Love Fails – Rob Bell, Hellgate, and the Ethics of Christian Conversation

To believe in hell is not to be hateful.  And to defend the truth as you see it is not to be angry, arrogant or abusive.  The truth matters, and we are not free to rearrange the truth to suit our preferences.  If there is a hell, then it would be unloving in the extreme to say that there is not.  The world loves the “love” that gives its blessing to what the world wants to do and believe.  Yet if our act of “love” is to announce that there is no eternal torment in hell, and yet there is one, then our “love” is a lie.  Authentic love must be willing to be perceived as hateful in order to serve the good of the beloved, and so sometimes the most loving thing we can do is confess the truth Christ taught even though the world hates us for it.

On the other hand, I strongly sympathize with those who would press Christianity in a universalist direction.  Theologically, anyone who does not feel cognitive dissonance between the profession of a God who is Love and the teaching that this God makes or lets his creatures suffer everlasting torment is failing to take one or the other idea seriously.  Personally, there is for many Christians a nearly unbearable tension between the doctrine of eternal damnation and their own experience of a God who is endlessly loving and gracious.  A tension is not a contradiction, of course; intelligent Christians for centuries have found ways to harmonize these elements.  Yet the cultural and psychological costs of these tensions are high.

I am referring, of course, to Hellgate — the firestorm of controversy sparked by Rob Bell’s forthcoming book and what appeared (the early responses were based on the promotional materials alone) to be its promotion of some form of universalism.  I have my preview copy of the book, but HarperOne asked that I wait until the book is launched on March 15th before publishing a review.  Still, I wanted to offer some thoughts first on the discussion so far.  It began with a post by influential blogger Justin Taylor, a “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet from even more influential pastor John Piper, and then a series of articles and posts from Scot McKnight (here and here), Ben Witherington, and Francis Beckwith (here and here) at Patheos; Joe Carter at First Things; Brian McLarenAlbert MohlerMark Galli of Christianity Today, Jason Boyett at Beliefnet; Tim ChalliesMichael Patton; and many others.  See The New York Times and CNN for more coverage.

Like so many other Christians I know, when it comes to the question of the eternal destiny of those who have not professed faith in Christ, I feel as though I am suspended in the air between two magnetic forces.  I fail to love my nonbelieving friends if I do not hope with all my being that the grace of God is so overflowing that eventually all people will be redeemed — yet my love fails my friends if I do not earnestly seek and honestly profess the truth whether or not it is what they want to hear.  We must, like God, desire that none should perish (2 Pet 3:9).  Yet we must submit that hope to the truth God has revealed.

God’s love never fails.  But our love fails if we do not profoundly desire that all people should enjoy eternity with God, and our love fails if we do not understand that the best way to serve all people is to confess the truth of Christ.  And our love fails our fellow believers if we do not conduct this conversation in a manner that is gracious and respectful.  In this spirit, I offer the following thoughts on Hellgate:

1.  First, some information. The controversy inspired HarperOne to move the book’s release to March 15.  There is an event in New York City the night before the launch that should be fascinating.  If anyone is able to attend, please let me know and share your thoughts afterward.  Also, Patheos will be hosting a discussion on the book that will include an interview with Rob Bell.  Recognizing the importance of the subject, we wanted to see whether we could bring disparate voices together and shape a more charitable and informative conversation.

Second, who is really being angry and judgmental here?  When the Calvinists at the Gospel Coalition, like John Piper, Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung, criticized the book, they themselves become the targets of a hailstorm of criticism.  While Piper’s tweet was unfortunate, Taylor and DeYoung discussed the matter, and continue (Taylor 1, 2, 3, 4 and DeYoung here) to discuss the matter, in a way that has been tough and critical but also calm and fair.  Bell has put his views out publicly, and it’s legitimate to offer public criticism of it.  Perhaps they should have waited for the book to be launched, but, from what I can tell, the promotional material is completely consistent with the book.  The angry and disrespectful comments have mostly been directed at them (see, for instance, here and here).

Third, “heresy” is not a bad word. We seem to have an allergic reaction to the word “heresy” or to anyone who will identify a teaching as heretical.  These words are associated in the popular mind with torches and pitchforks, the Inquisition, and religious wars.  No one will pick up a pitchfork today, but identifying heresy is very important.  The church cannot preserve its true and proper doctrine without clearly identifying that which departs from it.  False teachers can do extraordinary damage to the church and can wreak havoc in individual lives.  Especially if you do believe that there is an eternal afterlife in which torment is a real possibility, you have no choice but to stand up for the truth.  Heresy-hunting is not about hatred or control; it is about preserving a truth that liberates those who hear and accept it.  Concern for false teachers, and concern for protecting the true teaching, simply is concern for other people.

