Not Soft on Hell… Nor Excited about It

Posted on: 03/8/11 12:25 PM | by Jonathan McKee

Why is it that when it comes to the subject of Hell, some people seem to either bring it up too much, while others want to suppress the truth of the matter?

A lotta hype about Hell in Christian circles lately, much of it is because speaker/author/pastor Rob Bell seems to be coming out with some pretty radical conclusions about Hell. This New York Times article  provides just a glimpse at the controversy.

My response?

I’ve been watching some people throw some pretty big rocks at each other over this one. So I’m going to try to speak candidly, but without criticism. Seriously… I’m going to try!

And rather than just sharing my take on this, I emailed a couple friends and asked for their two cents because I really respect their opinions. So I’m going to chime in with my two cents, but I’m also going to share what Dan Kimball and David R. Smith shared with me. Then I’m going link some resources for your reference.

My two cents: We need more compassion, and a theology that is unchanged by emotions.

Rob has always had a heart for the lost– a very admirable and Christ-like quality. If you’ve ever met someone with a heart for the lost, you might also notice, they grow very frustrated with people who are abrasive to the lost. It comes with the package. Rob reveals this frustration (not a bad thing at all, in my opinion) in his new video about his upcoming book Love Wins, telling the story of an incident at an art show at his church. One of the pieces at this show had a Gandhi quote and someone felt the need to post a note to that quote, writing, “Reality check. He’s in Hell.”

It’s really sad when God’s people forget about love.

Yesterday I was interacting with a few people on our Facebook page about this whole controversy. I commented to someone. People with good theology need to remember that even “good theology” is still just a clanging cymbal without love (I Corinthians 13).

So I praise Bell’s compassion for sinners. That being said, I hope that Rob also doesn’t put on emotionally-distorted reading glasses when reading the truth of God’s Word. As believers, we need to cling to the truth. We need…

Let me start by going on the record. I wish I could go soft on Hell. The concept of eternal separation from God is an uncomfortable reality. I wish I could believe it wasn’t true. I really do.

But truth wins.

In Rob’s video he says the following:

“Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in Hell?”

He goes on to say,

“Millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the Gospel of Jesus is that God is going to send you to Hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God. How could that God be good. How can that God be trusted. And how can that ever be good news. This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as a endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies.”

He concludes his thoughts with a nice pitch for his new book.

“The good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.”

We don’t know exactly how this is going to play out in his book, Love Wins, because it isn’t released yet. (Mental Note: This is a pretty dang good way to sell books. Raise a controversy that requires even your critics to have to buy your book just to try to prove you wrong.) That’s why I’m not going to go on the record and criticize his theology, because I haven’t read his book yet. But in his sermons and videos, I have to say, Rob is definitely treading on some dangerous ground here. His video alone seems to convey that mere “belief in Jesus” isn’t good news. After all, this is an uncomfortable fact to unbelievers.

Hmmmm.  It seems to me that after Jesus laid out the “uncomfortable” truth to the crowds in John 6, a bunch of people didn’t want anything to do with him then either.

I’m not going to say anymore yet… because who knows where his book is going.

My friend, author/speaker, Dan Kimball, can’t comment on the book either, because he hasn’t read it. But Dan has wrestled with the topic of hell and other difficult subjects and says this:  (giving me permission to share with you all)

I would love to be a Jesus-died-for-all-universalist. I would love to be an annihilist. I would love to be pro-gay theologically. But from the immense amount of reading, studying the Scriptures, praying, and reading different viewpoints. From looking at church history from the beginning and various beliefs and the culture they developed in…..and looking at contemporary doctrinal beliefs and their history…and personally having talked to scholars over the years that I respect about these very issues like NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Roger Olson, John Walton and the late Stan Grenz……  I find I personally cannot believe those things, although my emotions surely would like to. And it fits so well in culture today. It would be easier being in ministry in our culture today, holding those views for sure. But I cannot compromise what I am convicted that the Scriptures do teach about these things. But how we then teach about them, speak about them etc. is of great, great importance. I think many (especially younger people who don’t have a breadth of knowing church history and patterns of the past) are turned away from these doctrines often not even by the doctrine itself as much as how Christian leaders have taught about them and their attitudes towards others who believe differently.

