For weeks now the Christian world has been up at arms about a book by a provocative pastor from Michigan. Rob Bell's new book promised to open up dialogue regarding heaven, hell and the love of God. A three-minute promotional video for Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harper-Collins, 2011) sparked a landslide of conversation regarding orthodoxy, heretics, universalism, false teachers and other words that excite theologians beyond what we are willing to admit.
During those first few weeks, there have been a few bloggers who received an advanced copy and immediately expressed concern over what they had read and seen. Some of these were quite clearly blind rejection of a man and his teachings. Some were equally clear defense of whatever Mr. Bell ever had or would write. Some were very responsible, tempered and even sad.
Then the "twitter-universe" got to work.
Once the great Rob Bell had a target on his head, he was finally fair game for the hoards of pastors who dream of preaching to a congregation a tenth of his size to take pot-shots at.
But I was late to the party again.
What held me back was not my love for Mr. Bell's body of work. Frankly, having my theological roots in the "reformed camp," I had a hard time understanding his message. What I did understand, however, was the great impact he had particularly on two of my very best friends.
My first friend Matt, who could simultaneously out-think, out-preach and out-swear any foe, had used Rob Bell's Nooma videos in his youth group. Matt is the type of guy who could smell deception from a mile a way. Nobody pulls the wool over Matt's eyes, and as a fellow reformed thinker, Matt's willingness to use Mr. Bell's materials convinced me that they were orthodox, helpful and faithful to the message of Jesus.
My second friend is Garrett, whose friendship and partnership in ministry has proved ever true. He has been reading, hearing and watching Rob Bell for years and he turned out not to be a heretic but instead a strong believer, teacher of the word and lover of God's people. It was Garrett's background as something of a Bell-disciple (I do not mean this in a derogatory sense- I feel free to call myself a disciple of Bonhoeffer) that convinced me that, although he may never be my "cup of tea," Rob Bell had something to offer serious believers in Jesus.
And so you may understand my hesitation to condemn the man' his teachings before I gave them a fair hearing in his latest controversial book.
A Fair Hearing
So I bought it on Tuesday morning, as soon as it came out, and I set out to read it with the cleanest slate that I could. You know, there really is no point to reading a book once you have decided it is a load of crap. It is good and healthy for us to think through a differing viewpoint. If we are too afraid to have our thinking challenged, especially as leaders in the church, how can we expect to engage anybody that disagrees with us?
And so I started to read the book for myself. You know what I found? Promise you won't tell my theology professor.
I really liked it.
I found myself standing up and shouting in agreement at times. At other times, I cussed like a sailor- which is a sign that I agreed! Allow me to throw some great sentences your way:
Jesus freed us to call things what they are.1
Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the god they don't believe in,
we quickly discover that I don't believe in that god either.2
In the stories about Jesus a lot of people, including his own family, are uncertain about exactly who Jesus is and what he's up to- except demons, who know exactly who he is and what he is doing.3
Justice and mercy hold hands,
they belong together in the age to come,
an age that is complex, earthy, participatory, and free
from all death, destruction, and despair.4
I cried when I read that last one. Seriously. Beautiful. I can tell why Garrett and Matt love Rob Bell's stuff. For the first time in a couple of attempts to read him, I was personally impressed. I liked it. I was in.
A Break From Orthodoxy
But then he started to make his point.
All of a sudden a sickening feeling came over me. This is why my theological family was pre-emptive in discrediting this particular book. Let me point out the two foundational points at which the book departs from orthodox, biblical teaching.
No matter how painful, brutal, oppressive, no matter how far people find themselves from home because of their sin, indifference, and rejection, there's always the assurance that it won't be this way 'forever'.5
It is easy to read that quotation and rejoice. It is indeed true for us who are in Christ. In fact, if the word "his" were between the words "far" and "people", it would have ended up in the earlier list of quotes. The very saddening truth is that this little word was left out. This incredibly subtle shift in language has turned the conversation around. This, to my knowledge, is the first definitive heretical statement in his book.
