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3.0 out of 5 stars A Hell-Believing Universalist, March 21, 2011
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This review is from: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Hardcover)
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love questions and those who love answers.

Question-lovers focus on the ambiguity and uncertainty of belief. Reality is bigger and more complex than our theories about it. Consequently, we must be humble in the face of mystery, knowing how much we do not know.

Answer-lovers focus on the clarity and certainty of belief. Reality may slip the grasp of theory at the margins, but theory has a firm grip on reality at the center. So, we must act courageously in the world on the basis of what we do know.

Rob Bell loves questions. His critics love answers. This difference between them--a difference that is both temperamental and methodological--illuminates the controversy surrounding Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Bell asks, "Does God get what God wants?"--namely, "all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:4). He further asks, "Do we get what we want?" A "yes" answer to the first question makes you a universalist, that is, a person who believes that God both desires the salvation of all people and realizes that desire. A "yes" answer to the second question makes you a proponent of hell, that is, a person who believes that we can be separated from God for eternity.

A "yes" answer to both questions makes you Rob Bell, a hell-believing universalist.

If that description of Bell strikes you as an oxymoron, you are probably an answer-lover who longs for clarity and certainty. To you, belief in universalism and belief in hell form an incoherent set. Either/or but not both/and.

But Bell is a question-lover comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. God will get what God wants. And we will get what we want. Either way, love wins. "If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins."

Read that quote again. If we want heaven, love wins. If we want wins there too?

In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell. The Christian tradition--Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant--defines hell as the sentence of eternal punishment rendered by God against the unrighteous. One of the source passages for this definition is Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. In that passage, Jesus teaches that he himself will separate the righteous and the unrighteous and render judgment. "Then they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Bell thinks the tradition has misinterpreted Jesus' words in verse 46. There, Jesus contrasts two fates: kolasin ai'nion and z''n ai'nion. The standard English translation of these two phrases is "eternal punishment" and "eternal life," respectively, although the words everlasting and forever occasionally appear instead of eternal. According to Bell, the "word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish." And ai'nion describes either "a period of time with a beginning and an end" or "a particular intensity of experience that transcends time" (emphasis in original). According to Bell, then "the phrase [kolasin ai'nion] can mean `a period of pruning' or `a time of trimming,' or an intense experience of correction."

If the tradition defines hell as eternal punishment, then Bell redefines it as temporal or particularly intense pruning. The former is ultimate and retributive. The latter is penultimate and remedial. What Bell says about the interplay of human sin and divine judgment in the Old Testament captures the gist of what he's saying about hell: "Failure, we see again and again, isn't final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction."

There are several problems with reasoning about hell in this way: First, Bell commits "the root fallacy" when he thinks the root-meaning of kolaz'/kolasin determines its meaning. In the New Testament, kolaz' and kolasin are translated as "punish" and "punishment" in the four instances where they are used (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet. 2:9; and Matt. 25:46, 1 John 4:18, respectively). The root-meaning in and of itself cannot determine whether that punishment is remedial (which is what Bell intends by "pruning" or "trimming") or retributive. Second, the word ai'nion must be translated the same way in both of its instances in Matthew 25:46. If hell is temporal, so is heaven. If hell is an intense experience that transcends time, so is heaven. Obviously, Bell desires to limit the duration of hell, but in doing so, he ends up limiting the duration of heaven at the same time. Third, the problem of citing the Old Testament interplay between human sin and divine judgment is that this interplay is corporate and historical. In other words, it applies to the nation (Israel) or city (Jerusalem), not every citizen or resident. And it applies to that corporate body's experience in this age, not necessarily in the age to come.

