Rob Bell vs the Word of God: Love Wins and the Bible Loses?
©2011 Brandon Staggs.
In Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (ISBN 978-0-06-204964-3), Rob Bell (pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church) brings new force to an old heresy: Universal Salvation. Weeks before the publication of his book, Bell released a series of "provocative" videos asking "poignant" and "hard" questions. Those of us who saw right through Bell's "questions" (1Ti 1:4) and recognized the old false doctrine being hashed out anew were accused of "pre-judging" a book before reading it. Many of Bell's acolytes were certain there was no way their pastor would be writing a book telling us there is no hell.
Well, so much for that!
To be sure, there is no new thing under the sun (Ec 1:9) and nothing Bell prints hasn't already been said by someone else before. Way, way back, Origen balked at God's warnings of eternal judgment and started editing the Bible to make it more pleasing and useful to his own "seeker-sensitive ministry." However, Origen was a bit ahead of his time and like all good artists, he wouldn't be well-appreciated until long after his death. Seeing as how it wasn't then "the time" that Paul said "will come" when many should "heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;" in the "latter times" when some "shall depart from the faith, giving heed" to "doctrines of devils," (2Ti 4:3; 1Ti 4:1-2) Origen's labor was virtually ignored for 1,500 years, later to be rescued from obscurity by Tischendorf and turned into the basis for modern Bible translations by two unbelieving scholars named Wescott and Hort (who, coincidentally, also rejected any concept of eternal judgment). Plus, as a bonus, Origen's ideas about the "metaphor" of hell and the ability of one to repent after death would be picked up and championed by Rob Bell.
It's fitting that the cover flap blurb penned by Eugene H. Peterson, author of the phony sorta-kinda-bible The Message, would laud Bell for his "evangelical conviction," seeing as how Peterson extended the same work of Origen, Westcott, and Hort into modern street speak before Bell worked up the nerve to tell us all what he had been unwilling to come right out and say for all these years working as a pastor. Until now.
The Bible: A Collection of Nice Stories, or the Living Words of God?
In the preface to Love Wins, Bell sets the tone of his opus by declaring that the most basic tenets of Christianity are "stories Jesus isn't interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do."
According to Bell, the idea that one must be saved by some particular event in one's life is foreign to the teachings of Jesus. On page 5, Bell makes Nicodemus look like a spiritual genius when he complains about the term "born again" as a name for what happens when you believe that Jesus Christ paid the price for your sins on the Cross. (Joh 3:4-7) So, early on, we learn that while Jesus liked to tell "stories" we shouldn't use the words he used to describe events, like being "born again." As we read on we learn that Bell doesn't really believe there is any such thing as "believing in Christ," because that's just not the story the Bible tells. The Bible doesn't contain truth to be believed or rejected; it's full of "poems" and "stories" to "get the point."
Every time Bell says we are missing the "point" of the "story," it is because he wants us to get away from the meaning of the words God gave us.
Questions: Let's Have a Chat, or: Yea, Hath God Said?
Bell likes to point out Jesus answers many questions with questions of his own. But Bell's questions aren't designed to get at the sin in the heart of a man like Christ's were; they are designed to take us away from God's words.
Bell's questions are more like the very first question ever recorded in the history of Earth:
Genesis 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
Did God really say that? Satan asked Eve, and now Bell is asking all of us.
He certainly likes questions, but he doesn't care for God's answers. His first chapter is devoted to the hypothetical What About the Flat Tire, where Bell asks what happens to people who don't get to hear the Gospel, on account of a missionary getting a flat, and argues that the very idea of having to believe a thing before one dies is just plain unreasonable. But the Bible leaves no wiggle room on the point:
Romans 10:14-15 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
Interestingly, Bell "kinda" quotes a few words from this in the very same chapter, then goes on to completely ignore what Paul said because Bell just doesn't think the answer is good enough (and such a clear answer gets in the way of asking more questions). Instead of agreeing with Paul that the feet (or tires) of them that bring and preach the gospel of peace are beautiful, he calls this very idea a "bad story" and not in any way glad tidings, implying in fact that this is bad news for the world.