Fourth, this is not about Rob Bell. Bell is influential, especially amongst younger Christians.  But this book is just the logical consequence of much longer trends in evangelical Christianity.  It’s hard to believe in hell if you don’t believe in sin, and countless evangelical churches scarcely speak of sin any more.  One of the gravest dangers to the church today is a rapidly dissipating consciousness of sin.  It’s also hard to believe in hell if you do not emphasize the holiness of God alongside his love, the fear of God alongside his grace.  Hell has no place in moral therapeutic deism; it has no place in the “Your Best Life Now” deformation of Christianity; it has no place in a vision of Christian faith that has devolved into social justice activism.  Even in strong churches, I suspect that the teaching from the pulpit and through the songs and hymns have made it difficult for Christians to believe that the infinitely gracious and forgiving God they experience in worship would ever countenance one of his creatures suffering endless torment.

Fifth, universalists can be evangelists. One argument from exclusivists holds that the belief in universalism leaves us no reason to evangelize.  I’ve never found this convincing.  Universalists can be motivated to evangelize by the calling to be obedient to Christ, but also by the conviction that our faith has value for this life as well as the next.  Do we not take joy in our fellowship with God even in this life?  I am grateful every day to live in communion with Jesus Christ.  I would want for all my friends to walk the Way, know the Truth and enjoy the Life of Christ even if I believed that their eternal destiny were secure.  In fact, both sides of this debate are sincerely concerned with evangelism.  Universalists believe that the doctrine of eternal suffering in hell is one of the great impediments to acceptance of the gospel.  Exclusivists believe that it is an essential part of the gospel message, and that the fear of God is a proper and necessary part of conversion.  In fact, one has to wonder how many exclusivists are really convinced that the unsaved will go to eternal torment in hill, if only because it seems that their actions would be different if they did.

Sixth, the biblical witness on the afterlife is more complex than you might think. I will say more on this in a separate post, but the oldest biblical texts almost never speak of an afterlife, but sometimes reference a “pit” or “grave” where everyone would go, with some hints (such as Elijah) of other afterlife possibilities.  Sheol evolves.  Eventually, it’s through the exilic periods that the Israelites began to speak of eternal reward for the people of God and eternal punishment for their enemies.  Since God’s people suffered so much in this life, it became clear that there must be another life where all things are made right.  The last Old Testament texts to be written finally begin to speak of a collective resurrection on the Day of the Lord – and then this developed into a variegated vision of the afterlife in the inter-testamental period.

What makes matters tough for would-be universalists is that Jesus himself seemed to believe in a hell.*[See Update Below] The culture around him had developed a sophisticated vision of the afterlife with an upstairs and a downstairs.  Could Jesus have been wrong?  Perhaps he just inherited it from his culture?  But…isn’t he the Word of God?  If Jesus believed it, mustn’t we believe it?  Thus Rob Bell has to reinterpret “eternal” (aion) to say that Jesus isn’t really saying that the faithful are punished for endless time, but receive a sort of infinite but temporary purification by fire.

Seventh, whether or not you believe in an eternal torment for the unsaved will depend in large measure on your broader sense of soteriology and Christology. Did Christ come to save us from hell?  Or did he come to profess the love of God and call together the community of the faithful that will work to redeem the world?  I can’t help but suspect that there is, behind this skepticism toward hell, a skepticism toward the broader vision of substitutionary atonement, a skepticism toward the whole narrative of original sin and the need for eternal justice to be satisfied through the sacrifice of Christ.  Hell makes no sense if the work of Christ is mostly to communicate God’s love to us and encourage us to love one another.  It makes more sense if there is indeed a fundamental rupture of sin between humankind and God, if the holiness of God requires justice, and if the only way to be reconciled to God is by grace through faith in Christ.

Finally, let’s remember that the world will judge us not only for what we believe but by the way we talk about what we believe. When we have given ourselves to Christ, we no longer get to choose what to believe.  We do our best to understand what God has revealed in his Word, assisted by the Holy Spirit and the guidance the Spirit has given to the church.  It no longer matters what we want to believe, and it doesn’t even matter what we think would be most reasonable or most just or most kind.  What matters is discerning what God has made known.  But we do get to choose how we talk about what we believe.  It is a rare moment when the world is watching Christians discuss their most fundamental beliefs — let’s make sure they see a conversation absolutely committed to pursuing the truth but also absolutely committed to loving one another throughout.

