Book Reviews,  Theology/Bible

Revising Hell into the Heterodox Mainstream

Much has been made of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Before the book was even released, promotional materials seemed to suggest that Rob Bell would be heading in an unorthodox direction in this book.

Now having read the book, I am convinced that the promotional materials were correct. Bell has launched out into a heterodox, unbiblical accounting of sin and judgment, the cross and salvation, heaven and hell. He pictures a God without wrath who would never create a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked. No one needs salvation from God’s wrath; they only need to be rescued from themselves. No one needs to have conscious faith in Jesus Christ in this life to find salvation in the next.

While Bell does not want to be labeled a universalist, this book does more to advance the cause of universalism at the popular level than any book I have ever seen.

The following review is long, but it is still too short to engage every exegetical and theological error in Bell’s book. There are simply too many to respond to in a review. That being said, my aim is to walk through the main chapters giving you a brief look at his argument while providing some critiques along the way. So this review has eight headings that summarize the eight chapters of this book:

1. Questions Have No Questions
2. Heaven Has No Separation
3. Hell Has No Fury
4. God Has No Enemies (Maybe?)
5. The Cross Has No Center
6. Salvation Has No Conscious Faith Requirement
7. God Has No Anger
8. Concluding Observations

[Click here to download a PDF of the entire 11 page review.]

1. Questions Have No Questions

At the outset, I want to say a word about how we should evaluate Rob Bell’s “questions.” Bell likes to make assertions that are cloaked in questions. It is a manipulative tactic that has an air of epistemological humility but which he employs with great skill to make theological arguments. Some have suggested that Bell’s questions tell us very little about Bell’s views because they are, after all, questions and not assertions. This seems to me an overly literalistic way of reading that suffers from acute naiveté about how language actually works.

Do we really believe that all questions are to be taken as literal queries? Is it not true that some questions are rhetorical and are really the semantic equivalent of an assertion? Is not this the way Paul spoke in Romans 6:1 when he asks, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Can we all agree that every question in this paragraph is not a true query but the rough equivalent of an assertion?

This is precisely how Bell frames some of his most controversial arguments. I will let the reader be the judge. Do the following questions from chapter one consist of actual queries, or do they have the effect of an assertion?

“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few, finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God, it raises questions about the beliefs themselves… What kind of faith is that? Or more importantly: What kind of God is that?” (pp. 2-3).

Because Bell has already labeled the traditional doctrine of hell as “misguided” and “toxic” (p. viii), it is not difficult to see that Bell already has an answer in mind to these questions. Indeed, the very way in which they are phrased shows that these questions are leading to a conclusion. Bell suggests that God’s own character would be in question if the traditional doctrine of hell is true. Thus these are assertions and not true queries. These are assertions about the reality of hell and the nature of God.

I belabor the point because this device will come into play in a big way throughout the book. Chapter 4 (“Does God Get What God Wants?”), for instance, is filled with a bevy of leading questions that make serious and subversive theological arguments in favor of a universalist perspective (pp. 97-98; 102-103).

We have all felt the sting of a deceptive rhetorical question. After all, it was Satan who tempted Eve with the line, “Has God really said?” Though rhetorical questions can be used for good or for ill, I think Bell uses them mainly for the latter.

2. Heaven Has No Separation

Chapter 2 is Bell’s take on heaven, and it is not quite the place where the sheep are separated from the goats. Bell wants to make his case biblically, but his use of scripture suffers from a myopic word-study approach to constructing doctrine. I am all for word studies, but there is much more to doing theology than collating lists of meanings for biblical words (and occasionally slipping in novel meanings that no one has ever heard of!). Yet this is precisely how Bell approaches serious theological questions. Bell’s treatment of heaven (and hell) begins and ends with word studies on those terms—as if the doctrine of heaven can be summed up in the various usages of the Greek and Hebrew terms that are commonly glossed in English as heaven, eternal, etc.

Bell is most interested in what Jesus means by the word heaven. After giving the range of possible meanings for the term in Jesus’ speech, he argues that heaven only sometimes refers to that place where people go in the afterlife (or this life). He writes:

“Heaven is that realm where things are as God intends them to be” (p. 42).

This seems to suggest that heaven can be any place where there is obedience and justice. Yet the world will not experience perfect obedience and justice in this age, so believers look forward to a future age in which heaven comes down to earth.

“What Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what all of Jewish tradition pointed to and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one… The day when earth and heaven will be the same place” (pp. 42-43).

Heaven can be right here right now, or it can be future. In the eternal state, however, heaven and earth will no longer be separated.

Having said that, Bell confuses the eternal state with the final judgment. In Bell’s view, the flames of God’s judgment are present in “heaven”—in the place where believers enjoy eternal life. Bell argues from 1 Corinthians 3 that the day of judgment will “bring everything to light” and “reveal it with fire” (p. 49). The fire from heaven will “test the quality of each person’s work” (p.49).

