Christian Pastor Rob Bell is raising hell these days with his latest book, Love Wins. The controversy stems from the book’s claims about the fallacy of the longstanding Christian teaching on hell: that it’s a real place of torment people go to if they don’t accept Jesus Christ. Many are calling Bell a heretic, and many others are defending him, but what’s the real deal? What is Bell really saying in this book, and should Christians be careful to watch out for his message?
I want to cover some of the credentials I have for responding to this particular book. For one, I did actually read it. I know this seems obvious, but I wanted to make that perfectly clear right out of the gate. Also, I have read extensively from books covering Christian teachings and experiences. These include a number of books by C.S. Lewis, Watchman Nee, A.W. Tozer, Billy Graham,Dietrich Bonhoeffer , and many others. But what really makes me qualified to respond to this book is my active faith in Christ. I take my faith seriously, and this has led me to read and study the scriptures both on my own and with others, and also to do what Jesus says. What I’m saying is, it’s deeply personal.
Rob Bell is a big deal for the Christian community in America. He writes very popular books and has a hugely popular video series called, NOOMA. Bell has much influence, which is why it is wise to consider what he’s saying in his various messages. For the most part, I am confident that Christians as a whole agree with Bell’s message about Jesus being the most important factor in anyone’s life. If you investigate his teachings, you will find Jesus everywhere. This is great, and may no one criticize him for it.
In Love Wins, Bell says a lot of good things. He says, “I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us” (4) Certainly, who could dispute that the gospels are a radical illustration of God’s love for mankind? He writes about how God is eager to bring us into His family and give us new life. He identifies and criticizes overly religious Christians who attempt to do good and as a result believe themselves to be better than the rest. He calls out Christians who are judgmental regarding homosexuals and members of other religions. Bell focuses heavily on social justice, and identifies sex trafficking and the need for clean water in many places as a few issues that Christians should be passionate about. This is all true and good for Bell to address. I commend him for it.
Bell gets much right, but he gets some crucial things very wrong, which shows me why so many Christians, including the popular Christian Pastor John Piper, are opposed to his message.
The most striking aspect of Bell’s book, in my opinion, is that it completely lacks a critical piece of God. What I am referring to is the third member of the trinity, the Holy Spirit. Bell writes much about Jesus and God the Father, which is wonderful and good. But it strikes me as odd that he would leave out one whom Jesus calls The Spirit of truth.
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” John 16:12-15 (Emphasis added)
The Holy Spirit is a big deal. Consider the first few chapters of the book of Acts. Jesus told his followers to wait for the Holy Spirit to come soon after he ascended to heaven. When the Holy Spirit came, Jesus’s followers were empowered to speak with authority about Jesus and the scriptures. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak to the hearts of the people and truly transform them. The Holy Spirit gave them the power to heal the sick. The Holy Spirit is the power of God that fills Christ’s followers for the purpose of saving those who are lost. The Holy Spirit is a big deal, and Rob Bell doesn’t mention him. Sadly, the Holy Spirit isn’t known by many Christians in America, and perhaps this is why we don’t see revival and the awesome power of God poured out.
The first few hundred years after Christ were difficult for Christians. They were heavily persecuted. Thousands upon thousands were murdered for their devotion to Christ. Many endured unspeakable tortures in the name of remaining true to their faith. Now, keeping that in mind, I want you to consider Bell’s painfully nuanced explanation of how everyone can be saved by Christ without needing to actually believe in him.
First, there is exclusivity. Jesus is the only way. Everybody who doesn’t believe in him and follow him in the precise way is defined by the group doing the defining isn’t saved, redeemed, going to heaven…There is that kind of exclusion. You’re either in, or you’re going to hell. Then there is inclusivity. The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in, that there is only one mountain, but it has many paths…And then there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. As soon as the door is open to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists…many Christians necome very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe… Not true…What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone is saving everybody (77-78 Emphasis added)
Who would go to their death for that belief? If everyone is going to be saved inevitably, what was wrong with all of those Christians yesterday and today who refuse to deny their lord, even at the hands of tyrants? What’s at stake, and where is the sacrifice? Would the same Jesus who tells us to pick up our cross and follow him then turn around and say that we don’t need to actually believe in him to find redemption with God? Is this an intellectually and spiritually fulfilling image of God?
The final thing I want to mention is that Bell, like Brian McLaren and many others in the Emergent Church movement are pretty much declaring that Christians have gotten it wrong for 2000 years, and now they have it figured out. All that stuff about sin bringing about God’s wrath and judgment, and the need for Christ’s death on the cross to make a way for those who believe in Him, and only Him, to be saved from eternal separation from the Almighty is outdated and misleading. There really isn’t an ultimate consequence to rejecting God’s only Son. All we need do is talk about it. Ask questions with no answers. Treat faith like one of many possible life choices. Stand firm on no absolute truth.
I don’t want hell to exist. Believe me. But any honest Christian, or even a faithless scholar studying the bible would tell you that hell is spoken about rather clearly. It’s not something that you can just choose to ignore. All of this business about God’s wrath, though it isn’t particularly popular these days, is just as true now as it was when it was first written. All of this business about Jesus coming to save us, and giving us His life is also just as true.
Jesus Christ is a real person, and not just a name or a figure. When you accept him, you accept him. You don’t accept a concept of him. You are made new by believing in a real God. And there are real consequences for accepting or rejecting him.