Rob Bell is an American pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids Michigan. His church has a five figure attendance and he uses innovative and controversial methods to attract people both to his church and to other media resources he offers including books, podcasts, and speaking tours. The following article refers to his book, LOVE WINS.
Rob Bell challenges established Christianity. He challenges the messages of eternal, conscious tormant as the penalty of sin, the eternal fire and brimstone wrath of hell, and the images of a far removed creator and his son ruling people with that rod of iron. At the same time, he pushes the concept of the loving father God who says his mission is to save all.
Rob Bell flat out attacks the traditional Christian concept of hell. While never exactly saying that there is no hell, he progressively questions our idea of hell with one argument after another.
Bell starts his book with the story of a woman who included a quote from Mahatma Gandhi in an art display that she displayed while Bell gave a series of teachings on peacemaking. Evidently, someone attached a note to the quote that said that Mahatma Gandhi was in hell. Bell’s attack is vigorous: “really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this?…”[i]
Bob continues with one argument after another along the same line and he presents his arguments powerfully. In his process, Bell challenges the traditional Christian concepts such as having a personal relationship with Jesus as phrasing not found the Bible. He challenges how having to say a sinner’s prayer, or perform some sort of “acceptance” contradicts the idea that faith is not by works, but purely by grace.
Bell focuses in on what he describes as an inadequately defined concept of hell because it is so loosely structured from the ideas of the grave, and the fiery city dump. Bell says about the Old Testament,
“But, simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined. Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a bit vague and ‘under worldly.'”[ii] He shows a similar lack of simple, straightforward, clearly defined logic in the New Testament
On the other hand, Bell applauds the cause of justice and even cites the need for punitive language as an influence to bring people back to justice. But he questions the finality of an eternal burning fiery pit called hell. As a case in point he talks about the language concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, often seen as a veritable cesspool of evil whose burning destruction sets the visual imagery for what will happen to those who don’t follow Christ. He cites the prophet Ezekiel who in chapter 16 says that God will restore the fortunes of Sodom and return it to what it was before. The implication is how that can be if Sodom and Gomorrah are the model for a eternal pit of fiery torment. He talks about how Jesus in Matthew 10 said it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for the religious of his day. If Sodom and Gomorrah are the visual image of hell and hell is the worst thing that can happen, his point is how can Sodom and Gomorrah then be better than something else? Isn’t hell the absolute worst?[iii]
Rob Bell’s style is not clear cut logical reasoning. It actually reminded me of some of the things that I’ve read about Aristotle who would corner people with endless questions as he steered them toward specific points. Bell questions, questions, questions, and then attacks with one nontraditional line of reasoning after another at the traditional Christian concept that those that accept Christ in this life go to heaven, and all others burn in hell forever. Bell’s arguments sort of dance all over the place, coming at the reader from changing angles.
Bill documents actual churches where they include in their statement of belief that the “unsaved” will consciously suffer torment in hell forever. Then he refers other sections in those same statements of belief where God is described as this incredibly loving entity that is beyond belief. And he focuses on that paradox. He also makes the case for separation from God as being a torment the people experience here on earth now.
Rob Bell’s point is that despite the statements of belief of many a church, and what appear to be some simple, straightforward verses regarding hell the case is not that simple. Bell hammers home the concept that Jesus came that “all” are to be saved, and how the intricacies of the numerous verses about judgment, eternal life, and the world to come do not allow for the easy conclusion that just because someone does not appear to accept Christ in this life that means that they will burn in hell forever. Still, he falls short of coming out and openly embracing the concept of universal salvation. Rather he goes back to building the concept of a loving God, and challenging that that all-loving God is going to set up a place where people are going consciously suffer torment eternally.
Rob Bell writes, “we shape our God, and then our God shapes us. A distorted understanding of God, clung to with white knuckles and fierce determination, can leave a person outside the party, mad about a goat that was never got, without the thriving life Jesus insists is right here, all around us, all the time.