Yet Bell’s use of scripture is usually facile, and it certainly is in the case of 1 Corinthians 3. What Paul intends as a narrow word about gospel ministers and their fruits, Bell turns into a paradigmatic description every person’s experience at the final judgment. Those who do not contribute to God’s shalom now “will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though only as one escaping through the flames” (p. 49). Thus, for Bell, heaven is a place where our moral dross gets burned away. But this is not at all what Paul is teaching in this text.

What is the theological bottom line of Bell’s exegesis? Bell describes heaven as a kind of purgatory—a place where sins are burned away over time.

“Heaven also confronts. Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points… certain things simply will not survive in the age to come. Like coveting. And greed” (p. 49).

Bell accesses a hypothetical scenario in which a racist inherits eternal life. The racist is not yet perfect when he enters “heaven” but has to have his racism burned away by the remediating flames of heaven:

“Your racist attitude would simply not survive. Those flames in heaven would be hot” (p. 50).

Bell says that much of the “confusion” about heaven stems from “the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who ‘know’ everything” (p. 51). Although Bell grants that the resurrection will happen “automatically,” he does not grant that holiness will happen “in the blink of an eye.” Rather, he says, “our heart, our character, our desires, our longings—those things take time” (p. 51). So for Bell, progressive sanctification continues in heaven.

The biblical and theological difficulties with Bell’s description of heaven are significant. For starters, his view of the age to come allows for sin to be present in heaven (cf. Psalm 24:3-4). While, the inhabitants of heaven will have glorified bodies, they will also have varying levels of sin in their hearts. Bell’s view runs roughshod over biblical texts that indicate that it is not merely resurrection/glorification of the body that happens “in the twinkling of an eye,” but also final victory over the power and presence of sin in the life of the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:56-57; cf. 1 John 3:2). Bell’s view also allows the possibility for the impenitent to become penitent in heaven. In other words, it allows for post-mortem salvation/conversion, a theological staple for Christian universalists.

In this chapter, Bell introduces a definition for the Greek word aion, which he says can refer to a period of time or “to a particular intensity of experience
that transcends time” (p. 57). This is important because Bell views “eternal” not as an unending progression of days and years into the future, but “eternal” pertains to an intensity of experience. This definition will play a big role in Bell’s explanation of hell.

3. Hell Has No Fury

Chapter 3 is the chapter on hell, and it too suffers from the word-study approach that characterized the previous chapter. In this chapter, however, Bell really zeroes-in on Jesus’ use of the single term Gehenna. Here and elsewhere, Bell seems to place a hermeneutical priority on the words of Jesus. So Bell questions the traditional view of hell with: “Is that what Jesus taught?” (p. 64). His narrow word-study focus on the words of Jesus end-up giving a truncated vision of the total biblical teaching concerning the wrath of God. In fact, there is no place at all for the punitive wrath of God in Bell’s doctrine of hell (e.g., Romans 2:5).

Bell says that he believes in a “literal hell” (p. 71). But the hell that he believes in is nothing like the biblical doctrine that Christians have held to over the centuries. For Bell, hell is simply God giving us what we want (p. 72). He does not mean that eschatologically, but immediately. Bell’s hell is a place where human evil reigns and thereby causes human suffering. One can be in hell now, and one can be in hell in the afterlife.

“There are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (p. 79).

Whenever or wherever a person rejects their God-given “goodness and humanity,” hell is on the scene. So yes he believes in a hell, just not the biblical one.

Gone from Bell is any notion of hell as a place of God’s wrath. In fact, Bell goes to great lengths to show that scriptural passages referring to “judgment and punishment” do not really refer to God’s wrath in hell (p. 79). When Jesus warned of the “coming wrath,” he only meant to warn Jews against revolting against Roman occupiers (pp. 80-81). It was Rome’s wrath, not God’s wrath.

For Bell, hell is not like the Hotel California. You can check-in to hell any time you like, and then you are free to leave. He points to the example of Sodom and Gomorrah, the biblical paradigm of human evil under God’s judgment. He notes that Ezekiel 16 says that the fortunes of Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored (pp. 83-84) and that even Jesus says in Matthew 10 that there is still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah (pp. 84-85). God’s judgment against sin can never be permanent because God aims to restore all things. He writes,

“No matter how painful, brutal, oppressive, no matter how far people find themselves from home because of their sin, indifference, and rejection, there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever” (p. 86).

Bell says that biblical warnings about “eternal punishment” are not what they appear to be. He argues that “eternal” (Greek, aion) does not mean “forever.” Rather, eternal denotes “intensity of experience” (p. 91). So when Jesus speaks of “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46, he is talking about a limited period of time of intense pruning that aims to restore the sinner to eternal life. For Bell, hell is not eternal punishment, but temporary discipline. He writes,

“Failure , we see again and again, isn’t final,
judgment has a point,
and consequences are for correction” (p. 88).