David R. Smith chimed in as well.

It’s hard to know where Rob Bell will go with this. The videos certainly hint toward a universalist belief, and if they don’t go there, then the publicity certainly was misleading, which says something in itself.

If Rob Bell’s “new treatise” on hell claims a universalist mindset, then it is not new at all. In fact, it’s an issue that thousands of biblical scholars have wrestled with over hundreds of years. Universalists aim to make Christianity more appealing and/or convenient (whether they admit that or not). But if one were to strip the Bible of hell, he actually makes the Christian message far less appealing. That might sound strange, but consider these ramifications if there is no hell.

God is a liar. Jesus talked about hell far too often for it to not exist. It was in His warnings, amongst His parables, and even a part of His Revelation. There was no doubt in His mind that hell existed; He created it! So to concede hell is to concede a truth-telling God. Thus, I won’t concede either one.  

God is a sissy. Everyone who’s ever experienced life on Earth has seen injustice, oppression, evil, sin, and wickedness. In many places around the globe, these dark forces run rampant and unchecked. But God, the ultimate Judge, has decided there will be justice and recompense for those who have suffered at the hands of unrepentant sinners. If God will not judge nations and individuals (as the Bible says He will), He’s nothing more than a cosmic wimp who needs to apologize to 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and millions more killed in tyrannies around the world. Again, this is a concession that is too expensive to make.    

Ultimately, the reality of hell ties into God’s nature. Rob Bells sees this truth, too, and if his book goes soft on hell (we’ll see soon), then he just misinterprets its impact on God’s character. Regardless of what Bell says, I will continue to believe in a God who tells the truth and will one day judge perfectly and righteously.

I promised you some resources about Hell. Here’re two:

1. Dan Kimball, not only a friend, but a man who’s faith and knowledge of scripture I really respect, wrote an amazing article in Outreach Magazine last year, Teaching the Truth About Hell. This is a great resource to refer to.

2. You can listen to Dan and I talk about hell in our podcast last year, The Podcast from Hell.

Your thoughts?

13 Replies to “Not Soft on Hell… Nor Excited about It”

  1. I haven’t seen the video until just now. I haven’t listened to the sermon series. All I did up to this point, was hear the chatter about Rob and what he’s going to be talking about. My guess is that is likely going to be the direction he goes, but who knows.

    I did find it interesting that he left it really open. He could go with “we’ve heard it said that God sends us to hell and then Jesus rescued us from God” but really, God has always loved us, and he came down to save us from ourselves. We sinned, resulting in us going away from God, to hell, but love wins, in that Jesus came and died…etc.

    Don’t think so, but he left it open. Open enough to need to buy a book anyway.

  2. Excellent article! I am looking forward to reading this book. Even if Rob Bell is “going soft” on hell, doesn’t mean we can then “beat up” on him (in Jesus’ name, of course) but we have to pray for him and hope that he can change his mind on this subject. He does have an influence on a lot of people.

  3. This is one of the reasons I love being Catholic. Whenever a pastor or “scholar” (Protestant or Catholic) comes along with some “new” theology that questions or undermines orthodox theology all we have to do is point to what has been taught for 2,000 years already. There is no need to figure out what a particular denomination teaches (“Wait, what does our pastor say about this?”) or anything like that. It’s been written down and taught from the beginning. “New” and “controversial” theologies typically fall in line with ancient heresies that the Church already battled and refuted YEARS ago. Things like this are hardly a blip on the Catholic radar. Viva the teachings of Jesus Christ!

  4. Hot off the press… Zondervan says they parted company with Bell for this new book because “it didnt fit with their mission”.

    Pretty telling. I would like to believe in universalism or annihilationism too but I’m sure it’s my sinful nature falling far short of understanding God’s infinite holiness and the eternal tragedy of my sin.

    Wanting to know his holiness better so I know the riches I have in Christ better…

  5. My honest first impression of the video is that it has done what Bell wanted it to do … get us to buy his book. Seems like everyone wants to know where he’s going with this now. I personally couldn’t decide if he was speaking for himself or for the lost who have so many opinions of what Christianity is all about.

