I could include a scary picture or video to start this post to get your attention, but that would not adequately communicate my purpose, so instead I'll stick to words, of which I have many. The purpose of this post is to humbly, and with much trembling, state a harsh biblical truth that will sound like very bad news but is actually very good news. Please pay attention! To some, it will sound deeply offensive. It will make some people throw their computer across the room. It will make some people deeply despair. Some will claim it's not so cut and dry. Some will consider it unnecessarily judgmental, intolerant, or fundamentalist. Some will say they are not ready to hear it. Some will say you are not ready to hear it. Some will smirk. Some will yell. Some will cry. Some will laugh. Some will ignore. Some will fall on their knees. I don't know what your reaction will be, but I hope it will be a healthy mixture of boldness and compassion, grace and truth, fear and confidence, and, as Piper would say, I hope it makes you "tremblingly, soberly....hopeful."
What the hell am I talking about? Well, I am talking about hell. I am talking about (deep breath) the reality as explained in the Bible that for those who do not put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, in this life, there awaits for those individuals the terrifying experience of the eternal wrath of God. This may not be something you think about a lot, even if you believe it. But you need to, and not because you need to be afraid, but because you need to see and understand God for who He really is, as revealed in Scripture, so you can really experience joy. And joy matters, doesn't it? Meetings, emails, presentations, exams, games, toys, news, economics, money, shopping, conversations with friends, date nights, time with your kids, bible study, service to the poor - all these things are not the same without authentic, lasting joy. Right?
See, when Jesus died on the cross, the Bible teaches that He, among other things, absorbed the wrath of God that we deserve for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. The wrath of God He absorbed was infinite, and more than we could ever imagine. Physically and spiritually. He was flogged, beaten, and bloodied, even before He was crucified. He was forsaken by His Father, the God of the Universe. Jesus in this way was our substitute, because God could have not been just and left our sins unpunished, so in the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, He became both just and the justifier of those who put their trust in Him. To those who don't put their trust in Him, this sacrifice does not apply, and the Bible says that the wrath of God remains on them. For every human being, this wrath has to either be satisfied on the cross, or eternally in hell. To vindicate a Holy, Loving God, there could be no other way. Our sin is that bad. If you doubt the reality of sin, consider this challenge from Mark Driscoll, "All who think people are good at their core need to stop being hypocrites and take the locks off all their doors."
This all is not some wild concoction from the brain of some human being sometime in history meant to oppress people. The Bible is very clear about this reality, and it is meant to liberate people. Tim Keller once said when asked about what he believes about hell, "One thing I believe is that probably, the biblical imagery of hell fire is metaphorical... It’s metaphorical for something probably infinitely worse than fire." Whew (Deep breath). What you are hearing and understanding right now as bad news, making you perhaps angry, is actually the greatest news in the universe. Yes, I'm serious. Has no one ever told you that?
WHAT THE HELL, ROB BELL?
This topic has become especially relevant recently because of the pre-release of a controversial book by talented communicator and famed pastor, Rob Bell. You may know him for his catchy book titles like Velvet Elvis and Sex God, or his inspirational Nooma videos. His publishing company issued a promotional statement, he released a video preview, and then all hell broke loose (pun intended) on the Internet and in social media because of some vague, perhaps heretical implications Bell seemed to be making. There is so much you could read on this, and likewise there is so much I could say. The New York Times and CNN have even weighed in, among others. I'll try my best to be concise, because what I really want to communicate is the clarity of Scripture and the hope of the Gospel that Bell is not doing justice to, and in turn not serving believers or unbelievers very well, whether he is a heretic or universalist or not. Some words of summary:
Be cautious of those who are commenting or criticizing the nature of the debate, instead of the content of the debate. In other words, those who are blaming the "Reformed Resurgence", including men such as Justin Taylor and John Piper, for defensiveness, fundamentalism, and lack of compassion and charity in dialogue, are likely unwilling or unable to intelligently engage the content of the issue, which, don't be mistaken, is a matter of life and death, heaven or hell. For an example of calling out theology-minded "Neo-Calvinists" in a naive way that both misunderstands and also doesn't address the theological issues in question, see Jarrod McKenna: Love Wins: Rob Bell and the New Calvinists, or worse, Brian McClaren: Giving Us All a Wonderful Opportunity, or even, the Good Morning America coverage.
