Hell’s Bells – What Bell Misses (Part 7)

Bell attempts to show us that God is love and that ‘love wins.’ While I agree it is important to look at the love of God, it only makes sense to do so in relation to everything about God. We can’t focus on one attribute to the exclusion of others. This is a mistake common in other theologies that Bell would rightfully repudiate. We can’t focus on His judgment in exclusion to other attributes. We can’t focus on His goodness in exclusion to other attributes.

Once we understand all the attributes as a whole – His justice, love, goodness, and so on – we begin to see that Hell is a reality and is eternal. Hell exists for those who do not want to submit to God. We may ask how could a loving God send someone to Hell, but the better question is “how could a loving God force someone into Heaven?” Why force someone to repent? How is that loving? More importantly, how is that just?

Hell exists for more than rejecting God, it also does exist as punishment. While I do believe the flames to be metaphorical, I do believe it to be a punishment of sorts. Yet, it is not as though God created torture devices and a way to make people miserable (for God is good), but instead He lets His glory permeate throughout Hell and those in rebellion hate Him for it. They are punished by having to see His glory, but never experience His power. They are punished by having to see the Divine Light when they would rather live in darkness. And this is done forever and ever because they have lost the ability to repent.

This is a sad reality and one that should be looked upon with all sobriety. Salvation is far more than Heaven and Hell, but it does include Heaven and Hell. Because they exist, they make what we do all the more important. We act in the now, but live in eternity knowing that there is a real Hell that we must avoid and must help others to avoid as well. We “work out our salvation” so that we might spend eternity with the fullness of God and not away from Him, only experiencing His presence, but not His power. Continue reading

Hell’s Bells – The Bigger Problem with Bell (Part 6)

The first problem deals with Bell’s understanding of the Trinity. He writes,

“There is an energy in the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into. The Greeks called is zoe, the mystics call it “Spirit,” and Obi-Wan called it ‘the Force’…In this poem [the Bible], the energy that gives life to everything is called the ‘Word of God,’ and it is for us.” (p 144-145)

What sticks out to me is that he seems to equate the mystics’ use of the term “Spirit” with “Word of God.” Yet, the mystics were not doing this, rather they understood a distinction between “Spirit” and “Word of God.” It appears that Bell is equating the Spirit with the Word, which is a major problem.

It is true that the Spirit and the Word share the same essence (nature), but they are distinct in their persons. The “energy” of the world isn’t the Word of God, but the Spirit. God created through the Word and all things came into existence through the Word, but it was through the Spirit that power was put into everything. Thus, the idea of creation begins with the Father, is spoken through the Word, and is enacted by the Spirit. All of this is obviously mystical, but we must recognize some distinction, let we become modalists.

Genesis 1 is a good example of what I’m referring to. In Genesis 1 it is the Spirit that is breathed into Man to give us life, not the Word. Through the Word things come into being, but through the Spirit they are formed and made alive. The Word brings everything into existence, but the Spirit gives it power and movement.

It is vitally important to maintain the distinctions within the Trinity because if we lose them then we eradicate the Trinity. If we do so then we lose a God who is love. For at some point God was all that existed. If He was all that existed, how could He be a God of love if there was no one to love? True love involves sacrifice and acquiescence, but if God is singular then prior to creation how could He truly love? Such love can only exist within a Trinity, but within a Trinity there must be distinction; hence the importance for keeping distinction. Without it, we lose love.

In addition to the problem with the Trinity, Bell seems to argue that we can know the essence of God. He writes, “This is an important distinction, because in talking about what God is like, we cannot avoid the realities of God’s very essence, which is love.” (p176) Bell seems to say that because 1 John 4:8 says “God is love” that love defines His essence and all other attributes fall under “love.”

Before going on, we should understand what “essence” means. An essence is what defines us. An essence is what makes a cat a cat and a dog a dog. Turning to John of Damascus yet again we read, “The essential term either shows what a thing is or of what sort it is. (Fountain of Knowledge, V). You are your essence and once I know your essence I can define you, I can understand you, and in some cases I can comprehend the essence.

To say that love is the “essence of God” means we can define God, but God cannot be defined. Psalm 145:3 says that God’s greatness is unsearchable, meaning that His greatness (which is an attribute, not His essence) is beyond us; we can’t even search it out. 1 Corinthians 2:11 says that we can’t comprehend the thoughts of God, so how can we hope to define who God is? All of this is because God is beyond comprehension and beyond definition.

