Hell, Rob Bell… and me

Even living in Burlington, VT, I cannot escape the great debate in the blogosphere concerning Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. I’m doing my best to reserve any judgement on the book until I have opportunity to read it, but I have to admit that his promo video…

and his publisher’s synopsis

Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.

do concern me a little. The big question I’ve been wrestling with since getting these brief previews of the book is why does it bother me so much? Realistically, he’s not addressing new questions that have not been debated in previous generations.  He’s not asking questions that I have not struggled with in my own faith journey.  I’m not worried about this book shaking the foundations of my faith.  So again, why am I bothered?

My initial compulsion is to open fire on Rob Bell because I believe he tends to muddy the theological waters quite a bit rather than bring clarity to controversial issues. Realistically, though, he is answering the questions that both seekers and cynics are asking.  I may in the end disagree with his conclusions regarding hell, eternal suffering, and the wrath of God.  But the real reason I am bothered, though, is that the questions he’s asking and the conclusions he’s reaching bring to light that I have not addressed these topics sufficiently as either a Jesus-follower or pastor.  I recently realized that during the six year period of planting a church and pastoring in NJ, I explicitly taught on these challenging topics in passing only a few times.  If anything, in my desire to make the gospel more palatable, I’ve left some pretty big blanks for Rob to fill in.  I’m bothered because I realize I’ve often left out a significant part of the beauty of the gospel.

As I’ve been reflecting and wrestling with this issue, I listend to past podcast (dated 1/28/10) from Tim Keller yesterday evening.  He closes his sermon on Hell with this statement:

You do not know how much Jesus loves you unless you know how much he suffered. What did he suffer on the cross? I think of David Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermon illustration that has helped me for years. He said I should imagine that a friend comes to see me and says, “Hey, I was at your house the other day and a bill came due. You weren’t there, so I paid it.” How should I respond? The answer is I have no idea how to respond until I know how big the bill was. Was it just a postage charge? Twenty cents or so? If so, you would say, “Thank you.”But what if it was ten years of back taxes? What if it was an enormous debt? As Lloyd-Jones says, “Until I know how much he paid, I don’t know whether to shake his hand or fall down on the ground and kiss his feet.” This is why I believe that hell is crucial for knowing the love of God.

If you’d like to read more, Tim Keller has a few articles on hell which I’ve found insightful and challenging:







19 thoughts on “Hell, Rob Bell… and me

  1. Well I watched the video… Let’s face it, his WORLDLY logic actually makes sense! Oh Rob Bell! With every new book we seem to grow further apart.


  2. BTW I just realized this was your blog Kevin. For the longest time I thought it was Steve Burlington. I was like “Who is Steve Burlington?”


  3. Hi Kev,

    The problem – as too few of our fellow evangelicals acknowledge – is that there is very little Biblical support for the idea of hell as a place of eternal torment. There are only 3 such passages (I think) and the Greek word (aionios) used in them doesn’t connote our English “eternal” or “everlasting” – rather, it means more like “for an age” (our term “eon” comes from that Greek word, and eons clearly have a terminus). So, for me at least, it’s easy to start leaning universalist once one drops the eternal claim from the traditional view of hell.

    And the little support one might find in those passages must be squared with other passages that (i) seem to consign to hell sinners of almost every stripe (e.g. Rev. 21:8 – I too am a “liar,” no?), and (ii) sound universalist (especially in Paul: e.g. Rom. 5:18, 11:32).

    Finally, that passage you quote from Keller is nice, but it’s a non-sequitur for him to move from talk about how much Christ suffered in the crucifixion to talk of that suffering having rescued us from the fate of hell. A Christian can contemplate the weight of our sin, and how bad off we are without God’s grace, without bringing hell into the mix: Keller seems to assume that grasping how great the debt is inevitably involves the threat of some terrible punishment. But why think that? The debt is owed to God; and without the debt being paid by Christ, we could not have been brought back into communion with God. Whence the need to posit further some hell from which we’re being rescued?

    Looking forward to seeing you and Christin and Jude down here in NJ in a few weeks.


    • Matt,
      I hope you get that whole italics thing figured out. I guess it could be even worse if you were addicted to typing in bold or ALL CAPS. =) If needed, I know a good therapist in NJ who can help.