Bell’s definition of aion as a limited period of time of intense experience is highly problematic. In Matthew 25:46, Jesus’ warning about eternal punishment has a context that Bell fails to mention. There is a separation of sheep from the goats. The goats enter into “eternal punishment” and the sheep into “eternal life.” Is Bell suggesting that “eternal life” is also temporary intense experience? This is shoddy exegesis on Bell’s part that results in a massive theological error that would put a stopwatch on heaven.

So in Bell’s view, hell really hath no fury. It is not a place of where sinners experience the punitive wrath of God forever. It is a place where sinners experience the temporary, loving correction of a Father. If there was ever an example of someone not leaving room for the wrath of God, this is it (Romans 12:19).

So, yes. Bell believes in “hell”—a hell so redefined that it no longer resembles what the Bible actually teaches. There are lots of ways to reject biblical teaching. This is rejection by redefinition.

4. God Has No Enemies (Maybe?)

Chapter 4 (“Does God Get What God Wants?”) is a chapter like no other chapter I have ever read. At the heart of it is a contradiction that is impossible to reconcile. Bell begins by quoting 1 Timothy 2:2, and then he asks a question:

“‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2). So does God get what God wants?”(p. 97)

Bell answers the question in the affirmative by marshalling a string of biblical texts that he thinks support a universal and salvific restoration of all things to God. He even suggests that if God does not save everyone that God has somehow “failed” (p. 98) and is not as great and powerful as He is made out to be in the Bible.

“So does God get what God wants?
How great is God?
Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do,
or kind of great,
great most of the time,
but in this,
the fate of billions of people,
not totally great.
Sort of great.
A little great” (p. 97-98).

The foregoing paragraph begins with a rhetorical question to which the presumed answer is yes. Later in the chapter, there are a string of other rhetorical questions that favor a kind of universalist perspective. I quote at length:

“Is history tragic?
Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?
Is our future uncertain,
or will God take care of us?
Are we safe?
Are we secure?
Or are we on our own?

Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father—or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father?
Is God like the characters in a story Jesus would tell, …
or, in the end, will God give up?
Will ‘all the ends of the earth’ come, as God has decided, or only some?
Will all feast as it’s promised in Psalm 22,
or only a few?
Will everybody be given a new heart,
or only a limited number of people?
Will God, in the end, settle, saying:
‘Well, I tried, I gave it my best shot,
and sometimes you just have to be okay with failure’?
Will God shrug God-size shoulders and say,
‘You can’t always get what you want’?” (pp. 102-103)

Bell says that God’s goal is to save every human being who has ever lived and who ever will live and that God will never give up this goal.

“God has a purpose. A desire. A goal. And God never stops pursuing it… The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever” (p. 101).

God may have enemies now, but that will not always be the case. God will pursue His enemies even in the age to come until they repent and are reconciled. God will do this, and nothing can thwart God. He will not give up until every one of his enemies is converted.

If that were the end of the chapter, we would conclude that Rob Bell is an unabashed universalist. But here is where the contradiction seeps in. After a tour de force in favor of universalism, after listing text after text teaching God’s inability to fail in His purpose to save all, Bell says that sometimes God fails at saving all. Because God will not “hijack the human heart” and violate human free will (p.104), some people may remain recalcitrant in their rebellion against God in the afterlife. Bell allows that some people will remain in hell for a very long time, though it is not clear if he thinks they will be there forever (pp. 113-114). I think he at least leaves the “forever” part as a possibility.

In my view, this argument is hopelessly inconsistent. God either will fail in His purpose to save all or He will not. Bell cannot have it both ways, but he certainly tries. This section of the book will allow Bell to say “I am not a universalist.” Even though his heart is clearly with the universalist position, he gives himself a back door to deny it. This is why Bell’s teaching is so subversive. He presents one of the most compelling cases in favor of universalism that one will ever read in a popular book while denying that he is one himself. From a pastoral perspective, this is the very definition of a wolf in sheep’s clothing (cf. Acts 20:29-30).

5. The Cross Has No Center

Chapter 5 is Bell’s take on the gospel—a message about “Dying to Live.” Bell describes the various metaphors in scripture that are used to depict the meaning of Christ’s atoning work. He writes,

“What happened on the cross is like…
a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
something lost being redeemed,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved” (p. 128).

Bell says that none of these images are central, and he even suggests that some of them may not have much relevance for the modern reader. In particular, Bell questions the relevance of the imagery about Jesus dying as a sacrifice to pay for sins.

“This is especially crucial in light of how many continue to use the sacrificial metaphor in our modern world. There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never lose its power’ and ‘Nothing but the blood will save us.’ Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods. People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways. But most of us don’t” (p. 129).