Bell doesn't draw a sharp distinction between this age and the age to come. He argues--correctly, forcefully, and with great insight--that they overlap in the present age. (He also argues--again, correctly, forcefully, and with great insight--that our eschatology should shape our ethics.) Theologians describe the overlap as inaugurated eschatology. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ inaugurates "the age to come" in the midst of "this age." In terms of heaven, this means that we can begin to experience "eternal life" right here and right now. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come," Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: "The old has gone, the new is here!" But inaugurated eschatology also applies in terms of hell. Romans 1:18 says, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people." And 2:5 adds, "because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed." According to these verses, right now, we begin to experience either "eternal life" and "new creation" or "wrath" and "judgment."

The New Testament teaches inaugurated eschatology, but it also teaches consummated eschatology. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates, his second coming consummates. Consider, again, Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, which begins this way: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him..." (Matt. 25:31). Or 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed."
Or Revelation 19:11: "I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war." In these passages, and in many others, Christ's return marks a definitive turning point in the relationship between God and his creatures. In the words of the Nicene Creed, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

For Bell, there does not seem to be a definitive turning point, a crisis moment where destinies are finalized. Hell, especially, is temporal and remedial. How long one spends there depends on how long one resists God's love. "Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." Bell draws attention to Revelation 21:25, which says of the New Jerusalem: "On no day will its gates ever be shut." Then he writes: "That's a small detail, and its' important we don't get too hung up on details and specific images because it's possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go." Bell sees this as an image of hope. Those who have chosen hell can choose heaven. Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell? Absent the precipitating event of Christ's second coming and the final judgment, it seems to me that life as Rob Bell portrays it will always be an ongoing struggle between heaven and hell, with no guarantee of a final resolution.

And if that's the case, in what sense does love actually win?
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Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 200 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 21, 2011 5:51:14 PM PDT
I've decided that I would rather be SURE of my salvation and my eternal place in Heaven rather than rely on the hope that Bell could be right about second chances. What if he's wrong? There're a whole lot of sinful people hanging on the hope that it won't be over for them after they die - that God in His mercy will give them another chance.

If Bell's wrong, then he's going to have to do a lot of fast talking to God at Judgment Day.

Posted on Mar 22, 2011 1:33:29 PM PDT
George, am I reading you right in that you believe that there is a Hell and has been a Hell since angels and mankind fell---but a remedial, purging finite one until all of God's creation are finally reconciled? If you believe this, then you are in agreement with the original orthodox catholic belief of a FINAL apocatastasis (or restoration) and complete reconciliation---which the overwhelming majority of church fathers, saints, and martyrs believed in for the first 500 years of the primative church. I hope and pray that as your title of a 'hell-believing universalist' suggests, that you have discovered this eternal truth as I have. I wonder if you have read the exellent book on this subject: "Hope Beyond Hell" by Gerry Beauchemin? It can even be read on-line at Won't you email me back at <> about all this?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2011 1:49:06 PM PDT

I don't think you read my review. I critiqued Rob Bell as "a hell-believing universalist." My own position is that God desires all people to be saved, but some people choose hell over heaven.


Posted on Mar 23, 2011 8:18:57 AM PDT
Great analysis! Through and biblical. You did your homework George! Perhaps you could do a follow up interview.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2011 3:54:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 23, 2011 4:03:35 PM PDT
iwknower says:
George says "In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell" George this is the only statememt that you have said that is true. I pray that those of you who read this realize the true Love of God. "My Father judges no man" All of life hangs on these words of Christ and the church today has totally missed it.

The current evangilical community's definition of hell is wrong. Hell is a place that you live in when your trust is placed in your own volitional ability. When Adam fell he began to believe in himself and that he had personal wisdom and power. As long as anyone believes in his own ability and arogantly proclaims it he is dwelling in hell right now. It has nothing to do with going somewhere when you die. If you go back to do a real study on hell through out scripture you will clearly see a first person, present experience being taught. David and Jonah both said they were already there. Every man that does not understand the Love of God correctly lives there right now. I have never seen anyone come out and come so close to reality as Rob. I am so thankful for his courage to stand up to age old believes of the church when they have been wrong for decades about hell and heaven. Right on Rob!

