in the life to come – their time on earth doesn’t matter as they’ve been given the chance to come to Christ and live in Him, but have chosen not to. Likewise, just because God doesn’t want these people to perish doesn’t mean they won’t perish. God doesn’t want a child to die of hunger, yet it happens. God doesn’t want us to sin, yet we do it. God doesn’t always get what He wants. This doesn’t make Him a failure either, nor does it make Him weak; it makes Him loving in that He would allow us to make our own choices rather than forcing His will upon us.