For those with ears to hear, this is a subtle jab at penal substitutionary atonement as the central meaning of the cross. Nevermind the fact that Paul says that God put Jesus forward on the cross as a wrath-bearing sacrifice for sins (Romans 3:25). Nevermind Isaiah’s prophecy that Jesus would be “smitten of God” and that God Himself put Jesus forward as an offering for sin (Isaiah 53:4, 10). Bell rejects this view of Christ’s atoning work as irrelevant in the modern world. The view of Christ’s sacrificial death is a quaint accommodation to the superstitions of the original readers of scripture. And just like that, Bell dismisses the innermost meaning of the cross.

This review is not the place to defend a position on the atonement. That has already been done ably by others. I simply point this out as another reason that Bell is an unreliable guide when it comes to the most important doctrines of the Bible.

6. Salvation Has No Conscious Faith Requirement

Chapter 6 is Bell’s attempt to explain how people can have eternal life while never having conscious faith in Jesus Christ in this life. He affirms that salvation only comes through Jesus, but he also affirms that people need not know that to be saved. Even though Jesus says in John 14:6 that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus does not specify that people have to know Jesus in order to be saved by him.

“What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even stat that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him” (p. 154).

So Bell makes the case for inclusivism. People respond to whatever light they have, and that can lead them to Christ. Sometimes the light comes through other religions.

“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. This inclusivity assumes that as long as your heart is fine or your actions measure up, you’ll be okay” (p. 155).

No doubt it is this inclusivism that causes Bell to question the possibility that Gandhi might be in hell (p. 1). One need not be a Christian to be saved by Christ. One only need to live a good life within the light one has received. Once again, there is a contradiction here. Bell still says it is important to believe in Jesus, but the urgency of doing so certainly is diminished if Bell’s framework is accepted. This kind of doctrine is way out of step with scripture (not least John 14:6 in context), and it kills fervency for evangelism and missions.

7. God Has No Anger

In Chapter 7, Bell tries to convince readers that God is not angry. You may have heard that He is angry about sin (or something like that), but that is not at all what He is really like. A God of love cannot be one who would create hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. God is not like that. Those who describe God in that way are actually driving people away from Jesus.

“Because if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing
or compelling language
or good music
or great coffee
will be able to disguise
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality” (p. 175).

As the title of the chapter suggests, “the good news is better than that” God.

“Many people have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God” (p. 182).

Here Bell lays his cards on the table. He does not believe that Jesus died to rescue us from the wrath of God. The notion that God would have wrath toward His creatures is an unconscionable suggestion to Bell. He does not like this version of the gospel (which happens to be the historic evangelical position) because he does not like this version of God.

8. Concluding Observations

Bell presses the boundary issue in this book. Even though he does not want to be labeled a universalist, he clearly wants universalism to be seen as a legitimate, orthodox option for Christians (p. 109-110). Yet universalism is anything but orthodox. It was condemned as a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553), and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants all eschew the idea that ultimately hell will be empty with all people eventually inheriting eternal life. Bells attempt to enlist Martin Luther, Augustine, and others in his apology for universalism is a real howler. To say that universalism is in the orthodox mainstream is simply an historical error.

Contrary to Bell’s telling of the story, hell is real (Luke 12:5). God’s wrath is real (Romans 2:5). Eternal punishment is real (Matthew 25:26), and Jesus himself will be the one doling out retribution at the last day (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10). Nevertheless, Bell says that anyone who objects to a universalist perspective should at least admit that “it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it” (p. 111). Is this really true? Are Christians really supposed to wish that universalism were true even if it isn’t?

Though we may feel tempted to despise hell in this life and to be drawn away to heresies that deny it, we will not always deal with such temptations. In Revelation 18:20 as Babylon is cast down in final judgment, God issues a command:

“Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, because God has pronounced judgment for you against her.”

And then later, the praises of heaven break out as Babylon receives her punishment:

1 “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God;
2 BECAUSE HIS JUDGMENTS ARE TRUE AND RIGHTEOUS; for He has judged the great harlot who was corrupting the earth with her immorality, and HE HAS AVENGED THE BLOOD OF HIS BOND-SERVANTS ON HER.”…
3 “Hallelujah! HER SMOKE RISES UP FOREVER AND EVER.” (Rev 19:1-3)

In the new heavens and the new earth, there are no people who despise God for creating hell. On the contrary, there is only praise for God’s holiness and justice. If this strikes you as terrifying, that is a good thing. That is precisely what it is meant to do. It is designed to awaken sinners to the greatness of God, the gravity of His judgments, and the inviolability of His holiness. It is designed to awaken people to realities that Love Wins would blind them to. And that is why Bell’s book is so misleading and dangerous.

