Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins has already caused a stir in various circles, and had been doing so even before the book was released. I had already made some posts related to it (here, here and here), but beforehand I had not had the chance to read it in its entirety. In fact, to be perfectly frank, I was initially going to ignore the book altogether. People far more discerning, knowledgeable and well known had already reviewed it, and I had doubts I could add anything to what they had already done. I also knew that reading it would be akin to watching a Michael Moore film: I already know the differences between myself and the other person, where we stand on certain topics, and what their common methods of argumentation are – so why should I even bother?
In the end, I decided to go out and purchase it. I recognized that, even if I could ignore the book, others would not. During my brief tenure at a Kansas City seminary, I had encountered a great deal of theology sourced to Liberal Christianity and the whole Emergent Church movement. It cannot be ignored that this theology is making inroads in certain circles, and that many have begun to take it seriously.
This post was therefore not only written for the benefit of others, but the benefit of myself as well. We need to be prepared to respond to differing theological opinions in two ways: 1) understanding what that position is and grasp the fullness of its view; 2) being able to confront that position from a biblical, scriptural perspective. It is all too common, when confronted by a position we disagree with, to respond internally with emotion, and then argue in like manner.
One thing I should immediately note is that Rob Bell does not write like most people do – that is, he does not write in full paragraphs with consistent indents, sentence structures, etc. James White had said the book was written like a Twitter account, and that’s a fairly accurate portrayal: while paragraphs do exist throughout the book, many times Rob Bell will write a series of short sentences with every individual sentence given a line of its own. Some longer sentences are broken up on individual lines as if structured like a poem. Sometimes a series of words will be put in a list that takes up half the page. Keep this in mind whenever I quote from the book itself and it looks like I’m having html issues with Blogger.
Truth be told, this made the book slightly annoying. I’ve generally found that there are three types of people: those who speak well and write well; those who are poor speakers but good writers; and those who are good speakers but poor writers. Rob Bell seems to fit in the latter group. His writing is obviously supposed to be modeled after his speaking style, but just as that didn’t work for Hitler in Mein Kampf (and no, I am not comparing Rob Bell to Hitler) it doesn’t work for Rob Bell in Love Wins.
Another annoying habit I noticed, almost right off the bat, was that Rob Bell rarely cites his sources or scripture quotations. An early example is on page 7, where Bell quotes Renee Altson’s book Stumbling Toward Faith, but doesn’t tell you at all where in the book he gets the quote. An even bigger example comes much later:
In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people.
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well.
In their day, Jerome claimed that “most people,” Basil said the “mass of men,” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God. [pg. 107-108]
Ignoring for the fact that he cites two men identified as heretics (Clement and Origen), as well as two men who are not considered heretics but identified to have held erroneous beliefs (Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius), note how he doesn’t cite one single source for where he got these quotes or affirmation of their agreement. He pretty much throws it in and says, “Just take my word for it! They agreed with me!” One almost gets the feeling that Rob Bell doesn’t want you to cross-reference his sources.
I had heard from previous reviews before that he tended to did this, but there is nothing like reading the book yourself and taking note of it. He will either drop a Bible quote and never tell you where he got it, or he will simply give you the book and chapter number without the specific verse (for example: Revelation, chap. 20). Initially I started writing in the exact citation whenever I encountered these situations…but this actually became so tedious that I eventually gave up and tried to discern which ones may have been taken out of context or not. As you might gather from this, Love Wins has no scripture index either (and I really didn’t have the patience to do what James White did for Chosen But Free and make my own). Again, it almost comes across as if Rob Bell doesn’t want you to cross-reference his quotations.
Ironically, the biggest first impression happened as soon as I began the book. That is, I immediately knew what I was getting into on the very first page of the preface. It was there that I encountered this:
First, I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.
That’s the story.
“For God so loved the world. . .”
That’s why Jesus came.
That’s his message.
That’s where the life is found. [pg. v]
I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even reached the official part of the book yet, and already I had seen gross eisegesis. Rob Bell quotes the first six words of John 3:16, but he seems to forget everything that comes after it: “…that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” What is translated as “whoever believes” is actually a longer Greek prepositional phrase: πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων. It literally translates as “all those believing,” signifying that this eternal life is conditional only on belief in Christ. This is followed two verses later with: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18). In using only one third of a verse, Bell attempts to portray a God who loves literally everyone unconditionally, yet completely leaves out everything that follows, in which his argument is entirely contradicted.
Keep in mind, once again, this was at the start of the preface…the first page of the book. This was a sign of things to come.
Reading the book, you realize that Rob Bell seems to endlessly repeat two logical fallacies: appeal to emotion and straw man. This is mostly in response to critics or those who hold an opinion contrary to the one Bell upholds. When dealing with such a contrary opinion, Bell will do either one of two things: 1) present a scenario where that opinion does oh-so-terrible things to people, leading one to conclude that the belief itself must be oh-so-terrible as well; 2) present a belief that is a misrepresentation of the true, orthodox Christian opinion, and attack that instead of the real argument.
One example of appealing to emotion, early on in the book:
Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her, “So there’s no hope then.”
Is that the Christian message?