Bell questions the justice of a teenager dying and being judged in his sin (page 5), objecting that perhaps he would have been saved three years later and how could God be so unfair? Again, Scripture answers Bell:
Isaiah 55:6-7 Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
In another question, Bell asks accusingly: "Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?" Of course, Bell is confusing works with belief when he asks this question. Regardless, how would Bell have answered the Philippian jailer?
Acts 16:30-31 And [the keeper of the prison, vs. 27] brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
If Bell had been in that prison instead of Paul and Silas, he'd likely have said "well, let's talk about that, and what makes you think you need to do something to be saved?" and that poor jailer and his household may never have heard the Gospel!
Heaven and Hell: The Big City and the Suburb
For a book that is supposed to be "about heaven and hell," Bell never does present a coherent theology of Heaven, or any form of eternal life, for that matter.
I'll spoil the whole book for you: On page 190, summarizing what Bell thinks the Gospel is, he says: "Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us."
A hard fact for Bell to deal with is that while he is trying to make the case that eternal damnation is a "story Jesus isn't interested in telling," it is in fact Jesus who said the most about hell in the Bible. So, Bell goes to great lengths to explain this away by trying to prove that hell really isn't, well, hell.
Let me put it this way.
I say: "watch out, you are heading for eternal damnation in hell. There will be fire. There will be worms (Mk 9:43-48). You'll be weeping. You and a rich man will be lamenting your unquenchable thirst (Lu 16:24). It is a place made for Satan and the rest of the devils. And this is going to last forever. (Mt 25:41). And ever, and ever (Mk 9:48). And just in case you didn't catch that last part, it will be without end. (Re 20:10,14) Again, this place was made for Satan but you'll be there. (2Pe 2:4; Jude 1:6)"
Then Bell hears me and tells you: "well, he really was just talking about the town in the state of Michigan, it is called Hell. You know the place, right?"
Now this sounds absurd, but it is exactly what Bell does to explain away hell as Jesus preached it and how it is described throughout the New Testament. He says Jesus was merely referring to geographical locations his listeners knew about. Never mind the actual descriptions Jesus and the Holy Spirit gave; Gehenna was a city dump and Hades was a Greek god, so don't worry, it's not a place you'll end up.
Much of Bell's confusion about hell comes from his poor understanding of The Rich Man and Lazarus. First, Bell makes a common error in treating this story told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31 as a parable when it is definitely not a parable. Jesus specifically refers to two people by name: Lazarus and Abraham, and even quotes Abraham. Of course, Bell doesn't seem to regard anything from the Bible as literal truth, so for him there is no distinction to be made between story and parable. Regardless, Bell gets messed up when he reads of the Rich Man (who is in hell experiencing agony in fire) having a conversation with Abraham (who is in Paradise). Bell doesn't realize that things different are not the same and assumes that Paradise is Heaven (it is not). When Bell reads of Jesus telling the thief that he would be with Jesus "to day" in paradise (Luke 23:43), he misses the connection and gets just as confused about heaven as hell. I don't want to get lost in the weeds here, but Abraham was not in heaven until Jesus came and took him (and the other old saints) with Paradise to heaven out of hell after his blood had been shed (Eph 4:8-10; Ps 16:10; Ac 2:27,31; Heb 9:15-18). (Yes, this means there are different parts of hell, and part of it was Paradise, aka Abraham's Bosom. But let's not get sidetracked.) The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus shows us a glimpse of the "underworld" that Bell just can't accept, so he throws the whole thing out and claims that the "point of the story" is that the rich man was so selfish that he wanted Lazarus to serve him even after death. But the word of God makes Bell look foolish, as his entire idea about universal salvation and "choice after dying" is completely shattered:
Luke 16:26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
When Bell tries to get "at the point" of the story he completely misses it: After you die, there is no "changing sides." That "gulf" between Abraham and the Rich Man was impassible, and yet Bell wrote his whole book to teach the theory that we are free to travel between hell and heaven as much as we like!