Let our discourse on hell be heavenly, full of grace and truth.  As we move toward our discussion of the book on Patheos, that is the kind of conversation I would like to see.

*Update: Some readers have misinterpreted the comment that Jesus “seems” to have believed in hell, and one reader even misinterpreted the rhetorical question, “Could Jesus have been wrong?”  I am just illustrating the choices that face a would-be universalist.  Given that Jesus sure seems to believe in a hell, the universalist must argue either (1) that Jesus did not really believe what he seems to believe, or that (2) he believed it and was wrong.  But if you believe in the divinity of Christ, and believe that his divinity would not have permitted him to be wrong about such things, then (2) is not really an option.  Thus Bell makes the argument that Jesus only seems to believe in a hell, because we have been mistranslating the term aion (“eternal”).  This is not a new argument; it’s been around for a long time.  In any case, my point was just to say that a person like Bell will have to devise ways to get around the impression that Jesus believed in a hell as a place of everlasting torment.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Jesus “seems” to believe in a real hell?

    The person who talked more about a real, actual hell, more than anyone else in the whole Bible, is Jesus.

    That’s an inconvenient truth for Bell and those who support him.

    • ADR

      What exactly happens to a person in hell for all eternity?

    • Howard

      Have you read Bell’s book? Are you certain that it denies the existence of hell?

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I haven’t finished reading it yet. This was intended to be a reflection on the conversation so far, and I suppose on the general issues. But I think it’s fair to say, on the basis of what I’ve read and what others have written in their reviews already, that the book strongly suggests that a good God would never condemn people to eternal torment in hell. (Which is not to say that there is not hell in some sense. But it is not hell as it has been traditionally conceived, as a place of everlasting torment.)

    • Jeremy

      “The person who talked more about a real, actual hell, more than anyone else in the whole Bible, is Jesus.”

      Which, to be fair, still isn’t actually very often.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        I suppose that’s true. I hesitate to draw too many conclusions on the basis of how frequently Jesus discussed something, though. What kind of conclusions do you think can be drawn?

        -Tim (for some reason my account shows up as “C & C Admin” when I post)

    • K. Reux

      Question though–and I am not defending Bell here. But if we understand Jesus to be talking about the Valley of Hinnom–the local trash dump where the fire is always burning and it is filled with filth and maggots–if Jesus says: “It is better to enter into life with one hand than to be cast in the trash pile of Hinnom for eternity…” then could this not be understood metaphorically? Does this necessarily indicate that Jesus is speaking of a literally “Hell” as we Christians have envisioned over the centuries? And since Revelation is a highly metaphorical book, is it fair to use that imagery to demand a literal fiery pit called “Hell”?

      Btw, I believe there will be an eternal hell of some kind. However, I think it is very easy to interpret Jesus’ statements in one way that agrees with what I have always believed than to look at them fresh with an openness to a different possibility.

  • http://nimblewillsgrace.blogspot.com mike

    Thanks for making the continuation of this discussion even more interesting.

    I never really wanted to evangelize until I began to embrace UR. Now for the first time I have some hope to give people.

  • http://pastormattsblog.wordpress.com/ Pastor Matt

    Well said. I will be tuning in to the event Monday night.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Well, I hope you’ll drop me a line and let me know what you think. I’ll be writing about it, for several different purposes. So I’m curious to hear what others get from it. Thanks!

  • Noel Hausler

    I have always wondered what happened to those africans who died in the slave ships on their way to Christian America. I understand at the beginning the owners of slaves did not teach them the gospel. So are all those dead Africans in hell now?

  • Heather

    Thank you for this post. I appreciate your push for each individual to take ownership of their own actions, while not ignoring the foundational truths that are being jeopardized. I have gained wisdom from many teachings from Rob Bell, but have also come to find the gospel he preaches to be far from complete.

  • http://www.agrc.net Randy Greene

    This post is the best I have seen on the topic so far. We must remember the lost are watching and we should not miss the opportunity to speak the Truth in love. After all “They’ll know we are Christians by how we confront heretics” is just not a catchy tune.

  • Dave

    Timothy:

    There is an alternative approach to the issue of eternal torment in hell that is called Annihilationism. Unlike Universalism, it acknowledges the existence of hell but without requiring that people “suffer everlasting torment”. It is best explained by Edward Fudge in his book called The Fire That Consumes.

    Dave

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yep, I’m thoroughly familiar with it. Annihilationism has been around for a long time. There are all sorts of gradations and -isms around this question.

