I’ve never wanted an author to be so right.
I’ve never seen an author be so wrong.
First, before we get into Bell’s teachings on hell that are at the center of this controversial new book, I want to point out some flaws in his thinking. On page 10 Bell is busy criticizing the evangelism methods that some Christians employ, and he says that the Bible never tells people to have a personal relationship with Jesus; Jesus didn’t say that, he points out, nor did Paul, Peter, John, James, or the woman who wrote Hebrews.
We do not know who wrote Hebrews. Many believe it was Paul, others, Barnabas. I have heard theories and opinions, but to matter-of-factly attribute the book to a woman like we know who wrote it is wrong. This might not seem like a big deal, but it flies in the face of the premise of his book, that we don’t know anything. On the opening page he blasts someone for asserting that Gandhi is in hell. His response: “He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?”
But beyond focusing on how he knows who wrote Hebrews, look at his first claim, that the Bible never tells us to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Well it certainly tells us what happens if we don’t have one. In Matthew 7:23 Jesus tells the people condemned to the real place called hell, “I never knew you.” It has been well reported that the word used for knew describes the most intimate relationship people can have with each other. In fact, it is the same word that is used when Adam knew Eve and she conceived a child (Genesis 4:1). So yes, salvation is based on a relationship with Jesus.
Not that it matters to Bell though. He makes it very clear that he does not believe the Bible teaches that we must do anything. Basing his arguments on endless, open-ended questions, he makes the case that some Christians have gotten the message wrong. I’ll agree with him there. But he attempts to make the case that Christianity is something that happens to us “unilaterally” and that God is not waiting for us to “get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up. God has already done it (p.189).”
Always the fan of a good paradox, Bell has insisted during his media blitz that he is not a universalist (a universalist believe all people go to heaven, no matter what); to further his point, his website insists that he is not a universalist. But yet in his book Bell writes “In spite of…what we’ve done, God has made peace with us. Done. Complete. As Jesus said, ‘It is finished’ (p.172)” He then uses several verses out of context to make his point that God forgave all sin at the cross, and that we don’t have to do anything—believe, repent, surrender, or any other biblical concept—we are just at peace with God.
Well if we are born automatically at peace with God “in spite of what we’ve done,” then who goes to heaven? Everyone. And that, Mr. Bell, is universalism. Why does he bend over backwards to not be called a universalist? Because everyone knows the Bible teaches something quite different.
Does Rob Bell believe in hell? Yes. But not hell like Jesus taught. No, he believes that hell is African genocide (p.71) and a cheating husband (p.73). But an actual place? No.
In this chapter Bell sets out to show that he believes that hell is simply choosing to live apart from God’s law, not the actual place that Jesus referred to eleven times. The word hell might just mean the poor choices we make in this life. Might. This is a whole book hinging on his might.
He says that Jesus uses hyperboles to make his points. It would be better to gouge out your eyes than to embrace the hell of destroying your marriage. If that is simply strong language that Jesus is using to make a point, then it is not that big of a stretch for him to make the rich man in Luke 16 a hyperbole as well. For the rich man, hell was not flames in the afterlife (although Bell ignores the fact that the rich man was “tormented in these flames”); hell was just the reality that he still doesn’t get it. He points out that the rich man’s request for Lazarus to bring him water shows that his heart is unchanged. He still thinks Lazarus should be serving him. No Mr. Bell, he wanted Lazarus to bring him water because he was tormented in the flames of a real hell!
If this story were nothing more than a gifted storyteller using graphic language, then Luke 16 would be a parable. The problem here is that this is not a parable. A parable, by definition, is an extended simile—a story that draws outs a comparison that uses the word like or as. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” “The kingdom of God is as…” Luke 16 doesn’t begin that way. Also, Jesus never used real names in His parables, and Lazarus is mentioned by name here. This was a real account of a real man in a real place with real flames. For the rich man, hell wasn’t a state of mind or a poor decision. Hell was a place of torment.
Bell dismisses hell based on the notion that a loving God would never send anyone there. Using arrogance and sarcasm, Bell implies that a God that would send people to hell would be torturing them, and this God should be rejected.
It is also clear that he does not believe that God is sovereign. His opening chapter asks dozens more hypothetical, open-ended questions , each mocking the Christian idea of people going to hell. “What if the missionary that was supposed to tell that person about Jesus has a flat tire?” “What if the 15 year old atheist who died was going to accept Christ on his 16th birthday?” And mocking the age of accountability, “Did the 15 year old only have a 3 year window to accept Christ, and now God will punish him for all eternity?”