In the final chapter of the book, Bell shares a poignant story from his childhood. He describes praying to receive Christ as his savior while kneeling beside his bed with his parents on either side of him. He describes trusting Jesus to save him from his sins. It sounds like Bell had a more biblical view of the faith at an earlier point in his life. I hope and pray that he returns to what he learned as a child. What he is advocating now in Love Wins is a long way from where he began, and it is a long way from orthodoxy.


  • Mr. Logical

    Not sure if anyone has put this out, but below is a total math and history FAIL:

    ““Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’”

    Straw man, Mr. Bell. The vast majority of humanity has YET to hear the Good News:

    Mr. Bell can’t seem to handle history and basic mathematics.

  • Jeanie

    Thank you for the detailed review of an important topic. What surprises me is that so many christians defend Rob Bell and not the truth. It leads me to think in my personal life, do I defend myself or do I defend the truth of the Gospel. If I am busy defending myself and others, than the gospel will not go forth. May we as Christians defend the truth. It is that important!

  • Serious Questions

    A) Numbers 14:21, Habakkuk 2:14, John 3:16 – If ALL of the earth will be filled with God’s glory, why do only SOME people go to hell?

    B) Isaiah 45:23, Philippians 2:10,11, Psalm 72:11 – If eventually All the people of the earth will confess Jesus as Lord, why doesn’t EVERYONE get saved?

    C) Isaiah 26:9 – How would a person burning in “hell” go about learning righteousness?

    D) Romans 6:23 – When Adam sinned, he reaped death…why doesn’t the Bible say Adam went to hell?

    E) Mark 16:19 – If the penalty for sin was eternal torment, would not Jesus still be burning in “hell” to pay for our sins?

    D) If Gehenna is the place name for the Valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem (you can find it on a map) why can’t hell be on earth right now?

    E) 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 Timothy 4:10, John 12:32-33, Colossians 1:19-20…Why do these passages say Jesus died for ALL men? Doesn’t “all” mean EVERYONE?

    F) Deuteronomy 15:1, Lev. 25:8 – Doesn’t the Law of Jubilee establishe the legal precedent for the forgiveness of all sins?

    G) Colossians 1:19-20, John 12:32-33 – If He will reconcile all things to Himself, why can’t he reconcile the people stuck in eternal hell?

  • Chris Blackstone

    To Serious Questions, here are some attempted answers to your questions. I also responsed on JT’s blog post as you seem to have posted these questions on both sites.

    A) Simply because all the earth is filled with God’s glory doesn’t mitigate the need to atonement for our sin. Sin is an offense against a Holy God. That’s why some people go to hell.

    B) Confessing that Jesus as Lord is different than confessing that Jesus is YOUR Lord. James 2:18-19 says that even demons believe that there is one God and other places demons call Jesus the Son of God (CF Acts 19:15, Luke 4:41) but that doesn’t mean they have been saved. Doctrinal ascent doesn’t equal faith.

    C) I don’t see anything in Isaiah 26:9 about hell

    D) Everyone experiences death, except for people like Elijah who were “taken up”. There is no logical progression between Adam dying and Adam going to hell. Many people in the Bible died without specific mention of their going to hell or heaven.

    E) Jesus lived a perfect life, so He had no reason to be in hell. His death was to atone for OUR sins, taking our place when we rightly deserved death. God in His wisdom decreed that after 3 days Jesus, the perfect God man, would rise again and that satisfies the burden of our sin debt.

    F (listed as D) Because the Bible talks about hell as being a place of eternal torment. Not everywhere on earth is eternal torment. Also, hell is eternal separation from God. There is no place on earth where there is complete separation from God (Romans 1:20)

    G (listed as E) Jesus dying for all men doesn’t mean that all will be saved. See Romans 9 for a passage talking about God saving some and not others. Because He is sovereign, and we are His creation, He is free to rule us as He desires.

    H (listed as F) The forgiveness of a monetary debt between humans is not comparable to the forgiveness of sin against God who is holy. Additionally, there is no record of Jubilee ever actually being observed so it is problematic to use it as a model for anything.

    I (listed as G) Because there is no mention in the Bible at all about God reconciling people stuck in eternal hell. To assume otherwise is optimistic but inconsistent with the Biblical narrative.

    I hope these address your questions at least a little. If you have further questions, feel free to contact me through my website, linked above.

  • Jeff Low

    A most excellent review. Prof. Burk, thank you for sharing it with us and defending the historic (biblical) Christian faith against “misguided” and “toxic” teachings. May the living and true God be glorified.

  • T

    @Serious Questions Well said.

    This review is not at all compelling. Just more of the same… afraid to even consider that there’s more than the narrow boundaries of what you’ve been taught all your life, regardless of the depth and breadth of Scripture that possibly suggests otherwise. Don’t be so afraid of it, people.

  • Derek

    I think you were 100% correct to use part of your review to dissect Bell’s views on atonement, especially after reading
    Russell Moore’s very powerful entry on blood atonement, in reference to Bell’s views:

    At first glance, I didn’t see how views on the atonement connect with hell or the afterlife, but it is interesting that Bell himself recognized the need to negate the importance of atonement in order to deconstruct hell.

