Do not Ask for whom the Bell tolls…… A Chapter by Chapter review of 'Love Wins'

Those of you who have been paying attention to my blog for a while will know that I have liked a good deal of what I have heard, and read, and seen from Rob Bell.  Even my 60 something Sunday school class members loved his Nooma videos and their wonderful creativity.   Rob Bell is a poet and a pastor and a sometime musician, and his writing reflects this.  At times, he is also a keen analyst and presenter and preacher of some Biblical texts.  If you’ve never seen the scapegoat video, you need to look it up on YouTube.    There are things I like about Rob’s theology as well.  He is a Bible-saturated teacher, but he is definitely not a Calvinist in any way, shape or form.   And of course he disavows being a scholar or theologian, but de facto that is what he is for his own Mars Hill Church, and there is a good deal of responsibility that comes with that.  Even if you just apply the label teacher, the warning from James is stern “let not many of you be teachers….”.   Rob has the gift of teaching, and with it comes the need to do his best not just to ask good questions (which he is a master at), but also to seek to provide good and helpful answers where possible.  Beyond that, one should say—- ‘I don’t know’.

Let us first ask the question—-  For whom does this Bell toll?   By this I mean, for whom is this book written?  According to the Preface this book is written “for all those everywhere, who…”  have heard what Rob Bell calls a toxic version of the Jesus story and have resolved “I would never be a part of that”  (p. viii).  If we ask— Wherein lies the toxicity according to Rob,  it has to do with the “turn or burn” message.   The message is that a select few Christians will enjoy the ethereal atmosphere of heaven whilst the majority will endure eternal torment without chance of a reprieve.  It appears then that the real onus in this book is the permanence of Hell and the hellish condition of those who go there.   Rob sees this as a theological obstacle to accepting the notion that God loves and longs to save everyone.

Secondly, in the Preface there is the disclaimer— ‘nothing in this book has not been claimed before within the parameters of the broad stream of historic orthodox Christianity’  (p. x).   As it turns out, and as we shall see, this is actually not quite accurate, if one is referring to creedal or confessional or conciliar orthodoxy.  If one means no more that some church father somewhere at sometime said something like this before, whether we deem him to be making an off-handed comment or not, then perhaps this claim can stand.  And of course more important than the claims of this or that church father is—- ‘what does the Bible actually teach on this matter of Hell?’    I do not intend to reiterate what I have already said in previous posts last week (3 of them) on Hell in general and eternal punishment as opposed to anihilationism.  Those posts are presupposed in what follows in these posts.

Thirdly,  Rob is right that even within the conservative Christian world,  we should be able to have a respectful, well-intended, non-polemical discussion about things like what the Bible teaches about heaven and hell.   Censorship does the truth no good, and is no service to it.   But let me tell you why Rob’s work in this book does not submit very readily to analytical analysis and categories—- it is more about images, and metaphors, and ideas.  It is not detailed exegesis (though it assumes some exegesis), nor is it theologizing proper, but, in the main it is poetic probing, probing the parameters of orthodoxy.   It is not wrong to do this,  but care has to be taken both in the doing, and in the responding.  You don’t respond to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth by complaining that the ‘Ode to Joy’ conclusion should have included Three Dog Night’s rock classic ‘Joy to the World’, or even worse by complaining  that Beethoven’s lyrics don’t pass muster in regard to the German dictionary definition of joy.  My point is— you need to analyze Rob’s work for what it is,  and not use the wrong sort of technique or tools to dismember it.   Many of the already extant reviews of this book do the latter.

The first chapter of this book involves raising a plethora of questions (pp. 1-19).  They are perfectly fair questions, but what comes to light in the enumeration of these questions is that in fact Rob Bell is reacting, reacting to a form of the Christian message that he sees as too narrow, cramped, judgmental, and just plain wrong, because it conveys an idea of God, that in his view is incompatible with his reading of what the real character of God is like.     What is entirely missing from this chapter is any sort of discussion of sin, sin as the alienating cause of human lostness,  sin as the reason why persons are not going to heaven.  Let me be clear that I think Rom. 1.18-32 is crucial to this question.  Unfortunately Rom. 1 is not dealt with in this first chapter and what texts he does cite he does not treat in any detail.  Rather Rob sort of flits from one text to the next like a butterfly hoping to drain the tiny bit of nectar in each flower.