Is that what Jesus offers the world? [pg. 3]
And then there are those whose lessons about heaven consist primarily of who will be there and who won’t be there. And so there’s a woman sitting in a church service with tears streaming down her face, as she imagines being reunited with her sister who was killed in a car accident seventeen years ago. The woman sitting next to her, however, is realizing that if what the pastor is saying about heaven is true, she will be separated from her mother and father, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends forever, with no chance of any reunion, ever. She in that very same moment has tears steaming down her face too, but they are tears of a different kind. [pg. 25]
Of course, the idea of a loved one going to hell is unsettling for anyone. We don’t want to think that our mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, aunt, uncle, best friend or even wife or husband will go to hell. That’s a perfectly normal sentiment. However, it is another thing to realize how horrible that feels, and then base a judgment on that emotion alone. “That sounds terrible, so it must not be true,” is the general train of thought. Yet this makes as much sense as saying, “The death penalty sounds horrible, so it must not be true,” and ignoring the fact that some have indeed been sentenced to suffer the death penalty.
Note very quickly something in the second quotation: “if what the pastor is saying…” This is very common throughout much of the initial part of the book, where Rob Bell is laying the foundation to what he’s responding. It’s always what “a pastor” or “some people” say – never what the Bible says. This is a bit similar to Doug Pagitt’s use of “Platonic” in his book A Christianity Worth Believing. It’s mainly to assure the reader that the opponents of the writer’s opinion have no arguments from scripture or counter-exegesis.
The scriptural arguments of Rob Bell’s opponents are never really considered, only a misrepresentation of what they believe. Or, as atheists often do, Bell takes the worst argumentation from the opposing side and chooses instead to respond to that, ignoring the more valid, thought out arguments. Oftentimes, he simply tries to confuse the matter by citing various passages that have nothing to do with one another (let alone conversion/salvation) and present it as if the orthodox position is difficult to understand. For example, after citing various passages that Rob Bell claims portray various modes of salvation, he states:
So is it not only that a person has to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do – but also that someone else has to act, teach, travel, organize, fund-raise, and build so that the person can know what to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do? [pg. 10]
This is continued throughout the book. Rob Bell will grab this and that, throw it together as if it all has the same context, then say something similar to, “Oh my, scripture is just so confusing,” misleading the reader to assume that certain teachings of scripture are not as clear as they might think they are. One might call this “scriptural acrobatics,” but this isn’t so much “scriptural acrobatics” as it might be “scriptural meatloaf.”
This is all very important to note because Rob Bell’s arguments are truly not scriptural by any means. The claim by the inside flap that his presentation is “biblical” is a gross misnomer. Rob Bell is no student of the Charles Hodge school of induction from scripture; rather, Rob Bell presents early on a concept of “what is mean and evil” and “what is better and good,” and tries to find relevant passages to what fit into his theology. This will become more apparent as the review progresses on.
Rob Bell begins his exposition on what “heaven” and “hell” exactly are in a chapter properly entitled Here is the New There. He puts forward that heaven is actually the present time, and is what we make of it. It is all about what we do here.
In Matthew 20 the mother of two of Jesus’s disciples says to Jesus, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and other at your left in your kingdom.” She doesn’t want bigger mansions or larger piles of gold for them, because static images of wealth and prosperity were not what filled people’s heads when they thought of heaven in her day. She understood heaven to be about partnering with God to make a new and better world, one with increasingly complex and expansive expressions of dimensions of shalom, creativity, beauty, and design. [pg. 47]
Rob Bell makes reference to Matthew 20:21, with the request by the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The immediate problem Bell has is whereas he says “She got it right!” Christ would say “She got it wrong.” When she asks this, Christ’s first response is, “You do not know what you are asking.” He follows this with the question to James and John: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matt 20:22). The cup was the crucifixion He would endure, followed by the pain and suffering that would come in being a believer in Christ. James and John did think Christ’s kingdom was an entirely earthly kingdom…but that was an incorrect notion.
Despite this, Rob Bell continues to argue that “heaven” is what we make of the world here and now.
The more you become a person of peace and justice and worship and generosity, the more actively you participate now in ordering and working to bring about God’s kind of world, the more ready you will be to assume an even greater role in the age to come. [pg. 40]
So when people ask, “What will we do in heaven?” one possible answer is to simply ask: “What do you love to do now that will go on in the world to come?” [pg. 47]
And another, clarifying his position:
To summarize, then, sometimes when Jesus used the word “heaven,” he was simply referring to God, using the word as a substitute for the name of God.
Second, sometimes when Jesus spoke of heaven, he was referring to the future coming together of heaven and earth in what he and his contemporaries called life in the age to come.
And then third – and this is where things get really, really interesting – when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Heaven for Jesus wasn’t just “someday”; it was a present reality. Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now.
To say it again, eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. [pg. 58-59]
Rob Bell continually reads the idea of heaven as a reshaping of our social and personal atmosphere, “participating” with God on the earth.
But when Jesus talks with the rich man, he has one thing in mind: he wants the man to experience the life of heaven, eternal life, “aionian” life, now. For that man, his wealth was in the way; for others its worry or stress or pride or envy – the list goes on. We know that list. [pg. 62]
Perhaps the most mind-boggingly eisegetical moment in the redefinition of heaven – and one that shows the inherent flaws in his argument – is when Rob Bell talks about the wise thief on the cross.