  • Rev. Paul T. McCain

    As a conservative Lutheran pastor, member of the Missouri Synod, I applaud your review and your honing in on the key problem with Bell’s book: his view on the atonement.

    It is encouraging to me to see so many American Evangelicals refuting and rejecting Bell’s false teaching.

  • Scott Culver

    Thank you Denny, for the indepth review. Rob Bell is a very confused Pastor – OR – this is all about money, and using the Cross for financial gain.
    I lean toward the latter.

  • Bruce

    “There is inclusivity. The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in…. This inclusivity assumes that as long as…your actions measure up, you’ll be okay” (p. 155).

    Isn’t that ultimately a works-theology? Doesn’t that say we can earn salvation? Yes, Bell allows for the evil of some people to be atoned for in the intensity of the hell/purgatory/heaven combo, but he also seems to be saying that some people don’t need that because they’re already good enough.

  • Bob Meredith

    Excellent review Mr Burk. I have watched numerous videos and read quite a few blogs about him, but this is the first extensive review of the book. Thank you for your service to King Jesus.

  • JT Caldwell

    How many of us who disagree with Bell on this issue, and are saddened by his misguiding his and others’ flocks are actually praying for him?

    Only God opens the eyes of the blind and deceived. Enough with the critical reviews and blog posts. Let’s pray for Bell and those being influenced by him.

  • Kamilla

    “Bell likes to make assertions that are cloaked in questions.”

    Spot on. The “emergents” and their fellow travellers, including folks like Rob Marin are loathe to make clear, declarative statements. They come at it sideways, much as the first time the question, “Did God really say?” was asked.

  • Derek

    I’m really wondering what N.T. Wright is thinking right now of this firestorm. Just watched this two year old video of him and it would appear that he agrees, at least partially with Rob Bell:

    He thinks that hell is more “progressive dehumanization” than a literal place. He appears to even ridicule the notion that hell has an address or can be understood in literal terms. Wright also seems to agree with Bell that the traditional western perspective of hell is derived more from Dante than Christ.

    Interesting stuff. I wonder if Bell was inspired by Wright’s musings because at least thematically, Wright and Bell seem to be on the same page.

  • Merrilee Lewis

    I always thought he had a post-modern screw loose – couldn’t put my finger on it before but glad he’s out of the closet – just pray for a change of heart.

  • Philip Nicholson

    “People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways. But most of us don’t” (p. 129).

    I can’t believe how arrogant and ethnocentric this comment is describing these people as “primitive”! There are many, many animistic cultures numbering probably over 1 billion people who still understand the world in these terms. And this includes many wealthy urban people, not just obscure tribes.

    Apart from his poor biblical understanding of the cross, Bell doesn’t even seem to understand the world in which we live outside the narrow liberal American culture in which he lives.

  • Victor

    So here is my question to everyone critical of Rob Bell. Is he going to hell? Everything I have read about Rob Bell states that Jesus is the way to God and to Heaven. He obviously has studied scriptures, Judaism, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramic so his teachings have a background.

    But do you think he is going to hell for teaching a different doctrine?

  • Steve Wilson

    “But do you think he is going to hell for teaching a different doctrine?”

    It doesn’t make any difference what we think, Victor, it’s what God’s Word says.

    And the Bible is clear; anyone teaching a different gospel is, according to the Apostle Paul, anathema which means “accursed”.

    cf. Galatians 1: 6-9.

  • Victor

    THanks for the reply Steve and I hear that alot. I hear it from the mormon’s, the baptists, the JW’s, the 7th day adventists, the catholics, and every other denomination that claims the Christian title. There are like 50 denominations that claim to be “Christian” and they all have different points and ideas about what The Bible says. And they all believe the other 49 denominations are wrong and will be “accursed” for it. And every denomination has just as many “learned” and “educated” people to back up their beliefs. No wonder non-believers struggle with what Christians say, “we are the stumbling blocks” because we can’t even agree on the meaning of The Bible.

    In one of his previous books, Rob Bell says he gets nervous when a Pastor stands up in front of his congregation, holding a Bible in the air and says “I only preach what this book says.” He says if the Pastor was honest he would say “I only preach my interpretation of what this Bible says.” Why don’t more Pastors say this.

    The Bible has stories about God’s people “wrestling” and “struggling” with the scriptures. How much do we “struggle” and “wrestle” with the scriptures before we go on the internet and proclaim “EVERYONE, don’t worry!!! I got this whole thing figured out!!” I think that is very dangerous.

    In his review of Chapter 1, Denny refers to Rob Bell using a manipulation tactic of asking questions, then in the next paragraph, shows us in the Biblke where Paul did the same thing. That confuses me. If it is wrong for Rob, shouldn’t it be wrong for Paul?