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2011 5:52:49 PM PDT
Steven Rego says:
I disagree that doctrinal positions have anything to do with salvation, unless it's the one that actually saves you, which is grace through faith.

Posted on Mar 23, 2011 6:06:16 PM PDT
Steven Rego says:
When you said "Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell?"

I agree with a lot of your review, but not this, and it's actually one of the more important points that you are trying to make. The goal is heaven, life is the goal. God created us for life, for righteousness, for light, but we rejected it. There are those who have chosen heaven, and there are those who chose hell, but I also think there are people who mean well but are just plain confused. I could ask you the question: Why would anyone who has already repented change their mind? They have been won over by God. I could whip out in defense of this using Scripture. People who are in heaven are glorified, and are not subject to that denigration and depravity that we as humans currently possess. So I don't think your argument, with all due respect, stands. I think Scripture is on the side of Hell being eternal, but of course I would like to think there is more to the story than we were told.

But to compliment you, I absolutely LOVED when you talked about how there are two different types of people, those who love questions and those who love answers and how each of them have their own 'issues' (or whatever) that they have to deal with. It's true, we need to have a mix of both. I don't consider myself a fundamentalist because the Bible isn't an infinite amount of pages, it's a finite amount of pages with countless details of reality missing. I believe it, but I choose to think that there is more to reality and judgment day than we were told. I don't need all the answers, like Rob Bell, because we don't have them, and I'm not going to create answers just so I 'feel better.' I want answers, but I also ask questions because it puts us on course to think critically, which I think is a Godly pursuit, so long as we recognize that God is in heaven and we are on earth. We need to be humble about it.

And I like how Rob Bell doesn't speak with absolute statements (in many but not all cases). Like for me. I'm also concerned about Buddha. He left hinduism for an honorable purpose, and I feel his heart in a way. I'm sure he knew he was a sinner, he was trying to deal with it I bet, but he didn't know how. From what I know, he may have responded very well to what God HAD revealed to him in nature. The Gospel wasn't at his grasp at the time. These issues are such an issue for so many people, but not for me. Yes, Jesus is the only one that came to reveal truth and that died on the Cross and showed us God, and all judgment is through Him. I totally believe that He will judge rightly, condemn rightly, and pardon rightly, all while being the exclusive God that He is. The bottom line is, we can ONLY speculate, and in this Rob Bell is correct.

Thanks for your review.

Posted on Mar 23, 2011 6:19:47 PM PDT
It seems to me, and I haven't read the book but only the commentary on the book, that Bell is redefining Hell as what we Catholics call Purgatory. The temporary state of suffering to expiate for the lingering affects of sin in order to become worthy to enter heaven. It is a temporary state, fully purgative, and in that sense a suffering intrinsically connected with the hope of unification with God forever.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2011 11:03:38 PM PDT
Jonathan says:
I know a LOT of "Christians" who are so named because they adhere to the right doctrines but their lives are an abomination to God and others. But they are confident that their faith in Jesus has "saved" them. Rob Bell is advocating an adherence to the voice of Jesus to repent and join Him in the Kingdom right NOW out of a LOVE for Christ not a FEAR of hell. Only the LOVE of Christ constrains us to do right and live holy lives. Fear promotes hypocrisy and false motives. God wants us to be free and to obey out of love not fear. Rob Bell is not promoting second chances but asking what are you doing now. He is putting holy fear into our hearts for the God who is at work NOW in this world and wants us to join Him. I think your jumping to the conclusion he is promoting second chances reveals what salvation is all about to you...getting into heaven instead of a salvation FROM sin. Are you on board with a god who is just about getting your self out of hell or the God who wants to make you new and save you from your sin and your false self? Are you more afraid of hell than you are of sin? Most are and that's the real fruit of a doctrine of eternal hell.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2011 6:04:11 AM PDT
My guess is that all of us are going to do some "fast talking" at judgment day about one thing or another.
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Review Details



George P. Wood

Location: Springfield, MO

Top Reviewer Ranking: 832