      On a more serious note, I’m sure you’ve guessed that we have very different perspectives on heaven, hell, and universalism. First of all, I’m not sure how believing scripture does not point to an eternal hell would bring someone to the conclusion that scripture supports universalism. It seems fairly clear from several stories Jesus told that some people will get in to the kingdom of heaven and some people are left out. Who gets in or how they get in is a longer discussion, but it still seems (at times uncomfortably) clear that in the end (i.e. Day of the Lord, final judgement, resurrection of the righteous) some people are in and some people are out.

      A few of Jesus’ parables seem to point to this:
      wheat & the weeds- Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
      the wedding feast- Matthew 22:1-14
      ten virgins- Matthew 25:1-13
      talents & faithful servants- Matthew 25:14-30
      separating goats & sheep- Matthew 25:31-46
      ready servants- Luke 12:35-48
      rich man & Lazarus- Luke 16:19-31

      That alone makes universalism tough for me to consider.

      We also differ concerning the statement, “there is very little Biblical support for the idea of hell as a place of eternal torment.” In some scripture passages, Jesus implies it and in some scriptures it appears that He explicitly states this. Two examples (with neither using the word aionios):

      Matthew 8:11-12-”I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven ; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness ; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Although Jesus does not say it’s forever, it seems to be implied.

      Mark 9:47-48- “If your eye causes you to stumble, throw it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (see vs. 38-50)

      Lastly, I want to address the use of the Greek word “aionios” in the New Testament. I realize you know it’s the adjective form of the noun aion. I’m not fluent in ancient Greek but everything I can find states that aion is translated the following ways into English depending on the context:
      1. forever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, everlasting
      2. period of time, age
      3. the worlds, universe

      I do find it compelling that almost every English translation uses the words eternal or everlasting as the chosen translation for aionios. This includes the ESV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV, and RSV. That’s hundreds of scholars and translators in agreement.

      Also, to translate aionios as “for an age” in scriptures speaking about the positive side of eternal life just doesn’t make sense.

      John 3:15-16- “so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life (life for an age). ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (or life for an age).’”

      John 10:27-28- “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life (or life for an age) to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”

      Matthew 25:45-46- “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ “These will go away into eternal punishment (or punishment for an age), but the righteous into eternal life (or life for an age).”

      This alternate translation would remove the idea of both eternal punishment and eternal salvation. At least from what I’m reading, Jesus did not teach one without the other.
      I look forward to catching up in person soon!


      • Thanks, Kev! I’ve got some in return; and I’m gonna make you work harder on this. First though, please don’t read anything about my views into what I’ve raised — all I’m pointing out is that the doctrine of hell as *eternal* torment (as opposed to, say, a place of finite punishment, or instead an annihilationist doctrine on which the damned either cease to exist immediately upon death, or they cease to exist after “burning” for a period) is woefully undersupported given how much evangelicals are willing to go die on that hill.

        The main point worth stressing in reply is that a universalist can accept nearly all those passages that talk of fire and punishment (and as such, God still has his wrath), because almost none of them state, or even imply, that the punishment will go on forever. All the universalist would need is to adopt the idea that there are chances on the other side of death to accept God’s love (or whatever criterion is applied); and there’s no Biblical passage that unequivocally rules that out.

        Universalists (as well as annihilationists) needn’t deny the point of the “some are left out” passages: if there is room in their view for some serious punishment (even if not eternal) after death, then of course it makes sense to talk of some being “left out”. But those passages don’t say they’ll be left out finally and for good!

        I should say that it seems a bit of a stretch to claim that many passages even *imply* the eternality of hell: both the Matt. 8 and Mark 9 passages you cite simply do not imply this. Mark 9 may come close, but only if we claim to know what the “worm” is, or that the term ‘unquenchable’ somehow indicates that those experiencing it *will be around forever* to lament that they can’t quench it. (Compare: I claim that the sun is an unquenchable ball of fire. Nothing in that claim presupposes or requires that I will be around forever to experience it!)

        That English translators use “eternal” for the “hell” passages in question isn’t surprising; English doesn’t have a more suitable one-word term to designate the idea. But so what? That’s why we need to study the language and mindset of the ancient Hebrews and Greeks, so we don’t read our contemporary notions back into the scriptures.