Thus, when John writes that “God is love,” he is saying that love is defined by God, but God is not defined by love. God is also just, He is holy, He is great, He is wise, and so on; but none of these define His essence (or nature), but instead flow from His essence. John of Damascus explained it by writing, “The names ‘Good,’ ‘Just,’ ‘Holy,’ and the like are consequential to His nature and are not indicative of the essence itself.” (An Exposition, Book I, Ch IX) When we describe God as eternal, love, good, just, or anything else we are speaking about His attributes, about things that flow from His essence.

When Bell then defines God’s essence as love it puts him at a disadvantage for the book. If God is defined by love, then Hell doesn’t make any sense. As it is, God has other attributes that work with love and not against it, nor is love above them or work against them. The reality is that love doesn’t win because it’s not competing against anything. It can’t win because it’s not in competition. It’s not love or justice, it’s love and justice. The two work together, not against each other, because both flow from the same essence.

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.

Hell’s Bells – Bell’s Hell (Part 4)

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. Continue reading

Hell’s Bells – Rob Bell isn’t Completely Wrong (Part 3)

In reading all the reviews about Bell’s Love Wins, one could easily conclude that Bell didn’t say a single good thing and wasn’t right about anything. One could easily conclude that Bell apparently was wrong about everything, except the spelling of his name.

However, Bell was actually correct on quite a few points in his book, points that I thought were fantastic. So I think it’s wrong to simply cast Bell aside and condemn his book, or simply label him a “heretic” and therefore unfit for general consumption. While I do think it’s unwise for those new to Christianity or weak in their faith to read his book, seasoned Christians could read it and still learn from it.

That being said, though there are many things I agree with Bell on, two stick out. His view of Heaven and his view of the cross are two major points that I think are worth addressing and ultimately supporting. Continue reading

Hell’s Bells – A Summary of “Love Wins” (Part 2)

The first chapter opens up with Bell expressing his doubt over the traditional Christian belief that those who do not know Christ will end up in Hell. On the first page, he writes, “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life” (1)? He goes on to show how such a belief can lead to a myriad of problems; doesn’t this mean our salvation is dependent upon others telling us about the Gospel, about being born in the right place at the right time, about accepting at the right time in life, and so on. Then he points out that there seems to be confusion amongst Christians on what it takes to go to Heaven; whether or not one needs to say a prayer, depending upon someone going to church or not, and other aspects all end up in the mix of what it means to “be saved.”

He then points out that such beliefs generally make Christians seem cold to the world. After all, Christianity becomes nothing more than a club where someone is either “in” or “out.” But in becoming cold, he argues we can oftentimes send a negative message to others, to the point that they reject Jesus because of our actions. They equate our flaws with Jesus and therefore reject Jesus, not because they hate Him, but because they hate us. In concluding the first chapter, Bell asks if people go to Hell even if they’ve never really seen Jesus in action.

Without answering any of the questions, Bell moves onto the second chapter to describe what Heaven is like. Using examples from Scripture, he seeks to demonstrate that Heaven is really a different age, not a different place. He argues that Christians are focused on “going there” when Heaven is here. Earth and Heaven will someday mix and all that is good will remain. Thus, we’ll have trades, we’ll work the fields, we’ll grow in knowledge, and we’ll live our lives, albeit without sin and without evil, and in the presence of God.

But in believing that Heaven will one day be on this earth, Bell concludes that we should act to bring Heaven to earth now. We should act as if this is a reality in the present tense rather than waiting for it to arrive. He states, “If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world? (46)” Essentially, what Bell calls “Heaven” is what most Christians call the “New Earth” and the “resurrection,” though he never uses these terms. Still, he makes the point that “eternity starts now” (62). Continue reading

Hell’s Bells – Introduction (Part 1)

As most people have probably heard, Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperCollins, 2011) has made quite the stir. Going off the cover, Bell is back in black (I promise this is the last AC/DC pun) and ready for controversy, even if he says he’s surprised that his book is controversial.

I commend Bell for pointing out God’s love is for everyone and believe such a message is desperately needed; it’s far too easy to hear messages of doom and gloom and to lose out on learning about God’s love. At the same time, I find there are multiple problems with what he says and the reasoning and evidence he uses to say it, thus I feel it is necessary to write a review and a response to Love Wins.

For those that have read the book, please feel free to skip the “Rob Bell Isn’t Completely Wrong” section, as this next section is simply an overview of the book.