Five Brief Reflections on the Rob Bell Controversy

Updated: Short update at the end.

1. Some have questioned the appropriateness of posts like this, given that Bell’s book has not yet been published (and I’ve not read it). But I think the promo video is so damaging that it merits a public rebuke. Did you notice how glibly he cast aside the necessity of the re-birth? None less than Jesus Christ establishes the necessity of being born again (John 3:3, John 3:5) to enter the kingdom of God. [See also I Peter 1:3-7, 23.]

2. The nature of Bell’s questions, as Kevin DeYoung has pointed out, is decided non-neutral. Bell is saying that a loving and merciful God cannot send people to hell simply because they do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior. Bell is also saying that Jesus does not “rescue people from God.” In doing so, Bell trivializes sin and minimizes the holiness of God, contrary to Romans 3:21-26, I Thessalonians 1:10, and other passages.

3. I’ve seen some bloggers liken Bell’s perspective to that of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce — in which souls in hell were being beckoned to repent and come to heaven. Possibly so. But it should be remembered that while Lewis was a skillful writer and helpful in many ways, he was not a reliable theologian. In addition, Lewis was strongly influenced by George MacDonald, who by all accounts was a universalist. Though I don’t recall MacDonald ever working out a detailed systematic theology, his writing certainly pointed in that direction, as others have noted.

4. I recommend this reflection by John Piper on the extent to which people willingly go to hell. Piper’s point (contra Lewis) is they don’t — they want sin, not hell. An excerpt:

What sinners want is not hell but sin. That hell is the inevitable consequence of unforgiven sin does not make the consequence desirable. It is not what people want—certainly not what they “most want.” Wanting sin is no more equal to wanting hell than wanting chocolate is equal to wanting obesity. Or wanting cigarettes is equal to wanting cancer.

Beneath this misleading emphasis on hell being what people “most want” is the notion that God does not “send” people to hell. But this is simply unbiblical. God certainly does send people to hell. He does pass sentence, and he executes it. Indeed, worse than that. God does not just “send,” he “throws.” “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown (Greek eblethe) into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15; cf. Mark 9:47; Matthew 13:42; 25:30).

I don’t think there is any contradiction between Piper’s position and this essay by Tim Keller on The Importance of Hell. Keller argues that hell is both God’s active judgment and our choice. It’s impossible for sinners without the Holy Spirit to want to be with God at all (see I Corinthians 12:3 — this is true Philippians 2:10-11 notwithstanding). The more an unregenerate sinner is forced to admit what the real God is like—holy, transcendent—the more he or she will want to stay away from him. See Keller’s discussion of Jesus’ account of a rich man in hell (Luke 16:19 and following).

5. The Calvinist position does not require that one hold to active hardening. In other words, the “double predestination” of which we speak is not symmetrical. The reprobate freely choose to reject God’s terms of pardon — the door to hell can be “locked on the inside,” and simultaneously be according to divine decree. As someone once said, “What man freely chooses in time, God ordains outside of time.” The elect (who consciously embrace Christ in this life) are actively regenerated. The reprobate are passively hardened; God simply leaves them in their sin. He doesn’t actively push them toward greater sinfulness so that they’ll merit more hell (the way he actively regenerates the elect and effectually woos them to repent of their sinfulness and hardheartedness and to embrace Jesus Christ as their Substitute, Sin-bearing Savior, Lord, and Treasure). For more on this matter, I highly recommend Chosen By God by R.C. Sproul and Chosen For Life by Sam Storms.

UPDATE:

In terms of a detailed exegetical response to the kinds of questions Bell is raising, I commend to you a few resources from Dr. Christopher Morgan and Dr. Robert Peterson: Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, What Is Hell?, and Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism. On the latter, I previously interviewed Dr. Morgan.

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