        The point about “eternal” also being used positively as well is a good one; but it’s telling, and significant, that only 3 passages in the entire NT appear to use the term in association with damnation, yet it occurs all over the place to clarify the heavenly life. (This itself seems to favor annihilationism, I suppose.)

        Finally, what about the “universalist” passages, that talk of “all” being saved? It takes some really twisted interpretive maneuvers to claim that Rom. 5:18, or 11:32, or 1 Cor. 15:22, or Col. 1:20 really don’t mean all.

        I’m not a card-carrying universalist yet; but I do happen to think that either annihilationism or universalism looks much more plausible given both the Biblical data and what the overall message of Biblical narrative is, namely that God is love and wants to redeem all of his creation.

        Best, Matt


      • Matt,
        Sorry for this very delayed reply. I had to take a break from the blogosphere due to guests visiting, prepping for Home Fellowship, and oh yeah that family of mine. Anyway, I wish I could say I spent a great time of studying for this reply…

        I follow you with the idea that hell could be finite. Not saying that I agree, but I can see why someone could conclude that hell is a finite place/state of punishment that ends with annihilation.

        My greatest point of disagreement centers on universalism. Specifically- “All the universalist would need is to adopt the idea that there are chances on the other side of death to accept God’s love…there’s no Biblical passage that unequivocally rules that out.”
        I have a very biased opinion on this… It seems that most universalists “discover” or I’d probably say “create” space in the Biblical text then import a foreign idea that makes it more palatable. If God was going to give people a post-mortem shot at redemption, that would be a significant part of the gospel to just leave out. I just don’t see anything in the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, or Paul’s letters that would even imply “don’t worry, you’ll get another shot in the next age.”

        I don’t want to go on a long tangent concerning Mark 9 & the worm that doesn’t die, so here’s a short one. Hell->Gehenna->valley full of smoldering fire & rotting corpses->lots of maggots, i.e. worms->”worm that never dies”->ongoing physical/emotional/spiritual/mental decomposition. Just sharing my line of reasoning.

        So could “aionios” be properly translated as “eternal?” Sure. “For an age” definitely has a different meaning than “eternal.” Besides that, many Hebrews believed in a resurrection. They believed in the present age and the age to come. The New Testament clearly talks about a new heaven and new earth that are everlasting (2 Peter 3:10-15, Revelation 21, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58). I believe the majority of theologians would say the age to come and new heaven/new earth are one in the same and eternal in nature. I do actually have a point here… two points (one of them a repeat):
        1) In the parables of the weeds (Mat. 13) and especially the ten virgins, talents, and goats & sheep that the righteous/redeemed get in and others don’t in the age to come.
        2) I’m almost positive that the perspective given in the age to come is always from the viewpoint of the saved/righteous/redeemed enjoying God’s presence and never from the unsaved/unrighteous/unredeemed perspective. They’re not there.

        Concerning the “universalist” passages… When I read those verses as part of their related chapters they don’t sound universalist. Honestly, I cannot see how any of Paul’s epistles (especially Romans) could be viewed as promoting a universalist message. I’ll have to do more study on the specific verses, but in Romans 11:32 from the context “all” seems to be referring to “Jews and Gentiles.” I believe that’s a consistent use of the Greek within the context.

        Anyway, I completed reading “Love Wins” late last night. I may post my thoughts. Either way, I look forward to catching up face to face in a couple of weeks. The Pounds miss the Bentons. Oh, and I found a good cup of coffee in Burlington for around $2. The roaster is at the end of the bar- pretty sweet.


      • Hi Kevin: one last reply, then I’ll stop – after all, we have other work to do!

        On Rom. 11:32, see my reply to Stephen downthread: the argument of Rom 11 is arguably best understood as universalist in spirit, if not letter. Indeed, if you think the “all” of 11:32 encompasses both Jews and Gentiles, then there really isn’t anyone left, is there. So you’ve made my point for me.

