Rob Bell and Hell

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, March 4th, 2011

The Bell saga, which is only a “saga” in the 24-hour news cycle world in which we live, continues. In light of the chorus of voices surrounding Bell’s statements that “love wins” and his casting doubt on someone’s certainty that Gandhi is in hell, I thought I would say a few words about hell, and then point you to the long discussion of hell by Jason Wermuth on this site, which begins here. My aim is simply to set forth some basic ideas that all synergists would embrace because I think the Bell saga provides a nice moment to reflect on these ideas.


It may be worth recalling at the outset that all synergists (Wesleyans, Arminians, Orthodox, etc.) begin from the perspective that the atoning work of Christ is universal in scope, if not in application. “For God so loved” (John 3:16) is understood to mean that God’s love reaches out equally to all individuals on the cross, which is a different starting point than the Reformed claim that the atonement is limited in scope. This may seem basic, but it is important because it presumes that God does not want anyone to perish and the corollary that God does not directly will to send individuals to hell.

A second corollary of this point is that synergists usually think that there will be more people in heaven than Reformed folks do although there are clear and important exceptions. For example, because of his eschatology and in light of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards thought that there would be many persons whom God would bring to heaven through his electing grace. Reformed folks in the revivalist stream tend to be more optimistic about the numbers of God’s elect than those not in the revivalist stream.

Human Freedom

Synergists also affirm that humans may reject divine love in action, which is why the atonement is universal in scope but not in application. For the sake of simplicity, synergists affirm that the Spirit generates the movement of faith within the individual and thus can hold that faith is a gift. At the same time, there are multiple movements of emotion and desire that emerge in the context of making decisions for Christ. Thus, the individual in whom faith emerges from the Spirit now must decide what internal movement to follow. Will the individual follow the movement of faith or will the individual follow another internal movement of emotion and desire? Examples of other movements of emotion and desire are the desire to go home, the desire to continue in a lifestyle that must be given up to embrace Christ, the fear of the implications of the decision to become a Christian, etc.

We can add then to the idea that the atonement is universal in scope and thus God does not directly will to send individuals to hell that God indirectly (allows) individuals to go to hell. This is nothing more than saying that God directly wills to act in concert with free agency. Theologians will talk about the difference between what God actively wills and what God passively wills, but by passively wills is usually meant God not directly willing that something be the case.

Divine Judgment and Hell

Most Christians have affirmed that hell is an enduring reality, but that this reality was not intended for humans at all. Instead, hell was to be a place for fallen angels (Matt. 25:41). Even within Reformed circles there is a strong reluctance to presume that anyone is or is not elect. This implies that there should be a reluctance on the part of all Christians to make speculations as to what human beings may be consigned to a place not designed for them. It is simply the better part of humility not to put oneself in the position of God when considering someone’s final destiny. I could easily call into question anyone who attempted to play God by saying that “this person is in hell.” No human being knows with certainty who will be in hell because that would require that humans could know God’s mind and the state of each human heart. When Rob Bell questions whether someone knows for certain that Gandhi is in hell it could easily be merely a pastoral concern that Christians stop playing God on the eternal destiny question.

Hell also may be less a physical location and more a state of being. When Protestants came along, they tended to say that all sin is the same and thus any unforgiven sin will put you into hell. This conclusion was reached by focusing almost exclusively on guilt in reference to sinful actions rather than on the condition of sin that emerges from sinful action.

Until that point, the focus was more on the way in which human choices impacted the condition or state of humans. Thus the individual who lies repeatedly will turn himself into a liar, i.e., one who has the character of a liar or who has cultivated a pattern of behavior that now inclines him to lie. Choices and actions are related to character. You can see this in Dante’s vision of hell with its multiple layers or rings. The degree of judgment is really related to the character of the individual in question (I might note that the annihilationist position within evangelicalism is in part an attempt to return to this view and place it alongside of the classic Christian understanding of evil as non-existence).