(To be sure, there is much to be learned from the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus that has nothing to do with paradise, hell, or heaven. But let's move on.)
Strangely, Bell claims to believe in a "literal hell" (pages 70-71). But the hell Bell describes is certainly not literal, and when I ruined the ending of Love Wins for you I pointed out that he sees hell as "around us" and "upon us" and "in us." So much for literal! Bell tries to define hell as the life one lives when one chooses not to live a good life. As an example he describes children having their arms cut off by their father's enemy—he calls this real, not "metaphorical" (his word) hell. He says hell is "something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone." (p73) Oddly, Bell creates a definition of hell that allows one person to, ahem, literally "give hell" to someone else. His idea of hell is so disjointed that it is pointless to attempt to make any sense of it.
Bell will never get it straight, because his entire treatment of Scripture and doctrine is irreverent, as in this excerpt from page 70:
"…I as well have a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth's crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages."
Never mind the straw men he's weaved in there and how he is reducing the preaching of Jesus Christ down to little more than silly humor—what we see clearly here is that Bell just doesn't want to believe it, and so he won't.
Ah, and belief. How about belief?
God Didn't Really Mean it, so Believe Anything you Like.
Over and over again, Bell derides and dismisses the Christian idea that what one believes is essential. One quote should suffice:
"Many people in our world have only ever heard hell talked about as the place reserved for those who are 'out,' who don't believe… Christians talking about people who aren't Christians going to hell when they die because they aren't… Christians. People who don't believe the right things." (Page 82)
Bell doesn't like the notion of "them" being out and "us" being in. (Bell doesn't understand that "us" being "in" is only us being in Christ! Col 1:12-14) It is quite clear when reading Love Wins that Bell absolutely hates the idea of exclusivity, especially as it pertains to belief. And that's not surprising. It's a message the world just doesn't go for, and Bell isn't comfortable with uncomfortable stories.
Bell does like this sentence: "For God so loved the world." Bell harps on the first six words, but never comes to grips with the rest of the sentence. Read it all:
John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
And check out just a few more verses down (Bell really doesn't go for this one):
John 3:18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Ah, and that name? The one Bell so disrespectfully and accusingly throws around as "Which Jesus?" (p7)
John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
John 20:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.
The message is not mistakable. "Clear as a Bell," if you will!
Bell says we are all—every single person on earth, regardless of what they believe—"children of God" (p76). So, according to Bell, there is no need to be adopted into God's family. What does God say about that?
John 1:12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
To Bell, there is no such thing as "receiving Christ," at least not as it pertains to becoming a child of God. One wonders what Bell does with statements Jesus made like "Ye are of your father the devil" (Joh 8:44). Does Bell really think God and Satan are the same "Father?" Well, I suppose the question is moot, since he says Satan is a "whoever and whatever" (p89).
Here is what it comes down to: God demands belief. It is a recurring theme in Scripture. As if the aforementioned verses weren't enough, the Holy Spirit makes it abundantly clear again:
1 John 5:10-12 He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.
Well, it should be translated as…
That "record" in 1Jo 5:11 is where this all boils down to.
It is quite telling that Bell lists as one of his spiritual mentors Adamantius Origen. Like Bell, Origen rejected any notion of eternal punishment. More importantly, like Bell, Origen did not regard Scripture as Holy. Origen is directly responsible for many of the corruptions found in Codex Sinaiticus, one of the beloved "older and better" manuscripts on which modern translations base their deviations from the King James Bible. (The margins of this manuscript plainly state that it was "corrected" based on Origin's Hexapla—there's no denying this leaven in the lump.) It comes as no surprise that throughout Bell's book, where he does not create his own private translation, he uses the vile Today's New International Version for his (admittedly sparse) Bible quotes; a translation directly descended from Origen's handiwork.
