Rob Bell, Heaven and Hell

Evangelicals who pay attention are all abuzz about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, and particularly Rob’s rejection of the traditional view of hell.  He’s catching a lot of flak from evangelical heavy-hitters like Al Mohler and John Piper for his stance (see Brian McLaren’s defense of Bell here), and a lot of people I know and care for are lining up to get their licks in.

This post isn’t about Rob Bell and the controversy.  This post is a lament on why we’re all so upset about all this.

First of all, let me declare myself:  I am an evangelical with fundamentalist roots who isn’t nearly as sure about what he believes about heaven and hell as he once was.  What was certain and unassailable for me at one time no longer is so.  The older I get, the less I seem to know about these things and the more open I am to the idea that what I believe might be flat-out wrong.

But, at the end of the day, I just wish the whole heaven/hell thing would go away.

I’m not saying that I don’t believe in heaven and hell, even in the traditional sense of the words.  I’m not saying that the doctrine of heaven and hell has no place at the table.  I’m not saying that I’m going to stop picking out hymns that talk about heaven for our worship services at church.

I am saying that I wish the heaven/hell doctrine didn’t hold onto our imagination so, that it didn’t occupy so much of our energy and communication bandwidth.  I am saying that it grieves me to see the gospel so closely tied to and marketed alongside the heaven/hell doctrine.  I am saying that I wish the church would “sell” the gospel on its own merits, not having to rely on ultimate and cosmic benefits and punishments to make the case.

Here’s why I think everyone’s so upset:  sometime ago the gospel stopped being about the invitation to follow Jesus and join with his followers as they incarnate Christ in the world for the redemption of the world, and it started being about appeasing God and securing one’s place in heaven.  Hell-avoidance became the main selling point in the gospel presentation for many reasons, the chief one being its effectiveness in producing converts.

So now, any questioning of or deviation from the traditional view of hell is seen as a questioning of the gospel itself.  And that’s tragic.

Playing the heaven/hell card in the gospel presentation is  prima facie evidence that the temporal benefits of conversion are not sufficient to overcome skepticism about the church.  The presentation devolves from an invitation into an insurance pitch.  How I wish we could present the church to unbelievers and say, “Come join us where you will be loved and known, and where your life will be spent and poured out in God’s plan to redeem the world.”


13 Responses to “Rob Bell, Heaven and Hell”

  1. 1 J. K. Jones March 24, 2011 at 7:02 am


    Are you saying that we should not use treats of punishments and promises of rewards to motivate others and ourselves? It sure seems that Jesus did that very thing. Even a quick reading of the gospels shows this.

    Your lamentation of the gospel’s deterioration into ‘fire insurance’ is commendable, but I think you went a little to far.


  2. 2 Byron March 24, 2011 at 3:20 pm


    No, no–I’m not throwing out punishment/reward (at least I don’t think so!). Ultimately, I just wish the church were the reward instead of the punishment. Most people’s pushback against the invitation to follow Christ boils down to “I don’t want to be a church person,” not “I don’t believe in all this” or “I don’t need my life to have a purpose.” Church becomes the broccoli and heaven the ice cream we get if we eat our broccoli.

    I don’t think it has to be that way. If we got serious about building the church as I believe Jesus and Paul imagined it, evangelism wouldn’t be such an exercise in rhetorical arm-twisting. People would want to be with us for today’s sake, and eternity could be a nice after-thought.

    Jesus’ recruitment of disciples wasn’t “Come follow me, and you’ll get to go to heaven.” It was “Come follow me, and you’ll fish for men.” What if that were the pitch? How different would the church be if she were only made of converts who accepted that invitation?


  3. 3 Leonard Davis March 26, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    The Bell / McLaren questioning seems to be a new round of the original problem that Eve faced; that is, “Did God really say that?” I have posted some thoughts that might have some pertinence to the controversy. See

    • 4 Byron March 26, 2011 at 9:03 pm

      Martin Luther also asked that question when faced with the orthodoxy of his time, and when he went to the Scripture to see, his conclusion was that no, God didn’t really say what was being taught in the churches. And he was correct.

      The church did everything in her power to cast Luther in the role of Eden’s serpent for his trouble, but he was only doing what reformers do.

