Many people have challenged me for tweeting my dismay over Rob Bell's new book when it hasn't been released yet. I think the content of his video alone is concerning enough to be challenged. But I will read the book and if it contradicts the publisher's description and the content of the video I will rejoice and I will apologize to Rob for jumping to conclusions. (At which point I hope Rob will forgive me and also thank me for helping to make his book a best-seller.) Honestly, I would loved to be proved wrong and look stupid on this one. But based on the trajectory I've observed of Rob's teaching, and the content of his video and the statement of his publisher, I have a sinking feeling.
We also need to remember that all discussion about hell (for those of us who believe scripture teaches its existence) should be done with heavy hearts. Hell is what our sin deserves (Eph. 2:3). Hell is what God in his love has rescued us from. And we are not rescued from hell by our merit or the rightness of our doctrine. We are rescued from God's wrath by the self-giving love and sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (Rom. 5:8-9). We are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8). So there should be no glee or triumph in our tone in seeking to proving this biblical doctrine. Our hearts should break for the lost and for our own coldness of heart towards their spiritual condition. This conversation should lead us to redouble our prayers and our evangelistic, risk-taking efforts to proclaim the hope of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, to the ends of the earth.
I am praying for Rob Bell. Though we've never met, I have a genuine love for this man and I pray for him often. He is one of the most gifted communicators of this generation. But I am gravely concerned about the content of his teaching.
I am trusting God will use the dialogue and debate stirred up by his book to help the church study God's word on the topic of heaven and hell and be sobered with questions of our eternal destiny.
Denny Burke has sought to answer the questions that Rob Bell raises in his promotional video. I found this helpful:
In the video Bell begins with an anecdote about a person who once suggested that Ghandi is in hell. Bell is astonished that someone would make such a pronouncement, and it leads him to pose a litany of questions--questions that he apparently intends to answer more fully in the book. I thought it would be worthwhile to take a crack at answering each of his questions here from a biblical point of view. So here are my answers to Bell's queries.
Bell: Ghandi's in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?
Answer: The Bible teaches that there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The Bible also teaches any person who does not believe in Jesus falls under the judgment of God (John 3:18). Anyone (including Ghandi) who refuses to trust Christ alone for salvation will die in their sin and will not be able to follow Jesus into eternal life (John 8:21).
Bell: Will only a few select people make it to heaven?
Answer: Yes, that is true. Jesus taught that a select number of people would make it to eternal life. Most people will choose the broad way that leads to destruction, but a few will choose the narrow way to life (Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-28). Nevertheless, the Bible also teaches that there will be a great multitude which no one will be able to count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).
Bell: And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?
Answer: I don't know if anyone knows what the exact number will be, but the Bible teaches that at the end of the age there will only be two groups of people: those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life and those whose are not. All those whose names are not written in the book will be thrown into the lake of fire. This will no doubt be a countless throng of people (Revelation 20:10-15).
Bell: And if that's the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe? Or what you say? Or what you do? Or who you know? Or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or baptized or take a class or be converted or be born again? How does one become one of these few?
Answer: There is nothing that any person can do to be counted among the saved. Salvation from the penalty of sin is all of grace. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God offers us His Son, and the only way to receive Him is by faith. Jesus said it this way, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent" (John 6:29). If you want to become one of the few, then you have to trust in Jesus alone for your salvation.
Bell: And then there is the question behind the questions. The real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God?
Answer: What is God like? This is the ultimate question and how one answers this question will determine how all the others get answered. God is holy. He loves righteousness, and He hates sin. He is the most valuable, precious being in the universe. He is worthy of all our worship, devotion, and obedience. All people fall short of their obligation to love and worship God, and this falling short is called sin (Romans 3:23). Through our sin, we all have earned God's just sentence of death (Romans 6:23). In fact, God says that He is angry with those who do not repent of their sin. The Bible says that God is storing up His anger for impenitent sinners (Romans 2:5) and that it will be a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of an angry God at the judgment (Hebrews 10:27, 31). The Bible teaches that God is both the treasure of heaven and the terror of hell. God will punish His enemies.
Bell: How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?
Answer: You are asking how can God be good if He sentences sinners to eternal damnation, but I think you have the question backwards. The real question is how can God be good if He doesn't send sinners to judgment. In other words, how can God be good while forgiving sinners? This is the question Paul wrestled with in Romans 3, and he concluded that God set forth His son Jesus as a propitiation for sin. That means that all of the wrath and anguish that would have taken us an eternity in hell to endure, God poured out on His Son in the moment of the cross. God is good because He settles our sin debt in the cross of Jesus Christ, our substitute. This is good news because God clears away guilt through the cross and offers eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus. Anyone who believes in Jesus in this way can have forgiveness and eternal life. This is more than good news; it's the best of news.
Bell: This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it has an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies, and they say, "Why would I ever want to be a part of that?"
Answer: Sin will always appears as a trifle to those whose view of God is small. If you were to discover a little boy pulling the legs off of a grasshopper, you would think it strange and perhaps a little bizarre. If the same little boy were pulling the legs off of a frog, that would be a bit more disturbing. If it were a bird, you would probably scold him and inform his parents. If it were a puppy, that would be too shocking to tolerate. You would intervene. If it were a little baby, it would be so reprehensible and tragic that you would risk you own life to protect the baby. What's the difference in each of these scenarios? The sin is the same (pulling the limbs off). The only difference is the one sinned against (from a grasshopper to a baby). The more noble and valuable the creature, the more heinous and reprehensible the sin. And so it is with God.
If God were a grasshopper, then to sin against Him wouldn't be such a big deal and eternal punishment wouldn't be necessary. But God isn't a grasshopper, He's the most precious, valuable, beautiful being in the universe. His glory and worth are infinite and eternal. Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.
We don't take sin seriously because we don't take God seriously. We have so imbibed of the banality of our God-belittling spirit of the age that our sins hardly trouble us at all. Our sin seems small because we regard God as small. And thus the penalty of hell--eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God--always seems like an overreaction on God's part. If we knew God better, we wouldn't think like that.
Bell: [You] see, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.
Answer: You couldn't be more right. But I question whether the god that you are describing is the same One I am describing.
Read Denny Burke's original post.