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Rob Bell's Book Stirs Fierce Controversy About Hell

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Lots of Christians are angry at Rob Bell. They feel he is trying to rob them of their cherished beliefs about hell.

Hell, meaning a fire-and-brimstone place of eternal damnation for the billions upon billions who didn't learn about Jesus Christ or who weren't quick enough to profess Him before they died.

Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins—A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, published in March, has ignited a firestorm of controversy, revealing deep divides in Christendom. Bell is getting a good portion of passionate praise but seemingly a bigger portion of passionate criticism.

Bell's book is big news. Last week, my dentist asked me, “Have you heard about the new book about hell?” I said yes because I had just read the lead article in Time magazine with the question on the cover, “What if there's no Hell?”

Since my dentist was interested, I proceeded to give him and the dental assistant a 5-minute explanation of what the Bible really teaches about hell.

Who is Rob Bell?

Rob Bell is the popular pastor of 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Strange” religious viewpoints seldom get much attention. So why is Pastor Bell's viewpoint so newsworthy? It is because he is popular, charismatic and influential—considered a rock star among the evangelical Christians.

Now many of those evangelicals feel betrayed by one of their own. Their hero has become a villain.

Many religious leaders—including other big-name pastors—are verbally crucifying Bell, calling him a heretic, a radical and a wolf in sheep's clothing. Some now think Pastor Bell is going to hell.

The controversy is selling books. Love Wins is # 2 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Regarding Bell on hell, the amount of commentary on the Internet is amazing. I listened to several interviews with Bell and read quite a few op-ed pieces. I noticed that many people were analyzing Bell's book without having read it!

I believe in fairness. When I decided to write a commentary, I bought the book and read it. Not surprisingly, it made me realize how much of the news analysis has been distorted.

So what does Rob Bell say in Love Wins?

This commentary is way too short for a book report, but following are a few comments.

The book is a good read—it's interesting and enlightening. Bell wanted to be thought-provoking and he has done that.

It's fascinating that he brings up many biblical scriptures that are seldom mentioned because they contradict the mainstream orthodox evangelical teachings.

He is not nearly as dogmatic as his critics are saying. He largely is asking questions without trying to give all the answers.

He is being accused of being a universalist—an everybody-gets-saved-in-the-end universalist. Bell denies that. He believes it is only through Jesus Christ “by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 Acts 4:12Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
American King James Version×
). But he believes that many will have an opportunity for salvation “post-mortem”—after they have died. The God of grace doesn't cease to be gracious the second a person dies.

For example, he brings up Sodom and Gomorrah and points out that Jesus spoke about a positive future for the people of Sodom. Jesus scolded the people of Capernaum for their hard-hearted response to Him and said “it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Matthew 11:24 Matthew 11:24But I say to you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.
American King James Version×

What Bell is emphasizing is that God is way more loving than the image of a wrathful God that sends people to a place of everlasting torment. He truly “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 1 Timothy 2:4Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
American King James Version×

Note: The book disproves non-biblical traditions about heaven as much as those about hell. But many “Christians” are more upset about the thought of non-Christians not going to hell than they are about Christians not going to heaven! That shows how self-righteous and sadistic human nature can be.

Bell addresses the fundamental question: How can one explain that God is both all-loving and all-powerful? If He is all-loving and is trying to save everyone, then He is not all-powerful because He is largely failing in His efforts. If He is all powerful and able to save everyone, then He doesn't love everyone—He is only choosing a relative few.

Rob Bell is on the right track. If we liken God's plan to a jigsaw puzzle, Rob Bell is missing few key pieces that explain just how God is going to save most people in the long run. We understand those missing pieces and explain them in our booklets, Heaven and Hell—What Does the Bible Really Teach? and What is Your Destiny?

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  • ac98

    Please look at the scriptures given here- they show “Love Wins” totally contradicts God’s word

    Satan got Eve to question what God had clearly said in the garden. She was emboldened to take what God had forbidden by the devil’s clever insinuation and paid for it. It astounds me that in a book about heaven and hell that supposedly is teaching what the Bible says that Rob Bell would never even quote the clearest OT passages about the resurrection of the dead and the eternal damnation of sinners- Isaiah 66:22-24 and Daniel 12:2. And even more so, key NT passages like Luke 13:23-28, Mark 9:43-48, Romans 2:4-5, Romans 10:14-17, Luke 12:58-13:9, etc. These passages and others so perfectly refute the writer’s conjectures that if he merely quoted them without explaining them away he would then have nothing to write about.