    I have lots of thoughts and questions and seek to “wrestle” with the scriptures and see where I am led by The Holy Spirit.


  • Charlton Connett


    To be brief, I’m afraid you may be misunderstanding Denny’s argument, based on what you have stated of your reading of his review. Denny took the time to type a whole paragraph of question-non-questions to make the point that when Bell asks questions, he isn’t really asking questions (that’s almost a tongue twister). Denny’s point was not that there is anything inherently wrong in asking questions in order to make a statement. (Could he have typed that paragraph if that was his point? Could I have typed this sentence or the last if the point is that questions that are really statements should be avoided?) Denny’s point was that if you say you are only asking questions, when you are really making statements, then you are being disingenuous (I’d call it “lying”) which is wrong. (By the way, Paul never makes the claim, “Hey, I’m just asking questions here!” Paul is clear that he is teaching, so no one is claiming Paul is being disingenuous when he asks question-non-questions.)

    No one is saying that Christians shouldn’t wrestle with Scripture. The point is that Bell didn’t wrestle with Scripture, he took it and abused it in his exegesis and interpretation. He did the same thing with history, by not backing up his claims, and not being careful to give footnotes and explanations of how he came to the conclusions to which he came. Further, it seems that Bell even abused logic, by refusing to follow his thoughts to their logical conclusions. Then, after these errors, he published a book which seems to espouse a heretical doctrine. And now, should informed teachers not rebuke Bell publicly, as he has made a public declaration of erroneous doctrine as truth? Should those who have wrestled with Scripture, enough to be convinced of Bell’s errors, not speak up and show that Bell’s teaching will lead others astray? Is all the concern given only to Bell’s “wrestling” and not to those who seek the good of God’s people by speaking out against error?

  • Dan

    VICTOR: “But do you think he is going to hell for teaching a different doctrine?”

    STEVE: “It doesn’t make any difference what we think, Victor, it’s what God’s Word says. And the Bible is clear; anyone teaching a different gospel is, according to the Apostle Paul, anathema which means “accursed”. ”

    Steve, that is the problem with claiming to have the truth. God’s Word has infinite depth, and Rob is making a case for what *he believes* God’s word says. You cannot fault him for that. But to make the presumptuous statement you make above is dangerous. Romans 14 comes to mind. But we could banter about verses all day to make our case. That’s why we trust the Father to sort out the motives and attitudes when the time is right.

  • Victor

    I guess what I don’t like about this review, and the other 5 I have read, is that they are not addressing the points Rob Bell makes in each Chaprter. For example, in Chapter 1 alone, Rob Bell identifies, with scripture, at least 10 circumstances where someone was either healed or saved by Jesus, or told they would be in heaven with Jesus. The thing is, none of these people did the “traditional” things we Christians tell people they need to do. IE ask for for forgiveness, confess sins, ask jesus into their heart etc…. Rob Bell makes about 20 points per chapter and these reviews will take ONE point and dissect it, but completely disregard the other 19 points and the scriptures that go along with them.

    I have asked 2 pastors in my town and one “very vocal” Christian to sit with me and go through the book and the reviews. None of them will. They just want to ‘preach” to me and tell me he is wrong. The problem is, I think they are wrong. They do the same thing Jesus accused the Pharisees of; they go around telling everyone that “they have it figured out” and people need to listen to them to get into heaven. From what I read, Jesus seemed to tell the people who “thought they were in” that they weren’t in, and everyone who they thought “wouldn’t” be in, Jesus seemed to indicate “would be” in heaven.

    I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says but I think he is right on the mark when he says he doesn’t think the churches of today are what Jesus had in mind.

  • Victor

    and why hasn’t anyone offered to debate with Rob Bell. He has offered to sit down with anyone who doesn’t agree with him to wrestle and debate the issues they have but I haven’t seen anyone do it.

    People will debate with atheists all the time, why not Rob?

  • Dan

    Right Victor. So far, I’ve just seen blog entries of criticism, and one 4-person panel discussion at a seminary where they all team up on him. No one representing his point of view. Curious.

  • Christiane

    “and why hasn’t anyone offered to debate with Rob Bell.”

    It would certainly put the ‘critics’ out there where the ‘criticized’ can at least have a way to respond OPENLY,
    as well as meet the ‘critics’ on a level playing field.

    The ‘panel’ ?
    That was not a ‘debate’, or a ‘dialogue’, of course.
    But it did provide the participants with a safe arena in which to criticize without challenge.

    An actual debate might be more daunting for the participants, yes. But is a debate such a thing to be feared, when the critics are all so sure of their positions?

  • Mic

    In the Bashir interview Rob Bell exposed himself for what he really is a heretic,and a liar.

