|By: John G. Weldon, PhD, DMin; ©April 5,2011|
|Bell’s seemingly insightful proclamation of the good news we never knew was so good comprises a powerful distortion of the gospel that suggests to unbelievers (and many Christians) what they may have wanted to hear all along: that there are no eternal consequences for sin.|
Bell’s seemingly insightful proclamation of the good news we never knew was so good comprises a powerful distortion of the gospel that suggests to unbelievers (and many Christians) what they may have wanted to hear all along: that there are no eternal consequences for sin. As a result, it could lead many people into a false security about what actually happens when they die. The gospel is good news precisely because it demonstrates God’s infinite love and delivers us from the consequences of our sin before an infinitely holy God i.e. an eternal Hell. On the other hand, Bell's book unfortunately illustrates the truth of 2 Timothy 4:3: "A time will come when people will not listen to accurate teachings. Instead, they will follow their own desires and surround themselves with teachers who tell them what they want to hear." (God's Word Translation) Remember, Bell has a church of 10,000, and that is only part of his ministry.
This book not only implies that an eternal Hell is non-existent (despite Hell constituting a teaching Jesus taught more than any other biblical writer) it distorts the gospel itself, plus the nature of God's love, something it hopes to exalt.
For now, I can only assume that Pastor Bell is a Christian brother (like Clark Pinnock, John Stott, John Wenham, and other evangelicals who question or reject eternal punishment) but who, for whatever reason, is allowing his personal preference to hold sway over clear scriptural teaching. Indeed, given the human aversion to the concept, only the clarity of biblical teaching on an eternal Hell can explain the church's acceptance of it for 2,000 years. Nevertheless, rejecting what God clearly teaches misses the mark of God’s standards; it is unwise to deny God’s Word and in the process lead others astray. Given Robert Bell's great responsibility as a pastor and teacher, he would do well to remember the admonition of the apostle James, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more severely than others.” (James 3:1 ISV)
Indeed, Hell seems sufficiently downplayed, neglected, or rejected in evangelical circles today as to be almost scandalous.
But this questioning or denial of critical biblical doctrines and the state of the evangelical Church generally, also has a positive side: it clearly illustrates the critical need for theology and apologetics to be more vigorously taught in homes, churches, Bible schools, and seminaries. It further illustrates the need for Christians to be wary of bad teaching -- and even outright false teachers who are also in the church, as the Apostle Paul warned the Ephesians and Colossians:
Both Jesus and the apostles often warned against false teachers: ""Beware of the false teachers--men who come to you in sheep's fleeces, but beneath that disguise they are ravenous wolves." (Matthew 7:16, Weymouth) "If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing." (1 Timothy 6:3-4) "You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine." (Titus 2:1) "I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them." (Romans 16:17)
Responding to critics, Bell says we are “firmly in the realm of speculation” when it comes to the afterlife, but this isn’t biblical teaching at all. Christians will be comforted “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10)
Jesus clearly taught eternal punishment, so who is the Jesus of Rob Bell? To be fair, in a March 31, 2011 interview in the Washington Post with Sally Quinn he now allegedly claims that he believes in Hell: “I believe in Hell now [i.e., Hell on earth], I believe in Hell when you die.” Unfortunately, Bell is characteristically obscure, which is typical of the theological and philosophical style of those in the so-called “emergent church” movement. Given his reluctance to speak clearly ever since the publication of his book and the great controversy it has stirred, one might be forgiven for being skeptical that the above statement can be taken at face value, e.g., depending on one's definition of "Hell" one may still argue that one believes in Hell, but not in eternal punishment. For example he could believe in a Hell that is temporary and remedial, or even annihilated at some future point.
As a result, how do we know what Bell believes until he expresses greater clarity? His response to critics so far has been to fight back, not repent. At the time pastor Bell declares the following, then I will happily conclude that he has repented and is orthodox: that he believes in full biblical authority and the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment, that he rejects all forms of universalism/annihilationism, and affirms that God is both an infinitely loving and holy and wrathful God. When Rob Bell confesses his error before his congregation and accepts and teaches from the pulpit the traditional and accurate interpretations of the standard passages on Hell and eternal punishment, then one can know there has been a genuine change of mind.
But I'm afraid that the damage has already been done and will continue to be done by the publication of his book, something clearly written in the attempt to soothe people's concerns over eternal punishment. Whatever he may or may not believe now, the flavor and tenor of his book suggests a strong bias against Jesus’ teaching on the afterlife. I can only agree with the sentiment of R. Albert Mohler Jr, "Reading the book is a heart-breaking experience."
Indeed, the book is something like biting into a scrumptiously sweet apple only to break your teeth on an apricot pit; very disappointing and an unfortunate waste of something good – in this case, real talent, a tossing aside of the good gifts God has given, misusing them for something counterfeit.
If Bell had used the tremendous gifts God has given him to show how the doctrine of eternal punishment is entirely compatible with God's infinite love, his service to both the Church and the culture would have been enormous. Instead, it's the opposite – and this sadly illustrates the consequences of misusing the good spiritual and other gifts God has so graciously given us. (James 1:17)
We need to pray for Rob Bell, perhaps even for his salvation, I certainly hope not, but I simply don't know. It's not impossible that Bell could one day end up the most surprised of all, because no one knows with certainty the fate of another, only with their own soul. That is why Scripture admonishes (more than once) that every Christian test themselves to be certain they are in the faith and true believers.
Bell may claim he has been misunderstood and slandered, but there is nothing loving about preaching a false gospel, as the Apostle Paul emphasized: “Let God's curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you.” (Galatians 1:8 NLT) In the media interviews I have watched with Rob Bell, he simply doesn’t answer his critics, rather, he skirts the issues. In the end, Love Wins not by questioning or denying biblical truth, but by honoring the teachings of the incarnate Son of God Jesus Christ who "is the truth" (John 14:6) -- even if some of those teachings are difficult or unpopular. Love wins by upholding all biblical truth, – as well as upholding God's goodness, justice and love itself, all fully compatible with the doctrine of eternal punishment.
In the end, love wins by saving souls, not by confusing them or comforting them in their current rejection of Christ. Bell may think that his news is the best of all, but the truth is that the biblical gospel is infinitely better.
In the end, love really does win in that through personal faith in Jesus Christ countless people will be eternally saved from the consequences of their sin, inheriting an eternally glorious new Heaven and Earth far beyond human comprehension. Love also wins because "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16); it is his very nature to love and he will love his children throughout all eternity in ways they cannot yet fathom -- infinite love will exist forever, so love does win out. God’s great love is proven beyond all doubt and for all eternity by the unimaginable suffering his Son endured on the cross to save unworthy sinners, even the wicked and his enemies (John 3:16; Romans 5:8-10), a suffering that was so powerfully depicted by Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” not to mention the various medical studies of a crucifixion (which deal “merely” with the physical, not the much greater emotional and spiritual suffering).
And finally love wins in the end because there really is, in fact, eternal punishment: itself proof of the extent of God's love for sinners desperately in need of a Savior.
Showcasing God's incredible love is all to the good – but to do at the expense of what the Bible teaches on such a critical subject as an eternal Hell and the biblical nature of salvation isn’t good for anyone.