What Romans 1 says plain as day (which comports with what is said later in Rom. 3-5 namely that we have all consciously sinned and can’ t get up by our own efforts),  is that people are not condemned to hell or judgment for what they have never heard about God.   What Romans 1 says is that the reality of God and God’s power is evident in all of creation, and people are judged for what they do with the light about God that they have indeed received.  What Paul says they do is that while they know God exists and is powerful, they refuse to acknowledge God,  the most primal sin of all. In other words,  most of the questions Rob raises in Chapter One are entirely irrelevant.     People do not go to Hell (whether in a handbasket or by some other means of conveyance)  due to ignorance of God or of Christ.   They simply don’t.  Nor do they go to Hell because God already decided they would do so from before the foundations of the universe.  Equally untrue, and equally unhelpful in making sense of God and this issue.

The problem which already surfaces in Chapter One is that Rob has blended together in his creative mental cuisinart both some true aspects of the Gospel story and some false caricatures of the Good News, and unfortunately,  he is not just rejecting some of the caricatures,  he is rejecting some of the true aspects of the story.   And this is a problem,  all the more so when Rob wants to suggest that a just or righteous or holy or judging God is somehow not good news.

Tell that to the oppressed Christians in North Korea.   Tell that to the ordinary citizens of Libya longing to be set free from a wicked and brutal dictator.  Tell that to the Jews during the Holocaust in WWII.   In a sin-soaked world,  Good News involves both redemption and judgment, both vindication and liberation, both holiness and love.    The God of the Bible is holy love.  Not love without holiness which would fail to deal with the cancer called sin.  And not holiness without love, for if that was the way God related to us all— no one could stand.     The Good News of and about Jesus Christ, who will be the final judge of the world, is that justice, mercy and grace are all a part of this story.

I have spent time with Christian friends and scholars in South Africa. And they have many tales to tell.  They are tales of terror, followed by tales of justice and mercy, and even forgiveness.   But forgiveness never comes cheaply.  Even for God it does not come cheaply.  There is always a great cost, and that cost involves doing justice to the sin problem.   That cost involves confession of sin and repentance.  That cost involves the death of Jesus.  And as we shall see, another problem with Rob’s analysis of the Gospel, is that he is not happy with the notion of Jesus’ death being a penal substitutionary atonement for sin, even though this is not merely one image amongst many of the atonement in the NT,  it is the central and most oft repeated image which most reveals the character of God the Father.    More on this later.

One last thing.  Most of the various objections raised, allegedly about Jesus in Chapter One, are actually objections to Christians behaving badly, not objections to Jesus himself.   This is a category mistake.  I quite agree that people should reject Christian bad behavior, but they also should not judge Jesus on the basis of Christians sinning against the Gospel. If you are going to lament something, lament about the right thing.  Christians massacring Muslims in eastern Europe, or Muslims massacring Christians in Iraq are heinous sins,  but in neither case do they have anything to do with Jesus and the Good News about him.   And that is where Chapter One especially has a ‘Flat Tire’.

Uncommon Sense— Part One
Finding Jesus— Reboot
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’–The Interview Part Six
Kingsman– The Secret Service
  • Darryl

    I’ve had the same thoughts you have concerning exegesis, inclusion/exclusion of texts, etc. It’s not what he’s doing — I have to keep reminding myself of that.

    I’ve wondered how much of Bell’s voice we’re hearing and how much we’re hearing the voices of those he (and the rest of us) have encountered over the years. It’s probably both.

    I also wonder about your last few lines here: Is Jesus and the Good News separable from the people of God? I know what you’re getting at with this, and if were anyone else, I would say that it sounds a bit docetic (meaning that you don’t sound that way).

    I’m thinking that ecclesiology, christology, and ethics sometimes overlap, and I believe this is what Bell is trying to get at with his laments in the first chapter.


  • Nathan B.

    Most perceptive and important observation I’ve seen in these debates:

    “My point is— you need to analyze Rob’s work for what it is, and not use the wrong sort of technique or tools to dismember it. Many of the already extant reviews of this book do the latter.”

    This problem does indeed mark most of the responses to Bell that have appeared. His book may have problems, but it is not a systematic theology on the nature of love, sin, justice, hell, heaven, etc.–which is the way people are treating it.

  • dave wainscott

    Thanks so much for this. Great resource..
    You mentioned to Bell scapegoat video being on youTube..I have heard about it, wanted to see it, but don’t find it anywhere on you (or anyone have a link)?

  • Kwesi Adarkwa

    But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ (from Mark 6)

    Ben, I’ve never completely understood this passage in Mark. And especially, in reference to this topic of God making his love known to everyone so they have a chance, how does this passage make sense? Why didn’t Jesus make things clear to people following him? Is there more to this than we can see?


  • Kwesi Adarkwa

    Mark 4, I mean. Sorry!

  • Richard

    Two things I would disagree with:

    “Tell that to the oppressed Christians in North Korea. Tell that to the ordinary citizens of Libya longing to be set free from a wicked and brutal dictator. Tell that to the Jews during the Holocaust in WWII.”