Jesus is hanging on the cross between two insurgents when one of them says to him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Notice that the man doesn’t ask to go to heaven. He doesn’t ask for his sins to be forgiven. He doesn’t invite Jesus into his heart. He doesn’t announce that he now believes.
He simply asks to be remembered by Jesus in the age to come.
He wants to be part of it. Of course.
Jesus assures him that he’ll be with him in paradise. . .
that day. The man hadn’t asked about today; he had asked about that day. He believes that God is doing something new through Jesus and he wants to be a part of it, whenever it is. [pg. 54-55]
The way Rob Bell writes that the thief wanted “to be a part” of what “God is doing…through Jesus,” you’d almost forget that just on the previous page Rob Bell had mentioned that the two were hanging by nails on a cross, being executed in a gruesome fashion. Can you imagine what God could possibly be doing (socially speaking) by nailing a person to the cross? Try to imagine the rationale behind this: you have giant nails through your wrists and feet, you’re half-naked on a cross, foreign soldiers are mocking you, your own people jeering you, pain is seething through every inch of your body…would your immediate thought through all this be, “Oh wow, Jesus! I can totally see how God is really doing something through You on this earth, and I wanna be part of it!” Probably not.
Matthew records that, initially, even the wise thief was mocking Christ (Matt 27:44), but as the events of the crucifixion went on and the time of death drew near, it is then that the incident recorded in Luke 23:39-43 occurred. What other context could the thief be thinking but the afterlife? Keep in mind that the other thief, whom the wise thief rebukes, had demanded Christ free Himself and then them. If the wise thief is seeking to be part of “what God is doing” and that means making the world a better place, why doesn’t he likewise demand that Jesus set him free so that he can go give money to the poor or start homeless shelters? Instead, the thief asks for one thing: that Christ remember him when He comes into His kingdom. The time of death was here, but the wise thief understood that there was something beyond death, and he sought it from the one Man who could supply it: Jesus Christ. To turn this into a silly example of a social gospel is to not only mock the faith of the thief, but, more importantly, the saving faith of Christ.
Turning now to hell, it probably won’t surprise anyone that – just as he taught heaven is more of a present-day condition than a latter day state of judgment – Bell likewise teaches that hell is merely what we make of it on earth. After recalling a visit to Rwanda in 2002 and seeing the survivors of the genocide, baring missing limbs that had been hacked off, Bell states:
Do I believe in a literal hell?
Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs. [pg. 71]
He states a page later:
God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.
We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.
We can use machetes if we want to. [pg. 72]
To Bell, Christ’s descriptions of hell are merely “a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity” (pg. 73). Talking about a woman going through a nasty divorce, Bell says: “In that moment Jesus’s warnings don’t seem that over-the-top or drastic; they seem perfectly spot-on” (ibid).
Here I should quickly note something for those of my readers who may have experienced a harsh life, or have family and friends who have gone through a traumatic experience: I am in no way, shape or form attempting to demean your emotions or feelings regarding what you went through. The people Bell mentions surely went through a kind of “living hell.” The problem is that Bell takes the experience of a bad life event and then confuses that for the literal hell. That is the danger in his theology. The belief in a literal hell came first, followed by the phrase “living hell” to give an idea of the pain behind an experience; Bell wants to try to tell us that it was the other way around.
One problem that Rob Bell doesn’t seem to realize is that most of those “metaphors” he refers to involve the actions of angels. For example, Matthew 13:41-42 describes the Son of Man sending His angels to gather the stumbling blocks of the kingdom and casting them into the furnace of fire, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Are angels therefore causing the pain and suffering Bell identifies? Were there angels wandering around Rwanda hacking off limbs? Did an angel convince the woman’s husband to divorce her? Keep in mind these are angels of the Lord, not fallen angels, and all I’m asking for here is consistency. Rob Bell’s explanation that descriptions of hell are metaphors simply doesn’t follow through when looked at logically.
Of course, you can’t get away from the passages that clearly speak of an afterlife event or condition. Many readers have probably been thinking, “How would Rob Bell handle the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?” Well, believe it or not…he turns that into a social gospel too.
Notice that the story ends with a reference to the resurrection, something that was going to happen very soon with Jesus himself. This is crucial for understanding the story, because the story is about Jesus’s listeners at that moment. The story, for them, moves from then to now. Whatever the meaning was for Jesus’s first listeners, it was directly related to what he was doing right there in their midst. [pg. 75]
I couldn’t help but recall the 1960’s Batman series with Adam West, where the Riddler was always coming up with some very vague puzzle that Batman somehow knew how to solve in a roundabout way (“‘Sea’? Sea…ah! C, for Catwoman!“). Similarly, Bell takes the tale of the rich man and Lazarus, takes the word “resurrection,” loosely connects it to Jesus’s own resurrection (which it wasn’t about – it regarded possible warnings from the afterlife akin to Mary K. Baxter), then somehow makes it seem as if this is all about what Jesus is doing in their midst. In other words, Rob Bell skirts having to deal with a passage clearly talking about the afterlife and judgment by utilizing a not-so-subtle red herring.
