Depending upon your personality and theological persuasion, you’re either eager to read this review or you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, “Another review of that book?” It is true that there have been a number of reviews written and posted online — the best one I’ve seen thus far is Kevin DeYoung’s review at The Gospel Coalition.
However, some have asked me if I would be willing to write a shorter and more accessible review of the book, summarizing the key issues concisely. To be honest, it is hard to know exactly where to begin, since the book covers a broad span of complex topics, and a short review will only go so far in explaining them. However, it’s worth it to me to try, for the sake of my readers who are considering the concepts Rob Bell attempts to deal with. I’ll start with a brief summary of the book and then provide my thoughts on the content.
Summary: Does God really send people to hell for eternity if they fail to believe in Jesus as their Savior? If so, what does this say about the character of God and the message of Jesus? In roughly 200 pages, Bell challenges the traditional understanding of heaven and hell by suggesting a new path: perhaps hell is not forever, and there are infinite post-mortem opportunities for people to come to Jesus. Perhaps, he suggests, hell is more of a state of mind than a literal place of punishment and physical separation from God. Maybe Jesus didn’t really die to satisfy God’s anger or to substitute Himself for sinners. Instead, He just wanted to show us that God loves us and is no longer angry at all. Bell argues that the Gospel is much bigger than the message of eternal life and forgiveness of sins through belief in Jesus. Instead, the forgiveness of God is extended freely to everybody, whether they believe in Jesus or not. The Gospel according to Bell is that heaven and hell are ultimately what we make of the choices and opportunities God has given us, now and in eternity.
Bell is a gifted communicator. There are places in this book in which Bell raises some valuable questions, ones that need to be answered. However, the way in which he answers them demonstrates a number of flaws in his methodology and his theology. Here are my concerns:
Bell consistently forces Scripture into meanings that are foreign to the original context. One example is his discussion of the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus. Luke 16 relates the story of how the rich man and Lazarus both died — Lazarus went to “Abraham’s bosom” while the rich man went to Hades. The rich man is clearly in agony, while Lazarus is comforted in heaven. Bell rightly points out that the rich man’s value system has not changed, even in hell. But then he draws the conclusion that Jesus is using vivid imagery to communicate one simple truth: hell is nothing more than the fact that “there are all kinds of ways to reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human” in this life and the next. In other words, hell is not a literal place of judgment but is merely the inner torment we experience when we reject God.The chasm between heaven and hell is only in the “rich man’s heart,” which is still hardened toward other people and God.
The problem, of course, is that the context belies Bell’s interpretation. In the parable, even when the rich man expresses remorse and sadness, he is unable to cross the great chasm between heaven and hell. His destiny is already determined — in other words, the context of this parable teaches exactly what Bell denies, that there is a permanent destiny for human souls dependent upon how they respond to Jesus in this life. Whether the specific imagery is metaphorical or not, it is clear that Jesus is teaching that heaven and hell are real places, and that people go permanently to one or the other.
This is only one example of numerous issues like this throughout the book — to be frank, there are times that I could almost hear the text screaming as Rob Bell twisted and tore it out of context to suit his arguments.
Bell is uncomfortable with a God who punishes sin decisively and permanently. Early in the book Bell affirms that God gets angry at certain sins (exploitation, victimization, abuse, etc.). But there is a clear distinction between God’s judgment in Bell’s understanding and that of traditional Christianity. In Bell’s view, God’s judgment consists of stopping bad behavior but does not consist of punishing sinful people. People punish themselves, but God does not punish them. In contrast, the Scripture is full of statements about God’s decisive judgment of sinners on the last day.
For example, Revelation 20 describes God on his judgment throne. He decisively judges Satan and his demons and throws them into the Lake of Fire, where they “will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Then, he judges the wicked nations and casts those whose names are not in the Book of Life into the same Lake of Fire. Revelation 21:8 describes how the “cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars” will be cast into the Lake of Fire and experience the second death.
Bell attempts to circumvent this issue by pointing out that Revelation 21:25 says that the gates of the New Jerusalem will never be closed. His conclusion is that anybody can come and go as they please, as long as they stay in line and do what God wants while they are there. Again this ignores the context — verse 27 talks specifically about those who have been cast into the Lake of Fire, and says that they can never come into the heavenly city. The gates aren’t open to allow free access; they’re open because the city is so secure that nobody who has been judged and sent to hell could ever come in anyway!
Bell makes it clear that he finds Jesus’ substitutionary death on behalf of sinners to be a laughable concept worthy of mockery. Of all the problems in this book, I found this to be the most egregious. Traditionally, Christians have held that Jesus’ death on the cross was intended to satisfy God’s wrath on our behalf — Jesus was actually sacrificed in our place to bear the full punishment for our sin (Hebrews 9:23-28; Romans 3:23-26;1 Jn 2:2; 4:10 — propitiation refers to a sacrifice that avers God’s wrath; 1 Peter 3:18).
Bell states that this view amounts to “Jesus rescuing us from God” and repeatedly tells us that it’s a story that has nothing to do with Jesus and that this belief is the reason people are abandoning Christianity in droves. He does not believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was a payment for our sin – instead, it was simply a demonstration of God’s general love for humanity.
In this way, Bell grievously undermines both the character of God and the glory of God’s grace. Punishment for sin is simply unnecessary — we are only punished by the natural consequences of our own choices. God’s grace, according to Bell, does not provide payment for our sin in order that we might find forgiveness and eternal life. Instead, God’s “grace” simply overlooks our sin and asks us not to do it anymore.
This error was the one that made me want to cry. The Gospel of Rob Bell is no longer the good news of a God who forgives sin by sacrificing his Son on our behalf. It is instead the message that we can simply say we’re sorry, realign ourselves with God’s love for everybody, and He’ll wink and ignore our previous rebellion and disobedience. As a result, sin is still possible after Christ’s return, so God’s judgment is never complete. Sin and evil are never truly defeated, only pushed to the dark corners of God’s kingdom.
Finally, Bell assumes that belief in hell requires a person to be hard-hearted and unloving. I wrote previously about how Bell excludes the middle — there is no room in his theology for an evangelical who genuinely loves sinners and shares the Gospel boldly so that people can avoid the pain of hell. He also assumes that belief in the traditional view means that a person is only concerned about “who gets in and who stays out” and is clearly not concerned about reflecting Jesus in the here and now. Quite the opposite is true, though.
Those who hold the traditional view have a robust tradition of sharing the Gospel around the world, giving to the poor, helping the weak, and battling the effects of sin and rebellion against God. Bell views everything from the grid of his own narrow and apparently unloving family history, and fails to closely look at church history as a whole. Christians reflect Jesus in the here and now precisely because we believe strongly in final judgment. Our desire is to reflect God’s kingdom so that men and women from every nation will stream to His light.
This is the longest post I’ve written, but hopefully short enough for you to read and grasp the major issues. In the final analysis, Bell’s book amounts to a repackaging of liberal theology. The ideas are nothing new, but Bell communicates them in a way that is attractive and just ambiguous enough that many will miss the fact that he has simply dredged up old heresies.
For those who hold to traditional orthodoxy, the question is this: Can we faithfully preach the Gospel as written in the Scripture, and live in such a way as to draw the world to Jesus? I believe we can, and when we do I think this resurgence of liberalism will die a slow death, just as it did with the revival of robust evangelicalism in the middle of the 20th century. So, let’s get busy sharing Jesus and loving the world God has made — who knows the great ways God will move?
[Image via http://eyeonapologetics.com/blog/2011/03/21/book-reviews-of-love-wins-by-rob-bell/