C.S. Lewis, who was a professor of medieval literature, actually embraced this view and articulated it in his sermon “The Weight of Glory.” Lewis contended that there are no ordinary people because every human being is either on his way to becoming a being so glorious and beautiful that we would be strongly tempted to worship this being should we see it, or a being so heinous and deformed that we would not want to meet this being even in our darkest nightmares. The point is that humans either cooperate with God to become beautiful by developing righteous characters or they resist God and become deformed by developing sinful characters. The focus is on the condition that results from sinful actions, not on the guilt associated with each sinful act.

From this perspective, people in a sense create their own hell because they shape their own destiny. If this is the case, then divine judgment is more about God allowing (not directly willing) individuals to live with the consequences of their choices. It is analogous to, “if that’s who you want to be, then I won’t stand in your way.” This may be what Paul had in mind when he talked about God “giving individuals over” to their own devices (Rom. 1:26, 28). This is also what may be meant by divine wrath–the turning over of individuals to the life they have created. This is certainly one way of reconciling “for God so loved” with “the wrath of God.”

Where do these ideas put us?

  • God does not directly will that anyone go to hell because a) the atoning work of Christ is universal in scope and b) hell is designed for fallen angels
  • God indirectly wills (allows) individuals to determine their own destiny and thus to live with the life they have created
  • Hell is about living with a reality that humans have themselves brought about through their own choices (a condition or state of spiritual deformity through misshapen character)
  • Humans ought not to put themselves into the place of God when considering the final destiny of any other human being
If Bell’s view is somewhere along the lines of this post, then he is firmly within the orbit of orthodoxy. I find it interesting that Mark Galli at Christianity Today, who has read the book, has this to say: (To be fair, in my reading of an advance copy of Bell’s book, I didn’t see universalism, though there are statements that lean in that direction. He clearly says that God’s love can be “resisted and rejected and denied and avoided,” and that doing so “is a form of punishment of its own” and “an increasingly unloving hellish reality.” Sound familiar?

Tags: , , , ,

Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, March 4th, 2011 at 9:10 am and is filed under Spiritual Formation, Theology, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

8 Responses to “Rob Bell and Hell”

  1. Jason Wermuth says:

    Thanks Dr. Coulter for this very thoughtful post. You make some excellent points. It is ironic that it is likely the same folks who would jump to judgment about Ghandi’s place in hell that would jump to judgment about a book they have not read.

    Thanks also for the plug.

    The interested reader might also find these following posts I wrote helpful (or at least a healthy alternative to sleeping pills):

    Hell Part 1:

    Hell Part 2:

    Hell Part 3:

    Hell Part 4:

  2. Tim says:

    Thanks for this post. It is good to see someone addressing underlying theological issues that are at play in this “saga”.

  3. Gene Mills says:

    Thanks Dr Coulter for a very clear, precise and helpful post on what can tend to be a very volatile and complicated subject. Being a synergist myself and reading the history there have always been the fear, among some, of us leaning towards a do-it-yourself salvation. You make it clear that is not the case. Not long ago I read a book titled “No Other Name” by John Sanders. The forward was written by Clark Pinnock. The book deals with the eternal destiny of the un-evangelized. It disturbed me because of its often skating along the edge of Universalism. It asked questions that need to be asked by those of us living in such an inter-connected world; where questions of the eternal destiny of the un-evangelized are thrown into our living rooms by news casts of natural disasters that kill thousands. It is no longer reasonable to cling to traditional knee-jerk responses to such important questions. It is time for a little rocking of our own little worlds so that we may be more effective witnesses in a world that is flooded with information from every side of any issue. By honestly examining our own positions we earn the right to declare that we seek truth above dogmatism.