        You said this: “It seems that most universalists “discover” or I’d probably say “create” space in the Biblical text then import a foreign idea that makes it more palatable. If God was going to give people a post-mortem shot at redemption, that would be a significant part of the gospel to just leave out. I just don’t see anything in the teachings of Jesus, the apostles, or Paul’s letters that would even imply “don’t worry, you’ll get another shot in the next age.” ”

        But (a) it’s not really left out, given the universalist interpretation of the many passages I’ve cited; see 1 Cor. 15:22 again: “…so all will be made alive in Christ.” And (b) “getting another shot” isn’t the real issue, but rather than God’s mercy prevails, even if one the other side of earthly death. Anyway, we should probably expect that such a doctrine, if it were true, wouldn’t be explicitly taught: God wants us, and we need, to turn to Him NOW, a point that is more important than any “better late than never” notion, however true it might be. (But if you must have a passage or two that does imply it, see 1 Peter 4:6, as well as 3:18-20; though I will grant that these are tricky passages.) Oh, and since you’re playing the “I see nothing” game, (c) I see nothing in Paul’s letters about hell: he never uses the term “Gehenna”… just sayin’…

        Finally, on your “Hell->Gehenna->valley full of smoldering fire & rotting corpses->lots of maggots, i.e. worms->”worm that never dies”->ongoing physical/emotional/spiritual/mental decomposition” line of reasoning: it seems that won’t fly, for two reasons. First, Isaiah with his ‘worms’ isn’t referring to the Gehenna that Jesus is referring to; and second, because Gehenna was a physical place outside Jerusalem, where now (I take it) there are no more such worms/fires! So the analogy won’t support ETERNAL torment: if it relies on a description of a physical place that no longer has worms/fire, that kind of puts a damper on the idea that the torment will be everlasting, no?

        Best to you!


    • Dear Pastor Matt

      I’m hoping you don’t mind if I interject a lay point of view, albeit Christian nonetheless. This in regards to the notion you propose that hell isn’t eternal. The first question I have for you is to what end? Why is it worthwhile to say this isn’t the place for our final testimony? Why is it worthwhile to say lets wait until the next phase after this life, then we’ll get it right – is that so much easier than now? Is it okay to be separated from God a finite period of time as opposed to eternally? How long is finite? If finite is one second less than eternity doesn’t your point become moot? Doesn’t eternity by its nature logically extend finite time infinitely? Your question is (more to the point) whether or not eternity is, or isn’t. As an example once again – what time is one second before eternity?

      To try to separate time from eternity when they are the same thing seems pointless to me, yet the point your driving home is that God’s love is endless and indeed “All things are possible with God”. Yet you mention (in response to Pastor Kevin) the passage where its described in hell “the worm will never die” and focus on the terminology regarding “unquenchable fire”. What about the worm that will never die (or “where their worm never dies”)? Can something that will never die be other than eternal?

      Or in your citation of Romans:

      Romans 11:31-32 “…even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy. For God has confined them all in disobedience, that He might have mercy on all.”

      Here it’s specifically stated that “they may also obtain mercy”, it’s not a guarentee; and yet still that “He might have mercy on all.” meaning it’s up to God, it’s His discretionary authority that shouldn’t be interpreted to mean all have mercy automatically or by default. What Christ does through His ministry, crucafixtion, death and resurrection is make it possible for all, or anyone to be saved – but He doesn’t save everyone at that point. To re-iterate, what is stated time and again is that God has the power to save everyone, no one should think otherwise. This power is of and through the Son Jesus Christ whom is of and through God the Father. However, this is not a promise that everyone is to be saved.

      In Romans 5:18 its said that “Therefore as by one man’s offense judgement came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so by one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.”

      Here again the words are very specific to the nature of salvation as apportioned by God through His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered as He did for the sake of justification, His righteous work literally by His own will “…resulting in justification of life.” It is clearly stated all men/people are condemned. It’s then further stated that Christ through His righteous act provides “…the free gift [which] came to all men”. Here the notion is of a gift. A gift is something ‘other than self’ that must be accepted first. So although the gift is presented freely to all, that doesn’t translate that all have accepted or received it.

      I hope this adds clarity to a difficult situation to describe, as much of this regards the mystery not yet revealed.


      • Hi Stephen,

        Thanks for your reply (I’m not a “pastor”, though I do have extensive seminary training).

        Your concerns about eternity seem to confuse matters, and introduce unneeded complications stemming from how we ought to define “eternity” (there is vast literature on this in philosophy of religion, but we needn’t get in to all that here).