From here, Bell turns the story into one giant “social revolution” metaphor. “The chasm is the rich man’s heart,” Bell says, because “he’s still clinging to the old hierarchy. He still thinks he’s better” (ibid). Bell goes on to say:
The gospel Jesus spreads in the book of Luke has as one of its main themes that Jesus brings a social revolution, in which the previous systems and hierarchies of clean and unclean, sinner and saved, and up and down don’t mean what they used to. God is doing a new work through Jesus, calling all people to human solidarity. Everybody is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favoritism. [pg. 75-76]
Keep in mind this is what Rob Bell thinks the parable of the rich man and Lazarus means. He states that the parable is telling Christ’s listeners “to rethink how they viewed the world, because there would be serious consequences for ignoring the Lazaruses outside their gates” (pg. 76). Before you think the mention of “serious consequences” means Bell is teaching a kind of hell as punishment, read what he writes a few pages later on the same subject:
What we see in Jesus’s 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. [pg. 79]
According to Rob Bell, then, the entire point of the rich man and Lazarus was that we should give to poor people or we make this world hell. The rich man was merely in “one kind of hell,” which we all find ourselves in, depending on who we are or what we experience.
If you think the strange connection between the rich man and Lazarus parable with a social revolution is as crazy as it gets, you should see how Rob Bell treats the parable of the prodigal son:
What the father does is retell the older brother’s story. Just as he did with the younger brother. The question, then, is the same question that confronted the younger brother – will he trust his version of his story or his father’s version of the story?
Who will he trust?
What will he believe?
The difference between the two stories is,
the difference between heaven . . . and hell. [pg. 168-169]
If you’re thinking, “You gotta be kidding me, he thinks the parable of the prodigal son is relevant to the topic of the existence of heaven and hell?”, you guessed rightly. Again finding a slim connection between a parable and a non-related point, Rob Bell will spend several pages going on about how the relationship between heaven and hell is like the prodigal son and his family. It’s as if he seems to forget that the parable was aimed at the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes who disliked Christ seeking repentance from sinners (Luke 15:2), meaning the whole point of the parable was God’s acceptance of repentant hearts. It has nothing to do with heaven and hell.
With all this talk of metaphorical hells, most people have probably been thinking, “Wait, doesn’t Christ always say that hell is an eternal punishment? Isn’t it eternal then?” Actually, Bell has a response to that. While referring to the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25, Bell makes this case:
The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish. [pg. 91]
Bell argues that “Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever” (pg. 92). The implication here is that what we translate as “eternal punishment” Christ actually means as “temporary pruning,” so that eventually the goats will join the sheep. Bell earlier states that “there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever” (pg. 86). Here is the problem with that interpretation – and it’s a great problem for anyone questioning the definition of “eternal” in the New Testament:
“These will go away into eternal punishment [κόλασιν αἰώνιον], but the righteous into eternal life [ζωὴν αἰώνιον].” [Matt 25:46]
The goats are going into an aion of kolazo, whereas the sheep are going into an aion of zoe. According to Bell’s own logic and definition of aion, the life of the sheep is therefore only temporary. What then happens with this aion of zoe ends? Do the sheep and goats trade places? Are the sheep sent into refinement? If that’s the case, why did they need to go into life in the first place? Let’s be consistent here (if you review Bell’s use of aion with eternal life on pages 58-59, you’ll see he isn’t). The fact is, kolazo (actually κόλασις) means “chastisement, punishment” and “torment” (source) – Christ is not talking about any kind of refinement here.
Even more mind-bogging is the way Rob Bell seems to completely miss the point of Christ’s warning to various Jewish cities, which Bell uses in his interpretation that there’s hope for people in the afterlife.
In Matthew 10 [actually Matt 11:23-24], he warns the people living in Capernaum, “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you.”
More bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah?
He tells highly committed, pious, religious people that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than them on judgment day?
There’s still hope? [pg. 84]
I literally could not believe this. Did Rob Bell just completely miss the point Christ was trying to make? When Christ says “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you,” He’s not saying that Sodom and Gomorrah have been forgiven, or that there was hope for Sodom and Gomorrah after death…He’s conveying that it will be worse for those who reject Him, the Incarnate Word. How can you seriously miss that?
Rob Bell’s response to eternal punishment is ultimately an emotional one:
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 spent on earth? [pg. 102]
May I pose a question in response to Rob Bell’s logic here: does it really matter how long it took to commit a crime to judge the severity of a crime? Suppose a man murdered his daughter, was arrested and brought to trial, but the judge said, “Well, it only took you a second to commit the murder, so I’ll just put you in jail for a few minutes.” We would call such things injustice. In the same manner, it is not a matter of how long a person sinned or lived a sinful life – it is the crime committed, and against whom. The sum of all sins are equal, and transgressing one of God’s commands is the same as transgressing them all (cf. Jam 2:10). There is likewise not a righteous person who has ever lived, Jew or Gentile (Rom 3:9-10). As someone once said, there will be nobody in hell who won’t deserve to be there, and only one Person in heaven who will deserve to be there.
To summarize all this, how does Rob Bell define heaven and hell?
- To Rob Bell, heaven is: “that realm where things are as God intends them to be” (pg. 42).
- To Rob Bell, hell is: “the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way” (pg. 93).