    Your first one works for emphasizing God’s justice/judgment as good news for someone. The other two involve Muslim and Jewish people groups so unless you’re invoking some sort of inclusivism, which Bell does, I’m not sure judgment of all sinners who aren’t in Christ is good news for Muslims and Jews.

    “That cost involves the death of Jesus. And as we shall see, another problem with Rob’s analysis of the Gospel, is that he is not happy with the notion of Jesus’ death being a penal substitutionary atonement for sin, even though this is not merely one image amongst many of the atonement in the NT, it is the central and most oft repeated image which most reveals the character of God the Father.”

    I would agree except I would contend that there is a difference between PSA and the substitutionary atonement we see throughout the Old and New Testaments. I think one would have a hard time making the case that the Israelites viewed God as punishing their animal sacrifices. PSA is a reformation doctrine, not the historic dominant understanding. Bell is hardly the first to critique PSA.

  • graham veale

    Can I get something off my chest about teaching?

    I teach Religious Education at a non-selective state Secondary School, situated a stone’s throw away from an established Grammar School. This effectively means that the Grammar can cherry pick students. So, to survive as a School, we have to teach effectively.
    So, by observing my colleagues, I know a thing or two about teaching. I know that what happens in many pulpits is not teaching, but a highly stylised rhetoric that is only intelligible to members of the Evangelical subculture.
    Now Bell doesn’t fit that description. But if he hasn’t said something substantial, and if he hasn’t made himself clear, he’s not teaching. Teachers are meant to do more than provoke thought. And being entertaining and charismatic is not necessary or sufficient to being a good teacher. And teaching is not performance art.
    If after numerous interviews and books and articles we don’t know what someone means – they’re probably not a good teacher.

  • Peter

    Have you read the entire book, Ben? Bell affirms God’s holiness and justice. It’s just not in the first chapter.

  • ben witherington

    Kwesi you need to read Mark in light of the Isaiah text cited and its context. Parable speech is meant to make people realize they are distant from God and need to repent. It is not meant to make the Gospel clear to non-disciples. Secondly, Peter actually its a yes and no on Rob and judgment— he wants it to be temporary, as he does Hell. This is not what the NT says. And Richard you are wrong about penal substitutionary atonement and the Bible. Indeed especially wrong about the NT— both Paul and Hebrews. The issue here is propitiation of God’s wrath, a very common motif in all the Greco-Roman world, when it comes to such sacrifices, and in the NT as well.


  • Kevin Maney+

    Richard (6),

    If you have not done so already, Dr. John R.W. Stott’s book, “The Cross of Christ,” is essential reading on the topic of penal substitutionary atonement, among others. Stott does a masterful job of putting the cross within the broader biblical narrative of God’s rescue plan for his broken and fallen world. In the process, he thoroughly debunks a good deal of lousy teaching and theology related to Jesus’ death.


  • jeremy bouma

    “Most perceptive and important observation I’ve seen in these debates:

    ‘My point is— you need to analyze Rob’s work for what it is, and not use the wrong sort of technique or tools to dismember it. Many of the already extant reviews of this book do the latter.’

    This problem does indeed mark most of the responses to Bell that have appeared. His book may have problems, but it is not a systematic theology on the nature of love, sin, justice, hell, heaven, etc.–which is the way people are treating it.”

    I whole-heartedly disagree. Bell is making a whole lot of theological statements about the nature of God, Jesus, human nature, Heaven, Hell, and especially the nature of salvation. He is also making commentary about the Holy Scriptures. This idea that Rob is no theologian or biblical scholar is nonsense. He doesn’t get a pass simply because he’s Rob Bell pastor at Mars Hill.

    If you don’t think Bell is making theological statements, especially Christological and soteriological, then I’d encourage you to re-read the book. And while you’re at it, read Paul Tillich’s THE NEW BEING and THE SHAKING OF THE FOUNDATIONS (if you don’t have time for his ST). He is Tillichian through and through.

  • Richard

    propitiation =|= penal. Anselm taught satisfaction of God’s justice/wrath, not punishment of Jesus. Correct me if I’m wrong but propitiation involves making us favorable (or removing our sin depending on which definition of hilasterion we’re working with), not someone else being punished in our stead.

    Even if my understanding of the doctrine is incorrect, that still doesn’t negate my disagreement with your contention that “this is not merely one image amongst many of the atonement in the NT, it is the central and most oft repeated image which most reveals the character of God the Father”
    If it was, why was Christus Victor the dominant view the first 1000 years of the church? Why wasn’t “penal” language ascribed to it until the 1600s?