  • Danielle

    “Jesus himself seemed to believe in a hell. The culture around him had developed a sophisticated vision of the afterlife with an upstairs and a downstairs. Could Jesus have been wrong?”

    Jesus ‘seemed’ to believe in Hell? Could he have been wrong?
    “Ding-Ding-Ding-Ding” congratulations, you are hereby accepted into the non-Christian, self-identifying Christian, Church of Bible Disputing, Divinity denying nonsense.
    We’ve saved you a spot right next to our favorite hell raising cult leader, Rob Bell.
    Man, you must be super-duper smart, and inclusive and hip and politically correct to question the infallibility of GOD. The type of guy who did a cartwheel when Lady GaGa wore that cross upside down on her crotch in her video. Hey man, she’s just expressing HER form of Christianity! Bill Maher next to Moses in Heaven? Dude, it’s about the big tent!-actual belief is so….. pre-Glee.
    You pretend-Christian, deceivers of Christ’s TRUTH make me sick. If you believed Christ was divine you would KNOW that HE knows everything there has ever been to know, past, present and future and is the CREATOR.
    “Could he have been wrong?” That’s your testamony? GOD have mercy on you.
    There is only ONE way, as Christ taught, and as much as you’d like to tear up his road map to make you feel better about your atheist, Christ denying buddies, that TRUTH is eternal. Now excuse me while I get on my knees and pray for you to truly see the light and receive his loving GRACE and know his infallibility.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Oh my goodness. Did you not get that my answer was NO, Jesus cannot be wrong?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Danielle, I really have to respond to this at greater length. If you actually did pray for me, then thank you for your prayer. I can always use prayer. But you’ve got to be more careful in your reading before you jump all over someone and declare them un-Christian.

      The question that immediately followed the section you quoted (“Could Jesus have been wrong”) was this: “But…isn’t he the Word of God?” This is a rhetorical question. Bell is criticized for asking strongly leading questions like, “Would a loving God really let his creatures suffer eternal torment?” Bell is strongly implying that the answer is no. When I ask, “But…isn’t [Christ] the Word of God?” the strongly implied answer is yes. And therefore he cannot have been wrong. I was illustrating the choices that face a person like Bell. You can argue that Jesus was not really the Word of God, or that he also (in his humanity) inherited certain things uncritically from his culture — or, if you accept that he is the Word of God, and spoke the truth infallibly, then you need to argue that he only *seems* to believe in hell.

      The “But” really should have clued you in. And it would have saved you the time of condemning me for all sorts of nasty things.

      -Tim

      • Danielle

        It is not me who needs to read more carefully but you who needs to write more carefully. Anyone who has read the living Bible with sincerity and received guidance from it through the Holy Spirit knows it’s words are not earthly or in vain. The truth is right there if you seek it. Mr Bell, on the other hand, has spent his entire career (in my opinion) trying to divert people away from that truth and corrupt the gospel in whatever way he sees fit. Hence you think, based on my post, that I’m some sanitized-culture zealot, I assure you I am not. I’m a pop-culture devotee whose tastes run the gamut from Disney to HBO’s Dexter. I am also a staunch believer in freedom of expression. ‘Preachers/Clergy’ however do not fall into the category of artist or entertainer. Theirs is supposed to be a higher calling with far greater responsibility. Those who corrupt the Lord’s message with evil intent or lead young, impressionable people spiritually astray for personal glory are heretics in my mind, plain and simple. A person has to be pretty far out of the mainstream for me to see red flags, but Rob Bell is one of those. Obviously you see and hear with different eyes and ears. You seem like a good guy and I did pray for you-and myself (for my tone) in Love. I wish you the best, but now I must be going.
        If you feel that this, or my prior post, paints you in an unfavorable light, please feel free to delete them. That was NOT my intention. Nor do I care if anyone else sees them. Good luck to you in the future and GOD BLESS!

        • D.F. Anthony

          Wow, Danielle,
          Sadly you don’t seem to see that your vitriolic attitude just further cements the resolve of non-Christians to turn a deaf ear to the gospel and its message of love. Faith, hope, love and the greatest of these is? And before I even post this I am sorry that I have done so because I very much doubt you will acknowledge my point but instead spitefully criticize and attack. I hope I am wrong and if I have misinterpreted your post or missed something I do sincerely, in love, apologize, my fallibility does show from time to time.

        • david

          Danielle – Dexter is on Showtime.
          perhaps if you devoted more time to understanding rhetoric and proper use of sarcasm and less time to pop culture saturation, your blog comments would carry more weight.
          i think you’re on target when you point out the great responsibility of “preachers/clergy,” but i think that also includes artists – there is a great responsibility ALL who teach, whether it be through music, screenplay, or sermon.
          it’s hard to judge Bell’s intent as being “evil,” but the results of the media phenomenon coined ‘Hellgate’ here are very concerning, and evangelicals certainly need to be prepared with an answer to the issues Bell has rasied.