With the line distorted between then and now, one wonders: does Rob Bell teach any kind of afterlife? Well, in a way, yes. The immediate follow-up question might then be, “Is it true that Rob Bell is a universalist?” To put it briefly, yes. In his section specifically dealing with God’s judgment and the afterlife, Rob Bell begins his argumentation with:
I point out these parallel claims:
that God is mighty, powerful, and “in control”
and that billions of people will spend forever apart from this God, who is their creator,
even though it’s written in the Bible that
“God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2).
So does God get what God wants? [pg. 97]
Yes, that’s right – Rob Bell pulled the 1 Timothy 2:4 card.
Now, most Arminians or Synergists (at least those who try to be biblically consistent) recognize that even if God “wants all people to be saved,” that isn’t what’s going to happen. Yet 1 Timothy 2:4 becomes the battle cry for Rob Bell’s universalism, asking the reader: “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” (pg. 98) Therefore, it might appropriate here to quickly analyze 1 Timothy 2:4 (hopefully avoiding any Synergist/Monergist debate that might spring up):
First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. [1 Tim 2:1-8]
Let’s note first the context: to pray for all kinds of men, including those who are kings or in authority. All Christians, at this time, were living under pagan authorities, yet Paul commands that they pray even for these men, since God desires that even men such as they would come to repentance. It is not man who saves, of course, but God who saves – we are not to forget that. Man is likewise not to forget that even the worst of us (as Paul himself experienced) could be saved by our Lord.
Note also verse 7: “for this,” Paul says, “I was appointed a preacher and an apostle…as a teacher of the Gentiles.” What does Paul mean when he says “all men”? Does he mean literally all men everywhere will soon be believers in heaven? Not at all. This would contradict Paul’s point in his epistle to the Romans that while God makes “one vessel for honorable use,” He likewise from the same lump creates “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom 9:21-22). The other problem is that the word Rob Bell translates as “wants” (θέλω in the original Greek) is likewise translated as “desires” (such as in the ESV and NASB), and refers to an implication or wish rather than an edict (that is, something set in stone). Some examples of its use as a wish or implication include Luke 8:20, Luke 23:8, 1 Corinthians 7:7 and 1 Corinthians 14:5. All in all, the apostle Paul is trying to tell Timothy that we should pray for everyone because there is no limit or restriction on what type of person God will save. He is not telling Timothy that God wants literally everybody in the whole world to be saved.
Returning to the topic, Rob Bell beats his mantra of “God has to get what God wants!”, going to a discussion regarding the end times and final judgment. This leads to a rather humorous moment that shows Rob Bell’s lack of understanding of scripture:
Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, “Sorry, too late”? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: “Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late.” [pg. 108]
When I first read this, I realized this scenario sounded familiar…then I realized that this is what Christ says will happen!
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the prudent, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the prudent answered, ‘No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut. Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open up for us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you.’ Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour. [Matthew 25:1-13]
Rob Bell tells us, “Gosh, it would be so mean to think God would shut the door and not let in people who were sorry, even telling them it was too late!” Yet Christ tells us that’s exactly what it will be like. This is exactly why Christ is continually warning His followers to always be ready – because you don’t know when the Master will come and the door be locked. Once it’s locked, there’s no chance of getting in. Yes, Mr. Bell, that’s it. Christ Himself says so. In fact, Christ doesn’t even say, “I’m sorry, it’s too late,” He simply says, “I don’t know you.”
This brings us to Rob Bell’s infamous treatment of the last two chapters of Revelation and the final judgment. He notes first the absence of any kind of sin, and the barring of people who have committed such sin…and then a stunning fact regarding the gates of the New Jerusalem:
Second, we read in these last chapters of revelation that the gates of that city in that new world will “never shut.” That’s a small detail, and it’s important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.
Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions – and the people who do them – from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people? Keeping the gates, in essence, open? Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting upon their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom? [pg. 115]
The implication here is that a person, seeing the glory of the better world, drops all the “major” sins they cling to and enter heaven. This is how Rob Bell introduces universal reconciliation, although in the end he leaves it up for question:
Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are leave to free fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires. [ibid]
This is how Rob Bell gets around being labeled a universalist. The problem is a hopeful universalist is still a universalist, and Bell has completely misused text to get to this absurd “maybe.” The fact is there are no tensions present, because Bell has in fact forgotten a rather important part about those open gates:
In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. [Revelation 21:25-27; emphasis mine]
Note the part in bold: the only people who can go through those gates are those in the book of life. What already happened to those whose names were not written in the book of life? They were thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15), where it is said their part in this new world will be (Rev 21:8). This completely debunks Rob Bell’s notion that the gates are open to let anyone in the lake of fire in. And before anyone tries to say, “Oh, well, they can be written in later!”, keep in mind that these names were written in the book of life “from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). The judgment has come. They are in their place. The gates are open only for those who deserve to be there.
Might I now propose a philosophical problem with Rob Bell’s eschatology? If in the end even the hardest of hearts are melted and everyone embraces God (because sending people to hell would be so gosh darn mean)…then why do anything good in this life? Why should I join Jesus’s “social revolution” when Jesus will be letting me into the New Jerusalem any way? Rob Bell might argue, “Oh! But that sinning still has to be overcome in the next life!” True, but he believes that we mature in the afterlife, and that I’ll be so wowed by the party going on in heaven that I’ll be willing to abandon hell altogether.
