When Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, was announced, it brought about a firestorm of activity on twitter and the blogosphere. Piper bid him farewell, and Justin Taylor became (more) famous. From the publisher’s description to the promo video starring Rob Bell himself, it appeared that he was taking an unorthodox position on the subject of hell. It seemed he was promoting some sort of universalism whereby no one would spend eternity in hell, which has been taught since the dawn of Christianity (spoken of by Jesus himself in the Gospels).
And since Justin Taylor broke the news, Tim Challies wrote a great review, and then Kevin DeYoung published his tome of a review, I almost chose not to publish one of my own. After all, these reviews are HUGELY helpful and I couldn’t recommend them more. Is my voice missing from this discussion? I hardly think so. John MacArthur himself wrote not one, but six blogpost responses already!
Yet humbly, I feel the nudge to go ahead and add my thoughts after reading the book. And yes, I’ve read the book.
The Danger of Man-Centered Theology
In his preface, Rob Bell opens up the line of discussion that leads him to the vast majority of his conclusions – a very anthropocentric (man-centered) theology.
“I believe that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.”
And while that is true, it is not completely true. Jesus’ story is first and foremost about bringing eternal glory to the Father in heaven by displaying the Father’s love for us. We are the means, not the end. When we begin to view ourselves as the ultimate end of God’s love – when our understanding of God is that he exists ultimately for us – we place ourselves on the throne and think of God as our servant, as though his existence is for our benefit.
In that scenario, we no longer exist as the result of God’s grace. Instead, God exists as the result of our love FOR OURSELVES.
And this misguided theological presupposition has lain in our churches across the US for decades. I’m convinced that it is the result of this reality that this book has gained the popularity it has, despite what it’s assertions about a Biblical understanding of salvation.
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better… This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world so desperately needs to hear.”
There is no room in Bell’s theology (or at least his book) for sins against God. Instead, he speaks of sins we commit against one another, or against ourselves, but never speaks of the cosmic treason that occurs when we rebel against the God of the universe. In the Psalms, David paints the picture much clearer when he writes, “Against you only have I sinned.”
And yet Bell declares that the Biblical, orthodox, historical understanding of the doctrine of hell and God’s wrath is “misguided and toxic” because it’s offensive to our man-centered sensibilities. And those who defend Bell’s stance (which is a mash-up of purgatory and universalism), do so because they treasure the glory of man higher than the glory of God.
And yet, when we take God’s passion for his glory seriously (and clearly I am very influenced by John Piper on this subject), the wrath of God comes into much clearer focus and Romans 8-9 make more sense. When the eternal torment and anguish merited by our sin against a Holy, Righteous, and Just God is passed-over because of the Person and Work of Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, and we are gifted reconciliation and eternal fellowship with Him, we can only respond with worship and thankfulness. To think that in that moment we might have the brash resolve to call Him unfair for choosing to rescue some and not all is to totally miss the glorious wonder of our salvation.
There are other problems with this book, but they all spring out of this fountain-head of man-centered theology, so I feel it would be tedious to repeat those issues here. Rather, I would recommend these superbly helpful resources and reviews. Also, there was an extremely helpful panel discussion at The Gospel Coalition’s national conference this year. You can download the panel discussion itself here. This is definitely worth your time.