Jesus was very clear that this destructive, violent understanding of God can be easily institutionalized – in churches, systems, and ideas. It’s important that we are honest about this, because some churches are not life – giving places, draining people until there’s a very little life left. That God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, and so that God’s religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working in angling to avoid what surely must be coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought and sin.
Jesus frees us from that, because he is kind of love simply does away with fear, … ‘You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’”[iv]
Rob Bell’s final message is that “Love wins.” The implication is that God’s incredible love is going to find a way for all.
Through personal stories of his own experiences and others, through biblical references, and through philosophical argumentation, Rob Bell strives to take the focus off of hell as some eternal place of conscious torment, and put it back on what draws people to Christ in the first place,the incredible and amazing love of God . In the process he completely challenges much of the traditional theology taught in churches today.
[i] LOVE WINS, Rob Bell, HarperOne, New York, 2010, p 1
[iv] ibid., p. 183-184
© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.
The concept of witness was important in OT times. Witnesses served to verify facts, agreements, deals, and guilt or innocence. This verification can be seen in Genesis 31:
And now come, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee.
And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar.
And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made a heap: and they did eat there by the heap.
And Laban called it Jegar-saha-dutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.
And Laban said, This heap is witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed: [Gen 31:44-48]
Here Jacob and Laban made a stone marker, a heap of stones, which they named Galeed and Jegar-saha-dutha. The purpose of the heap was to note the conenant between the Laban and Jacob. It verified that there was a binding agreement in place.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness (Exodus 20:16)” is the ninth commandment for most Christians, eighth for Catholics and some Lutherans. In Luke 10 Jesus teaches that neighbors are not just those that live nearby when he tells the story of the Samaritan who helps the man from Jerusalem after he is robbed and injured.
The book of Ruth gives an interesting look at how transactions were “witnessed”.
Now this was the custom in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning exchanging, to confirm all things: a man drew off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel.
So the near kinsman said unto Boaz, Buy it for thyself. And he drew off his shoe.
And Boaz said unto the elders, and unto all the people, Ye are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, of the hand of Naomi. [Ruth 4:7-9 ]
In Luke 1:1-4, the author establishes that the Gospel accounts are “eyewitness” accounts. The term used is eye-witness (lit., (self seeing) instead of witness ( testimony) used in, for example, Mark 24:14 where the disciples are called to be witnesses). Luke says that he is reporting what he has eye-witnessed, ergo, he is giving his witness that he has personally seen. It is not hearsay, or third party. He is attesting to it personally. The purpose of witness is verification as we have seen above, and the Luke’s stated purpose in writing his gospel is that “we might know the certainty concerning the things where you were instructed” which is verification. Luke states therefore in this opening to his gospel that he is testifying exactly what he has seen so the reader can be sure of what really happened.
Eyewitness accounts by involved people are extremely important in validating history. It was perhaps the only reliable verification.
The Gospels Never Say They Are The Word Of The Lord
Luke’s gospel therefore is a witness, a testimony. He also states that the other gospels are testimonies. This puts the gospels not in the camp of books written as holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, but in the camp of historical records attested as accurate witness testimonies. There is nothing in the gospels themselves or in other books of the Bible that said that God authored them, that God directed them to be written, that the authors were divinely inspired, or that they are in any way in the class of works of words given by prophets. In contrast to the writings of the Law and the prophets the propostion that the gospels were the Word of God were made by men a long time after the gospels were wriiten.
That is not to say that when the gospel authors report the words of Jesus, prophets, and angels that those words aren’t words given by revelation from God. But the gospel writer’s report of them are human eyewitness accounts. This is an important distinction.
I suggest that the gospels are in the form and manner of witnessing that was used as the disciples disseminated the gospel message. After all, the charge to the believers was to be witnesses:
And he said unto them, It is not for you to know times or seasons, which the Father hath set within His own authority.
But ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses [emphasis added] both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. [Acts 1:7-8]
Jesus charged his disciples to be witnesses. Witnesses, of course, report what they see. We see this charge carried out as we read further in Acts.