The love of God will melt every wild heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God. [pg. 107]
Why then should I be good when I’ll eventually be able to overcome my bad? Why fear afterlife punishment when it’s only to convince me how good I should be? Why be a Schindler when you can be a Himmler and still have a chance to change your mind afterward? What’s so bad about the Rwanda murderers who defaced the people Rob Bell met when eventually both groups will be together in heaven? I know nothing bad is going to happen to me no matter how evil or cruel I am, because, after all, it would be mean of God to punish me.
Rob Bell argues that the idea of an afterlife with punishment makes this life senseless. What he seems to fail to realize is that, following his own logic through to its conclusion, making an afterlife with no punishment likewise makes this life senseless.
Similar to the treatment of Christ in The Shack, Rob Bell would have us believe that Jesus Christ taught universalism. Quoting Paul’s reference to Moses hitting the rock in Exodus (1 Cor 10:4), Bell explains how Jesus is nowhere in that passage, yet Paul finds Him there. He states this is because “Paul finds Jesus everywhere” (pg. 144). Rob Bell’s ultimate point is that if Paul found Jesus in a rock, why can’t we find Jesus in Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.
Might I stop for a moment? What had Paul said a few verses later? “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were” (1 Cor 10:7). He says several verses even further: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14) – no, not idolatry as in a silly metaphor that Rob Bell uses in regards to our personal sins, but actual, pagan idolatry. Paul likewise states, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (1 Cor 10:21). Paul’s point in this tenth chapter is that they should seek after God and avoid the past errors of the Old Testament Jews, one of which was going after other gods. Rob Bell is grabbing a text and saying, “Oh look! Paul found Jesus in a rock, which means we can find Jesus in the Tibetan Book of the Dead!” No, Mr. Bell – Paul found an early Messianic foreshadow which He used to highlight that we have only one Rock, and that we should not seek after anything other than this Rock. It is simply amazing what a little review of context can do to a theological belief.
In continuing his argument that Jesus believes He is saving literally everyone, Rob Bell turns to the famous Good Shepherd chapter:
As Jesus says in John 10, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.” [pg. 152]
Yet here (John 10:16) Christ is talking about the Gentiles, who will be brought into the new covenant after the crucifixion (the point of John 12:32, which Rob Bell, like he did with 1 Timothy 2:4, also misrepresents as being universalism on page 151). In the exact same chapter, Christ tells the Jewish leaders, “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock” (John 10:26; ESV), and that it is for His sheep that He gives eternal life so that they never perish (John 10:28). Therefore, Christ clearly differentiates those who are not His sheep and those who are, and that there are benefits for one and disaster for the other. Again, simply astounding how much can be done to a theological belief when a little context is reviewed.
Some of my readers might be thinking, “Wait a minute, how would Rob Bell handle John 14:6? That’s as exclusivist as they come.” Well, Rob Bell does handle John 14:6, but how he handles it is simply evidence that someone can read a clear teaching of scripture and still see only what they want to see.
John remembers Jesus saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (chap. 14).
This is as wide and expansive a claim as a person can make.
What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. [pg. 154]
Reading this, certain words come to mind, as spoken by a certain reptile in the Garden of Eden: “Did God really say…?” In a similar fashion, Rob Bell takes a passage that clearly repudiates his entire argument and says, “Well, did God really say He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one can come to the Father except through the Son…?”
To Rob Bell, Jesus is not the way, the truth, or the life, He is simply a vague “life source of the universe” (pg. 156) that supplies help to everyone, which “in many traditions…is understood to be impersonal” (pg. 145). If you want to know how serious Rob Bell takes this subject, he even compares Jesus to the Force in Star Wars (ibid). To those who argue that this makes the cross – and indeed, Christ Himself – completely irrelevant, Bell assures them that this is “absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true,” as Jesus “is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (pg. 155). To be perfectly frank, that comment makes little sense, as if Rob Bell believes a “beautiful contradiction” is better than a Divine Truth. Given what we’ve seen already, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that consistency isn’t a serious standard at this point.
Obviously we’ve already seen some examples of how Rob Bell plays games either with the original language and certain passages of scripture. There were a few unique examples, however, in which I couldn’t help but notice that Rob Bell had to have been willingly distorting the original meaning.
One example is found in Rob Bell’s handling of the encounter between Christ and the rich young ruler. Read this following quote very carefully, and see if you can spot the mishandling:
Jesus then tells him, “Go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” which causes the man to walk away sad, “because he had great wealth.” [pg. 29]
Did you catch it? What did Rob Bell leave out? Let’s see the original verse in its entirety:
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” [Matthew 19:21]
Rob Bell left out Christ’s final command: “come, follow Me.” That was the climax of the command – that was where everything hinged upon.
This becomes even more apparent a few pages on:
When the wealthy man walks away from Jesus, Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them, “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18). [pg. 31]
Did you note that he again ignored something? Rob Bell quotes Luke 18:29-30…but he completely left out verses 24 to 28, which is what Jesus actually said when He turned to his disciples. Verses 26 and 27 are especially important: the disciples lament “Then who can be saved?” and Christ responds “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.” Rob Bell will say elsewhere that the rich young ruler’s problem was he couldn’t “trust God to liberate him from his greed” (pg. 41), but that wasn’t at all why he had to trust in God – he had to trust in God for his salvation. Anyone who reads the fullness of the rich young ruler’s story understands that.