  • Bert

    Ben, I beg to differ when you say “people … should not judge Jesus on the basis of Christians sinning against the Gospel.” That’s because outsiders don’t have anything else to judge Christians on, except what they see. Centuries and centuries of intra-Christian quarreling and warfare cannot be lightly dismissed as just some “bad apple cases”. How could outsiders know they were “sinning against the Gospel”, when each party was promptly quoting chapter and verse? Jesus told His disciples to love one another and that it would be the criterion for the world to judge them. What did they do instead? Killed one another by hundreds of thousands, and for a very long time, and supporting it all along by Scriptural passages. What is worse, nobody ever apologized for those massacres. No Saint did ever see their title revoked because of advocating antisemitism, or killing of other believers (and I’m not even mentioning killings of adherents to other religions). This seems to me very important because of its relation to the clarity of Scriptures. Dare I say if God really cared about us finding the most rightly orthodox doctrine, He would not have allowed His word to easily lend support to the most diverse interpretations? To me it looks like He cares more about us following the teachings of Jesus (which Rob puts to the fore, if I’m correct), than having the right doctrine about Heaven, Hell, salvation etc.

  • Marc Axelrod

    I’ll add this book to my reading list. Bell is a good writer and he is gifted, but I prefer the preachers who preach through books of the Bible.

    I still think the texts that describe hell as a place of weeping and gnashng of teeth (Matt 13) and shame and everlasting contempt (Dan 12:2)’ and ongoing punishment (Matt 25:46) and torment (Rev 20) make holding the annihilationist position less of an option for me. I realize that Matt 10:28 and Mal 4:1 and 2 Thess 1:7-9 are good texts for the annihilationist side, but I think the traditional view is probably the one with the stronger exegetical base.

    But whether the torment is temporal or eternal, I don’t think it is a test of fellowship issue. Denying the Trinity or the deity of Christ are tests of fellowship, but not this issue.

    Now Bell seems to be neither an annihilationist nor a traditionalist on this issue. He seems to be in over his head. Perhaps he could go to Asbury or Trinity to bone up on theology.

  • Marc Axelrod

    I read in Velvet Elvis that Bell started his church with a series of sermons on Leviticus!

  • Karl Udy

    I think you have made a good point here about how understanding what Love Wins is will help us respond to it better.

    From everything I have seen about Rob Bell and this book, what matters to him is the overarching narrative. This comes across in his other work, and especially in the promo video for the book. He wants to know whether the story the traditional heaven/hell understanding of the afterlife tells is one that he thinks reflects the God of the Bible. This is a very postmodern approach to studying the Bible, and I think that some people are so steeped in modernism that they just don’t get it.

    If I am right in understanding that this is the approach of the book, then picking up on individual points as being heretical is not going to really respond to either Rob Bell, or the people that are captivated by his message.

    If people think his message is wrong, they need to tell a better story, not pick holes in the one that he has given, because his main point is “the story that has been told does not reflect God’s character”.

  • Edward William Fudge

    I sincerely share your interest in “a respectful, well-intended, non-polemical discussion about . . . heaven and hell,” using “analytical . . . categories [in doing] detailed exegesis [and] theologizing proper,” to which my contribution includes the book THE FIRE THAT CONSUMES (1982).

    Interestingly, the annihilationist view there set forth is emerging as “the view in the middle,” just in time for the enlarged, revised third edition due out in May 2011 from Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock’s academic branch), with a commendatory foreword by Professor Richard Bauckham. For many free resources on this “middle” view, see .

    On a personal note, I very much anticipate meeting you next Monday, God willing, during your visit to Katy (Texas) FUMC, where our mutual friend, Rev. Marlin Finn, is pastor.

  • ben witherington

    Bert it is natural of course for people to judge Christ on the basis of some Christian behavior, but that doesn’t in any way make it right. How would you like to be judged on the basis of the total sum of your children’s behavior, after they have grown up! I don’t think so.

    Jeremy you seem to have misunderstood me. I think there are definitely theological and exegetical underpinnings to what is said in this book, and they deserve critiquing. But the form of this book and its surface phenomena are not theologizing or exegesis. So, you have to probe some and read between the allusions some.

    The Christus victor motif in Christology after the second century A.D. is certainly prominent in the church fathers, but you have to realize they are all Gentiles, and do not think like the NT thinkers do on a whole host of subjects including Christology. Christus victor I think you can find in Colossians, but it isn’t a major theme elsewhere.


  • Bert

    Ben, I would consider it absolutely fair if people judged me by my children’s behavior if:
    A. each one of them supported their behavior by something I actually wrote instructing them how to behave
    B. they were always quarreling on who among them was following my instructions more truthfully
    C. and to top it all off, I was still alive (but never intervened to settle the disputes once and for all)
    All the three points apply to the relationship between God and His followers, that’s why this kind of judgment is fair.

