Toxic Gospel?

O.K. I’m sure if you read other Christian blogs, you are Rob Belled out by now.  The main reason I’m even doing a post concerning his book “Love Wins” is because some of you have asked my opinion and even offered me copies of the book.  Well,  I finally finished the book late Sunday night.  It has proven to be an interesting, challenging, and controversial read to say the least. One of my biggest surprises was realizing that I’ve “hijacked” Jesus’ story  and  shared a message that is “misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the spread of Jesus’ message.”   Who knew I was guilty of sharing a toxic form of Christianity?  Anyway, before I share anything else, though, I want to share a few disclaimers:

1) I am not a Bell hater who has been looking for the right opportunity to slam him.  Actually the opposite is true.  In 2003 I heard Bell speak at a Youth Specialties conference and was an instant fan.  Since then, I’ve used and recommended his Nooma video series and followed his ministry.  At least a couple of times I’ve heard rumblings from academia that he plays loose with historic facts, but I’ve generally liked his creativity, the questions he’s asked, and the way he’s challenged my assumptions.

2) I’m 100% committed to Christian unity. Anyone who’s knows me or has served with me already knows that I’m all about bringing churches and ministries together across denominational lines for the sake of serving the community, sharing the gospel, and impacting the world.  This unity, though, is often rooted in a common commitment to the exclusivity of Jesus, the essentials of scripture, and God’s mission to this world.

3) This post is just my opinion. Many of you are reading this blog because for some crazy reason my opinion matters to you.  Others of you wish I’d keep my opinion to myself.  Either way, although I’ve endorsed Bell to some of you in the past and shown a clear commitment to unity, this time my opinion may prove to be divisive.  Realistically, unity in the church is dependent on a commitment commitment to Jesus and a shared set of beliefs and values.  Sometimes those beliefs unify us and sometimes they divide us.

4) Bell asks important questions. He asks the questions that cynics, seekers, and especially disenchanted young evangelicals are already asking: Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to select a few to go to heaven and everyone else to suffer forever in hell? Is this acceptable to God? How is this “good news”? He’s not only addressing the questions being asked, but  he’s also exposing a growing fault line dividing young evangelicals between more theologically liberal and more theologically conservative camps.  Even if I disagree with his conclusions, this book is forcing evangelical leaders to communicate what they believe and address foundational themes of the gospel.  As I stated in an earlier post, one of the main reasons I’ve been concerned about the book is that I’ve left some big blanks for Bell to fill in concerning eternity, hell, and God’s wrath.

5) This book is not about a conversation. Bell has repeatedly said in interviews that through this book he’s simply entering the conversation in the wide stream of Orthodox Christianity.  Yet in the preface Bell makes it clear that he’s written this book because “Jesus’ story has been hijacked” and that those who believe in the traditional view of hell share a message which is “misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the spread of Jesus’ message.”  Now for any of you married guys out there, imagine sitting down with your wife, telling her you want to simply have a conversation with her, and beginning this conversation with terms like hijacked, misguided, toxic, and subversive.  How long do you think that would stay a conversation?  Obviously, others have taken the bait and entered the type of conversation we often refer to as an argument.  I know it will probably never happen, but I’d love to see a roundtable discussion with Bell, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, and John Piper addressing these issues.

Now that I’ve made the disclaimers, I have to say a lot disappoints me about this book.  He plays loose with historical facts, and he’s even worse with the scriptures.  I don’t want to give a page by page breakdown but two great posts on these subjects are on blogs by  Kevin DeYoung and The Aquila Report.


1) An eternal hell vs. temporal hell. Bell has traded in the traditional view of an eternal hell and redefined it as time of pruning… an intense experience of correction… for a particular period of time (pp. 91-92).  At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will give up their resistance to and turn to God (p. 107).

He makes a pretty good point that the Greek word aion which is translated as eternal or everlasting can also refer to “a period of time.”  He uses this to make a point that hell could have an end to it.  The problem is that the same Greek word is used for eternal life in the positive sense (like heaven).  So if you apply the same logic to both, what does that mean for eternal life?  Either way, according to Bell, the Bible leaves space for some type of post-mortem repentance and redemption.  If Bell were correct, that’s a HUGE part of the good news for the Bible to leave out.