However, also be cautious of those who are merely stating the biblical truth about hell, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ for salvation, and the wrath of God, without also humbly offering the hope, grace, and compassion that comes through these truths. For an example of how not to communicate the wrath of God, reference the Westboro Baptist Church picketing of military funerals to draw attention to their provocative view that U.S. deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq are God's punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality. This is absurd, hurtful, and unbiblical, and even if the Constitution supports it, the Church certainly shouldn't.
For an example of a good balance in addressing the nature and the content of the debate, and specifically a helpful explanation about the streams of "universalism", check out Scot McKnight: Waiting for Rob Bell, and Waiting for Rob Bell 2. McKnight says, "To talk about wrath apart from this depiction of the grace-consuming God is to put forward a view of God that is not only unbiblical but potentially monstrous. And, to put forward a view of God that is absent of final judgment, yes of wrath, yes of eternal judgment, is to offer a caricature of the Bible’s God. No one should begin to talk about hell without spending fifteen minutes in pausing prayer to consider the horror of it all." Another good and balanced write-up is from Mark Galli at Christianity Today: Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell.
Tim Keller says, "The Christian understanding of Hell is crucial for understanding your own heart, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God." This is the point! Oh, that all would understand this! Rob Bell is right with the title of his book that "love wins". But the love that wins is not a love that rips the justice away from the character of God, because that love would not be very loving, and it would not be very God. Further, it doesn't make much sense when we compare it to history or the natural order. Keller wrote in The Reason for God, "The belief in a God or pure love - who accepts everyone and judges no one - is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity. The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears."
TO HELL WITH QUESTIONS
Bell asks a lot of questions in his preview that Christianity and the Bible have clearly answered for 2000 years. Why does he ask them? Because they are good questions and people are asking. That is a good reason. However, his asking of them rhetorically is not helpful. You might say, don't we have to wait for the book to see his real purpose in asking these questions and his real answers? Don't we have to wait to see if he is going to answer them the way that orthodox Christianity has been answering them for years? Maybe. But consider the following suggestion from Kevin DeYoung, who shows the power of questions to communicate a point, in a way similar to what Bell is doing in his book promotion.
Rhetorical questions from Rob Bell:
Gandhi's in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?
Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?
This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.
Rhetorical questions from Kevin DeYoung to show the power of questions to communicate:
Will God save everyone? Does everyone go to heaven no matter how bad they were and no matter what they believed? Is Hitler there next to Bonhoeffer enjoying the same eternal bliss? What kind of God would that be? How would we make sense of Jesus’ strong language about hell or the chilling scenes in Revelation? Would that God still be holy and just?
And what would that do to our understanding of the gospel? Would Jesus’ death still be necessary? Would faith in him really be that important? Why would we still send out missionaries and evangelists? What would be so good about the good news if, in the end, there is no bad news? And if there is no hell, or we can’t really be sure anyone is there, why have almost all Christians in all of history believed there was such a place of eternal suffering? Have we found something that historic orthodoxy has missed all these centuries?
What if the things you’ve heard recently are not the truth about Christianity? What if the warnings in Scripture are real warnings? What if God is purer than we thought, we’re worse than we imagined, and hell is as real as the nose on your face? What if the “only way” means the only way? What if God is glorified in salvation and judgment? What if the God of love and the Father of mercies is also a righteous Judge, a holy Sovereign, and a conquering King?
Is both cases, DeYoung asserts, the questions tell you what the speaker thinks is foolish and what he thinks is wise. That much is plain. So, in this way, the asking of the questions by Bell, on its own, gives very credible cause to offer correction based on his implications. Albert Mohler explains:
"We must await the release of the full book in order to know what Rob Bell is really saying, but his advance promotion for the book is already saying something, and it is not good. The material he has already put forth does demand and deserve attention. The Emerging Church movement is known for its slick and sophisticated presentation. It wears irony and condescension as normal attire. Regardless of how Rob Bell’s book turns out, its promotion is the sad equivalent of a theological strip-tease. The Gospel is too precious and important to be commodified in this manner. The questions he asks are too important to leave so tantalizingly unanswered. Universalism is a heresy, not a lure to use in order to sell books. This much we know, almost a month before the book is to be released."
