Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rob Bell: A Focus on Man Trumps the Authority of Scripture

Most of you have probably already read or watched some of the hubbub about Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins. I will admit up front that I haven't read it. I have only read the description of the book, some editor's notes, and the reviews and interviews of many people whom I respect a great deal. The basic gist of the book is that God loves the world and its people so much, and God himself is so loving, that he could not possibly leave people to suffer in hell for eternity. Instead, God will probably give all people the opportunity to hear the Gospel, repent, and believe in Christ after their deaths. In light of God's glory and an illuminated mind, all people would certainly choose Christ and be ushered into heaven. Therefore, God's love wins.

On the surface, this sounds like good news. All people, everywhere, will be saved! God's power over the fallenness of man, death, and hell is completely vindicated. God's love is all powerful. Now we can relax and not worry so much about our eternal destiny. From a pastoral position, what could assuage the pain of losing an unbelieving family member, or convince a congregant struggling with assurance, more than this? This would appear to be the silver bullet gospel.

There's only a few problems with this way of thinking: Scripture, God, Jesus, and the early Church all stand in opposition to this way of thinking. Because we believe that the Canon of Scripture is closed, and because we are not seeing God showing up in dramatic ways or raising-up prophets from among us, we must look to the Bible for truth concerning these matters.

So what does the Bible say about Hell? The Old Testament speaks of "She'ol," "the pit," in which the dead are held (Job 7:9; Psa 18:5-7; 139:8; Prov 30:16). It also talks about this place as a place of darkness (Psa 88:10-12; 143:3) and the land of the Shadow of Death (Psa 23; Isa 9:2). Here the concept is that regardless of one's morality, the soul will live on in a holding place. This is a similar concept to the Greek "Hades," and that word was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) and in the Greek New Testament.

The clarification of the concept of "Hell" largely comes from Jesus' teachings within the New Testament. Jesus reiterates the description of the darkness of the place of the dead and associates it with misery and judgment (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). Torment awaits the wicked (Mark 9:47-48). The word used for this place of torment is "Gehenna," which actually means the Valley of Hinnom, a valley outside of Jerusalem where trash, excrement and the bodies of criminals or animals were dumped and burned. The concept is that the soul has been given over to disregard and destruction.

This destruction is not a momentary punishment, nor is the soul actually destroyed in the sense that it ceases to exist. Rather, this destruction is an eternal one. Jesus himself says in Mark 9:48, "Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." There is also an association between Hell and the Lake of Fire. Revelation indicates that Satan and his demons, as well as the wicked of Hell will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev 19:19-21; 20:10). Again, Scripture declares that this will be eternal punishment.

Further, Scripture tells us that those who are saved from this torment are an exclusive group. Revelation 20:15 says, "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." This book of life is that by which all people are judged. This book contains the names of those who believe the promises of God and are in Christ (Psa 69:28; Rev 13:8). Scripture makes it clear that those who do not believe in God and his promises, specifically the person and work of his Son, Jesus Christ, will be permanently separated from him and will be eternally tormented.

Why does Scripture portray such an horrific picture? For the reason why, we must look to the overarching theological narrative of Scripture. God created humanity in his image to rule in his stead over creation (Gen 1:26-28). Long after the fall, he selected a specific man and his offspring through which to show his blessing and will to the world (Gen 22:15-18). As the ultimate King (Num 23:21; 1 Sam 10:18-19; 12:12), God has mercy and blessing for those who serve him, and curses and death for those who oppose him (Deut 20). Because of Israel's overall failure in their mission, Jesus, both man and God, came to redeem creation (Col 1:19-23). Yet Jesus did not merely come to die for sinners; he came to be King (Matt 27:11; John 1:46; 18:36-37). He performed the kingly duty of instructing his people in right worship and love for God and sacrificed his life for them (Deut 17:14-20; 1 Kings 8; Heb 9:26-28). When he returns, however, he will not be coming as a meek lamb but as a mighty lion (Rev 5:5). And just as Yahweh commanded the Israelites to do to their enemies in the Pentateuch, Jesus will do to those who oppose him (Rev 19:11-21; ). This is because Jesus is a Hebrew King who will be continuing to live out the purposes of the Law within the world.

