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What the Hell?


In lieu of this week’s No Blog is an Island post, I thought I would briefly discuss the issue that done exploded the interwebs this week.  Rob Bell, emergent(?) pastor and popular writer, released a promotional video for his forthcoming book, Love Wins, in which he appears to reject the idea of Hell and promote a doctrine of universal salvation.

This prompted, unsurprisingly, a flurry of posts from around the biblioblogosphere.  Some declared him an apostate heretic, while others comdemned those people for being judgmental Pharisees.  This is what it looked like in my blog reader:

  • Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung got things off to a rousing start by calling Rob Bell a false teacher and expressing sadness that such a respected teacher could lead so many astray.
  • John Piper* simply tweeted, ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’ — which is terrifying, frankly.
  • Denny Burk answered each of Bell’s rhetorical questions with Biblical answers, denying universalism.
  • Brian LePort commented on the brouhaha by reminding everyone that the book isn’t even out yet and that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger.
  • Mark Stevens upped the ante and damned the whole Gospel Coalition, for which Taylor and DeYoung write!
  • Trevin Wax reminded everyone that this is Bell’s MO:  ‘Rob likes to ask questions that appear to lead in one direction; he then pulls back and says something more akin to Christian teaching.’
  • Marc Cortez defended the critics and asked, ‘How much does a person have to write, say, or communicate, before we’re allowed to criticize him or her?’ 
  • Kevin DeYoung addressed his critics, saying that he didn’t believe this to be a situation where Matt 18:15 applied, and that even though Bell only posed questions without answering them, they were leading questions that communicated a heretical worldview.
  • Richard Beck, who is an avowed universalist, took the opportunity to lay out this doctrine (here, here, and here) in a three part series on Universalism.
  • Kevin Davis debunked DeYoung’s defense of deHell.
  • Adam Omelianchuk told Bell’s defenders to lay off, saying that whether he really believes this heresy or he is simply being provocative, either way criticism is fair game.
  • Robert Sagers decried the identification of ‘Love wins’ with universalism, saying that even those that believe in Hell can believe that Love wins.
  • Tony Jones called Bell the Jason Bourne of Christianity!
  • Brian LePort called for patience, love, and humility as we discuss the distasteful-yet-Biblical-yet-ambiguous doctrine of Hell.
  • Kevin White put the controversy in the broader perspective of apostasy, doctrinal fights, and cults of personality.
  • Michael Patton welcomed the debate and told people not to be so sensitive; this is how the church clarifies teaching on important topics.
  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a great roundup of anyone who’s said anything about this topic.†

Got it?  Great.  If you’re not game for reading all of those, I most strongly suggest the ones by Justin Taylor, Trevin Wax, Kevin White, and Michael Patton.

So, what is the NatNav official reaction to this once-in-a-generation showdown that will be completely forgotten by St. Patrick’s Day? 

On the specific debate, I agree mostly with Kevin White and Michael Patton (and Marc Cortez): this is how we have debates.  This is how we clarify doctrine.  Whether the establishment declares the heterodox teacher to be beyond the pale, or whether the heterodox teacher’s doctrine replaces the establishment’s, or whether there results some synthesis that maintains the prorities of the establishment while adopting the innovations of the heterodox, this is the great work that was done in Nicea and Chalcydon. 

Chesterton points out that the fights are fierce because souls are at stake, and institutions and teaching and cultures are shaped by the fundamental (theological) ideas that underpin them.  These are the questions that are worth the hubbub. 

And from an evangelical standpoint, I think the greater attention that will be brought to serious Christian writing about love and salvation (this book is in the top 25 of ALL BOOKS on Amazon right now) because of this visible dust-up far outweighs the hurt feelings or risk that someone will get the impression that Christians are not nice.  Perhaps that’s just me.


But what do I think of the doctrinal issue at stake?  I think that the universalists’ strongest point is that orthodox doctrine turns the Gospel into an ultimatim:  the God that John called ‘Love’ is essentially saying, ‘You’ve got until your biological timer hits zero to genuflect or I’ll fry you until there’s no more oil (and We’ve got infinite amounts of oil).’  This image breaks down into two components, one of which is the issue of damnation/wrath, the other of which is the deadline aspect of death.  I’ll deal with them in that order:

Damnation – Bell’s video casts the orthodox doctrine of the Gospel as Jesus saving us from God.  I think this requires a willful skewing of the Gospel narrative. 