  • http://www.perissosonline.org Lynn E.

    Thank you for an extraordinarily well-written article! I especially appreciated your statements about the necessity to surrender the luxury to independently decide what we think when we give our lives to Christ. As a full time minister, I see this as a root issue that needs to be acknowledged, addressed, and corrected every day.

  • ADR

    In general, what percentage of the world’s population, from the beginning to the end of time, will suffer in hell?

    • Just Bill

      This is about as close as Jesus gets to quantifying it:

      Mat 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

  • Tom Giovanetti

    Wow. When you say “Jesus himself seemed to believe in a hell”, you reveal an awful lot about yourself.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Several people seem to have misunderstood this “seems”. The point was that, in a simple, straightforward reading of the scripture, Jesus believes in a hell. This is the biggest problem that confronts a person like Rob Bell, and it requires him to reinterpret what Jesus is saying, to argue that Jesus really isn’t saying what he seems to be saying.

      Theoretically, it’s always possible that we have misinterpreted those statements of Jesus – that certain key terms have been mistranslated, or etc. And scholars have argued this for generations – that aion does not really mean eternal, or that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, or etc. There’s nothing new in what Rob Bell argues. What is new is that, this time, it’s not coming from a liberal scholar but from an influential pastor in evangelical circles.

  • Charles

    I’m convinced after years of study, prayer, and working in ministry around the world, that God is more loving and merciful than we could possibly imagine, and that his love doesn’t end with anyone’s last breath, nor does his power to save (His love endures forever). He will reconcile ALL things to himself through the cross of Christ, as He said He would. He’s just that loving of his creation. I would think that none of us that have posted here would willingly, if given the power, force someone to an eternal torment, why on earth would we attribute that behavior to a God who calls himself Love?

    • Lenore

      Thank you Charles. At last someone with something other than an answer that is just theological patterns in someones head. I don’t sense a drop of experience of knowing the person of Christ in those who want to wrangle the question to death. May God (He who is Love)be praised forever and ever! I don’t know how He will accomplish His ends but I know that they will be good.

      • Lenore

        What I am trying to say is that we cannot know all the answers and details. It is too big for us. Theology is not GOD. Theology is an imperfect attempt to explain a little we know about God. I do not want to diminish anyone’s sincere faith. But I do believe that if you know Him, you will find it easier and easier as life goes along to simply trust in His goodness.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          I agree with your general point here, that we cannot know all the answers and details. The important counter-balance to that is: we should be faithful to what we do know, and seek to understand what we can on the basis of what God has made known through Christ.

          But I also very strongly agree with your last point.

          -Tim

  • Susan

    Your 7th point really hits the nail on the head. The NPP, via N.T. Wright, very much causes this sort of skewed emphasis in the church. It is causative and very dangerous.

  • Jim Odell

    The message of Jesus was also rejected. It failed to fit the teachings of the time. All religions are right. The Creative Life Force is not restricted by any religion or beliefs of man. There are millions of good people who have no concept of a god. Perhaps they have a better understanding of Life tha those who preach love but have trouble demonstrating it. Sadly, it is far easier to judge than to ask questions and be willing to learn something new.

  • http://logicandimagination.wordpress.com/ Melody Hanson

    Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful, historic perspective. What I cannot get around is how little we love one another in our discourse.

  • Jessica H

    The debate over whether or not hell is a place of eternal torment is curious to me. Is part of the debate over whether hell is separation from God? Eternal separation from God would OF COURSE torment the soul forever–I can’t think of anything worse.

  • Hill DeWolfe

    Thanks for your post on this subject. I thnk some people may have misunderstood some of what you said, but you should cut them some slack – the world is full of those who would distort the gospel message in one way or another. Certainly Rob Bell’s problem is no more serious than that of our local heretic here in Houston – that would be Joel Osteen. His ministry gives legs to Paul’s comment about those with “itching ears”. Heresy is not and as far as I can determine, never been rare in Christianity. I would think that Rob Bell’s sin, as well as that of Rev. Osteen would be a good deal less than that of the gnostics of the second century, the Manichaeans or several other groups down through the centuries. Heresy is why we have at least three creeds in the church (the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed). All of them were formulated to address some serious heresy threatening the church. Denying hell is common enough that I have heard of it more than once before, and I once attended an Episcopal Church whose priest was a de facto universalist. Thanks for your words – they serve both to explain the situation and also to caution us that the path is narrow and we need to ensure we are on it before we criticize a brother who has stepped off it somewhere. Thank you, and keep on keeepin’ on.