We are confronted here with a kingdom understanding. This is what Rob Bell has either never learned or forgotten. He has become so focused on human feelings and on the idolatrous self-worship within his congregation that he has moved away from what Scripture says explicitly. Those who oppose king Jesus, within the world and within the church (Matt 7:13-27; Matt 25; Rev 2:16) will meet Satan's fate in the end.

What is the Gospel message? It must not be that God loved you for who you are and therefore died for you in order to leave you who you are (in your sins) and yet be reconciled. That is a vacuous and completely unbiblical notion. The Gospel message is that God will finally, violently, destroy sin and has given us a way to be reconciled to him (the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and covenant faithfulness through the work of the Holy Spirit in us) in order to escape his coming wrath. Those who cannot see God as wrathful have had a snow-job pulled on them. God's love only wins as people rightly cling to Jesus for salvation and to worship God rightly. Only then can they be saved from God himself.

Rob Bell has, in the past, brought up the fate of Ghandi. "Ghandi's in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?" Yes, Rob, we do. Not because he was a particularly "bad" man, but because on his own he could not please God (Isa 64:6; John 15:5-6). He died apart from covenant faith in Jesus Christ and thus he is the enemy of God, so God's wrath is currently being poured out upon him. I say that with absolutely no pleasure at all. This is why Paul could say to King Agrippa, "I pray that [you] may become what I am, except for these chains." This is why evangelism is so important.

Rob Bell also seems to indicate that people will have the ability to choose to believe differently after death, thereby escaping judgment and wrath. Again, this is not evidenced by Scripture. Hebrews 9:27 says, "Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment." In a parable about those held in She'ol, Jesus talks about a rich man who is suffering for his wickedness (Luke 16:19-31). If Bell's theology is true, why did this man not believe in Christ or at least in the promises of God and be released from torment? Scripture and the teachings of Jesus do not support Bell's view.

There are many "Christian" writers today who advocate that a "god of love" is superior to "a god of wrath." This concept is a false dichotomy. Scripture shows Yahweh to be both. In order to demonstrate God to be only one way or another, much Scripture must be ignored. Our God is ultimately concerned with his own glory and his creation rightly living in relationship with him. He has demonstrated both wrath upon his enemies and grace through covenant love (Heb. "hesed"). This covenant love is not merely the fleeting emotion that we humans experience, but a love that is governed by a covenant structure (e.g., Deuteronomy). Without bounds and without structure, love is fickle and ephemeral. We do not serve a fickle or ephemeral God. He is not a man that he should change his mind (Num 23:19).

Another major problem with Rob Bell's theology is that it would force God to disregard his own glory and wink at sin and suffering, which is exactly what Bell wants to balm. God becomes anemic to stop or punish sin, but his love will, after death, forget human sin and usher everyone, no matter what they've done toward God or each other, into bliss. Where is the Scriptural warrant for that, and how is it satisfying? I wonder how much comfort the Holocaust survivors would have if they thought that Hitler will be enjoying God's blessings forever? Maybe that seems ungracious, but the implications of his theology are broad and dissatisfying. It also does become universalistic. If all people, including Ghandi - a non-Christian, will be saved apart from belief in Christ here on earth or covenant fealty, what's the point of believing anything, or doing anything? Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die [and be ushered into eternal happiness] (Luke 12:16-20). How is that different from Universalism?

Bell's theology, as winsome as it may first appear, is an emotional appeal to a postmodern audience who have never heard of (or rejected) covenants, absolute truth, and the actual personage of the returning King Jesus. Love will certainly win, but not through the gutting of the Gospel in favor of personal feelings. Love will win when sin and its purveyors are finally destroyed and those who have placed trust in the King are finally saved and given eternal relationship with their God. To him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen!

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