2) A God of wrath (or judgement) vs. God of love. One of my biggest disappointments is how Bell essentially says you have an either/or proposition when it comes to God’s love and God’s wrath.  Bell heavily implies that either He’s a loving God or a wrathful God, but He could not possibly be both:

Is God our friend, our provider our protector–or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father? (p. 102)

If your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of 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)

Well I have a couple of problems with his line of thinking

  1. Pretending as if God does not have a wrathful side is not being honest about the story we see in scripture.  Anyone beginning in Genesis will quickly come to the story of Noah and the flood.  Fast forward to the last book of the Bible, and in Revelation 19 we see Jesus on a white horse and a sword coming out of his mouth.  He’s about to open the can.   Even in the famously quoted John 3 we see the two working together.  What do you think happens if you tell a cynic, seeker, or struggling Christian that God does not have a wrathful side, and they read one of these sections of scripture? Either they question your credibility or the credibility of scripture.
  2. Pretending that we have to choose between God’s love and God’s wrath denies that the two often work hand in hand.  It’s not as if God is scizophrenic and switching back and forth between His loving and wrathful personalities.  Even as humans we can understand how love can move us towards wrath. Exhibit A: I’m only 5ft 8 but if you mess with my wife or kid, you will encounter some serious wrath- because I love them.  In the above mentioned scriptures we see a God who loves, a God who is grieved, a God who is moved by justice, and a God who punishes- all the same God.

3) An exclusive gospel vs. an inclusive gospel. Bell states, There is exclusivity… there is inclusivity… Then there is exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.  This kind insists that Jesus is hte way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.  As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth… What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. Yes he means everybody- he is saying he believes everyone makes it.

Of course he does not address Jesus’ parables that seem to point to some level of exclusivity or a myriad of other scriptures:

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


As I read “Love Wins” I could not help but think that many of the “toxic” aspects of the “traditional” gospel message happen to be the parts that our Western middle-class culture finds offensive.  The problem is that the gospel will offend every culture in some way yet different ways.  Cultures actually exist where an all inclusive and a wrath free God could prove to be equally toxic.  Although I’m 100% sold on cultural relevance and cultural sensitivity, if we begin removing the offenses of the gospel, what we have is an anemic version of the real thing.

I believe one the dangers with many of the similar modern theologies and spiritual theories is that they are being tested in blogosphere, the publishers house, on the stage, occasionally in the class room, but rarely on the battlefield of real ministry and spiritual warfare.  Jesus taught his disciples in the midst of doing ministry in the dangerous mess of this world- the arena where true testing is done.  In the Western world, we’ve achieved a relatively comfortable, persecution free existence, and if we’re not careful we’ll begin to believe that is exactly what we deserve.

On a very pragmatic level, I wonder what Bell thinks about the way the gospel is exploding in areas like China, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa.  I wonder what he thinks about movements of the past including the Great Awakenings of early America and the great revival in South Korea this past century.  The “toxic” gospel being proclaimed throughout these movements has included God’s love and God’s wrath, a literal heaven and a literal eternal hell, an exclusive Savior, and central to it all has been a blood soaked cross.   Shouldn’t someone get on a plane and fly to China or Nigeria or Peru and stop this before it’s too late, before they’re all infected with this toxic message?  Or could it be their turn to send messengers this way to remind of us of an eternal message that may not taste so good to the middle-class American palate?


Other blogs worth checking out on this:


11 thoughts on “Toxic Gospel?

  1. Excellent and balanced review Kevin! I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m happy to see rationality presented instead of hype. There has been so much hyperbole surrounding this. I agree that the questions that Rob Bell is asking are good and relevant. I haven’t read the book so I can’t offer an opinion yet. I pray that God will use this whole scenario for people to seek the one who is Truth. Jesus. I pray that I will be brave enough to follow Him, even if it doesn’t match up to my own expectations, opinions or even “Christian” cultural norms.


  2. Kevin, just a thought but it seems lots of people think God is condemning them. Why? It’s my belief we ourselves choose our destiny. Kinda like running a gauntlet. When the guy on the other side says be wary and keep clear of this and that, the way through is here – we should heed the advice. As well God created Adam and Eve, we pro-created the rest of ourselves. We put ourselves here, and build up all the obstacles we have to navigate. Then we also choose how we navigate. God provides an opportunity, once long ago to two people. The other topic for reflection may be a reflection of what kind of relationship Satan and God have. An exploration of who Satan is and why he fell out of favor with God assists the believer in understanding the traits we tend to that have the tendency to keep us apart from God and His Son Jesus Christ.


  3. Hi Kevin: nice post; pretty fair and honest. I’ll reply once more – not because I’m a universalist, but because evangelicals need to recognize that a form of universalism is at least as defensible, Biblically speaking, as the traditional view of eternal hell (if not more defensible)… in the end, I think some form of either universalism or annihilationism fits the Biblical data the best.

    First, I take issue with your closing notion that universalism is a product of the modern American middle-class comfortable individual. To give one historical example: Origen, in the early 3rd century (!), seemed to be a universalist.

