Sunday, May 29, 2011

An evaluation of Rob Bell, “Love Wins” and Universalism

Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” has hit bookstores amidst great hysteria and ample antagonistic commotion; in the past Rob Bell has been labelled a heretic  by respectable theologians including Albert Mohler, Michael Horton and Mark Driscoll[i], but embracing universalism – the doctrine that all people without exception will be saved - seems the final straw. Chapter four of “Love Wins” is where his universalism is most prominent.

A quick history lesson:

Rob Bell is the pastor at Mars Hill church (unaffiliated with that of Driscoll) and part of the emergent church movement. Some of Rob Bell’s previous ‘teachings’ include: (bracketed content my own)

-          That Genesis is Poetic (the Hebrew & the testimony of the rest of Scripture treat Genesis as literal and historical - Ex. 20:8-11, Jn. 1:1-3, Rom. 5:12-21, Col. 1:16-17)
-          That God the Father is partially female (Every OT and NT name for God is masculine – Elohim, Elyon, Adonai, El-Shaddai, Jehovah, Theos, Kurios, Pater etc.)
-          Denying the neccessity of the Virgin birth "the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus" (Is. 7:14, Mt. 1:23-25, Lk. 1:27-34)
-          Denying the complete sinfulness of mankind "I can't find one place in the teachings of Jesus, or the Bible for that matter, where we are to identify ourselves first and foremost as sinners." (Try Gen. 6:5, Jer. 17:9, Mk. 7:21-23, Jn. 8:34, Rom. 3:10-18, 7:18, Eph. 2:1-3).
-          His Church website states "You won’t find isolated text references or a list of specific propositions in it, because ultimately neither of those things best reflects what we believe about God." (Scripture is the means to know God: Dt. 29:29, Acts 17:11, 1 Cor. 4:6). That quote does actually summarise his beliefs though.
-          Denying the inspiration of Scripture “the Bible is a product of human work, not divine fiat” (2 Sam. 23:2, Jn. 17:17, Acts 1:16, Rom. 3:2, 2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pt. 1:20-21)
-          Denying the sufficiency of Scripture "When people say that all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true” (Dt. 29:29, Ps. 19:7-9, Mt. 4:4, 1 Cor. 4:6, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, 2 Pt. 1:3, Rev. 22:18-19)
Even before the universalism fiasco, Rob Bell was undoubtedly a heretic who honestly should have been exposed long ago to prevent him propelling such heresies worldwide.

On the Attributes of God

So where does universalism originate? Rob Bell and other liberal theologians take 1 John 4:8 “God is love” and use it as a filter for all the other attributes of God, making his wrath, forbearance, holiness etc. all subservient to His attribute of love. Rob Bell is absolutely correct that God is love, but God is not only love; for example Hebrews 12:29 says that “God is a consuming fire” (God is wrath) and Deuteronomy 2:4 says of God “just and upright is He”. The attribute of love is not to filter the other attributes, but each attribute of God is a perfection that constitutes the whole character of God; no attribute is subservient to any other.

When Rob Bell practically argues “God is love, therefore he wouldn’t send anyone to hell”, I could just as easily argue “God is wrath, therefore He won’t send anyone to heaven”. His presupposition about God doesn’t hold. Being the holy and just creator, God is the absolute standard of right and wrong. In other words, sin may be defined as that which lacks conformity to the character of God. Therefore if God is holy, His acts of love must also be holy acts; likewise God’s wrath is a holy wrath against all that lacks conformity to His character.

All men are sinners (Rom. 3:9-11, 23) while Gods nature is one without any darkness (1 Jn. 1:5); and because God is a just God, He cannot let sin go unpunished (Ex. 23:7, Numb. 14:18). Therefore God’s disposition to sinful mankind who lack conformity to His prefect character cannot be love - but must instead be wrath (Eph. 2:3). Because God is holy His wrath rather than His love must abide on the sinner (Jn. 3:36). You cannot separate the sinner from the sin; it is from a sinful nature that man sins – both the sins and the sinner are under the wrath of God (Ezek. 25:14, Nah. 1:2, Ps. 5:5, 11:5, Jn. 3:36, Eph. 2::1-5, 5:6, Col. 3:6). This includes the elect prior to conversion.

In discarding wrath as an attribute of God, Rob Bell believes in a god who is indifferent to sin as this god does not require justice. Protestants believe propitiation that Christ satisfies the righteous wrath of God who positively hates sin (Rom. 5:9-10, 2 Cor. 5:19, Heb.2:17, 1 Jn. 4:10), whereas if God is not a God of wrath, the atonement actually achieved nothing – the situation would be the same if Christ died as if He didn’t. Michael Horton affirms likewise “if there is no wrath or judgment, then whatever Christ achieved for us on the cross cannot be understood in terms of a vicarious substitute. There is no objective propitiation and, since everyone is already God’s friend (regardless of whether God is theirs), no objective reconciliation”[ii].

Furthermore, with God not being wrathful, therefore indifferent to sin, Bell has also dispensed of God’s attributes of patience, mercy, grace and forbearance. The question Rob Bell asked is “Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” Instead, the question he should ask is "how can a holy God manifest his attribute of love to save anyone?"

God is not a filter where everything is subject to His love, or a pie chart where love is a greater attribute, rather He is a God of equally infinite perfections – self-sufficient, immutable, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, wise, good, loving, wrathful, merciful, longsuffering, graceful, holy, righteous, just and faithful. Rob Bell’s ‘loving’ presupposition is absurd.