    There were heretics and deceivers in the early church and mentioned in the new testament. Second Peter chapter 2 and Jude for example What’s there to debate with this man since his latest writing and and interview so clearly expose his fraudulent theology and his dishonesty.

    This man very cleverly denies the very gospel message itself. I pray that he opens his heart to God and repents if not he like the Pharisees who opposed The Son of God.

    The same Bible that proclaims that God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son, and that God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world also says that Eternal Life is given only to those who believe in Him. John 3;18 which is not so popularly quoted states that ” He who believes in Him is not condemned but he who does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Begotten Son of God”.

    By stating that a loving God can not send people to hell who do not accept the redemption of Christ only proves that Rob Bell has refused to accept and believe what God has said; he has put himself in the position of the arbiter of truth instead of God.

  • Victor

    I really don’t think it is a good idea for Christians to be calling people a “heretic.” It kind of shows a lack of creativity and immaturity if you ask me. Especially if you know what the word actually means. The word heretic is defined as having beliefs or views that are different from the Roman Catholic Church. So, if you are not a Roman Catholic then you yourself are a heretic, by the very definition of the word.

    If you use the secondary definition of the word which is someone who has a different belief than someone else; then you are still a heretic by definition because your views and beliefs are different than “someone else’s” views and beliefs.

    There are about 50 doctrines that bear the title “Christian” in some way, or at least say the believe the Bible. You’ve got the mormons, the baptists, the Catholics, The JW’s, 7 day adventists, etc… They all have different beliefs and they all claim to follow God’s word. SOme of them are so adamant about their beliefs that they are “right” and everyone else is “wrong” and that everyone that has different beliefs from them will be in hell.

    Is that the good news? Over 50 different doctrines to choose from and if you pick the wrong set of “good news” rules to follow then I am sorry, you get an eternity in hell.

    All people who believe in the Bible are a heretic to someone else in the world. You might as well be accusing Rob Bell of being “a person.” It’s just as broad and subjective.

  • Michael H

    I believe that the quote on inclusivism was unfairly included as Mr. Bell refutes the belief that everyone on the mountain is going towards the same zenith in the very next paragraph of “Love Wins.”
    He advocates a position that while appearing exclusive on the outside is actually inclusive on the inside to all races, etc. I find nothing wrong with this position, but find misrepresenting someone else very troubling.

  • amy

    If your readers are interested in a very clear, compelling distillation of the gospel, with a biblically sound “love wins” message, try An Anchor for the Soul by Ray Pritchard. It’s a wonderful book to turn to when wrestling with big questions about God and Jesus and wanting to find straightforward, biblical answers. The book was just updated by the author and rereleased. And, as far as I know, it’s controversy free!

  • Jack

    It’s really important to also understand what form and context of “all” is being used in 1 Tim 2:2. In this case it would be the Greek form “pas” and not “holos”. There is a fundamental difference and it is of the utmost importantance and a careful study of both would render Bell’s entire 4th chapter what it is; false. In said verse, the Greek word “pas” is translated into English as “all.” In that instance, as applied to a group, “pas” does not imply absolutely every single individual, it implies only a partial set. This is why we have concordances and such; to help us better dig into the Greek, and because it only helps support our love for, and study of God’s word.

  • Victor

    Can someone point me to where in the Bible it says everyone needs to choose Jesus “before” they die in this life? I have been looking for it and cannot find it.

    There is some speculation that a person would have a second chance after they die. It is not implied that it would be a after spending some time in hell or if they could immediately choose Jesus upon realizing He is in fact real. I cannot find anything in the scriptures that says “You must choose, before this earthly death.”

    If it is specific in the Bible then obviously Rob Bell could be called a false teacher. If it’s not specific in the BIble, and just something we have come to “believe to be true” then I would say Rob Bell is not a false teacher but rather hopelessly optimistic.

  • Dan

    Victor, I think you’d have to use the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. But then you would have to take it literally, not as a parable, which presents a host of problems and inconsistencies with other passages on Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus. That seems to be the pre-eminent defense in that camp.

  • Victor

    Rob Bell gives an interesting perception on that parable in his book. He describes that the problem the man has is that he hasnt changed his heart. The man asks Lazarus to get him some water. In those days if someone got you water they were serving you. Even after being in hell, the rich man STILL wanted Lazarus to serve him. He hadn’t changed his heart in spite of his situation.

    Several Bible scholars state that in the end people will choose hell in spite of everything else because their hearts are so hard. According to Rob BEll, this parable is an example of that happening.

    Perhaps Rob Bell is more of a “hopeless optimist” rather than a false teacher?

  • Dan

    @Victor, yes, I believe he would be the former, not the latter. Although, wouldn’t call it hopeless – this is God we’re talking about here! Although his take on that parable isn’t exactly mine (mine is more Kingdom, Judah/Israel oriented), I do recognize that there can be different levels of interpretation on parables (the Prodigal Son, for example).

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