    The good news of the gospel is necessary because there is bad news, as Paul shows in Roman 1:18-3:20- our guilt before God and righteous condemnation of us on the day of judgment- if we’re not made new creatures and forgiven in Christ. The Bible says “Flee from the wrath to come” and to bring forth fruits meet (fit) for repentance (Matthew 3:7-10). That is the response we must make to God’s generous offer of mercy and grace through the death and resurrection of Christ.

    When we consider that Jesus himself warned his hearers to turn from sin or be punished in hell forever; and that he left a responsibility for us to do so in the limited time of our lives in this world in Mark 9:43-48, Luke 12:58-13:9, then anyone who claims to speak for Jesus and denies that warning and that urgency must be treated as a false teacher/prophet. Jesus loves us more than anyone else, and to deny and leave out what he has clearly said is to oppose him.

    What “Love Wins” does is give false comfort to those who have not turned from all sin and let Christ take his rightful hold on their lives (Psalm 2:10-12, Hebrews 5:9). The same type of false comfort the Serpent gave Eve in the garden.

    “Love Wins” also doesn’t take into account that it is often more pleasurable SHORT-TERM to disobey God than to follow Christ. There is a pleasure to sin that is very uncomfortable to forsake to the point it can be called suffering to do so (See Hebrews 11:25, Romans 8:17). That goes against Bell’s premise that hell is what we create for ourselves by disobeying God. Truly obeying God can be extremely unpleasant and only those who are totally convinced by Christ’s total faithfulness and the sureness of his promises will actually be his disciples and walk the narrow way that leads to life. That is when God really does get glory. We have the privilege that we can go straight to the Bible to see those promises, the truth about heaven and hell, and the entire counsel of God regarding salvation. May all who read this not be deceived by preachers who say what appeals to the itching ears of people.

  • isbelldi

    Thank you for your wonderful commentary Mr. Hooser. I enjoyed it very much.

  • Rit Janula

    I belive hell is total seperation from God forever.The fire is the fire that will burn in you because you will know that you will never be with God. The worm is the feeling that will eat at you because you know you will never be with God. And the fallen angels will be in that void with you,Who knows what they have in store…This is what I get or is my interpretation of the scripture.I highly doubt that God would have you burn forever in a real fire.Furthermore,You will be in spirt form and I dont think you will feel fire. Also it is a fact that this world will be destroyed one day.when our sun starts to run out of energy it will enlarge and suck up the first three planets before it explodes and wipes out the entire solar system.Therefore I belive hell will be in space….a void… a place that God has no creations in.This is just my observations,Dont want any beefs and dont want to be a stumbling block.

  • Zaragoza

    In response to Rit Janula’s comment, I would like to recommend that he (and everyone) read the article and scriptures provided in Robbin Webber’s June 16, 2001 sermon entitled:”What Does the Bible say about Hell?” Certainly this is a subject that brings out many different opinions and regardless of our thoughts on exactly what and where hell is, none of us want to go there. However, the Word of God is described for us in 2 Timothy 3 as: 15 “…the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Since this is the case, that God’s Word is inspired, our opinions should always harmonize with the Holy Scripture which, as pointed out in the other comments here, Rob Bell’s do not. Here is the link to Robbin Webber’s sermon:

  • Roger Christiansen

    I don’t think there are many in Christendom who don’t think this was not going to be a hot button issue among Evangelicals. I commend Pastor Bell for is bravery. Saying that, not knowing much about him or his ministry, I’ll leave it at that. However, I have been following, and will continue to follow this story. I don’t envy the criticism he and his followers are facing. Already the heavy weights in Evangelical ministries are putting their best efforts to discredit him and his associates.

  • Rit Janula

    Zaragoza, I read the article you pointed out. Good stuff. Made me rethink a few things. thanks

  • bhk...

    I believe that God is Love, so how could a loving God have a place like hell, where people suffer forever and ever? He would have to keep them alive so that they could go on suffering, otherwise they would die from the flames. Even Hitler and Stalin did n’t treat their victims like that. I don’t believe in hell-fire, I believe that the wicked will be killed at the end, but even this will sadden the heart of God, that so many of His children did n’t accept salvation through Jesus.

  • cjgennaro

    Dear ac98,
    you say that Christ warns that if we don’t repent, we will suffer forever in hell. I don’t know where you find this teaching. Christ said that if we want to enter into life (meaning eternal life), than we are to keep the commandments (Matt 19:17). But from what I understand you are saying, you believe that a person can disobey God (not keeping His commandments and unrepentan) and then live forever in hell. How does this line up with what Christ said. From Romans 6:23, I see the same point being backed up. It says, “the wages of sin is death”- not eternal life in hell. It is only by obeying God and being converted that we can revieve eternal life- gift of God. I believe that sinners who dont eventually repent will receive death like we read in Romans; not eternal life in hell. What do you think?