  • ben witherington

    And let me tell you why its not fair. It’s not fair because they are not you, and they have their own wills, their own way of doing things, and the Bible is perfectly clear about individual accountability for one’s own sins and successes. And frankly, most of the world, especially the Western world does believe in individual accountability. Should I be prosecuted for the sins of my adult children (which thankfully hasn’t happened)— of course not? God holds each one of us responsible for what we do. So, no Bert, sorry, your argument is not convincing.


  • Dan

    You said

    “To me it looks like He cares more about us following the teachings of Jesus (which Rob puts to the fore, if I’m correct), than having the right doctrine about Heaven, Hell, salvation etc.”

    But what happens when those teachings of Jesus are about Heaven, Hell, and Salvation? How can we follow them if we don’t correctly understand them?

    As far as your A,B,C scenario, I don’t think it’s fair to say that God never intervened. The truth is, if people wanted to know God for who he is and not judge Him based on what they see other people doing, they could do that by picking up a bible. People of all religions and philosophies behave badly and use their faith to back it up. If bad behavior by an adherent were a valid excuse to not believe something, nobody would believe anything.

  • Joshua


    So you would say that the judgement placed upon Jesus and God because of the actions of his followers is adequate, even if their understanding of Him is flawed? That falls on Jesus instead of the individual? So the judgement of the character of Jesus for those who use scripture to politically subdue a group, or use scripture to force one’s will–not God’s will–on another is considered fair? In turn, does allowing the judgement of Jesus not take away the person’s responsibility of their presentation of the Gospel or their actions used, in their view, in the right way, even if their view is flawed?

  • Percival

    That half and half picture of Bob Witherbell scared my children.

  • John

    Richard makes a very good point but no one has replied to him.

    Essentially, Bell is pointing towards the ‘classical’ view of atonement instead of the ‘Latin’ or ‘objective’ view that came out of the middle ages, and certainly much of the disagreements that folks have with Bell are based on their ‘penal/objective/latin’ understanding of atonement (even if they don’t realize their theology is based on that post patriarch/early church world-view). Christus Victor (Anslen?) makes that point exactly.

    Reading Love Wins with a classical understanding of atonement helps the whole story make much more sense…

    Good point, Richard.


  • JoeyS

    Ben the issue of behavior and children is an issue of psychology and is not propositional. Of course Bell isn’t purporting that those manifestations are actually Jesus but for humans who are built to be relational they represent a picture of who Jesus is in the minds and hearts of these folks – a picture that is not accurate, and that is Bell’s point. To take his point otherwise is to misunderstand him. This is a point that comes out of psychology, not out of exegesis, with a sprinkling of philosophy (how we come to a belief that God exists stems largely from our experience with others).

  • Edwin

    Dr. Witherington,

    First of all, I don’t think the questions Bell raises are irrelevant at all, because it’s pretty easy to find people who are not Christians and yet appear to be following truth as they understand it. Do these people fall under the condemnation of Romans 1? Bell is saying that we can’t assume that they do, and I agree with him.

    In the second place, it becomes clear later on that Bell believes strongly in God’s wrath and justice in precisely the form you invoke it when you speak of Korea, Libya, the Holocaust, etc. But the total-depravity/penal-substitution/forensic justification understanding of how God’s wrath functions (God’s wrath is on everyone because we are sinners, but those who believe in Jesus are freed from God’s wrath because Christ suffered in our place) has nothing to say to those situations–at least, nothing to say that Bell’s model hasn’t, and probably much less. According to the “traditional” model (which isn’t really traditional, but Protestants typically think it is), the Jews in Germany and the Muslims in Libya are/were themselves just as much under God’s wrath as those who oppress[ed] them (thanks to Richard for pointing this out). Furthermore, God’s wrath in this model is penal, not restorative–its goal is punishment as an expression of retributive justice, not a just order in which oppression will vanish. (I don’t mean that upholders of penal substitution reject that kind of justice as well, only that the penal-substitution version of God’s wrath does nothing for victims of oppression, but simply condemns them along with their oppressors.)

    And finally, to John (#24), Dr. Witherington did reply to Richard on penal substitution in post #18. However, I disagree strongly with his reply. Dr. Witherington, if you’re right then Christians got one of the most basic doctrines of the Faith wrong for 1400 years, until a bunch of early modern Western Europeans figured out what the NT really meant. And the fact that the Reformers lived in a society particularly obsessed with maintaining social order through brutal punishment–well, maybe that just gave them extra help in understanding the nature of the God who is Love!

