Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell

Rob Bell’s most recent book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived continues to make waves, both inside and outside churchy circles. Of this writing, it still ranks in the top 25 of Amazon.com’s best seller list, and I couldn’t help but notice a few Facebook posts this past week along the lines of, “I guess Rob Bell thinks Osama bin Laden is in heaven.”

Bell has restarted a much needed theological discussion. (He is hardly the first person to question the the place of hell in Christian thought, and he won’t be the last).  And if you’ve read this blog before, you know I believe firmly in keeping conversations going.  I enjoy them; they also help keep bullets nestled safely inside their chambers.

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, I’d like to offer my own thoughts on the subject of heaven and hell.  The text below is of a sermon I delivered in January of 2010, which was a revision and expansion of another sermon originally preached in the spring of 2005.  I believe it stands among my best work, though it is hardly the final word on the subject. Nor should it be.  Faith should be like Christ: alive.  To say that Bell or I or any mortal has the final word on any matter of faith is to, in effect, declare the matter dead.  So, let’s keep the conversation going–and resist the urge to enclose heaven, hell, Rob Bell, or anything else in a theological tomb. Especially during Easter.

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One Tuesday afternoon, this sermon literally walked into my office. I was sitting at my desk sifting through my e-mail when the church secretary came in to introduce me to a woman whom I’ll call “Martha.”  “Martha” is Jewish and said she lived just a couple of blocks from the church.  She told me she periodically came by when she was out jogging to pick up copies of my sermons, which sit on top of the white bookcase just outside the main office door.  I was very flattered to hear that someone was actually interested in reading my manuscripts, especially someone who didn’t attend worship.

Then “Martha” told me why she was reading them, and why she had always done it quietly.  She said that for a number of years she had been scared of Christians.  The first Christian she ever spoke to had told her that the basis of Christianity is that all of us are destined to burn in hell unless we believe in Jesus as our personal Savior. When she told this man she was Jewish, he told her point blank: “You are going to burn in hell unless you become a Christian.”  He then went on to tell her that her brother, who died as a teenager, is currently burning in hell because he didn’t know Jesus when he died.  “Well, what about the six million Jews Hitler killed in the Holocaust?” she shot back.  “Them, too,” he said.  “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you are going to hell because that’s what the Bible says.”  She looked at me and said, “I’ve been reading your sermons because I wanted to find out if it was true.  I wanted to know if that’s what Christianity really teaches: that heaven is an apartheid state where Christians are the chosen race and the rest of us are systematically rounded up by God and condemned to Auschwitz.”

I was floored.  We chatted in the hall outside my office for quite some time and, in short, the answer I gave her was “no,” that’s not what Christianity is all about.  There are passages in the New Testament, especially Revelation and sections of the gospels, where images of fiery damnation are certainly present.  However, I didn’t think that is the stock to which you can boil down the message of Christianity or that those texts can be excerpted as a sort of Cliff’s Notes for the faith.  Obviously, some Christians do see those passages as the essential message of the gospel; but to me that hardly qualifies as Good News.  I told her I firmly believe that Christ’s life and ministry were much more about the hope, peace, and joy of God’s redemptive love for us than His intent to punish us for our sin, wickedness, and disobedience.  Jesus’ words from the cross were “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” not “Father, fry the little vermin for doing this to me.”

“Martha” thanked me for my time and left with a book about Baptists from my library, which I hoped would give her a clearer picture of our particular branch of Christianity at the very least.  But even as she descended the stairs and disappeared around the corner, my conversation with her sat like a rock in my soul.  I was grieved that our discussion was needed, that the gospel she knew was one of fear rather than love.  I also wasn’t satisfied with some of the answers I had given her.  Many of her inquiries had sunk their nails deep into my theology.  By the time I returned to my desk, my faith was bleeding questions. The central question trickling down the side of my belief system was this: is it really possible to maintain a distinctively Christian perspective on God, faith, and the world without promoting heaven as an apartheid state, where Christians are the chosen race and God, like Hitler, ships the rest of human kind off to the spiritual equivalent of Auschwitz?

On the one hand, as the old hymn says, I believe in the wideness of God’s mercy.  I believe God loves us, that He desires communion with all His creatures, that He wants us all to live the fullest life we possibly can and to experience the wonder of being made in His image.  Moreover, I believe He wants it bad enough to have walked the earth in our shoes.  As the psalmist wrote, “…You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86.15).  Thus, I cannot believe that there are men and women living in the mountains of Nepal or in the steppes of Siberia who are destined for damnation simply because some Western missionary never reached them to tell them about Jesus; or that the infants in the neo-natal ICUs of the world will surely become fuel for Satan’s stove unless our modern medicine can save them so that they can grow up to make a decision for Jesus in a worship service or at a youth camp.