The second, and perhaps the most important statement in his argument, a statement upon which the next 100 pages hang upon, is so subtle that we will miss it if we get swept away in the beauty of the writing. He writes about the Greek word aion, a word that is used in Matthew 25:46:
Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is "age" or "period of time"; another refers to intensity of experience...In a good number of English translations of the bible, the phrase "aion of kolazo" gets translated as "eternal punishment," which many read to mean "punishment forever," as in, never going to end.6
At this point it is far too easy to lay down our arms at the altar of biblical exegesis. "Hey, he wrote with authority about the meaning of Greek words, how am I going to argue with that?" Do you see that, without citing a source, he has become the authority on what the Greek language? This is what Paul warned us of in his letter to the Corinthians "plausible arguments." Do not be deceived.
Rob Bell's translation of the Greek text holds no water.
According to the standard Greek Lexicon7, the exact usage of this word is defined as the following:
Pertaining to a period of unending duration: "without end."
The word we translate as "eternal" means "forever." Just as God's sheep will be with him, enjoying him fully forever, the goats, those who have gone their own way, should expect nothing less than God's wrath. Forever. Without end.
Now, I understand that both of these criticisms seem very nit-picky. I am sure if you dug through everything I have ever written or said there would be plenty of iffy theological statements here and there. We cannot say anything perfectly. But we have to remember that accuracy in theological matters is absolutely essential. The whole world of Christianity can change on one little word, either excluded or included.
Need an example? Jehovah's Witnesses insert the letter "a" into the text in John 1. That's it. That's how their entire theology developed. "In the beginning was a word." Jesus is all of a sudden one among many.
Please do not underestimate the power of words. They are the only tools of our trade. Seriously.
Turning From the Gospel
In the next one hundred pages, what we see is a sad fading away from the realm of the concrete, specific and real into a world that has been constructed upon an intentional (make no mistake) misinterpretation of God's revealed word.
This book leaves the reader with the absolutely unmistakable notion that everybody who has ever lived will eventually submit willingly to the love of God. This is universalism. This is not the message of Jesus. Jesus tells us that nobody comes to the Father but through him. Here are Mr. Bell's thoughts on this statement:
First there is exclusivity.
Jesus is the only way. Everybody who doesn't believe in him and follow him in the to heaven, and so on. There is that kind of exclusion. You're either in, or you're going to hell. Two groups.8
With everything in my heart, I wish that was where he stopped. We could agree on that statement. We could debate. We could challenge one another on who has the bigger Lexicon. I am unspeakably sad to say that he went on:
Then there is inclusivity.
The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in, that there is only one mountain but it has many paths. This inclusivity assumes that as long as your heat is fine and your actions measure up, you'll be okay.9
Do you see that this is statement is in direct opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ? There is no such thing as a good person. There is only one way to the Father. Your heart is wicked and deceitful above all things. My actions will never measure up to what they should be.
If we are judged on our own goodness, we will not be okay. Ever. Not with a million lifetimes to improve. We need Jesus to stand for our goodness. We need him to be the good person for us. We need him to be our way to the Father. We need him to take away our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. We need to be judged on the actions of Jesus or else we are screwed. Royally. Forever.
We Have to Sleep at Night
And I understand that I take an embarrassing position. I truly wish I could agree with Rob Bell and say that everybody is in. As angry as people make me sometimes I really do not wish forever separation from God upon anybody. How could you want that for anybody?
The simple fact is that God has not asked for our opinion on whether or not there should be a hell. He seems quite confident in his decision to save some and condemn others. We cannot understand it but we can rest assured that, because he said it, this is the truth.
Then we can repent.
Then we can trust in the power of Jesus to make us not better but new.
Then we can flee the wrath to come, running to the God of wrath who promises us to cast out all fear.
Then we can take God at his word.
And I take great comfort in that. God is still on his throne and he is really good at being God. I am not his publicist nor am I responsible for making him sound modern, relevant, acceptable, loving, or just.
Our call is simply hear his word and believe.
I will not participate in slandering Rob Bell. I do not want to celebrate his departure from the gospel. I would rather weep for him and for those who are led astray by these words. I would rather pray that God will bring back his wandering sheep.
I don't want to party.
I am serious about this because I believe Jesus when he says hell is real, forever and separation from the presence of God. God is in earnest. But I will sleep well, free from answering for God's harshness. I believe him when he says there is hell. I believe what he says.
And because I believe what God says, I can be confident that I am his and he is mine.
So I live free by day and sleep well at night.
1 P. x.
2 p. 9.
3 p. 18.
4 p. 39.
5 P. 86.
6 P. 91.
7 Bauer, Danker, et all. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Church Literature. University of Chicago Press. 2000.
8 P. 154.
9 Pp. 154-155.