A cursory glance into the history of cultures easily reveals that lies come and go in waves. They crop up, become popular, disappear, and reappear in a slightly different form — making it appear to be a new concept. They once again become popular, once again disappear, and once again reappear wearing a different colored t-shirt that says the same thing.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
One of these perpetual lies has once again reappeared. It’s the lie that says that God’s love is so big that it renders hell to be just an impracticable nuisance. The effect of this lie in particular, has been outlined in a relatively recent study conducted by the Barna Group. It revealed that only one out of every eight Christians have realized the magnitude and consequences of sin; and that only 3% of Christians have made Jesus their Lord.
In the popular book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, megachurch pastor Rob Bell retells the lie — except this time it’s wearing a loud, lime-green t-shirt. Indeed, Bell writes in the preface, “please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me” because he believes he’s contributing to the “deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years,” which he says is “the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith.”
Yet after digging a little deeper, we soon realize that Bell’s views are far from orthodox. The most controversial argument he makes in the book is essentially that hell does not last forever and that eventually all people will accept the love of God. He is clear that he believes in hell, but only as a kind of temporary correctional institute that people stay in until they are ready to accept the love of Jesus. Love Wins drew criticism even before it was released, this was mostly due to a promotional video which presents some of the beliefs he espouses in the book.
A basic flaw in the arguments used in the video (and later confirmed in an interview), is that he doesn’t believe that God will send people to eternal, conscious torment in hell. In large part, because he doesn’t “think that God is like that.” So how do we find out what God is like? Thus, the question is not whether or not we “think God is like that,” but whether the Bible says as much.
At first glance, the idea that hell is not forever seems indefensible when viewed in light of certain scriptures that tell us hell is eternal (Jude 1:7). Bell attempts to circumvent this problem by playing pattycake with the definition of “eternal.” In chapter 2, Bell conducts an analysis of the Greek word for aion, which translates into “age.” The reason he focuses on this word is because of the Bible’s teachings about an “age to come” (Luke 18:29). Most consider this term to be about eternal life, or something similar. But Bell points out that aion has several different translations. He says, “When we say ‘forever’ we generally mean something that will go on . . . That’s not this word. The first meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end.” Later in chapter 3 he tells us the other meaning of aion is “intensity of experience.” Similarly, in chapter 3, Bell tell us that olam is the Hebrew word for eternal. And in the story of Jonah it says that he was in the fish for olam — which turns out to be three days (Jonah 1:17). So, Bell concludes that eternal doesn’t always mean forever.
Most of this definitional doubt-fest seems to spring from Bell’s emotional resistance to a God who would send someone to hell
for eternity forever. Indeed, in the chapter 7 he says, “That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.” But the problem with his argument, and changing of the definitions, comes from one of the things Jesus said while He was here on earth: “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). Jesus in this verse puts the two things — eternal punishment and eternal life — together as parallels. So if Bell is right that when Jesus says “eternal” next to “punishment” it does not mean forever, then when Jesus says “eternal” next to “life” it does not mean forever either. Is that really what Bell wanted to say?
If hell is not eternal, then heaven would not be eternal. If we can choose to accept the love of God after death, then we could also choose to deny the love of God while in heaven. This means that our salvation would be uncertain — which is a patently unbilical view that I truly doubt Bell would agree with (cf. Romans 8:38-39; also check out our article “Can You Loose Your Salvation?“).
In Love Wins, Bell draws his Biblical basis for this idea that everyone will ultimately be in heaven (also known as universalism) primarily from the verses which tell us that all things will be brought under God (Ephesians 1:10). Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at University Reformed Church, has a well articulated response to this claim:
“Bell frequently harkens back to the Pauline promise in Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 that God is reconciling or uniting all things together in Christ (149). These are favorite passages of universalists, but they cannot carry the freight universalists want them to. Take Ephesians 1, for example. Paul says that God’s plan in the fullness of time is to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:10). The Greek word for “unite” is a long one: anakephalaiōsasthai. It means to sum up, to bring together to a main point, to gather together. It is like an author finishing the last chapter of his book or a conductor bringing the symphony from cacophony to harmony. It’s a glorious promise, already begun in some ways by the word of Christ. But we know from the rest of Ephesians that Paul does not expect all peoples to be reconciled to God. He speaks of sons of disobedience and children of wrath in chapter two. In chapter five, he makes clear that the sexually immoral and covetous have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ. In Ephesians 5:6 he warns that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. The uniting of all things does not entail the salvation of all people. It means that everything in the universe, heaven and earth, the spiritual world and the physical world, will finally submit to the lordship of Christ, some in joyful worship of their beloved Savior and others in just punishment for their wretched treason. In the end, God wins.” –Kevin DeYoung in his review God is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True: A Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell; p. 11.
Another faulty argument made by Bell to support his idea comes from 1 Timothy 2:3-4, which says that God wants all people to be saved. Bell takes this verse and, with the fact that God is all powerful and in control of everything, asks, “So does God get what God wants?” If God doesn’t, Bell claims, then God is a failure and is not great. Therefore, all people must be saved because God is great. It would be an understatement to call this poor logic. By definition God is always a “success” because He’s God. God wills many things — like our purity, for example (1 Thessalonians 4:3) — but our disobedience does not make God any less great or give us any reason to call Him a “failure.” Indeed, if all God really “wanted” was for us all to be saved, then why did He send Jesus and give us a choice to accept or deny Him?
