There has been much said about Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.” I am not attempting to give my thoughts on Rob Bell’s beliefs or anyone else’s critique of him because it would take far too long to watch every interview and read every article in order to respond to every point. However, after reading this book, I feel I should share my thoughts. These are not all my thoughts, I didn't want this to be too long, but if there is anything further you want to discuss, feel free to ask me about it.
Firstly, the claim has been made that Rob Bell is a universalist and therefore a heretic (the premise resulting in the conclusion). But the premise isn’t correct (based on this book). He describes it as “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (p154). Inclusivism believes that there is one set of true beliefs and that people can have partial knowledge of that and be saved; there is a way that is best, but others not without hope. This is exemplified in “The Last Battle” by C. S. Lewis when a follower of Tash is welcomed by Aslan; he is not welcomed because following Tash is correct, but he is welcomed because he unknowingly followed Aslan and not Tash. Exclusivism believes that there is one truth, and if you miss it then you are damned. This is exemplified in any fundamentalist preaching. So what does Rob Bell mean? He gives the example of an unreached jungle tribe, who upon hearing of Jesus exclaim, “That’s his name? We’ve been talking about him for years…” They were not Christian; they had not hear about Jesus. And yet they followed him. They were saved by Jesus (exclusive) yet they did had not heard about him (inclusive). (Of course, if they follow him, they will respond to the missionary with joy.) Rob Bell uses John 10:16 to support this. Jesus says he has sheep of another pasture, and Rob takes this to mean other religions (p152).
However, hermeneutical principles should apply. Hermeneutics are principles one uses to understand what a Biblical passage talks about (in a broader literary sense, it is ‘literary criticism’). One principle to consider is the author’s intended meaning and how the audience would understand what is said. This can be challenging given that our culture, location, and time are different than the biblical writers. Rob Bell approaches the Bible as poetic, symbolic, and figurative speaking about a great truth. Many other people take a literal approach to what is said. I believe there needs to be a fine balance; there are times when symbolism is appropriately understood, and there are times when the words mean what they say.
Returning to the sheep of another pasture, Jesus is speaking to his Jewish followers. He is saying he has ‘sheep’ outside of Abraham’s descendants, outside of God’s chosen people. Rob recognizes that Romans 11 and Colossians 1 speak of a ‘mystery,’ God going beyond the Jewish nation to the Gentiles, but then Rob Bell symbolizes the Jewish people as the Church and the Gentiles as everyone else (p149). The Church is made of both Jews and Gentiles who follow Christ. God does not need to leave the Church to save the lost (although we must go out of the church to do so). (‘Church’ is the universal body of believers; ‘church’ is the building where local congregations meet.)
Rob Bell views hell as symbolic; the descriptions of fire and torment and anguish are a state of mind and heart rather than a physical reality. He supports this with the word ‘Gehenna,’ the burning city garbage heap, being used as the word for hell (p68). In one sense, the city garbage does symbolize something else, but elsewhere Jesus and the apostles consistently mention fire and judgment; there is a reason Jesus picked that symbol.
In other places where we would see things as idiomatic expressions not meant literally, Rob takes it literal. This is done with God’s plan to save ‘the world’ or ‘everyone.’ I do not think it is fair to argue that we cannot take the Bible literally (e.g. "hell") and then insist that we do so (e.g. "all"). But, again, whether it is to be understood literal or figurative would depend on what the authors meant.
So Rob appeals to early church figures such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen (3rd century), Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius (4th century), Jerome, Basil, and Augustine, claiming they all believed the same (p107). Under ‘Further Reading,’ he even suggests “The Great Divorce” by C. S. Lewis on this subject (and his acknowledgements thank his parents for having him read C. S. Lewis while in high school).
Rob Bell takes the choice to follow God in this life and expands it indefinitely into eternity. Accordingly, one ‘in hell’ could choose to follow Christ and end up ‘in heaven.’ Given enough time, everybody will turn to God (p107). However, people may harden their heart and never turn to God. There is no definitive statement to clarify this tension (p115).
In his impressive list of others, Rob Bell leaves out Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Theophilus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian (all 2nd century) who all believed in everlasting punishment for the ungodly. C. S. Lewis also said in the prelude to “The Great Divorce”:
There are only two things more to be said about this small book. Firstly, I must acknowledge my debt to a writer whose name I have forgotten and whom I read several years ago. […] His hero travelled into the past: and there, very properly, found raindrops that would pierce him like bullets and sandwiches that no strength could bite – because, of course, nothing in the past can be altered. I, with less originality but (I hope) equal propriety; have transferred this to the eternal. […] The second thing is this. I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course – or I intended it to have – a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.
Did you catch that second thing? I recommend C. S. Lewis’ book, and I hope I have done fair with the moral at the end of this note.
This far, I have been careful to avoid scripture speaking of eternal punishment because Rob Bell also builds his case off of the Greek word “αἰώνιος” translated as “eternal.” It comes from the root word “ἀεί” which he claims is better understood relating to the quality of experience rather than related to time (p31). He fails to mention that the word “ἀΐ́διος” translated as “everlasting” in Jude 6 comes from the same root word. ἀεί can refer to continued duration and/or earnestly; it has aspects both of time and quality.
Rob Bell recognizes that the phrase “Day of the LORD” in the Bible refers to a point when decisions and judgments are made, when God says enough (p37). However, Rob then leaves one thinking this is put off indefinitely. He even speaks of the last 2 chapters in Revelation where the gate to the city are open so that any can come and go (p114-115). But he ignores the verses directly before these chapters where Satan, death, Hades, and anyone whose name is not in the book of life is cast in the lake of fire where the beast and false prophet were already thrown. This is called the “second death.” They are destroyed, if they can be destroyed.
As much as Rob Bell tries, he cannot get around the fact that there is judgment; the best he can do is postpone it. He is also torn with the tension of works versus grace. It seems his view of getting to heaven is learning to live as Jesus, to live right (example p53). He affirms however that Jesus’ death was necessary and attempts to expand it to show how God seeks to bring all creation into a correct relationship with Himself (p125-127). What Rob fails to make clear is the purpose of the cross, the reason Jesus had to die, if our relationship is about learning to live rightly.
However, I did see something of value in what he said. Whereas Rob Bell expands our choosing to follow God into the next/eternal life in a purgatory-like system, I see that as the reality for this life. There are those who claim to follow Christ yet still hold onto unforgiveness or self-centeredness and place themselves in a ‘state of hell.’ I think Rob correctly identifies that we can have heaven or hell in this life as well as the next. Eternal life begins here as a qualitative life and then with the resurrection becomes everlasting. I do not accept meritorious salvation, but I believe salvation leads to good works and obedience. I believe that God’s love does win, but I do not believe it is exclusive, excluding every other aspect of God. God will do what is right, just, and good; and I will trust Him in the things I do not understand and live in obedience through the Spirit.