Yet, on the other hand, I believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  I believe that He was God incarnate, both fully human and fully divine; that He was crucified, died, and was buried and on the third day rose again; that there is salvation through Christ.  And those things matter.  If my faith has any real meaning, those things matter.  If that tomb was empty on Easter morning, then any religion or philosophy that says it wasn’t has to be way off the mark; and if it wasn’t really empty, then Jesus isn’t who the New Testament says He is and we are way off the mark.  As Paul writes, if Christ has not been raised, then our faith is in vain (1 Corinthians 15.13-14). Thus, it’s equally hard for me to believe that all other paths to salvation are on par with Christianity.  At a foundational level, we are either very right or very wrong.  If we are right, then the implication has to be that everybody else is wrong.  And if you can be wrong and still be rewarded for being wrong (i.e. going to heaven), then what’s the point? Why bother putting forth the effort to follow the Christian path?  For that matter, why did God go through all the trouble to lay down a Christian path in the first place? “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6).  Furthermore, if we need salvation, as Christianity clearly teaches, salvation from what?  The very concept of salvation necessitates the need to be saved from some kind of undesirable state or situation.  And if we fail to receive that salvation, what happens?  Nothing?  Well, that’s hardly salvation.  Something?  Well, it must not be pleasant.

So, I went back and took a look at some of those “lake of fire” passages—the ones that appear in just about every evangelical tract on the market. There are more references to “fire” and “hell” in the New Testament than I wish there were, and the phraseology of those references is very blunt.

For example, while speaking of the end of the age in Matthew 13, Jesus explains, “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13.40-42).  While speaking of the final judgment a little later in Matthew 25, Jesus declares, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’; and these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25.31-33, 41-46).  In Luke 12, Jesus even goes so far in one conversation with His disciples as to say, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12.49-50).

The Apostles aren’t any more lenient in their writings.  Peter says, “By the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the Day of Judgment and destruction of the godless” (2 Peter 3.5-7).

And Paul.  Paul practically foams at the mouth at certain points when speaking of the fate that awaits non-Christians: “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed” (2 Thessalonians 1.4-10).

As I read and re-read these texts, and others like them, I thought, “Could this really be what ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to Father except though me’ comes down to, even for fatally-ill teenagers; even for helpless victims of tyranny?  Is this the Good News we claim in Christ?”

On the surface, the answer would appear to be, yes.  Like it or not, such acrid statements of damnation are part of the Bible.  We cannot ignore them, nor can we dismiss them.  HOWEVER, a surface reading of a handful of passages will not suffice.  Just as we cannot ignore these texts while reading the rest of scripture, we also cannot ignore the rest of scripture while reading these texts.  Like all passages, these statements must be read carefully and read in context.  When we do that, I think we see a balance between the reality of God’s judgment and the steadfastness of His love in the pages of scripture that challenge the practice and the premise of fear-based evangelism that declares: “unless you believe, you’re gonna burn.”

First, while these passages all speak to the fact that there will be judgment, that God will not allow sin and wickedness to have the final word, and that God will save some but not all people, the judgment to be passed comes from God, not from us.  It falls under God’s jurisdiction, not ours.  Nowhere in Scripture does God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit give us the authority or the permission to make declarations about who will and will not be saved when all is said and done.  In all the passages we have considered, that is His call and His call alone.  In fact, Jesus had some harsh words for a couple of disciples who thought they did have the authority and permission to make such a judgment. In the Gospel according to Luke, messengers of Jesus are not well received when they enter a village of the Samaritans to prepare a place for Jesus to stay.  When James and John witness this, they ask Jesus, “Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  Jesus’ words are not recorded, but Luke says tersely, “He turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9.51-55).

Second, while these passages and many others in the New Testament unambiguously point to salvation through Christ, there is as much (if not more) language about salvation for the oppressed and condemnation for the oppressors in these particular texts as there is about deliverance for Christians and damnation for non-Christians.  If anything, these sections of scripture underscore the fact that there is more to the Christian faith than religious affiliation or rational assent to the reality of Jesus’ Messiahship.  The evil spirits in the gospels recognize that Jesus is the Christ! (e.g. Mark 1.23-25).   If simple recognition of who Christ is was not enough to separate the disciples from the demons in Jesus’ day, it cannot be enough to separate the sheep from the goats on the Last Day. Even Paul, in his venomous statement about the coming judgment of the godless, says that Jesus will inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel, not those who do not believe in the gospel.  Thus, there is much more than theology involved here.  Christ said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7.21).  That statement certainly leaves open the possibility that God’s mercy does indeed extend beyond our verbal and mental expressions of faith, as do Christ’s words in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  The sheep to be let into paradise are the ones who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, nursed the sick, and visited the imprisoned, and thus unknowingly cared for Christ—not the ones who ardently believed in Him!  We would do well to make note of that.

