Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context
If your God is perfect and all powerful and loving, then why does he not give everyone on this earth a fair chance to know him and accept him? An example of this is a kid in Iran born into a Muslim extremist family and taught that Islam is the one true religion and that Christianity is a lie. These kids do not get a fair chance at knowing God, and they go to hell and suffer for it eternally. That is extremely unfair, and if that is the case, God is not perfect but cruel.
This recent letter to Christianity Today suggests some of the issues at the heart of this week's blogosphere explosion over Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins.
In case you've been living in a cave without Wi-Fi, one popular blogger who read a couple of advance chapters of Bell's latest book, announced that Bell was probably a universalist. This set Twitter on fire with both speculation and condemnation. One famous Reformed theologian simply tweeted, "Farewell, Rob Bell." One does not imagine that he had kicked Bell out of the Reformed theology club. Bell hasn't been considered a member in good standing for some time. Now, the tweet implies, Bell is no longer evangelical, or orthodox, or maybe even Christian.
A great many of the responses to Bell assume that there is only one right way to think about the destiny of people who do not put their trust in Christ in this life: they will experience eternal, conscious punishment in hell. Despite the cultural stereotypes, people don't think this because they are cruel and vindictive, because they relish the thought of people roasting in hell. No, they are trying to take seriously the teaching of Scripture, especially the words of Jesus. As Tim Keller has pointed out, Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. So if you take Jesus seriously, you are going to have to take hell seriously.
This view has become the standard among contemporary evangelicals. Two evangelical books that have rested comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list are Crazy Love by Francis Chan and Radical by David Platt. Both are ardent pleas for more committed, sacrificial devotion to Christ and love for the world. And both motivate readers with the occasional mention of the huge numbers of people across the world who have yet to hear the gospel. For example, Platt notes anxiously "the 4.5 billion people, who … at this moment are separated from God in their sin and (assuming nothing changes) will spend an eternity in hell."
Many faithful, devout Christians, then, assume the scenario criticized by the CT letter writer. But not all, and what is being lost in the anxious chatter is that faithful, devout Christians try to reconcile the love of God with the judgment of God in a number of ways. Many evangelicals who hold to the standard view assume, as one prominent blogger wrote yesterday, that the Bible's teaching on this is "clear." But especially in the last century, things don't seem that clear to many of the devout.
To keep this article from wandering too far afield, let's talk about one of a constellation of theological issues raised in this discussion: the fate of the person who has heard the gospel portrayed fairly, lovingly, and clearly, and yet refuses to respond in faith.
From Universalism to Annihilationism
The standard view has much to commend it, especially the words of Jesus. As Keller points out, he spoke of "eternal fire and punishment" as the final destination of both angels and human beings who reject God (Matt. 25:41, 46). He says that those who succumb to sin will be in danger of the "fire of hell" (Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9). He depicted hell as painful fire and "outer darkness" (Matt. 25:30), a place of terrible misery and unhappiness. Add to this the logic of God's holiness and the radical evil of sin and so forth, and you have a compelling argument for eternal, conscious punishment. No wonder it has been the nearly unquestioned doctrine of the church from the beginning.