  • ac98


    To answer your question I say that the saved and lost both die physically. Death in Romans 6:23 means the fellowship with God that Adam and Eve lost when they transgressed God- the day they ate of the tree they died. Christ tasted death for everyone so that those who repent and submit to God’s authority through him can receive the life that comes by being restored to unbroken fellowship and union with the Living God. Refusing God’s authority and thus His commandments will break or prevent that union. I see in scripture that we will be eternally in the state of life or death that we die in (or are in when Christ returns)- only that state will be magnified or fully realized. I see in scripture the everlasting joy for those who die in Christ, the fullness of that life they had already obtained on earth- and everlasting fire for the lost as God’s light ad mercies are completely withheld and the fruit of their own way is truly given them. This is serious and cannot be said casually, I know.

    But where do I see Christ saying if we don’t repent we’ll suffer forever in hell?

    43 “And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

    44 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    45 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:

    46 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

    47 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:

    48 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:43-48)

    The threat of the fire not being quenched and the worm not dying would mean nothing if this were not speaking of eternal suffering for sinners. The issue is more than sinful acts- it is the contempt of God’s authority and the treason in choosing one’s own way (Isaiah 53:6). Hope that answered your question.

  • cjgennaro

    Jesus spoke of hell as a place where “the fire is not quenched.” Did He mean that evildoers would be punished forever? Or, did He mean that the fire would not be put out until the wicked are completely consumed? This question has left many confused, as have the disagreements among third- and fourth-century theologians over whether the punishment was sensory or only symbolic of separation from God.

    While many have noted Christ’s references to punishment for evildoers in Mark 9:43-48, few have seen the connection between this subject and Malachi 4. Written approximately 400 years before the birth of Christ, Malachi’s book has been mistakenly assumed by many to be simply a historical record of that time. Yet, the last two chapters of this book (Malachi 3 and 4) focus on Jesus’ second coming.

    This explains what will happen to the wicked: “ ‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘That will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ says the LORD of hosts.”

    The punishment that evildoers will receive is to be burned up. This is not a case of eternal punish ing but of eternal punish ment . The wicked will not burn forever. Indeed, they will be reduced to ashes. Similarly, in Matthew 25:46And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. Jesus said the wicked “will go away into everlasting punishment” and “the righteous into eternal life.” The punish ment will be eternal in the sense that it has eternal consequences-no one will return to life, once punished. However, the punish ing is instantaneous.

    Only with the remaining word translated “hell,” the Greek word gehenna, do we see some elements people commonly associate with the traditional view of hell—but not in the manner portrayed in the hell of men’s imagination.

  • cjgennaro

    Gehenna refers to a valley just outside Jerusalem. The word is derived from the Hebrew Gai-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom (Joshua 18:16And the border came down to the end of the mountain that lieth before the valley of the son of Hinnom, and which is in the valley of the giants on the north, and descended to the valley of Hinnom, to the side of Jebusi on the south, and descended to Enrogel,”Religiously it was a place of idolatrous and human sacrifices … In order to put an end to these abominations, [Judah’s King] Josiah polluted it with human bones and other corruptions (2 Kgs. 23:10, 13, 14)” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament, 1992, p. 360).

    At the time of Jesus this valley was what we might call the city dump—the place where trash was thrown and consumed in the fires that constantly burned there. The carcasses of dead animals—and the bodies of despised criminals—were also cast into Gehenna to be burned.

    Jesus thus uses this particular location and what took place there to help His listeners clearly understand the fate the unrepentant will suffer in the future. They would have easily grasped what He meant.
    Christ used this illustation to teach about the fire that the unrepentant will be cast into when He returns.

  • pual160
    In reference to cjgennaro’s comments on Gehenna; the origin’s of how the valley came to be a vile place of pollution are quite interesting and it appears that cjgennaro is absolutely correct that therefore in Christ’s time it was an ideal location for a dump and used as such. I think the most important aspect to remember was its use for the dumping of despised criminals. To me it speaks of complete destruction (fire and worms) and lack of remembrance. If you’re body was to be figuratively dumped there, it’s to be associated with the lack of Godly character epitomised by a typical criminal who will not partake of the reward of life (eternal) that Christ promised. Apart from where it appears as Gehenna, or Tartarus in the NT, hell would be better translated as “grave”. In the OT the Hebrew used for “hell” (sheol) is just as often translated as “grave” as it is “hell” (31x each in the KJV), and although “hell” definitely couldn’t fit for every case and “grave” may not be perfect for every case, “covered place” would certainly fit all. Paul

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