If I can draw from arguments I’ve made before, the Box ‘o Sin illustration is one of God destroying sin, pouring His wrath out on that which has corrupted the Creation He loves.  Eternal damnation, then, of sinners is incidental in that it is a function of whether we exercise our free will to let go of the sin that is being destroyed or to cling to it as it gets thrown in the fire. 

God does not want to condemn us, but He has granted us the dignity of free will, allowing us to choose the lower over the higher time and again, including, if it comes to that, the ultimate bad choice of Hell over Heaven.  Like Lewis says, Hell is locked from the inside, meaning the people that are there choose to be there.‡

I think that universalism, like predestination, neglects the reality of free will.  Both tend to view a decision as a work, saying that allowing man to choose his ultimate destiny makes salvation a matter of ‘grace-and’ and robs God of sovereignty.  But I think this conflation of will with works is untenable.  An illustration:

If Johnson wishes to cross the English Channel, he could decide to board a boat at Dover and take it to Calais.  Compare him to Smith, who decides not to board the boat but to stay on shore.  Johnson certainly has managed to take himself across the Channel more successfully than Smith.  In this sense, you could argue Johnson’s decision is a work that results in his having crossed the Channel.

However, Roberts, who is rowing Johnson’s boat from Dover to Calais, would object to Johnson’s triumphalism over Smith.  Roberts would argue, and rightfully so, that Johnson has not taken himself across the Channel so much as he has opted to let Roberts do the work for him.  Roberts thus has a much more legitimate claim to having taken Johnson across the Channel.  In this sense, Johnson’s decision to board the boat is categorially different from (and subordinate to) the work that Roberts does to bring Johnson across the Channel.

Take this example and transfer it to the Gospel.  Smith is the atheist, deciding not to accept Christ’s grace.  Johnson is the Christian, opting to accept Christ’s grace and enter Heaven.  Roberts, then, is Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection actually does the work of bringing Johnson to Heaven.  Free will has allowed Johnson to choose Heaven and Smith to choose Hell; Christ (Roberts) still does the work, and Johnson is saved by grace alone.

So, combining the illustrations of the Channel and the Box o’ Sin, Smith choose to wallow in the box; Johnson chooses to accept Roberts’ help out of the box; and God throws the box in the fire, damning Smith and sparing Johnson, according to their acts of free will in rejecting or accepting Roberts’ work by grace alone.  I would argue that the universalist claim of damnation being contrary to God’s loving nature is disproved thusly by the doctrine of free will.

Death – The second universalist objection carries more weight with me.  This is the idea that if Christ has defeated death, then why is death still the zero-hour of decision, before which you can exercise your free will and choose Christ without regard to your past sins and after which — TOO LATE!

This is where I have to say, ‘I don’t know.’  I do believe that Christ has defeated death.  I also know that God knows us better than we know ourselves.  I would even go so far as to claim that God knows what we think before we think it and what we will before we will it. 

Based on these, I would surmise that it’s possible that God lets no man die before he reaches his ultimate spiritual state.  This sounds like a tautology because dealing with foreknowledge always does.  But I hesitate to assume that there are scads of people that God has allowed to die that, if given just a little more time, would have said, ‘Aha!  I get this Gospel now, and I submit to Jesus!’ 

Like Lewis says, the people in Hell choose to be there.  Whether this means that no one dies until reaching that state of mind toward God at which they would stay regardless of their remaining years, or whether it means that there is some interim like the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory where this sorting is done, I don’t know. 

I believe that when Jesus says at the final judgment He will separate the sheep from the goats based on whether they loved Him and will send those that did not into eternal fire and claim not to know them, He means this. 

I also believe that when Paul says that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord, he means this.  I don’t think this means universal salvation, though, because I think that many of those who bow and confess will do so through gritted teeth and with rebellious hearts, having chosen that which is lower over that which is higher, and thus choosing to bar themselves in Hell rather than worship and fellowship with a holy God.


* Home boyyy!

† Surgeon General’s Warning:  Doctors do not recommend holding your breath until this post gets added to that roundup.

‡ Here is where I give yet another plug for Lewis’ amazing book on this topic: The Great Divorce.

  1. As I read this I felt like the Barney of the biblioblogosphere singing, “I love you, you love me, let’s be nice while we discuss hell….” 🙂

    • Frankly, that’s how it felt to me, too. I mean, your reactions were genuine, and I’m sure you’ve got plenty of other priorities on your plate, but I had kind of expected you to write about the theology more than the spat itself. But, as always, thanks for your insightful and grounded contribution — OH! And thanks for commenting on my blog!

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