Rob Bell does a masterful job of shaking the foundations of the modern theology of human destiny in his new book entitled Love Wins.1 He exposes the fact that much of what people say about salvation and human destiny is not based on the Bible, therefore does not hold up to the scrutiny of direct questioning. He dares to ask direct questions – many of them.
His tactic is similar to that of knocking down base cards in someone’s house of cards. A house of cards can be an enormous thing, but it is only as strong as the first few cards one lays out. Those base cards serve as the foundation. If they are stable, one can build fortresses out of flimsy cards upon them. But topple those base cards and the entire thing falls apart. Bell’s identified some flimsy base cards in modern theology: the idea that only professing believers will go to heaven and its corollary that all others will suffer in hell forever.
He attacked those familiar base cards by appealing to scripture after scripture to show that the Bible addresses very different issues. He wanted to show that the whole of modern theology about human destiny was built upon assumptions that do not come from the Bible. He accomplished that mission. Each chapter in the book identifies a presupposition, and then proceeds to topple it by going to the text of scripture and comparing the presupposition to what scripture actually says. In short, Bell does theology and he does it well.
Nevertheless, Bell’s book is destined to be much maligned. He has taken on subjects which are practically taboo for evangelical Christians. “Heaven when you die” and “conscious eternal suffering for the lost” are concepts that are too holy for most good church people to investigate. Expect Bell to be branded a hopeless Universalist. Expect retaliation. Expect The DaVinci Code all over again.
…And rightfully so. Any good theologian worth his or her salt makes a difference. Bell has swung a pendulum, and one should expect the thing to swing back in the other direction. Paul told the Corinthians that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”2 Bad theology can mobilize good theology.
With that in mind, let me tell you where I think Bell has it wrong. He spends numerous pages showing that the gospel message is not about going to heaven when you die – then he puts the saved in heaven when they die. He can do no other, because for Bell (and most of his opponents) the human soul has to live eternally somewhere. Bell sweeps away all of the scriptural evidence that he has amassed against the concept that heaven is a destination. In the end, he says what he has been arguing against.
He agrees with his opponents that all human beings are immortal, except that, unlike them, he argues that their immortality gives human beings hope for restoration to God even after their bodies die. He argues from scripture that God is love and therefore never gives up on his own. So, as long as there is life, there is hope. He argues for the concept of future probation on the basis of two premises: God never stops loving, and human beings never stop living.
Herein is the problem: none of Bell’s opponents want to deny either of those premises. They believe that God is both loving and just. They want to agree with what the Bible says about his love, but not forget that it gives equal time to his wrath. When they talk about Judgment Day, they envision that it will be just that – a day in which God will judge humanity, and determine the eternal fate of everyone. They cannot envision a Judgment Day that extends to however many years and centuries needed to purge humanity of all sin and rescue all. Hence, they must believe that death seals the fate of all.
The all important doctrine that Bell and most of his opponents agree upon is the concept of innate immortality: that all humans are born immortal. That doctrine will lead Bell’s opponents to insist on eternal conscious suffering in hell for the lost. It leads Bell to insist that a loving God would never condemn people to such a fate for a limited life of sin; therefore he must give opportunity for restoration.
Allow me then – in Rob Bell fashion – to suggest that it is that presupposition that keeps both Bell and his opponents from seeing what the Bible says about the destiny of the lost. The Bible says that only God is immortal.3 Immortality is a promise from God that Christ will give to the saved – it is not an innate characteristic of every human.4 For anybody to live anywhere forever, they must have eternal life. Eternal life is promised to the saved only.5
What, then, is the destiny of the lost? The God of justice who gave us his truth in his word has decreed that the lost will be destroyed.6 Since the wages of sin is death, they will die.7 They will be appropriately punished according to the decree of a God who is both loving and just, and then they will be no more.8 They have been granted one life to live. That one life is a gift of grace from God. Nobody deserves to live forever. God is under no obligation to give unbelievers an eternal life, either to suffer, or to repent. He is sovereign, and if he has decided that the wages of sin is death, no theologian has the right to convert the sentence.
Bell wrote a book about a victory. He envisions an eternity in which all sin is forgiven, all wrongs are righted, and love wins. He is absolutely right. Love will win because God will win. God will win because he is God, not because he is love. His love and justice work together to produce a heaven and earth without evil. Our participation in that victory is not a given. Some will not make it. That is what it ultimately means to be lost. In the end, God wins. Reader, where do you stand before God? Don’t take his patience for granted.
- Rob Bell, LOVE WINS: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. (Robert H. Bell, Jr. Trust, 2011).
- 1 Corinthians 11:19.
- Romans 1:23; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16.
- Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:53-54; 1 Timothy 1:10.
- Matthew 25:46; John 3:15-16, 36; 4:14; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68, 10:28; 12:25; Acts 13:46, 48; Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:22; 1 Timothy 6:12; 1 John 5:11; Jude 1:21.
- Matt. 10:28; 22:7; Luke 17: 27, 29; 20:16; 1 Cor. 3:17; 6:13; 15:24, 26; Heb. 10:39; 2 Peter 2:12; Rev. 11:18.
- Matt. 21:41; John 5:24; 8:51; Romans 6:16, 23; 1 Cor. 15:26, 54; James 5:20; 1 John 3:14; Rev. 21:8.
- Psalm 104:35; Ezekiel 26:21; 27:36; 28:19.