Now let's get down to the crux of the matter: Bell does not believe the Bible is the work of God the Holy Spirit. We already saw that: he calls Genesis (the book that describes the reason for sin and death in the world) a "poem" (p44), thinks Paul was out to lunch when he referred to an entity called "Satan," (p89) and attributes the content of Hebrew Scriptures to "turnoffs" of the Jews (pages 66 and 67).
As such, he has quite a bit in common with your average Bible college professor, who, while acknowledging some phantom "original manuscript" as being "inspired" denies that anything we could possibly read today is "for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." (2Ti 3:16) While the Holy Spirit says "he that hateth reproof shall die," (Pr 15:10; note the connection between the two verses), Bell is busy consoling the lost, telling them that "death" really isn't that big a deal. I'll say this for Bell: at least he's gone the logical next step and isn't bothering to defend "the fundamentals" that those college professors stick to instead of Scripture.
Despite not holding to "the fundamentals," Bell has learned plenty from Christian academia. If the plain English of "everlasting ," or "for ever," or "eternal" doesn't suit the Madonna-microphone image you're trying to make sure the cool people appreciate, just "run to the Greek" and make it say whatever you want. After all, there is no Final Authority for Christians today by which Bell could be judged, and all those fundamentalists complaining about what Bell writes are doing the same thing on a monthly basis with the Bible of the Month club.
And there's no need to stick with "the Greek." On page 92, Bell engages in some really impressive sleight of hand, referring to the English translation of a Greek word that the Hebrew authors apparently didn't have a word for and so forever can really mean three days. (No, I am not making that up.) After that, Bell puts hell up for a vote on page 93 and says we should "keep it." (After all, it is still a "good story" and since there is no real Scripture it must be up to us to vote on what we believe and preach.)
Wanting to have his cake and eat it to, Bell redefines what it means to "perish" throughout the whole book. Then, when he comes to 2Pe 3:9, where the Holy Spirit tells us that the Lord is "not willing that any should perish," he grabs hold tight and says SEE! YOU SEE! Everyone will be saved! but ignores the rest of the sentence: "but that all should come to repentance." And repentance is nowhere to be found in Bell's "winning love," nor does Bell comprehend that people are constantly doing things God doesn't will them to do (Jeremiah 19:5 being one prime example of this). Anyway, after spending half a book telling us that perish doesn't mean perish, he likes a verse that says God isn't willing that we perish. As the man said: when you mess with the Book, the Book messes with you.
Job 8:13 So are the paths of all that forget God; and the hypocrite's hope shall perish:
This happens all over Love Wins. Bell changes worship to reconciliation (p100). The "narrow way which leadeth unto life" (Mt 7:14) becomes a "wide stream we're swimming in" (p110). Aaron and the priests obeying the commandments of God with regard to blood atonement (Heb 9:6) becomes "sacrificial ritual" for "deities who controlled your fate" (p124). Like the NIV which removes the word blood from over 20 verses, Bell removes the blood that "cleanseth us from all sin" (1Jo 1:7) and replaces it with a "powerful metaphor" (p128). "Sin (Joh 16:8-9), guilt (Jas 2:10), and atonement (Ro 5:11)" are from "primitive cultures" (p129). Death is no longer "the wages of sin" (Ro 6:23) but "the engine of life" (p131). Get "the point" yet?
And as if corrupting the word of God and handling it with deceit (2Co 2:17; 4:2) wasn't enough for Bell, he culminates his blasphemous bloodless christ-figure with this: "We all experience [the Cross] every time we take a bite of food." (p131) You read it right. At least the Roman Catholics need a magic spell!
1 Corinthians 1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
Them=out. Us=in. Bell doesn't like that. Bell doesn't like the Bible.
The good news ("glad tidings" in the Bible) is that anyone can be in!