As Christians, our belief in Christ is the basis of our faith. If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10.9).  But our belief is not and cannot be the extent of our faith. As James so eloquently said, “Faith without works is dead,” not because we are saved by works but because faith is a call to imitate Christ, not to memorize and regurgitate doctrines. Faith is as much about practice as it is about profession.  Indeed, our faith profession is only made valid through our faith practice.  And if we are to authentically practice our faith, it is vitally important that our Christian ministry and our Christian witness strike a balance between the reality of God’s judgment and the steadfastness of God’s love.

I do not believe that we can faithfully bear witness to God if we place undue weight on one side of this theological scale.  But all of us are guilty of doing it.  We tend to favor either faith or works. And the reason we are guilty of doing it, I think, is that,  by and large, we Christians have come to view faith as something we have as opposed to something we live.  Thus, we are prone to align ourselves with God as merchants rather than as prophets, managers rather than as disciples, and we have come to see our churches as franchises rather than as fellowships. And because we view faith as a possession instead of a pilgrimage, we are guilty of flaunting that faith as an ornament of divine privilege to distinguish the spiritually rich from the spiritually poor rather than utilizing it as an instrument of heavenly peace to sow redemption and reconciliation in a dry and impoverished world.

In order to restore equilibrium to our faith witness, we have to start living our beliefs and let God mind the scales and manage the store. We also need to realize that the twin realities of God’s judgment and God’s love apply to us as well as to others.

On the judgment side, we need to return to the habit of fearing God.  Judgment is coming and the God of the Bible isn’t One to be trifled with.  He’s not some spaced out hippie floating on a tie-dyed cloud somewhere droning on about love and peace.  He prohibits us from certain things: you shall not kill, you shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not have any other gods before me (Exodus 20.1-17).  And He requires certain things of us: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him (Micah 6.8).  We need to be mindful of all these things and prophetically work to make others mindful of them as well.

However, part of walking humbly is admitting that at the heart of faith is a mystery that we cannot fully articulate. At the end of the day, we do not and cannot understand how it all works because we are not God, and both judgment and salvation can come only from God.  Therefore, we must resist the temptation to call fire down from heaven upon certain people or groups of people, because that’s not our prerogative and we don’t have authority or permission to do that.

What we can articulate is how God through Christ has worked and continues to work in our lives. That’s where the love side comes in.  We should share that loving presence, celebrate it, and not be ashamed of it.  We should proclaim the Good News and bear witness to all that we have seen and heard in our faith walk.  We should want others to experience the love and salvation we have experienced.  We also need to keep Christ’s commandments, because that’s what He said we would do if we truly love Him—all of them, not just the ones that come naturally or make sense. We especially need to love God with all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves because Jesus said that is the greatest commandment—the commandment from which all the law and the prophets hang.

To this end, I think the closing lines of Second Corinthians are very instructive for us.  This letter is one of the most contentious epistles Paul wrote during the course of his ministry.  At the time of his writing, the survival of the church at Corinth was hanging in the balance.  The congregation was suffering from internal conflict, lashing out at Paul and each other.   In this letter, Paul touches on a number of topics that are still the subject of institutional and theological debate today—the need for reconciliation and repentance, the issue of marriage between believers and unbelievers, the obligation of the church to give generously from their wallets, the difference between false apostles and true apostles.  But at the end, after speaking very frankly in support of his positions and arguing fiercely against opposing view points, Paul sets forth the things he really wants the Corinthians to take away from the letter:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice. Set things right, speak words of encouragement; live in harmony of mind; live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen” (2 Corinthians 13.11-13, my translation).

This is what Christian fellowship—and Christian faith—should be about, more so than all the theological wrangling and the proposition making.  It should be about a way of living, recognizing that God does set forth requirements, but also forgives.  It should be about community based on the grace of Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit flowing through the congregation and seeking to draw in, rather than on the threat of damnation seeking to drive out.  It should be about loving thy neighbor as thyself to the point of exchanging holy kisses, not about defending thy interpretation to the point of pushing aside any and all who disagree.  In short, it should be about all that “If you love me, keep my commandments” encompasses and entails.  And such healing and redemptive relationship to God and to one another, living in harmony of mind, where there is no male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free because we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3.28) bears positively no resemblance to apartheid, and is the antithesis of Auschwitz.

May God have mercy upon us all in His judgment and be gracious to us in His steadfast love. Amen.

Leave a comment


  1. michelle

     /  May 6, 2011

    Thanks for the thoughtful and compelling commentary. I read “Love Wins” this week and have been eager to hear additional thoughts.


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