    Second, your citing all those parables doesn’t make the case for an eternal hell, much less hell at all: annihilationists can cite these passages as supporting their view. The universalist can note that these parables are primarily about following God even though others do not, being “set apart” in the Hebraic sense (note how many of them are from Matthew, the gospel aimed mainly at a Jewish audience). The tough one for the universalist, I think, is the Luke parable; but it’s not that tough, because nowhere does it indicate that the “chasm” will *never* be bridged for those who cannot now “pass from here to you”. And anyway the point of that parable seems to be about how much evidence/miracles it takes some to be “convinced” for repentance.

    Third, you say: “according to Bell, the Bible leaves space for some type of post-mortem repentance and redemption. If Bell were correct, that’s a HUGE part of the good news for the Bible to leave out.” This argument is problematic in two important ways: first, the universalist thinks it *isn’t* left out: thus Rom. 5:18 and 11:32, 1 Cor. 15:22, 1 Pet. 3:18-20 and 4:6… So, as we philosophers would say, you’re begging the question against the universalist by assuming that this idea is left out of the Bible. And second, your reasoning can be turned back on you by the universalist: Paul nowhere mentions Gehenna or hell in any of his writings. But if the doctrine of eternal hell is correct and crucial to the good news, that’s a HUGE part of the good news for Paul to leave out!

    Finally, you’re right to invoke the parity approach regarding interpreting “aionious” – what would it mean since it also modifies all those “eternal life” statements? I noted before that the annihilationist has the upper hand on this one: she could note that the abundant use of the term along with “life” in the NT, and the scant use of it with “punishment”/”fire”, shows that the NT is concerned to show us that those who are saved live forever, but those who aren’t won’t. But if you are simply interested in how the universalist could account for it… well, all those “eternal”s with “life” could be referring to the duration before the new heaven and new earth are inhabited (by “all”)… Or: I had a professor at Fuller, a highly respected systematic theologian, who said that “eternal” life is best understood as a qualitative adjective, such that in the phrase “eternal life” it characterized how *good* the life would be, rather than its length.

    Looking forward to your visit in NJ! –Matt


    • Matt,
      I didn’t mean to imply or say that universalism is a new product of the modern American middle-class comfortable individual. I should have articulate my thoughts with greater clarity. I meant that many of our modern Western/American middle class values and desires make universalism especially attractive. I’ll get to your other points hopefully tonight.

      I appreciate you sharing another viewpoint and giving scripture for me to wrestle with.

      Thanks! Kevin


    • Matt,
      I agree that as followers of Jesus we need to think through why we hold to certain beliefs and their implications to how we approach life and especially other people. Your counter-points are thought provoking, so here are my thoughts concerning your points.

      We should not be surprised about Paul not using the word Gehenna in speaking or writing to groups that include significant numbers of Gentiles and people not familiar with Jerusalem. If someone had not seen the valley of Hinnom with its smoldering trash and rotting corpses then that word would not mean much to them. On the other hand, if you’ve grown up with the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods (or some other form of pagan worship), the idea of appeasing the gods’ wrath would be something you’d find very familiar. In all but one of the letters of the Apostle Paul mentions the wrath or judgment of God on sin (I believe around twenty times total). Although I believe he explicitly says eternal punishment in 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul certainly see a when Jesus will return, a day of judgment approaching, and urgently desires for people to experience God’s salvation vs. God’s wrath (Romans 2, 1 Thessalonians 5, 2 Thessalonians 1). I recognize that you’ll probably say that leaves the door open… but Paul seems to have an extreme urgency for people to experience salvation this side of the pending judgement. Why the sense of urgency (and extreme self-sacrifice) if people are going to get a post-mortem shot at redemption?

      From what I understand the Christian brand of universalism is rooted in the three following ideas: 1)scripture teaches that all people (to a universalist meaning every individual who has ever lived) will in the end be reconciled to God, 2)many people die without being reconciled to God, 3) therefore many people will be reconciled to God after death. Since scripture gives no example of post-mortem reconciliation that I know of, this is all based on idea 1.

      I looked at the scriptures you referenced: Rom. 5:18 and 11:32, 1 Cor. 15:22, 1 Pet. 3:18-20 and 4:6
      *Romans 11:32- The context of Romans 11 God’s redemption coming to both Jews and Gentiles. I’ve always read the word “all” in vs. 32 to mean “all peoples Jews and Gentiles alike” not “all individuals.” That seems to be consistent with the meaning of the Greek word for “all.”
      *1 Peter 3:18-20- This is obviously one of the most discussed/debated passages because of its not very clear what Peter means. I don’t think it’s a good argument for post-mortem redemption because #1) Christ’s proclamation is limited to those in the days of Noah. #2) They are described as still in prison- no implication that repentance or redemption has taken place.
      *1 Peter 4:6- both Augustine & Luther took this to mean the gospel being proclaimed to the spiritually dead. I know that does not make it authoritatively true though.