  • Edwin

    Oh, another note to John: I’m reading through Aulen’s book now as part of my attempt to work through what I think about the Bell controversy. (I’d read bits of it and knew the basic thesis but had never read the whole thing.) I think that we owe a great debt to Aulen for bringing “Christus Victor” back into prominence, but there are a lot of problems with how he presents it. One of the most glaring is his near-Marcionism, which is linked to his determination to interpret the early Church in the light of Luther and vice versa! (I don’t think Luther was as close to Marcionism as Aulen or some other modern Lutherans, by the way.)

  • aaron

    For those arguing against penal substitution I would recommend reading the second half of Mark. Especially the part where Jesus states 3 separate times that he has come to be a ransom for the sins of many! Penal substitution is not only biblical but it is also the key that unlocks the paradox between God as a just God who executes judgment every day, and God as a loving God who forgives sins because of His faithful love. In order to maintain Justice every sin must be punished. By Jesus taking our place in that punishment every sin can be atoned for (except perhaps overt blasphemy).

  • Gem

    Richard (6,12)
    Haven’t got my Rob Bell book yet, but I agree with you that PSA is a problem.

    What I hear in PSA is that Jesus died to save me from an angry deity who resembles an abusive father more than the God I have come to know, the God to whom I am “accepted in the beloved”.

    I also think that people tend to resemble their god, so if they believe angry and punishing, that’s what they act like too.

  • Gem

    Karl (16)
    I never knew that it was called “postmodern” to believe that I need to go back to the drawing board and re-think my interpretation if I am hearing something in there as making God out to a cosmic cruel and abusive “parent”. I guess I’m postmodern, then.

    My oldest daughter attended Asbury College and is now in med school in Lexington. LOVED the seminary bookstore when I visited her! Thanks for the blog. I’ll be following the discussion!

  • Cindy Kern

    Thank you for your insightful review. Regarding the sin issue, could you comment on the belief that we are condemned to hell because we are born with an inherent sin nature due to Adam’s sin? Isn’t this what Romans 5 teaches is the basis for our lack of right standing with God and what Christ’s death atones for? Obviously our conscious sins and rejection of God confirm this nature but are we only in need of the gospel once we have consciously sinned? Thanks…

  • Bert

    Ben, I’m not at all questioning the individual responsibility here. I’m just saying if my words (or writings, or teachings etc) allow for the most diverse interpretations, then some of the responsibility, if not all, would logically fall upon me, not upon my hearers (children, followers, or whatever) only. If my children are behaving badly, and I don’t intervene to clarify the issues (assuming I’m alive and well, of course, and fully capable of doing so), then it would be only fair for people to pass judgment on me based on my children’s behavior. This seems logically sound to me, so my point C stands. God would have for sure avoided a lot of quarreling and suffering among his children by a simple and direct intervention (unless his goal is to test us, but this would be another issue altogether).

    Dan, to your question “what happens when those teachings of Jesus are about Heaven, Hell, and Salvation? How can we follow them if we don’t correctly understand them?” I can only say if we stay with Jesus’ words only, we cannot possibly go too far off. You say all we have to do is just “pick up a bible and read” but I think all those who caused big trouble in history did exactly that: picked up a bible and read it, right? I think all trouble starts when we try to add something else to the clear teachings of Jesus.

    Joshua, when you say that we should not place judgment upon Jesus and God because of the actions of His followers “if their understanding of Him is flawed” you are making exactly my point, which is the absence of a clear and absolute standard from God himself. All this debate about Rob Bell’s book is evidence of the ongoing evolution in our understanding of the Bible. And if we all admit that our understanding is flawed, how can any of us pretend to have absolute truth?

  • Matt Dabbs

    It is more than even which texts are included/excluded. When you start deconstructing something it is also about the questions you include/exclude. To me, what Bell is doing here is more than just telling an artful story. Before he can do that he has to tear apart the one he is replacing via deconstruction. That comes down to the questions you ask in order to pull it apart. The temptation is to build a straw man around the most extreme and most easily discredited branches of Christianity (which is partially what I think Bell is doing in the preface and chapter 1) in order to create the tension that we really do have a problem here or that the majority of Christians really have missed the point and gone with all the wrong narrative threads in the Gospels to the neglect of the one big one Bell wants to highlight.

    So my own analysis of the book is trying to avoid nitpicking every point and interpretation and trying to understand where he is taking me and the strengths and weaknesses of his approach in trying to convince me.