And with great power gave the apostles their witness [emphasis added] of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. [Act 4:33]
The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew, hanging him on a tree.
Him did God exalt with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins.
And we are witnesses [emphasis added] of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God hath given to them that obey him. [Act 5:30-32]
The record of Peter and the household of Cornelius in is incredible when it comes to a record emphasizing the concept of witness. This is what Peter said. Look at how many times witness is brought up:
Then Peter said, Truly, I see clearly that God is no respecter of persons:
But in every nation, the man who has fear of him and does righteousness is pleasing to him.
The word which he sent to the children of Israel, giving the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all–
That word you yourselves have knowledge of, which was made public through all Judaea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism of which John was the preacher,
About Jesus of Nazareth, how God gave the Holy Spirit to him, with power: and how he went about doing good and making well all who were troubled by evil spirits, for God was with him.
And we are witnesses [emphasis added] of all the things which he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem; whom they put to death, hanging him on a tree.
On the third day God gave him back to life, and let him be seen,
Not by all the people, but by witnesses [emphasis added] marked out before by God, even by us, who took food and drink with him after he came back from the dead.
And he gave us orders to give news of this to the people, and to give public witness [emphasis added] that this is he whom God has made judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets give witness [emphasis added], that through his name everyone who has faith in him will have forgiveness of sins.
While Peter was saying these words, the Holy Spirit came on all those who were hearing the word. [Act 10:34-44 ]
In this short discourse we see the word “witness” four times. And what were the words that were used in the witness? Short pieces of the Gospel story! Look at it. It is a summary of the gospel account. They spoke that Jesus was baptized by John (v.37), at which he received the Spirit from God (v.38). He went about, delivering people with great power (v.38). He fulfilled the word of the prophets who witnessed him aforetime (v.41). He preached words of peace (v.36). He was slain and hanged on a tree (v.39). He was raised from the dead the third day (v.40). He showed himself to many after he rose (v.41). He commanded us to preach to the people that he will come back as Judge (v.42). All that believe on him shall receive remission of sin, eternal life (v.43)
Here in Acts 10 we have a model for witnessing. That model is the gospel story.
I believe that the gospels are compilations of the witness testimonies that were used to tell people about Christ. Throughout the Book of Acts and intertwined among the Epistles is the gospel story, what Jesus did and taught and accomplished for us. The references are slight when talking about Jesus, but we know that what is written is small compared to the large amount of talking, preaching, teaching, and witnessing the disciples did. I believe that when the Apostles began to realize they might not see the Lord’s return in their lifetime they wrote or had written down what they had been saying about Jesus life, death, and resurrection as they witnessed all those years. Continuing on, let’s look at what Paul did.
Paul followed the same model:
and Paul, as his custom was, went in unto them, and for three sabbath days reasoned with them from the Scriptures,
opening and alleging that it behooved the Christ to suffer, and to rise again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom, said he, I proclaim unto you, is the Christ. [Act 17:2-3]
In the verses both above and below we see Paul’s pattern of showing that that Jesus fulfilled the O. T. prophesies. Remember that at this time there was no New Testament, so there could .
for he powerfully confuted the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ. [Act 18:28]
Paul followed Christ in teaching about the Kingdom of God:
And he entered into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, reasoning and persuading as to the things concerning the kingdom of God. [Act 19:8]
Showing that Jesus was the Christ is also a Gospel theme. For example:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the male children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had carefully learned of the wise men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
A voice was heard in Ramah, Weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; And she would not be comforted, because they are not. [Matt 2:16-18]
Matthew 2:17-18 is quoting Jeremiah 31:15 as fulfilled because Herod had all boys two years old and younger killed in and around Bethlehem. Matthew here is showing that Jesus is the Christ according to the scriptures. Even before this Matthew 1:24 cites Isaiah 7:14 as being fulfilled in the virgin birth. (Also see Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4,
No one knows what all Paul preached here, except it had to be quite a bit for him to present himself for three months. Remember that Jesus preached the Kingdom of God, and that when he sent the twelve, it was to preach the kingdom and do miraculous things:
And he called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases.