Yet another example, taken from the section dealing with heaven:
(By the way, when the writer John in the book of Revelation gets a current glimpse of the heavens, one detail he mentions about crowns is that people are taking them off [chap. 4]. Apparently, in the unvarnished presence of the divine a lot of things we consider significant turn out to be, much like wearing a crown, quite absurd). [pg. 44]
He’s referring to Revelation 4:10, but completely misquotes it: the “twenty-four elders” (whom he fails to identify) are not simply “taking them off,” but rather it is written that they “will cast their crowns before the throne.” Who is on the throne? The most high God. It is likewise written that they will say: “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created” (Rev 4:11). The crowns were a sign of glory given to them by God, but the elders recognize that even their own glory cannot be attributed to anyone other than God, and hence by casting their crowns before the thrown they are returning that glory given to them that is owed to God. The point of this passage is Soli Deo Gloria, not class warfare.
Another, even bigger example, is seen in the section attempting to prove universal reconciliation from scripture:
This God’s anger, in Psalm 30, “lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.” [pg. 101]
He’s referring to Psalm 30:5. Let’s back up a verse to see the entire context of what the psalmist is talking about.
Sing praise to the LORD, you His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name. For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning. [Psalm 30:4-5; emphasis mine]
The psalm is a psalm of praise, and is directed towards God’s “godly ones” (the ESV translates it as “saints”). Yes, God’s favor lasts a lifetime, but this is in reference to His people, not everyone in the whole world.
Granted, when I see someone misuse a text, I don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that they’re doing so on purpose. I try to assume one of four things: 1) they’re going from memory, and have just forgotten how it originally went; 2) they honestly just simply don’t understand what the text is saying; 3) they’re going from a second-hand source, and haven’t double checked what the original text said; 4) they’re doing it on purpose, knowing they’re mishandling the text. The mistakes Rob Bell continues to make could only lead me to conclude that he was doing the fourth error. Perhaps the biggest proof of this is seen in his treatment of Ezekiel 16:55. After speaking about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Bell writes:
But this isn’t the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The prophet Ezekiel had a series of visions in which God shows him what’s coming, including the promise that God will “restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters” and they will “return to what they were before” (chap. 16).
Restore the fortunes of Sodom?
The story isn’t over for Sodom and Gomorrah.
What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny . . . wasn’t?
What appeared to be over, isn’t.
Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration. [pg. 83-84]
Let’s review the original context. First, Ezekiel 16 is God speaking through Ezekiel to Jerusalem regarding her idolatry and disobedience before God. God likewise makes reference both to Sodom and…Samaria. No, not Gomorrah, but Samaria. Gomorrah is nowhere mentioned in this chapter. God is making reference to contemporary locations committing contemporary transgressions. The full reading of the passage Rob Bell cites is:
Your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to their former state, and you with your daughters will also return to your former state. [Eze 16:55]
God is not speaking about the Sodom and Gomorrah that was destroyed – He is talking about a contemporary Sodom along with Samaria and Jerusalem, and saying he will restore their nationhood. This has nothing to do with restoration in the afterlife.
We can’t say Rob Bell is going from memory, because he’s speaking from a book and has had plenty of time to proof text before going to publication. We can’t say Rob Bell simply misunderstands the passage because the context is abundantly clear. We can’t say Rob Bell is guilty of using a second-hand source, because his argument is contradicted by the very text he quotes. There is only one option left for us to conclude: Rob Bell has mishandled scripture, and has done so knowingly.
If you still have doubts, here is but one final example.
Jesus meets and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don’t, in all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness, and rightness, and in all the ways we fall flat on our faces.
It’s only when you lose your life that you can find it, Jesus says. [pg. 190]
Did that sound familiar at the end? That’s because he’s referring to Christ’s words in Matthew’s gospel…except he’s completely ripped them from their context. Let’s see what Christ originally said:
“And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” [Matt 10:38-39]
Christ is talking about martyrdom and personal sacrifice in His name. This isn’t a squishy kind of “well sometimes you have to lose to win,” this is Christ saying, “You have to be willing even to stare death in the eye and refuse to renounce My name, because it is in My name alone that you have life.” Of course, to Rob Bell this is completely inconsequential, because to Rob Bell’s theology Jesus Christ is not a name worthy to die for, it is a vague concept of goodness that one doesn’t need to die over.
A wise man once said, “Some theology is taught, and some theology is caught.” While reading through this book, there were a few moments where I couldn’t help but think something deeper was lying under the surface, and I’ve decided to record a few of those instances.
Most curious is Rob Bell’s questionable stance regarding the existence of the devil. Making reference to 1 Timothy 1:20, where Paul speaks of handing Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan, Bell puts Satan in quotation marks and begins his discussion with “whoever and whatever he means by that word Satan…” (pg. 89). The very next page Bell puts both Satan and sinful nature in quotation marks, as if not only Satan is simply a metaphor, but so is our sinful nature. He even goes on to say that turning someone over to Satan simply means “to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices” (pg. 90). Bell appears to have the same opinion of Swedeborginists, who uphold that Satan and demons are simply metaphors for evil, and not literal spiritual entities. In this regard, Islam has a lot more in common with Christianity than Rob Bell’s supposedly “Christian” theology does. I would encourage anyone who thinks Satan and the demons are simply metaphors to carefully read the tale of the man possessed by Legion (Mark 5:1-20). Ask yourselves: what jumped from the demoniac into the herd of swine? It certainly wasn’t a metaphor.