  • David Zielke

    Excellent article. Your points about spreading the unalterable truth are important. Ultimately, is it not the unbeliever who rejects God, and not vice versa? “Eternal damnation” is really separation from God, at one’s own choosing, for eternity. Why should we believe that an unbeliever would change their mind after death – does not Satan, who even now has personal access to God, still reject His authority? And finally, my understanding of eternity is not that it is time to infinity, but something else (what, exactly, I don’t know and can’t even imagine), and therefore “eternal damnation” really isn’t damnation in time to infinity. I’d certainly appreciate any thoughts and insights to correct my understanding if it is mistaken. In the final analysis, God is the source of love – He defines what “love” is, but too often we try to apply a definition that fails to also account for God’s other attributes, such as justice, and that we would prefer to believe in. I fear we may find ourselves seriously mistaken by doing so.

  • Caravelle

    What did Jesus say about what makes one person go to Hell and another to Heaven ?

  • Ian

    You are wrong when you say that a universalist must believe that either Jesus was wrong or didn’t really believe what he said concerning hell.

    A universalist can believe that hell exists, that Jesus is correct, but that doesn’t mean eternal conscious punishments. The truth is that there are many gradations on the soteriological spectrum including, but not limited to:

    Eternal conscious torment
    Eternal conscious separation
    Annihilationism after a period of punishment
    Annihilationism immediately
    All MAY be saved after purification in hell (their decision) through the atoning work of Christ
    All WILL be saved after purification in hell automatically through the atoning work of Christ
    All will be saved immediately through the atoning work of Christ
    All will be saved regardless of the work of Christ (pagan-universalism)

    All of these are very different, as are other positions, and all (except the last one) have been held by orthodox believers at some point in history.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m familiar with the options at hand, but you did misinterpret the comment. The universalist (baldly speaking) wants to say that there is no eternal conscious torment in hell. And yet Jesus at least appears to believe that there is. The options therefore are:

      (1) Jesus was wrong.
      (2) Jesus did not really believe that there is eternal torment in hell, but we have mistranslated or misinterpreted or misunderstood his teachings on this point.

      I wasn’t suggesting that Jesus perhaps taught it but did not believe it. I was suggesting — as one of the options facing the universalist – that perhaps Jesus did not really teach eternal torment in hell, in spite of appearances.

      • Ian

        Fair enough. I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that Jesus did not teach eternal torment and still be faithful to scripture. It can be argued that Jesus only appears to say that with poor hermeneutics.

        John Stott’s exegesis on those passages is worth reading (he came to an annihilationist position).

  • Lou

    Tim,

    Thank you for your thoughts. It was clearly articulated. You are an educated individual who obviously put time into this post considering you could have jumped onto another bandwagon when Bell’s video first came out. I find it all too ironic, that a point you prove about what we believe and how we discuss what we believe is being watched by the world, is reinforced by other individuals posts ignoring your point while pontificating theirs only to reinforce YOUR point. I chuckled as much as I was saddened. All that being said thank you for your perspective. The world will watch how we listen to each other as well.

  • PJ

    C&C Admin.
    I had no problem with your rhetorical statement. It flowed directly into the following question, which refuted it and should have been easily understood.
    Maybe some of the problem in talking about hell and damnation is our society’s whole perception of sin, hell, damnation and Satan. While horrible movies obviously portray demon possession and other manifestations of evil spirits, it is done for pure shock value in order to sell tickets. There is no redemptive message there. Satan is still a guy with a long pointed tail and a pitchfork.
    As to sin, the conclusion is that no one wants to look in the mirror to see the sin within themselves, so they quote probably the only Bible verse that they know “Judge not lest you be judged”. And they will point fingers and shout that we have no right to force our Puritanical religion down their throats. They are blithely unaware that what they accuse Christians of doing, they do everyday. “The Bible is archaic and hateful” “Society has changed and the Bible just doesn’t apply to us”. Their actions are more like a child that plugs up his ears and says “lalalalalala” real loudly so he doesn’t have to hear what is being said.
    Even with all of this, how can we take part in social justice activities if all of our work is only aimed at the temporal body of those we are aiding? So what if we feed them, if we don’t also wake up and feed their souls? What good will a full belly be to someone who the very day they are fed, dies and has to face a Holy God? We are failing in true compassion if we do not include the message that God is a Holy God and will not tolerate sin in His presence. While that could be terrifying in itself, the message that God would not even tolerate His own Son when Jesus became sin for us and died to save us. If we just portray God in His graciousness and mercy without also sending the message that we come to Him with fear and trembling because of our fallen nature, we aren’t telling the truth about God.