      If Bell and McLaren were merely appealing to human arguments to question these things, I could accept their being vilified as heretics. But they really are appealing to Scripture to make their arguments. One can disagree and take issue with their hermeneutic, but I get really uncomfortable with how quickly they are being cast aside as devils for their willingness to read Scripture with a different lens.

      I’m not taking sides on the controversy itself, except in the sense that I want to stand between the Bells and McLarens on the one side and the well-meaning folks with the tar and feathers on the other and give the appeal of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-39): “Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, then it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

    • 6 Byron March 27, 2011 at 1:14 am


      I just did a quick read of both of Dr. W’s reviews, and he seems to be handling Bell with grace and even-handedness. I’m not sure, were I to be reading Bell along with him, that I would completely agree with his analysis, but I enjoy his approach. Thanks for the link!


  4. 7 J. K. Jones March 27, 2011 at 12:20 am

    And Byron,

    The Reformation was not about finding new teaching; it was about recovering old teaching that the church had forgotten / buried. The first time I ever heard of the Early Church Fathers was when I read Calvin’s Commentaries and The Institutes (especially the latter).

    I have linked to several quotes from the Fathers over at my place ( L. P. Cruse, my Lutheran friend, also adds some web addresses in a comment.

    Bell ‘throws out the baby with the bathwater’ when it comes to tradition. He shows his Anabaptist (not Baptist) roots. He wants to follow new revelation based on new interpretations of Scripture (see “Velvet Elvis”).

    As R. C. Sproul (certainly standing in the Reformed tradition) says, “If it’s true, it isn’t new; if it’s new, it isn’t true.” Please see Keith Matheson’s book “Sola Scriptura” for more on this. Traditions are a very important secondary source of authority.


    • 8 Byron March 27, 2011 at 2:22 am


      I don’t suggest that Luther et al were generating new theology and new interpretations, only that the Reformers had to ask the “Did God really say that?” question and be willing to consider that the orthodoxy they were taught might be wrong. From my limited perspective (having read McLaren’s “Generous Orthodoxy” and having read nothing of Bell) I view their intent as being in line with the Reformers. They sincerely want to apprehend the intent of Paul and Christ.

      Again, I’m not defending Bell’s position on the subject. I am defending his process and his place in the Kingdom. I am not answering or even trying to approach the “is everyone going to heaven?” question. My issue is with the folks who are pretty sure they know the answer to the “Is Rob Bell going to heaven?” question.

      Is there room for Bell’s view of heaven and hell at the table? My answer is yes, and that effectively means that I have removed the traditional doctrine of heaven and hell from my “must believe in order to be saved” list.

      Can the gospel stand apart from the orthodox view of heaven and hell? Bill Bright thought so, or at least he didn’t think it important enough to include in his “Four Spiritual Laws” tract ( Jack Chick is another matter, of course!


  5. 9 J. K. Jones March 27, 2011 at 5:32 am


    Your post has put me to re-examining everything Jesus gave as reasons to follow Him, either implicit or explicit, in the Gospels. That is a good thing for me to do, and I thank you for that. I’ll post on that subject over on my blog sometime in the next few days or weeks (Carefully reading through each gospel takes a little time.).

    I do not know the state of Bell’s soul.

    I know John Stott is an annihilationist, and I do not think that puts him on the road to hell. (It does make him very wrong, just like Bell is very wrong.)

    In fact, I don’t think Mohler, Piper, Taylor, DeYoung, etc. have ever said that Bell was hell-bound. Those of us who disagree with Bell are not saying he is unregenerate or that his doctrine necessarily makes him so.

    We are saying the things Bell is writing and talking about are important enough to argue about forcefully. We are saying he has questioned right up to the point of abandonment the nature of hell, penal substitutionary atonement, traditional methods of Bible interpretation, and the virgin birth. I am well aware of his style of asking provocative questions and then coming back to a more orthodox understanding later in his books, but I am safe in what I am saying.

    I do recommend that you read “Velvet Elvis” before you defend Bell. “Love Wins” as well. After you get through with those, I recommend that you read “Why We Are Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Probably Should Be” by DeYoung and Kluck. There is also a good head to head debate style book called “Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches: Five Perspectives” where Driscoll, Burke, Kimball , Pagitt, and Ward argue it all under the editorship of the late Robert Webber.