Perhaps the biggest hint at an underlying problem was Rob Bell’s understanding of scripture. As we’ve seen, Rob Bell quotes scripture throughout the book, but he often mishandles it or completely distorts it. A big question in such a situation: what does scripture mean for such a person? What does scripture mean to Rob Bell? To him, scripture is…a nice story. For example, he refers to the first few chapters of Genesis as a “poem” (pg. 44), as if it is simply a poem and not the literal story of creation. He does this again later on, twice, on page 133, and yet again on page 145. Throughout the book he refers to parables and gospel accounts alike as “stories,” and theological beliefs as “stories.”
In this vein, he often talks of the conflict between bad stories, good stories, or better stories. One big example of this in the book:
Second, it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. [pg. 110]
The problem is most Christians recognize the Bible as a historical account as well as theological. What Paul writes was what Paul wrote, what Christ says is what Christ said, etc. It doesn’t matter what we think would make a “better” story, the fact is this is the story given to us.
I could take the story of the Battle of Pearl Harbor and make it so that, shortly before reaching the harbor itself, the Japanese planes are given the order to cancel the attack. They immediately turn around, preventing the death of 3000 American servicemen and the future deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans and Japanese. That would be a much better story than what unfolded that day. However…that’s not how the story of the Battle of Pearl Harbor went. Whether or not we think another route would make a “better story,” the fact remains that what happened happened. Likewise, what Christ and His apostles said were said, and what they taught were taught. Whether we like what they said or not, we have to repeat it.
Christ warned us that those who would be ashamed of His words, He would be ashamed of them when He comes in His glory (Luke 9:26). We don’t need a “better story.” What we need is the story given to us by Christ, which is found in Holy Writ. I will gladly take that over any “better story” the human mind can concoct.
I’ll just come out and say it: Rob Bell is a heretic.
A cruel term? Perhaps to some, but it has meaning, and while I’m all for overlooking theological differences between brothers and sisters, Bell’s differences are so grand that he invents a new religion. His version of Christianity is about as close to the Bible’s definition of it as Gnosticism was for the apostle John, Arianism for Athanasius, Monothelitism for Maximos the Confessor, and medieval Roman Catholicism for Martin Luther.
I don’t take any personal joy in calling anyone a heretic or any teachings heresy, but we need to call a spade a spade. After reading this and seeing the gross errors in citing scripture or exegeting passages, I have to come to the conclusion that Rob Bell’s not misled…he’s actively misleading. I recognize that God sends such men as Rob Bell to essentially wave the winnowing fork in the church and separate the wheat from the chaff (cf. 2 The 2:11-12). All the same, I feel only pity for those who would read this book and not cross-reference the scripture or review Bell’s logic in a critical manner.
Should the book be read at all? If you want to see how Rob Bell’s mind works and what his teachings really are, then I would suggest you do so. As I said at the beginning of this post, this kind of teaching – fallacious as it is – is infesting many parts of the church and so-called Christian academia. Whether we want to close our eyes and ears and pretend the Emergent movement does not exist…it exists. Just as whether or not Rob Bell wants to pretend a real hell of punishment doesn’t exist…it exists.
What do I think of the book? It comes close to being the most heretical book I’ve ever read (just getting up near The Shack). There was barely a passage used in context in the entire book, and if Rob Bell did cite or quote a passage in context, it was most likely by accident. Furthermore, whereas Rob Bell promises early on that “this isn’t just a book of questions,” but “a book of responses to these questions” (pg. 19), it seems that he never intended to give precise responses. Vague answers like, “There’s heaven now, somewhere else. There’s heaven here, sometime else” (pg. 62) abound throughout the entire book. It might sound nice when said softly in a NOOMA video, but when read from a book where you can analyze it and ponder what it means, it just comes out sounding silly.
Rob Bell would like us to think that what he believes is valid Christian theology and therefore we should be open to discussion, not criticism.
We can be honest about the warped nature of the human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspective for hundreds of years now. [pg. 111]
The fact is, we’ve seen in this book what his idea of discussion is. He neither respects the opposing side nor attempts to understand where they are coming from. In the end he even subtly suggests those who hold an orthodox view of heaven and hell are “brain-washed.”
As we experience this love, there is a temptation at times to become hostile to our earlier understandings, feeling embarrassed that we were so “simple” or “naive,” or “brainwashed” or whatever terms arise when we haven’t come to terms with our own story. [pg. 194]
Yet as we’ve seen, Rob Bell treats the words of men with the same dignity he treats the word of God. If he indeed held the word of God with any respect, he might have noticed how Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was written entirely to respond to a grave heresy, and that Paul gave the grave warning that, should any one attempt to teach another gospel than that given to the people, let them be anathema (Gal 1:8-9). Paul understood that Christ was the truth, the way, and the life, and there was salvation under no other name. This wasn’t a topic for discussion – this was the gospel he had been given, and the gospel for which he would die. Any one who would deprive us of that gospel is only a wolf attempting to lead us astray.
And Mr. Bell…may you be anathema.