    • rafa

      I totally agree with you PJ. Perhaps the problem is we rely too much ON OURSELVES instead of the Spirit to find the balance in presenting a Gospel message that is pure to the source, in a format people can receive. Throughout the New Testament we find countless examples of the same message, including the righteousness of God and our fallen, hopeless nature, presented by Jesus and the apostles in a way people would receive and would not “cut off their ears”.
      Blessings.

  • adriene

    But there are not ONLY 2 options when considering what Jesus taught and believed about hell. How about this one:

    3. When Jesus spoke of destruction, Gehenna, hell, the grave, and Hades, he did NOT always mean “eternal concious torment in a lake of fire of the souls of everyone who doesn’t receive me as personal Lord and Savior.” (Even if our doctrine assumes that is what He meant)

    And if we stop reading that meaning back into the text, we can take seriously the words and work of Jesus, but ask some questions about doctrine.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      That was the point of my option 2, Adriene. Granted that Jesus at least seems to believe in an eternal torment in hell, the options facing the universalist (who is committed to the proposition that there is no eternal torment in hell – at least not for all people in this category) are (logically) either: Jesus was wrong, or Jesus didn’t really believe in (or teach) an eternal torment in hell, but we have been taught to read it that way.

      I obviously didn’t communicate this very clearly, and for that I apologize.

      -Tim

  • Tiff

    PJ,

    “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” – St Francis of Assisi

    Matthew 25:31-46

    When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations 15 will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous 16 will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    People are drawn to Christianity when they see Christians behaving differently than other people. You can preach the word of God until you’re blue in the face, but if they don’t see something different in you that they’re drawn to; then they have no reason to believe you over the agnostic next door.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Randy

    Tim,

    In addition to your list, I wonder how this episode could inform our understanding and practice regarding (a) the communal nature of the practice of theology, (b) the role of ‘authority’ in the evangelical practice of public theology and (c) the place of the non-denominational pastor in these settings.

    It seems to me that theology is properly done in service to the church, whether in the academy, in the church or in the public sphere. And that accordingly, somehow, there needs to be a larger community that weighs in without namecalling but also without people screaming “foul.”

  • http://facebook.com/natecrary Nate

    I am always humbled by God’s love, and yet I want to box it in. I want to describe it and understand it. Maybe it’s not for me to understand or box in. These words help me to let go and honor the possibility of God’s love:

    being to timelessness as it’s to time,
    love did no more begin than love will end:
    where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
    love is the air the ocean and the land

    (do lovers suffer?all divinities
    proudly descending put on deathful flesh:
    are lovers glad?only their smallest joy’s
    a universe emerging from a wish)

    love is the voice under all silences,
    the hope which has no opposite in fear:
    the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
    the truth more first than sun more last than star

    –do lovers love? why then to heaven with hell.
    whatever sages say and fools,all’s well

    ee cummings

  • Paul

    I’ve only read Bell’s interview transcript (you posted the other day) and seen the video (not read the book). However it seems that you and Bell are not in the same conversation.

    I’m trying to put my hands on the disconnect…perhaps its that you seem to label Bell, then have conversation with that traditional label (universalist…or whatever it is you think Bell ‘is’). Its honestly a bit befuddling, but perhaps its just a modernist vs post-modernist dilemma. Thanks for engaging…and as long as you (and we together) continue then I can imagine a hopeful outcome.

    Your use of the word love also stood out for me. You seem to posit that love requires we be ‘truthful’ about what we believe. Perhaps, but Jesus describes love from a different angle. As you know He says “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” To me it presuppose that in expressing love we’re in actual relationship with another.

    So to speak more plainly, when I offer something that costs me dearly and is valuable to my friend I notice our actual relationship grows deeper. I’m just thinking outloud, but when presenting doctrinal or objective ‘truth’ to my friend I wonder if I’d witness the same result? And that makes me wonder the motivation in these conversations?

    Thanks again!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Paul, in this post, I was mostly trying to abstract from the question of Bell’s book and deal with the general issues of universalism, hell, and the ethics of Christian conversation. So you’re right, in that sense, that I was dealing more with a label than with Bell himself. Since I had not yet finished reading Bell’s book, I wanted to focus on the general issues.

