Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, has stirred up a theological hornet’s nest with his latest book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In a slick promotional video introducing this volume (to be released later this month), the black-clad agent provocateur with the cool spectacles strolls on a snowy street and recounts an art show at his church.
One of the pieces on display included a quotation from Gandhi, the late Hindu civil rights leader in India. Someone at the show, presumably a Christian, had anonymously attached a hand-written note that said, “Reality check: He’s in hell.” While I consider such a well-intended act ultimately to be in poor taste, I find Bell’s almost mocking response to be far worse.
“Gandhi’s in hell?” Bell asks pointedly in the video. “He is? And someone knows this for sure and felt the need to let the rest of us know?”
All’s fair in love and book promotion, I suppose, but Bell apparently didn’t do a very good job of preparing his congregation for the church art show. While certainly a case could be made that Christians can learn valuable insights from non-Christians (God spoke through the mouth of a donkey, after all), Bell apparently didn’t grasp that quoting Gandhi in a church context might give some people the impression that Hindus share the same fate as faithful Christians—didn’t grasp, or didn’t care.
How unlike John Stott, the great evangelical leader from Britain. Stott found himself struggling with the traditional view of the conscious, eternal punishment of unbelievers in hell and eventually came to believe in the controversial and decidedly minority doctrine of annihilation—according to Christianity Today, “a view that holds that unsaved souls will cease to exist after death.” Yet Stott defended his stance tentatively, offering grace to those with whom he disagreed, carefully arguing his case and attempting to state theirs fairly.
This Bell has not done, at least in the promotional efforts for Love Wins (I have not yet seen the book itself). And instead of clarifying what the art show placement of the Gandhi quote means, in the video Bell suggests he doesn’t know where Gandhi—who explicitly rejected Christ as Savior—is now. The implication is clearly that this famous Hindu might be in heaven. But before getting pinned down for specifics, Bell quickly attacks his opponents—and by this I mean his fellow Christians.
The Mars Hill pastor asks, “Will only a few select people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?” Bell says that this kind of thinking leads to the widespread belief that “Jesus rescues us from God.” This unsettling formulation, of course, is a distortion of the classic Christian position that God graciously sends us his only Son, Jesus, who dies to propitiate God’s own righteous wrath.
But in the video, Bell simply caricatures this carefully nuanced doctrine. “How could that God be good?” he asks. “How could that God ever be trusted? How could the gospel be good news?” How indeed, if you ignore God’s holiness and our sinfulness?
As others have rightly said, the gospel must first be bad news before it can be good news. The Physician heals only those who agree that they are sick. The good news involves both repentance and belief. And not everyone will repent. Wasn’t it Jesus, after all, who said, "For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few”?
If Rob Bell knows all this, it’s hard to tell from the video, or from the publisher’s promotional come-on that says, “With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.” I hope the book is clearer, and not only about God’s love.
We need to recover an old-fashioned appreciation for God’s holiness. Isn’t the fear of the Lord the beginning of wisdom? Perhaps the evangelical church is so soft theologically, morally, and intellectually these days because we have lost some of that healthy fear.
I’ve been reading through the Old Testament, and I’m struck by how often God exercised his wrath in the first centuries of Israel’s formation, sometimes for what the spiritually insensitive might call seemingly minor infractions. I am thankful that he rarely responds to human rebellion so immediately and clearly today, but our infinitely holy God’s hatred of sin has not changed, and will not change.
Judgment is no strange exception in life. It is a foundational law of the universe in which we find ourselves.
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