  • Jeremiah

    Wow Ben! Thanks for taking the time to unpack this subject and this book for us. I plan on reading Rob’s book sometime soon because I want to form my own thoughts on it, but I appreciate your honesty and frankness.
    I think you hit it right on the head in the last couple of paragraphs. Most of what I’ve seen from Rob’s interviews and comments have made a mash up of Christian’s behavior and the character of Jesus. Therefore he seems to need to find a way to side-step Jesus and the gospel, instead of preaching the gospel and the redemptive power that lies in the truth.
    Thanks again!


  • Edwin


    I am teaching the second half of Mark right now, as a matter of fact (a class on Mark for non-majors, offered because I’m working on the IVP Reformation Commentary on Mark). We’ll be starting chap. 10 this afternoon.

    The language about “ransom” does not necessarily imply penal substitution. Early Christians believed that we are ransomed from Satan, not God. I grant you that the word “lutron” is used in the LXX to translate both “padah” and “kapar” roots, and that both those Hebrew words (translated by “lutron” in the LXX) are used to refer to payment made to God for someone’s life. However, you also find language about God ransoming Israel from Israel’s enemies or from death. There’s ambiguity on this point in the OT, just as there is ambiguity between II Samuel’s version of David’s census and the version found in I Chronicles as to the relative roles of God and Satan in “tempting” Israel. In my opinion the Greek Fathers did a better job than the Reformers, or for that matter than the medieval Latins, of resolving these tensions. Prof. Witherington obviously disagrees!

  • Galen

    Very good stuff so far, Ben! I really appreciate the time you’re taking to share your thoughts and I look forward to the rest of the posts!

  • Ted

    “And this is a problem, all the more so when Rob wants to suggest that a just or righteous or holy or judging God is somehow not good news.

    Tell that to the oppressed Christians in North Korea. Tell that to the ordinary citizens of Libya longing to be set free from a wicked and brutal dictator. Tell that to the Jews during the Holocaust in WWII. In a sin-soaked world, Good News involves both redemption and judgment, both vindication and liberation, both holiness and love.”

    I’m having trouble with this point you made, both in the way you presented it, “Tell that to (insert list of iconic examples of oppression)…” and the point you’re trying to make. *Maybe I’m totally missing your point*. If I’m not mistaken, aren’t the only people for whom a “just or righteous or holy or judging God” “good news” the Christians in North Korea? Because from a strict biblical perspective (which I assume neither of us adhere to) the largely Muslim population in Libya, and the “Jews during the Holocaust” are all condemned to an eternity of torment.

  • Kyle A

    It seems that perhaps we are all assuming that only Christians will read this book or hear about Bell’s teachings. What if a non-Christian hears that there really is no hell and no need to accept Christ?

    As a minister of the Gospel, Bell doesn’t really have the luxury of speculating or raising unanswered questions. He is the man that people are looking to for answers. He has a God-ordained duty to teach people–not just to get them thinking.

    Besides, his approach is strategic. He knows that people will get the messages implied by the questions. Is there really such a thing as “just a question”?

    (Note what I did at the end.)

  • PamBG

    all the more so when Rob wants to suggest that a just or righteous or holy or judging God is somehow not good news….Tell that to the oppressed Christians in North Korea.

    I don’t understand where you get the idea that Bell doesn’t think judgment of evil is part of the Gospel message. How do you interpret what he writes here?

    Central to their vision of human flourishing in God’s renewed world, then, was the prophets’ announcement that a number of things that can survive in this world will not be able to survive in the world to come.

    Like war. Rape. Greed. Injustice. Violence. Pride. Division. Exploitation. Disgrace.

    Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive of damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day, the ‘day of the Lord’.

    The day when God says ‘ENOUGH!’ to anything that threatens the peace (shalom is the Hebrew word), harmony, and health that God intends for the world.

    God says no to injustice. God says ‘Never again’ to the oppressors who prey on the weak and the vulnerable. God declares a ban on weapons.’

    (pp. 36-37)

    I have no idea what is wishy-washy about injustice in that vision. Unless we demand that murder be met with even greater murder, violence with even greater violence, pain with even greater pain?

  • Karl Udy

    Gem (30)
    What is post-modern, is his focus on narrative as the driving force behind his theology, as opposed to a systematic theology.

    Notice his objections to popular teaching about hell, etc. It is not, “this doesn’t match up with x verse or passage”, but “Is this the story that the Bible is telling?”

    His objections to hellfire and damnation, and Gandhi being there, are all about the narrative. That’s why he calls the book “Love Wins”, not ” A Scriptural Basis for the Temporality of Hell”

  • Christiane

    There is such a variance between the God of the fundamentalist-evangelical ‘biblical gospel’,
    and the Christ of the four Holy Gospels. I can understand why Bell wanted to start a dialogue.