The Doctrine of Hell

The WCF (Presbyterian) states “The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power”

The Belgic Confession (Dutch Reformed) states “this judgement is justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked and ungodly… the terrible vengeance which God shall execute on the wicked…who shall be convicted by the testimony of their own consciences, and shall become immortal, but only to be tormented in the eternal fire”. The 39 Articles (Anglican) states “for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ…the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation”. Against Bell’s assertion that “heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other”, the reformation confessions, like Scripture, affirm hell will be a literal, eternal and populated place.

Hell manifests God’s attribute of justice; God demands absolute perfection, and when His perfect laws are transgressed He requires justice – eternity in hell is the appropriate punishment for sin against an eternal God. (Mt. 7:23, 25:41, Lk. 12:5, Is. 66:23-24). Hell is a place of continual suffering as eternal punishment under the justice and wrath of God against sinners for their unbelief and sins (Mt. 25:41-46, Rev. 14:10-11). Jesus described hell as a physical and literal place with weeping and gnashing of teeth where the fire will never be quenched (Mt. 13:42, 49-50), with everlasting pain and torment in outer darkness forever (Mt. 8:12, Jude 1:13). Sinners will continue in conscious existence and torment despite desiring annihilation from their misery. (Ps. 50:22, Is. 33:14, Rev. 9:6, 20:10).

It is necessary for hell to be eternal because their sins were against an eternal God by sinners eternally unable to pay their ransom; regardless, those in hell will continue hating and despising God for eternity anyway (Rev. 16:9-11). Hell will be ruled by the Lamb of God (Jesus Christ) – not Satan (Rev. 14:10-11). All in hell will be tormented in the presence of the Lamb and His holy angels (Mt. 25:41), under the wrath of the living God – an all-consuming fire. (Rev. 14:10-11, 20:10; Heb. 10:26-31, 12:29). Upon final judgement the wicked will be cast into the lake of fire as punishment for their sins and unbelief as eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:28-29, 2 Th. 1:9) in a sentence that is irreversible for rejecting Jesus Christ: there is no second chance (Pr. 1:24-31, Heb. 10:26-27, Jn. 14:6). The majority of people will go to hell for despising God, as no one comes to the Father but through Jesus Christ. (Rom. 3:23, Ps. 10:4, Mt. 7:21-23, Lk. 13:23-24, Jn. 14:6).

Rob Bell two other arguments:

Firstly, Bell asks how God could punish men eternally for sins committed during their short and finite time on earth. The answer is that sinners will not cease sinning upon entering hell, but will continue to sin for eternity (Pr. 1:24-31, Rev. 16:9-11). They are also condemned on account of the sin of unbelief (Jn. 3:18, 36, Jude 4), and a sinner in hell could not atone for even one sin anyway, as people are not without blemish or Divine (Heb. 2:17, 4:15)!

Secondly, Rob Bell argues “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end?” This argument can be reconstructed as a syllogism.

Premise 1: God will accomplish all his purpose (Is. 46:9-11)
Premise 2: God by decree wants to save everyone (2 Peter 3:9)
Conclusion: Therefore, all men will be saved.

Here Rob Bell is absolutely correct; if premises one and two were both true then all people would be saved. If premise one is false, then God would not be most glorified (Eph. 1:8-11), but God decrees even “chance events” such as a sparrow landing (Mt. 10:29), so as Is. 46:9-11 states, God “declaring the end from the beginning…will accomplish all His purpose” and “I have purposed, and I will do it”.

The problem is premise two. The following verse refers to God's precept, not God's decree, otherwise you must say that God wants Christians to sin and delights in their disobedience.
The correct Biblical syllogism is:
Premise 1: God will accomplish all His purpose (Is. 46:9-11)
Premise 2: Not everyone will be saved (Mt. 25:46)
Conclusion: Therefore, God did not decree to save everyone (Rom. 9:22)

In conclusion, it is evident that universalism is utterly unbiblical and Rob Bell is a heretic. To quote R.C. Sproul “Hell is an eternity before the righteous, ever-burning wrath of God, a suffering torment from which there is no escape and no relief. The Bible describes hell as a place of outer darkness, a lake of fire, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of eternal separation from the blessings of God, a prison, a place of torment where the worm doesn’t turn or die”.

Matthew 25:46 states “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." If there is not literal people literally spending eternity in a literal hell, then there is not literal people literally spending eternity in a literal heaven either. As Revelation 20:15 states “If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”. Rob Bell preaches a gospel, void of any sense of the holiness of God.

If you do read ‘Love Wins’, be sure to read Michael Horton’s critique and watch how Rob Bell continually appeals to subjective feelings, misinterprets the Greek and fails to deal with opposing arguments. Rob Bell teaches a false gospel; for another example he said “What about people who have never said the prayer[iii] and don’t claim to be Christians, but live a more Christlike life than some Christians?” Rob, these people existed – they are called Pharisees, they did nothing from faith – therefore whatever they did outwardly was sin sin in the eyes of the Lord (Rom. 8:7-8, Hebrews 11:6). Salvation is not attained by keeping the law, but through Christ alone. (Is. 53:11, 1 Pt. 3:18, Rom. 5:9-10, Col. 1:19-20, Gal. 1:4, Eph. 1:7, Matt. 26:28).

John 14:6 “Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me”.

(C), J. Williams, 2010.

[i] While I recognise Driscoll as a believer, I disagree with him on many doctrines. Including him shows a cross-denominational consensus.
[ii] Michael S. Horton, Bell’s Hell: A Review by Michael Horton, Part 6, 2011
[iii] I do not endorse the sinners prayer or recognise it as biblical


  1. I wonder why it is so hard for Rob Bell to see that there are lots of good kind moral people who are not Christians that are damned to hell? Truth be told no matter how good we are, without Christ we are not saved and will not see the light of heaven but the fires of hell. Yes, Hell is a real dwelling place.