In the past few months the blogosphere – and much of the internet really – has erupted with a firestorm of articles, blog entries and videos on the topic of hell. The origins can be traced to the pre-release promotion video of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Although I have not yet read the book for myself, I have read multiple book reviews and have been following along with what many men I respect (and who are much smarter and better writers than me) have said since the beginning; from the promotional video to the books arrival on shelves. When the video was initially released, several well-known pastors and theologians wrote responses, some even going so far as to call Bell a heretic and a universalist. Others in the more “mainstream” praised him for his honest and seemingly innocent question-asking and willingness to confront tough issues.
If you have not had a chance to read up on this whole topic, I will give you a quick overview, and at the bottom of this blog are some great links you can check out for more info. In the video Rob Bell begins his questioning, starting with our ability to say with certainty what happens to us after death. Following along with that, the book revisits the age old topic of death, the afterlife and the finality of it all. He establishes the existence of heaven and hell, and that we will all go to one of those places immediately after we die. However, he then questions the finality of death, proposing that a God who loves would not make death on earth the final end, but instead would choose to give those in hell an eternity of chances to come back to Him. In Bell’s mind, because God is so loving and luring, eventually everyone will turn to Him, be taken to heaven, and hell will be emptied.
So, what’s the big deal? Why are one person’s questions on hell and the afterlife so important that it has caused such a reaction? Does it really matter?
Yes, I believe it matters greatly. I would say that it’s not the questions that are under fire – it’s the way he has chosen to answer them. I would agree completely with those who have praised him for his questions, but I also strongly disagree with Bell’s conclusions. In and of themselves questions can be good, causing us to look at what we believe and to dig for truth, and can also create great discussions with groups of people seeking for answers to life and death. But the answers that are ultimately given to those questions are even more vital, as they have a direct impact on our eternity.
When I read the Bible, I see no room for flexibility or uncertainty in the theology of heaven and hell. If it did, then Christ’s death on the cross would be for nothing. What is the purpose of His substitutionary death for our sins if we can have eternal life in heaven without becoming perfect? From beginning to end the Bible is a story about how God in His holiness demands perfection in His presence, our failure as a people to attain it, our outright rebellion against him, and His glorious solution – giving His own perfection that we might be able to come before Him with His perfect sacrifice covering our broken sinfulness.
So, instead of flexibility I see a clear message from Christ that there are no second chances after we die (Matthew 7:13-14, John 14:6. John 12:44-50, Matthew 25:34-46). I see also that although God is loving, He is also just. He in His sovereignty requires payment for our rebellion and sin, and biblically speaking there are only two ways to pay for it: through Christ’s blood or through our own payment eternally in hell (Romans 3:23, 6:23). It is dangerous to preach a message that says that it is ok if you don’t make a choice of whether or not to follow Christ before you die. It is dangerous to preach only one side of God’s character. It is harmful to make the gospel seem warm and acceptable to a people who are quick to look for any excuse to continue in our rebellion.
This is a big deal because of the number of eternities at stake. Because pastors are held to a higher accountability for the way they shepherd and lead their flock (and a 10,000+ person church like the one where Bell preaches is a pretty large flock). Because there is the great allure of changing the gospel to fit the culture, rather than changing the culture to follow the gospel.
I hope that those who read the book will also pick up their Bibles and try to reconcile his conclusions, and in so doing come to discover the truth about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived.
– An excellent and thorough chronology of the video and articles surrounding Bell’s new book and the theology of hell: click here (I recommend Kevin DeYoung’s book review, the MSNBC interview, and “To hell with hell?” by Mark Driscoll
– Another great book review by Relevant Magazine here
– The Love Wins website