      Honestly I think Romans 5:22 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 could be interpreted numerous ways depending on how someone interpreted “all.” They’re the two verses that give a Christian universalist some firepower. The one push back on both I’d give is that both Romans and 1 Corinthians give more than enough firepower in other verses for the idea that some will experience salvation and some won’t.

      Those are my thoughts! Now off to painting the baby room!


      • Kev: good reply. Just a few rejoinders:

        You said, “Why the sense of urgency (and extreme self-sacrifice) if people are going to get a post-mortem shot at redemption?” Because it’s good news, obviously, and because we ought to turn to God now. If I have some amazing news for you that will change your life for the better, I will likely want to tell you as soon as possible, even if I think you’ll find out one way or another eventually.

        “I believe he explicitly says eternal punishment in 2 Thessalonians 1” – okay, but that verse appears rather to support annihilationism, because it says “eternal destruction and separation” from God (although I find it hard to understand what “eternal destruction” means: for if it’s eternal, it’s never going to be fully destroyed, right?). So this verse may seem to pose a problem for the universalist; but it doesn’t yet support eternal torment.

        More generally, it doesn’t help you to appeal to all the verses that cite judgment, for the universalist accepts that everyone will be judged — even believers will be judged, the Bible is very clear about that. That judgment is why Christ needs to be sacrificed in our place; all we’re debating is the scope of that sacrifice, whether it really ends up saving all.

        You say that “Since scripture gives no example of post-mortem reconciliation that I know of, this is all based on idea 1,” by which you mean, I take it, an example of a post-mortem chance at redemption that “takes”, that is, someone who wasn’t “saved” in earthly life gets “saved” after death (this idea also influences how you interpret the 1 Peter 3 passage: your “#2”). But why do we need such an example laid out as having occurred? Isn’t it enough that some passages seem to imply chances after death? (In general, this is a bad interpretive strategy: there are no examples of X in the Bible/NT, therefore X must/does/did not happen.)

        On Romans 11, I don’t see how invoking “Jews and Gentiles alike” helps: “Gentile(s)” (ethnesin/ethnon) is just the word for “nation(s)” or “peoples”, and seems to be used to distinguish non-Jews from Jews — that’s especially the point in Rom. 11. Thus we agree: “all” is talking about everybody, Jews and non-Jews (for who else is left?). And read in light of what came earlier, e.g. 11:25, which talks of “the fullness” or “full number” of the Gentiles “come in”, it sure looks as if Paul means to be saying not only that Christ’s redemptive grace is offered to all, but that it will be effective for all.

        You say Romans 5:22 and 1 Cor 15:22 “could be interpreted numerous ways depending on how someone interpreted ‘all.'” But I don’t see how such “numerous ways” would be legitimate–“all” really means ALL; indeed, 5:18 makes it explicit: “all men.” Of course, you’re right that Scripture is so variegated (on so many issues!) that one will have to balance off texts that support one thing with texts that seem to support the opposite; but since it’s compatible with virtually all the passages you lean on, which talk of judgment/ separation/ punishment etc.–that such punishment be temporary rather than eternal, and since this makes sense of the “universalist” texts and the “second-chances” texts, you have good reason on balance to prefer universalism. Or at the very least, you have good reason to question the traditional reading of an eternal hell. And doing so makes for a much larger view of God’s grace and mercy and love… Or so I think.

        Hope that baby room is all done now! –Matt


  4. When are we ever going to get beyond “theology” and really reach out in love to a hurting world? Christianity has lost credibility and influence because we care more about our theology than we do about the lost. Jesus did not say “by your theology will men know that I live or by your theology will men glorify the Father. Jesus said it will be by our love and by our good works that men will know that God lives and will see evidence of His love.

    When we die and stand before the Lord of Glory, He is not going to hand us a quiz on our doctrine. I say just say no to all of the foolishness of modern day evengelicalism and lets just do what Jesus commanded us to do. Anyone remember Micah 6:8? What does the Lord require of us? To do justly, to Love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. You want Revival? How about Isaiah 58?


    • David: nobody, I suspect, doubts the importance of your point. But one’s theology, however implicit or unarticulated, affects how, why, and even whether one loves others. E.g., if one understands God as a loving Father who rewards those who turn to Christ, but who rejects – to the tune of eternal torture – those who do not, this will undoubtedly influence how one views/cares for those who turn away from Christ.

      For that reason (and for many others), it is essential that Christians think carefully about these matters; and this reflection need not come at the expense of loving a hurting world.


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