(For information on the age of accountability, check out my newest book Asleep in Heaven’s Nursery here)
If Bell believed in the sovereignty of God then he wouldn’t ask questions like that. In God’s sovereignty He will give everyone a chance to accept Him.
Bell’s idolatry peeked through on page 182 when he said, “We shape our God, and then our God shapes us.” Not only has he shaped himself a god, he has shaped a theology that is more ear pleasing.
Which is more likely, that the church has been wrong for 2,000 years about hell and God has chosen Rob Bell to enlighten us, or that he is simply wrong? Well if God chose Bell then I think God would have given him a message that was clear, not endless questions to engage in an emergent-loving dialogue or conversation. What is more likely then, is that this is part of the great deception (Matthew 24:4-5), and that this is another gospel (Galatians 1:8).
Something interesting that I picked up on was Bell’s view of the earth. No, not his environmentalist agenda. I’ll get to that next. On five occasions he refers to the Genesis account as a poem. At first mention I found it curious, but then as he continually referred to the poem I became a little suspicious. Then I remembered on page 2 he referred to the earth as being tens of thousands of years old, and then he spoke of the earth as still “evolving” on page 145. It would appear to me, and I can’t prove this, that he believes the Genesis creation account is a poem not to be taken literally, and that the earth evolved over at least tens of thousands of years. You might think that is crazy.
So is a belief that hell isn’t real.
In Bell’s last book Jesus Wants to Save Christians he promoted his environmentalist agenda, and that theme was back in Love Wins. To sum up his beliefs (or what we infer his beliefs are based on yet another chapter of unanswerable questions and out-of-context verses), Bells believes that heaven will come on earth as we make it happen. In other words, once we make this earth into heaven, then heaven will be here. That is what happens when people misunderstand Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of heaven.
Some places of the world don’t have access to water. According to Bell, once we get them water, we will be a little closer to heaven. I would like to ask him what place Jesus went to prepare for us, and if this earth becomes heaven as we build it, why did John write that this earth passes away and a new heaven and new earth come down? All that work for nothing?
Bell takes more verses out of context to show that God’s ultimate goal is to reconcile creation, not just mankind but plants too, back to Himself. That is why the environmentalism here is dangerous. He literally thinks that recycling and good soil rotation trump personal holiness and sanctification.
In the chapter called Does God Get What He Wants? Bell needs to be reminded of God’s permissive will. He basically says that God doesn’t want anyone to go to hell, which is true, but if people go to hell then God doesn’t get what He wants. “What kind of God is that?” he asks. The answer is a loving God that has given us a free will and the power to choose Him or reject Him. God doesn’t unilaterally force salvation on anyone.
There are other issues in this book where Bell tries to have it both ways. After making his point that there is no hell after this life, on page 117 he says that God will respect our choice if we want a life free from Him. The logical conclusion then would be that these people won’t go to heaven after they die, so hell is the alternative. This is doublespeak.
And for the record I should point out that God doesn’t send anybody to hell. Mr. Bell goes on and on about how he can’t believe in a God that would torture people in hell, but that is not how it works. The consequence of the Adamic nature—Adam’s choice to sin in his free will—is that we are all sinners separated from God. God is holy and we are not. So God doesn’t send anybody there; we are headed there because of our sin, and in His grace and mercy, He saves all who choose to put their trust in Him.
I can’t let this review end without mentioning his presence at an Eminem concert in 2010.
He was there.
And because old Slim is wearing a cross necklace, Bell wonders out loud if he has been reconciled to God. Never mind the fact that Captain F Word’s new album is just as filthy as all of his others. What pastor would ever be in attendance at an Eminem concert? Even my liberal friends will have a hard time justifying that.
But all the problems with Bell’s theology (his first three books, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians all displayed bad theology in some form) are revealed in a statement he made on page 114. He said that “it’s important that we don’t get too hung up on details [of the Bible].”But just a few pages later on 132-134 he employs a ridiculous Bible-algebra formula to come to a bizarre conclusion about God’s ultimate motive of reconciling plant life.
Here’s the point: he urges us not to concentrate on the black and white details of the Bible (like all good emergent leaders), but yet he can play Sherlock Holmes if it helps promote his agenda. His Easter egg hunt Bible study methods are dangerous.
There is so much more I can say, for this book had many more false statements. But suffice it to say that this would not have survived an early church book burning.
That is, of course, if there was literal fire at those book burnings.