In chapter 7, Bell puts forward the idea that a God who would punish finite human beings for eternity is not a loving God. However, this argument is misleading. As C.S. Lewis once wisely told us, “You have never met a mere mortal.” God is a just God (Isaiah 5:16), and would never impose a punishment that was unjust — Bell knows that. In addition, God has given us the resources we need to make our decision while here on earth (Luke 16:31).
And so it seems that the case for universal salvation in Love Wins has failed to provide a remotely compelling argument. Indeed, his avoidance of the term “eternal” comes to nothing, especially in the face of verses like Revelation 20:10: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” Just to make things clear, punishment in hell is eternal — as in, for ever and ever.
Yet one of the things perhaps more disturbing than Bell’s apparently universalist approach to scripture is his idea of what hell will be like. In chapter 7, Bell writes about the parable Jesus told about the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The story features a son who wanted his inheritance from his father early, when it is granted to him, he squanders it on sinful luxuries, ends up sleeping and eating with pigs, and returns home to work as a servant because he no longer considers himself worthy of being treated as his father’s son. But when the father warmly welcomes the prodigal son, kills the fattened calf, and celebrates, the prodigal son’s older brother is angry because the older brother considered himself the faithful and obedient one. The father simply replies, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’” (Luke 15:31-32).
Most people read the story of the prodigal son and consider it a story of redemption in which Jesus may have instructing His listeners that salvation is not gained by good works — but not Bell. Bell sees this story as a parable about heaven and hell:
Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration.
Hell is being at the party.
That’s what makes it so hellish.
It’s not an image of separation,
but one of integration.
In this story, heaven and hell are within each other,
intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other.
Suddenly hell has become a party that you just can’t enjoy. It’s a sappy episode of Full House. For some reason I never imagined weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 22:13) happening while sitting in the gutter of a golden street with angels singing and God Almighty in the background.
Bell’s argument ignores what hell is. Practically by definition, hell is separation from God (Luke 16:26); and that separation is fixed (ibid). Also, the older brother was not at the party. After the older brother learned that his younger brother had come home and that they were celebrating, Luke 15:28 tells us, “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.” So not only does Bell’s extension of the analogy lack factual support, but he fails to see that this is not a story about heaven and hell — it’s a story of redemption and acceptance.
The title of the book, Love Wins, presumes that the author is going to present an argument in which love wins. Unfortunately, Bell fails on this front. In the process of trying to eliminate the “violent God” that condemns people to eternity in hell, he has only created another god which coerces its creation into loving it. If hell is, as implicitly argued by Bell, a place for correction, the terrible suffering that takes place in hell is only God “persuading” you to accept His Son. According to Bell, this suffering happens because some just “aren’t ready” to experience the love of God. Is there a view of God more perverted? What kind of love is forced?
Love Wins attempts to make God’s nature one-dimensional — love. But when we do this, the gospel falls apart. God has unfathomable dimensions: justice, holiness, wrath, love, joy, righteousness — on and on. The bottom line, though, is that God is holy. He cannot come into contact with unholy or sinful things. God is the definition of righteousness and perfection, so imperfect and unrighteous things cannot be in His Presence. They can’t be at the party, so to speak. As a result, God has created a place that is the opposite of heaven — a place for the unrighteous, unholy, imperfect sinners.
It’s called hell.
Scripture tells us that hell is eternal (Revelation 20:10), there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:50), there will be second death (Revelation 21:8), and an eternal fire that never goes out (Matthew 25:41). Hell isn’t a bad party, it’s torment — forever. Which is to say, separation from God — forever.
Bell’s primary problem with this reality seems to be emotional. He can’t handle hell. I can sympathize here. It is difficult to imagine people spending eternity here. But at the same time, this is why we share the gospel. If hell is temporal, or a bad party, then there isn’t really a reason to share the gospel other than that Jesus commands it (Acts 1:8). But when hell is real, eternal torment we tell the gospel not merely out of obedience, but out of love. Bell almost seems to think that we tell people they’re going to hell because we hate them, or because we’re mean. But if we really did hate unbelievers, if we really were mean and nasty, we wouldn’t tell people they were going to hell. As the Barna study shows, only a small number of Christians actually understand the problem that is our sin. This means they misunderstand hell, and ultimately their salvation because they don’t understand what they were saved from.
Love wins forever because hell is forever. That’s what makes the beauty of the Gospel so compelling. God loved us so much that He sent His Son to die for us so that we didn’t have to spend eternity in hell. But in order to maintain the love relationship, God gave us a choice. Yet Bell says in chapter 4 that spending “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.” He’s right, that’s a terrible story. At least, it is until we learn that the Almighty God sent His Son. Then, suddenly, it’s a beautiful, compelling, irresistible story that encapsulates wrath and satisfies justice, glory, holiness, righteousness, love, and joy. It is the best story.
At best, Bell is misled. Even still, Love Wins presents some dangerous ideas that can affect the final, eternal destination of people’s souls. We more readily recognize the recurring lies when we actively study God’s Word and spend time in prayer — easily seeing the counterfeit because we know the genuine so well.
“As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” –1 John 2:27