  6. In principle, I would agree with your general premise that no doctrine or belief should be made or unmade on the basis of feelings. So if we should learn that Rev Bell’s book objects to the doctrine of Hell purely on the basis of how it makes us feel sad, then I would further agree that such an argument is not enough to dispense with Hell…unless of course, the reason a good number of believers are uncomfortable with the idea of God torturing billions of people for eternity is because there actually are some sound reasons behind that discomfort!

    The fact is Jesus most assuredly did NOT believe in Hell, and the only way to believe that he did is to take everything he said and demostrated through his life about God’s real nature, and reject it.

    It’s not the cloud of emotion that keeps us from understanding the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions, but Doctrine Goggles, a set of man made beliefs that prevents us from taking Jesus at his word and clearing identifying all attempts to adulterate them.

    Here is just one example, from Luke 9:51-56, that shows us Jesus did not, nor could he have, believed in Hell: the story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: “You don’t know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!” Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

    So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn billions of people for an eternity!

    Rick Lannoye, author
    Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There Is No Such Place As Hell

  7. I think ideas like universalism and no hell are tempting not only because they are more comfortable but also because if they would be true, we would be exempt from some work! If everyone will be saved anyway, why bother sharing Jesus with others or even building a relationship with Him yourself? If there’s no hell, then we don’t have to worry about being punished and believing in Jesus to avoid such eternal punishment.
    The Bible is clear. Jesus did die for everyone, but the benefit is only effective when held onto by faith in Jesus Christ. Hell is real, but for believers, Jesus has cancelled our eternal reservations there and is readying a place for us in Heaven with Him eternally. Our judgment is no longer based on what we have done and do but on what Jesus has done for us!
    While the sin and hell stuff is uncomfortable, it is true and necessary to lead us to the comfort of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

  8. I like your comments Sarah.

    How many times have you heard the question, “Why does a loving God send people to Hell?”

    That question seems to paint a picture of an angry God with a lightening bolt SENDING people to Hell. What a misconception. The more you get to know God, the more you see a God who doesn’t want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9), so much that he sent his own son to die for us while we’re still sinners (Romans 5:8).

    I was talking with my kids about this the other night when we were reading about God wanting us to forgive others (and him forgiving us, only if we forgive others- Matthew 6). This was hard for them to grasp. I told them, “It’s like this. God wants us to come hang with him for eternity. He wants us all to come there. But we need to come naked.” They all laughed. (I’m talking to teenagers here) I went on. “If we come to him, but we’re holding onto money, he tells us, ‘let go of that. Trust me. You don’t need that here. Let go and put your faith in me and join me.’ Many people go away sad. Same with forgiveness. If we want to come to heaven with God but we’re holding onto a grudge tight with our fists, God says, ‘let go. Trust me.’ All of us our invited. Unfortunately, many of us will choose to hold onto to things of this world.”

    The discussion was much longer than that- but you get the idea. It’s not a “works” salvation. We can’t do anything to earn it. That’s the point, actually. We just need to admit that fact- that we can’t do anything, and totally give it up to him. We need “Let go” of trying to do it our way, and put our trust in Him.

    Thanks to Jesus free gift, we are saved from the alternative of eternity with God- eternity without God (which is the absence of all hope, friendship, kindness… anything good. It’s Hell).

  9. I agree with Sarah and Adam. God is not sending people to hell, but the consequences of rejectiong God through sin are. God wants all to know Him and love Him. Heaven is a place for those who openingly pursue a love relationship with God. Yes God loves us, but we must also love God back.

  10. Rick, I tried so hard to just pass by and not comment but I can’t. At first, I honestly thought you were speaking tongue in cheek. Jesus spoke more about he’ll than all the other writers in the Bible combined. I won’t teach a systematics course here because there are plenty of much smarter people than I who make the point much better. (see Josh Harris). No, actually just read Jesus. The example you gave is not a teaching on he’ll, it’s a teaching on the disciple’s terrible attitude.

    Just from your comment I like you. I feel your passion and compassion. Please read Jesus’ words with an open heart. I will too. I hope I’m wrong.

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