        My points have been that (i) only 3 Biblical passages use the term “eternal” to qualify damnation, and (ii) it’s unclear from the Greek term used (and from the Hebraic mindset of the 1st century, and of the Old Testament) that it really aims to connote “endless duration” or something to that effect. (I don’t know what you mean by my “trying to separate time from eternity”; I am doing no such thing. With regard to the “worm” passage in Mark 9, my point was that it is unclear what the “worm” is supposed to be; the idiom if from Isa. 66:24, but because that passage talks of looking on the “corpses” of those who rebelled against God, it’s really not obvious what the “worm” that never dies would be.)

        Once we see that there is little to no clear Biblical support for a hell of “eternal” torment, we see that we have more reason to be either annihilationists or universalists. In particular, it removes one of the moral objections to a (so-called) loving God who would condemn creatures to infinite torture; and I think we should take such moral objections seriously.

        Finally, your interpetation of the Romans 5 passage is flawed by using a bad translation (the KJV?): Rom 5:18 contains no Greek word comparable to our “gift”, as reflected in the RSV, NRSV, NASB, and even the NIV. (E.g. the Greek “charismata” of v. 29 is not in v. 32, nor are any of its cognates.) And Rom. 11:32 needs to be interpreted in light of what preceded, back to at least 11:25. In v. 26 Paul says “So all Israel [Jews] will be saved…” but by the time he gets to v. 32 he has changed to “all men” (which we may charitably interpret as really intending all humanity, women included!). The point is that in the sustained argument of chapter 11, it is a strained interpretation to insist that Paul really means only that mercy will be *extended* to all, and whether it is accepted will make the huge difference; no, Paul seems to be saying that mercy really will be shown to ALL.



  4. Good stuff Kevin. I liked Piper’s tweet when this clip came out – “So long, Rob Bell.”

    “Professing to be wise, they became fools…”

    Hope to talk to you soon. I may try and call you next week while I’m on Spring Break. Love you!



    • David,

      It’s disturbing that a fellow Christian, especially a pastor, would endorse Piper’s tweet: it was rude, arrogant, uninformed (he hadn’t read the book yet), and it contributed to character assassination by way of gossip.

      Shouldn’t we instead be kind, charitable, quick to listen, and humble, especially with fellow believers with whom we may disagree?


      • Matt,
        Although I probably would not have made that tweet (nor would anyone have paid attention), I don’t think the phrase “Farewell Rob Bell” is equal to character assassination. There was enough prerelease material out that made it clear Bell was going to take traditional evangelicals (and the majority of orthodox Christianity) to task concerning their core beliefs. When you accuse a group of people of having “hijacked” Jesus’ story and sharing a “misguided and toxic” form of the gospel in the opening pages of your book, then that could also be construed as rude, arrogant, and less than charitable. After reading most of Bell’s book, it’s safe to say he’s departed from the evangelical Christianity he used to embrace (that’s based on the Lausanne Covenant describing the common beliefs/values of evangelicals worldwide). Maybe then, “farewell” is accurate.
        Just my opinion. Which with $2 will buy you a cup of coffee =)


      • Kevin: I think $2.02 won’t get me a cup of decent coffee at most places these days! 🙂

        I only said that Piper’s tweet, which also linked to a terrible review by Justin Taylor, “contributed to” that character assassination (which was largely undertaken by those who saw that tweet and agreed with him/them).

        Bell could probably stand to be more charitable and less arrogant too, I suppose; but from what I can tell, his words don’t exactly dismiss other Christians as being outside the fold.

        It’s funny that you bring up the Lausanne Covenant: it doesn’t endorse hell (the only relevant line being “Yet those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God”) but is rather entirely consistent with both annihilationism, and probably also with a version of universalism on which people will have ample opportunity to accept Christ’s love after their earthly deaths (indeed, it ends with the “every knee shall bow, every tongue confess” mantra which universalism makes best sense of!). Given this, it’s hard to see how Bell could have departed from it; then again, I haven’t read it yet.


  5. I just want to say thanks for the reply’s. It was very interesting reading. I hope. That we can come to an agreement that some of us are going to disagree with other’s opinions on cans full of worms.
    So, let’s move on.


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