      It’s certainly an extraordinary demonstration of love to lay down your life for another person. And I do believe that a person, when possible, should address another person directly and compassionately when he believes that person is wrong. In a case like this, where Bell is making claims publicly, there is a concern not only for his sake but for the sake of those who might be misled by his teaching. So the motivation is that people, including Rob Bell but also the many thousands who will listen to him, should know the truth that liberates us to find true life in God.

      Now, don’t assume that you know what I believe quite yet. I’m offering some points and arguments on both sides here.

  • John

    If Rob Bell is right, and there is some eventual reconciliation of all mankind with God at some point in eternity future – why would Jesus have said of Judas that it would be better if he had never been born? (Matt. 26:24, Mk. 14:21)

  • John

    that is, “better for him” – that is Judas.

  • http://www.daflew.com daflew

    Interesting to see so many Pharisees of the Law discuss the execution from a modern day perspective. Yall studied what happened 2000 years ago and have still missed the message and prolly the first wave of the second coming.

  • Sara

    I very much enjoyed your post. Clear, well-written and very loving. The controversy surrounding this book has made me very concerned that the Church is just giving people another reason to think of us as hateful and querulous. I hope that many people will feel the same as you and keep in mind that the world is watching and they are meant to know we are Christians by our love.

  • Bob Myers

    Excellent article that serves all the participants in the discussion. This is exactly the kind of writing that strengthens the Christian community.

    Thank you for pointing out that discernment and convictions are not hate. And thank you for pointing out that questioning whether we have understood Jesus correctly is not equal to unbelief. In both situations, we can cross the line into hate or unbelief, but the solution is not to refuse to discern, or to ask honest questions.

    May God bless the work you are doing at Patheos.com

    As a pastor, I am grateful for this resource!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for the comments, Bob, and the encouragement!

      -Tim

  • Kevin

    I find it most interesting you think the Team Hell blog was disrespectful. I found it to be largely accurate, or at least so in a couple of instances.

  • John

    HHmm.. I happened to look at my Bible today Amazing isn’t it? – I checked out Acts 17:10-15 Paul in Berea. The Bereans (more fairminded)received Paul’s words with readiness and SEARCHED the Scriptures Daily to find out whether these things were so.. (Their Scriptures were the OT by the way)You noticed that I emphasised the word SEARCHED! First thing we must do is to listen to what is being said and then to check it out with scripture. We are not to be foolish! We seem to talk about what some one else says about scripture. Maybe WE should GO to SCRIPTURE and see what IT says!! DOES it agree with what Mr. Bell says. If not then what should we do? Guess what? Scripture tells us what we should do.

    Hey take a look at Proverbs 30:5-6 “Every word of God is pure” – (every word? even the ones I don’t like?) “He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to his words, Lest He reprove you , and you be found a liar.” Well now it seems that God does tell us something. Let’s take a look at what Mr. Bells says in the LIGHT of SCRIPTURE and not with our own feelings about what we want to believe or what we want scripture to say. If he, Mr. Bell, does not follow God’s Word then he will be found a liar. If he does follow God’s Word then he FOLLOWS God’s Word. See Proverbs 30:5-6 Deut 4:2 Rev 22:18-19 Deut 12:32 These verses talk about how we are to address God’s Word.

    Oh look what I found I Thes 5:21 ..”Test all things HOLD FAST what is good.” HHmm.. maybe I should check out what others are teaching..Or I could go to the blogs and see what others are saying. I John 4:1-6 “..test the Spirits whether they are of God,”… Check out what is being said for YOURSELF WITH SCRIPTURE! Test it with Scripture! Examine Scripture to see if what is being said is of God or if the prophet presumes to speak a word in God’s name but God has not commanded him to speak it the prophet speaks presumptuously – Deut 18:20-22 Hey look at this I am using Scripture and not my own feelings…

    So What does Mr. Bell actually say? Have you read what he says? If so, have YOU TESTED it with scripture? God’s Love Heaven Hell what does the Bible actually say about it? Do you know? If not, why don’t you actually read it for yourself??!!

    Why should we read it ourselves? Why should we search the scriptures for what a teacher teaches??

    See Jude 3-4 well the whole book of Jude
    2 John -
    I John 4 whole chapter
    2 Peter 1:19 and all of chapter 2
    Titus 1:9-16
    2 Tim 4:1-5

    I could go on and on so the moral of this story. Check it out for yoursleves with God’s Word. When was the last time you actually read your Bible? When you do…

    May Christ give you wisdom understanding and discernment.

    Just a regular guy who tries to follow Jesus and is so discouraged with those who claim Christ.


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