    I guess my perspective is a bit different than yours. I have way fewer questions than I used to, although my journey has lead me to a different place than when I was younger. (I’ve gone from Sandy-Creek -Style Baptist Faith and Message to near apostasy to C. S. Lewis-style Mere Christianity to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to the New Hampshire Deceleration of Faith to the 1689 London Baptist Confession all the way to the Westminster Confession.)

    I am now an ordained Deacon in the Presbyterian Church in America, and I hold faithfully and without reservation to the Westminster Standards as a summary of the Bible’s doctrine. I find the overwhelming majority of my questions answered there.

    I hope you keep asking your questions and looking for answers. Let’s say a prayer for each other (Bell too) along the way.


    • 10 Byron March 27, 2011 at 8:29 am


      I went too far in my implication that Bell’s detractors presume he is outside of the faith and of God’s grace, and I’m sorry. It was presumptuous of me and unfair. Sometimes the forcefulness of the arguments being made and the language used can be confusing and hurtful to me. I may be simply overly sensitive to conflict….

      I suspect that, since I’ve stepped in it with my blog, I will have to read up on Mr. Bell for myself! Thank you for the challenge. I’ve been meaning to pick out my reading list for the summer anyway.

      You, my friend, will always be in my prayers and heart!


  6. 11 Tim Jones March 28, 2011 at 4:42 am


    I appreciate your passion to move beyond doctrinal arguments and focus more on the mission of God’s redeemed creation. (On a side note, I also enjoy your writing style, and I look forward to reading more.) If those of us who call ourselves Christians could take even half of the energy we spend arguing over things we cannot definitively know the answer to and spend that energy/passion loving others, imagine what our world would look like!

    I have read through about half of Love Wins, and I think Bell is trying to say the same thing. We get so caught up in our traditions and our interpretations that we miss the main thing – our call to love God and love people. I believe Bell’s underlying argument is that often times we get so caught up in being right that our “rightness” becomes more important than anything else. When this happens, being right becomes a tool that is used to oppress.

    Egypt’s way of life was right – the Hebrews were oppressed
    Babylon’s way of life was right – Israel was oppressed
    Assyria’s way of life was right – Israel was oppressed
    Rome’s way of life was right – The entire world was oppressed
    The Pharisee’s way of life was right – the people were oppressed

    Each time someone cried out, God heard those cries, and God acted. In every instance there was a prophetic voice, and the people having the hardest time with this voice were the oppressive leaders and the religious folk. This alone inspires me to at least go in with an open mind. If nothing else, I would hope that we could all ask “Have we once again tried to recreate the image of God into what we desire?” History tells us that we are really good at doing this.

    I hope to finish the book today or tomorrow. Once you have read it, let’s grab some lunch and we can talk some more.


  7. 12 J. K. Jones March 29, 2011 at 6:21 am

    Tim Jones,

    What is the mission of God’s redeemed creation?

    How ever you answer that, you have taught a doctrine.

    Why is “rightness” the wrong approach to take?

    How ever you answer that, you have taught a doctrine.

    What is the true image of God as opposed to what we desire him to be?

    You gussed it, ansering that means teaching doctrine.

    I hope you will join the conversation about and the arguments for doctrinal positions. We need your input.

  8. 13 Tim Jones March 29, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Hey JK,

    I appreciate the opportunity to join this conversation. I’m interested in your comments back to me. I have reread my post, and I’m trying to see where you are coming from. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t teach doctrine. In fact, I believe doctrine is extremely important for each of us to understand how we live within the tension of our culture, tradition, beliefs, ethics, morals (what some would say: our story) alongside with the recognition of who and what God is for each of us. My argument here, is that often times we tend to spend the majority of our time and passion dealing with head stuff rather than acting on the stuff that really matters. Is doctrine important…yes. Is being right more important than loving my neighbor…Jesus tells the Pharisees absolutely not.

    Please don’t get me wrong. I haven’t achieved what I am trying to articulate here. If it were up to me, I could spend 8 hours a day in a room full of theologians discussing and debating doctrine, theology, and our role within them both, but I think Jesus calls us to move out of our heads and to focus more on what breaks our hearts (which is hopefully the same things that breaks his). Does this clarify my post a little better?

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