    The fundamentalists couldn’t get past the word ‘hell’, though.
    That is where they focus their influence: on peoples’ fear of hell.
    But Bell apparently wanted to shift that center in their thinking more towards the Christ of the Beatitudes and the Parables.

    I think the ‘reaction’ to Bell from the fundamentalists shows us how much they are threatened by anyone who would diminish their ‘hell’ focus, and put it back on Christ’s Words and teachings in sacred Scripture.

  • John

    This is probably the best review I have read yet. Thanks for getting to the heart of things.

  • Curach

    Peter Kreeft, in his book “The 3 philosophies of Life” made a great point that” i.e.
    Ancient man’s greatest fear was death (no real understanding of why his mate just stopped moving and assumed room-temperature).
    Medieval man’s greatest fear was Hell and Judgment, as that was the emphasis of the Church.
    Modern man’s greatest fear is “insignificance”… ouch.

    It seems our world is still parsing out the past emphasis of the fear of Hell as opposed to a healthy Fear of God.

    Even the fear of God is thrown around without regard to understanding what it means. So the God we’re called to trust and know intimately is also scary. Not right at all.

    Proverbs 8:13 describes what the Fear of God is, as opposed to some nebulous fear of something unknown, it is an actionable list – to hate evil, etc. to choose which side you’re on in each circumstance.

    Fear is the enemy and the opposite of love.
    Fulfill the whole law, love God and neighbor and Hell will not really be an issue. Romans 13:10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

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  • Mike

    Dear Dr. Witherington

    This article once again explains why you are one of my favorite scholars!

    Thank you for an insightful, wise and sensitive arguement concrning Bell’s new book. I just checked it out from my local library to read as I was starting to gett questions about it. Especially from young people who like rob bell.

    I also like your point that we need to read it using the proper tools and not other tools. Very good point. And one that will be a frame of reference for me as I work through the book.

    Why Belll is not really doing exegesis or systematic theology I am concerned for those who who read his books and who also are not into proper exegesis or systematic theology but will take his book as “the last or right word about hell”. As I have talked to one or two about the book I have seen that because they like his style they are more open to take in his words as truth without critically thinking through some of the pointa he has made.

    Of course that fact that they have asked me also demonstrates to me that they are uestioning -and it is my job to help them think through the issues.

    Anway thank you for the great post. You confirmed many thoughts I also had about the first chapter. I look forward to reading more of what you have to say.


  • Mike

    Whoa! A lot of typos in my last (and first ) post!

    Sorry about that :-)


  • Accelerated


    For Whom The Bell Tolls: cute, but revelatory of your judgmental rather than communicative position (Death comes when the bell tolls for you).

    1. Bell does not claim to be a universalist in his interviews.

    2. Bell does not claim to be a universalist in his writings.

    3. Therefore, whoever judges Bell to be a universalist (or functional universalist, etc.) is merely dismissive of his actual communication purposes, and discredits themselves by revealing their lack of understanding, their prejudice, and makes all of their judgments (versus discernment/dialogue) related to universalism suspect, confounding, and invalid.

  • Accelerated

    Ben, you say Bell “is definitely not a Calvinist in any way, shape or form.” Why would an Arminian wish to make this point?

    You quote Bell saying “we should be able to have a respectful, well-intended, non-polemical discussion about things like what the Bible teaches about heaven and hell. Censorship does the truth no good, and is no service to it” and yet you censor Bell’s comments every time you make negative assertions in the absence of dialogue with his actual statements.

    Ben, you do well initially to address Bell’s writing style, but then go right into judging his failure to address the nature of sin. I believe Bell in fact is addressing the problem with people using the nature of sin in order to be judgmental. You say that therefore, “most of the questions Rob raises in Chapter One are entirely irrelevant” which is an indication that you are no longer engaging with Bell’s purpose in writing to expand the nature of grace, love and faith in God. Your responses to this chapter generally are merely judgments and “censorships,” without true engagement with the meaning of Bells writing. How can this engender trust in your capacity to make proper judgments?

  • Tone Ranger


    Agree with your thoughts on penal substitution and I’m surprised to see Ben’s comments in response. I find his comment that the early church fathers were all gentiles and therefore suspect and removed from the NT quite weak…this idea, if taken to its logical end, would have to therefore imply that the reformers being all gentiles as well would have to be doubly suspect in their interpretation of the NT. LOL. Amazing….

    It’s also incredible how so many people try to defend penal substitution without really understanding or knowing what the doctrine entails… Like whoever was quoting Mark 10:45 and saying ‘see, ma, no hands, PS proven!’. How long will we have to put up with such dullness of understanding?

    With Christ, I will echo the recommendation that he issued to the Pharisees here: Go figure out what Hosea meant when God spoke through him saying “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”…

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