    • Gene,

      You are right about these moments providing opportunities for a fresh reading of the faith. Historically, this has always been the case. What immediately comes to my mind is the way in which theological reflection was altered by the Black Death when it hit Europe. The sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus loomed large as a way of theologically grappling with the seemingly meaningless death of so many. If our theology does not address the deep issues of life, then what good is it? Or, to put it another way, a theology that cannot handle the tough questions needs to be reformed that it may get a clearer picture of the truth about human existence and its meaning.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Thanks, Dr. Coulter. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

  5. R Hoffman says:

    I am continually amused by the amount of debate that continues around Bell’s new book. The charges of “you haven’t read the book” should certainly be applied to both Bell apologists and detractors alike. To be transparent, March 14th, I attended a speaking engagement at the NY Ethical Society where Bell explained, defended and promoted his positions and his book. I have not read the entire book (I spent 15 minutes skimming through) but I listen to 60 minutes describing his theology and book.

    Here is my contribution to the debate. First Bell’s views on this are not new. When we continue to ask ” have you read it” we assume that his position and views have changed since his last book or since his latest interview. This debate is not so much a debate on the “Love Wins” as it is on Rob Bell’s theology and his potential to influence others.

    What continues to be absent from Bell’s wonderful stories is a definition of sin. Simply mentioning sin or providing examples of what heinous sin looks like is not sufficient to define it. Does all sin determine “where we go” or just the really bad sin as defined by our society. Clearly murder and rape count but what about sleeping with your girlfriend or debauchery. In a Rob Bell theology, how important is repentance (both the sorry and turning)?

    Also absent from his description is the idea of any notion of biblical righteousness. Maybe not everyone feels that righteousness is a necessary component in the salvation process. The theme of righteous living in a Bell theology revolves around “taking care of widows and orphans”. But, is that sufficient for Godly or Biblical righteousness. The greatest commandment has two parts. It’s the first that is brushed past most often because it requires replacing self with God. Is not the first the most important?

    Here in lies the real problem with Bell and his description of God’s plan for saving the world. He, like many others, shift focus from God as center of our relation with Him to “me” as center of our relationship with Him. During the Q&A session that I attended, Bell claimed that our eternal destination is based in large part on our own wants and desires. If a person does not want to go to heaven, God will not force them. That is far enough but the other side as Bell describes is that if you desire to have what God intended for you – you will get it because He loves you. I have a problem with that. Not because I support works but because along with grace, mercy and love come righteousness and yes justice. What we have here (and this not just a Rob Bell problem) is that we all would like to have it both ways. God loves me so I do as much or as little to build a relationship with Him, So what is the problem with that? We are never required to submit to the Lordship of Christ or to God as creator. Now I know that I used two words that seem to get people fired up – submit and Lordship. Replace them with whatever you like but in the end it is all about God! Yes God is love but He is also many other things, all of them perfect because He is God. When we focus on or elevate one of the characteristics of God above all the others we eventually create a false god that is different from the God of the Bible.

    In an interview with Bell earlier in the week, Martin Bashir of MSNBC was not fooled by fancy talk and nice stories – Followers of Jesus should demand truth even that much more. 2 Timothy 4:3

    • Thanks a lot for this perspective. Great stuff! If I can offer a quick rejoinder from the tradition. For Augustine, and many following him in the medieval tradition, you simply cannot sever love and righteousness. The Spirit is the love of God poured out into human hearts to re-order human loves so that humans can now relate correctly to God, themselves, and the world. Righteousness is simply the fruit of love, which is why the 13th century talked about an infused habit of love as the initial creation of righteousness within the individual.

      There is also a well-known line, “love God and do what you want.” It seems provocative on the surface, but a genuine love for God presupposes the regenerating work of the Spirit that turns the heart and makes one want to do what God commands.

      What am I saying here? Part of the problem is that synergists tend to operate in a different framework. Reformed monergists who hold to penal substitution and see everything in terms of justice and mercy tend to equate love with mercy and thus grace becomes unmerited favor. If Bell is a good synergist, and I think he is, then he would gravitate toward love and see it more as a power and thus grace is nothing less than the Spirit poured out.

      Having said all of this, Bell is clearly not a theologian and out of his depth on many of these issues. At the same time, I think you can explain the trajectory he is attempting to function in as an effort to maintain a consistent synergism.