And he sent them forth to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick. [Luke 9:1-2]
Paul recounts the summarized gospel story again in:
For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures;
and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve;
then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep;
then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles;
and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also. [1Co 15:3-8]
Here, once again we see the part of the framework of the gospels:
• Christ fulfilled the prophecies (v 3)
• He died, was buried, and was raised on the third day
• He appeared to many disciples
Finally Paul recounts that Jesus appeared to Paul, as one born out of due time. But we see in this dialogue that the foundation of the gospel story is used over and over in how the early church disciples witnessed, taught, and preached.
If, as we have seen, the gospels are not divinely inspired, not inerrant, then are they worthless? No, that is the point. They are very valuable. They are eyewitness accounts by people who were not only not critics or opponents of the movement; the writers understood the movement because they participated in it. Today with video of everything from moon walks to live births that doesn’t impact modern readers as much. But in prior times eyewitness testimonies were best available source of information to reliably learn about events.
If the gospels are not “words from God”, then they can’t be treated as every word being perfect and absolutely reliable. We have to weigh and evaluate what the writers wrote. But we have more than one. The beauty of having more than one gospel is that we have a means of corroborating and filling in details that a single eyewitness account doesn’t provide.
Despite the traditionally held view of many there is no evidence that God authored the gospels. Every indication suggests that the gospels are eyewitness accounts where the authors compiled their knowledge about the birth, life, death, resurrection, and post resurrection experience of Jesus Christ into a logical order and presented it. They emphasized different important points; how scripture was fulfilled, specific things Jesus taught, miracles and works that Jesus performed, painful details about his passion and death, and how he gloriously arose, was seen by quite a number of people, and ascended into heaven. The Book of Acts continues the narrative to show the effect of Christ in the start of the Christian church. These accounts are invaluable to believers as guides in learning about Christ.
© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.
Perhaps the most popular Christian verse is John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.
John 3:17 continues with the same theme (I am putting “saved” in italics to emphacize its usage.):
For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.
There is that word “saved”. Or look this verse:
And he said unto all, If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
For whosoever would save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. (Luke 9:23-24)
There is “saved” again. What does saved mean? What is salvation?
The word translated save is sozo in the Greek which means to make whole, to restore, to protect. In John 3:16 we have the comparison, perishing versus eternal life. In those two end results we have what we are saved from and what we are saved to. We are saved from perishing; we are saved unto eternal life. That’s what we read in John 3:16-17.
When Peter began to sink while walking on the water he cried out “save me” in Matt 14:30. When Jesus grabbed his hand, restoring him to the point where he could again walk on water until he got into the boat he was saved. This illustrates the resuing, restoring, making whole meaning of “saved”.
Without Jesus we are in darkness, we are lost. This is not my message, these are Jesus’ words;
He that believeth on him is not judged: he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.
And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil.
For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved.
But he that doeth the truth cometh to the light, that his works may be made manifest, that they have been wrought in God. (John 3:19-21)
Some people are upset at all the talk about perishing, about God judging, about sin, about talk of “evil works”. In John 3, Luke 9 the teaching about salvation versus judgment, sin and evil works are Jesus’ words. If you think that you are already righteous, then Jesus himself said;
But when he heard it, he said, They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick.
But go ye and learn what this meaneth, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:12-13) (Whole italicized by author.)
There is that concept again of wholeness. Jesus came to restore those that call on him to wholeness. If you think that you are whole already, that the things Jesus called evil aren’t evil, if you think that it isn’t fair that God would judge sinners, if you think Jesus isn’t real, then he didn’t come for you. Jesus came for those that recognize a need for him so that they can be restored to wholeness.
The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.(John 10:10)
Jesus came to restore us to an abundant life now (John 10:10), and eternally (John 3:16). Life in Jesus makes us whole. With Jesus we can have a life that is abundant whereas without Jesus we live a life that is full of darkness. An abundant life now and eternal life with him is what Jesus came to make available. That is what salvation is about.
© copyright 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.