Even though Bell doesn't technically identify himself with the "Emerging Church", and therefore its "slick and sophisticated presentation", he is playing around with essential truths such as the exclusivity of Jesus for salvation, the existence of Hell, and the reality of the wrath of God, all of which the Bible is very clear about, and all of which the Gospel of grace is incomplete, insufficient, unloving, and unhopeful without!!
HELLUVA LOTTA LOVE
So that brings us to what matters. Back to Keller's quote: "The Christian understanding of Hell is crucial for understanding your own heart, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God." Do you believe that? Hell and wrath are good. Yes, I'm serious! Has no one ever told you that? To shy away from them for fear of offending people is crazy. It is crazy because in your effort to not offend them, you actually are crippling them in the battle for joy, and robbing them of the most glorious message in the universe, because without wrath and hell the Gospel of Jesus Christ is just a fairy tale love story that has trouble holding water. It is also a theologically ignorant point of view, because it assumes that a loving God cannot coexist with the concept of Hell and judgment. The Bible does not make that assumption and in fact reveals that such an assumption is false, dangerous, and less glorious. As Keller says, "Ironically, people by getting rid of the idea of judgment and hell, try to make God more loving, and they make Him less." Let's get into it.
UNDERSTAND YOUR HEART
This is amazingly helpful. Please read! Why is a Christian understanding of Hell crucial to understanding our heart? I can’t say it better than Keller and C.S. Lewis, so I’ll just quote:
“I believe one of the reasons the Bible tells us about hell is so it can act like 'smelling salts' about the true danger and seriousness of even minor sins. However, I've found that only stressing the symbols of hell (fire and darkness) in preaching rather than going into what the symbols refer to (eternal, spiritual decomposition) actually prevents modern people from finding hell a deterrent. Some years ago I remember a man who said that talk about the fires of hell simply didn't scare him, it seemed too far-fetched, even silly. So I read him lines from C.S. Lewis:
Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God 'sending us' to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.
"To my surprise he got very quiet and said, ‘Now that scares me to death.’ He almost immediately began to see that hell was a) perfectly fair and just, and b) something that he realized he might be headed for if he didn't change. If we really want skeptics and non-believers to be properly frightened by hell, we cannot simply repeat over and over that 'hell is a place of fire.' We must go deeper into the realities that the Biblical images represent. When we do so, we will find that even secular people can be affected.”
Are you affected? Keller goes on, "Even your good things enslave you, they're starting to disintegrate you, they're starting to isolate you, so that when something gets in the way of them, instead of just being afraid, you're paralyzed; instead of just being angry, you're implacably bitter; instead of being despondent, you endlessly hate yourself for ever and ever. This is the fire. Do you not see it in yourself? Do you not see where its going?....Are you willing to look as deep into yourself as the doctrine of hell is calling you to look?"
LIVE AT PEACE
It is true that some people disdain others who they believe to be in, or on their way to, hell, because of their rejection of Jesus. Rob Bell mentions someone who did so to Gandhi, one of the great humanitarians in history, also a Hindu. This disdain is rightly frowned upon, and is actually evidence of a really bad understanding of what the Bible says about hell. There also may be others who impose the reality of hell on people in a violent way, but this also is not biblical, as we see specifically in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 16, where Abraham speaks down to the rich man in hell, and says, "son". Not "sinner" or "evil person", but "son". The understandable objection from many in our culture that the doctrine of hell creates an environment where people oppress, look down on, or disdain those they believe to be headed there, does not adequately account for the love and justice of God. Consider victims of injustice. How are you going to prevent someone, who has had their house burned by enemies, for example, from falling into a cycle of violence and vengeance? Are you going to tell them that violence doesn't solve anything? Keller says:
"Not only will such moralizing not touch their hearts, but also it shows no concern for justice! Miroslav Volf (a Croatian familiar with this kind of injustice in the context of the wars in the Balkans) said, 'The only resource I know of powerful enough to both pacify the human heart's desire for justice, and at same time keep us from being sucked into the cycle of blood and vengeance, is to say that there is a God, and He will put everything right....If you don't believe that the doctrine of God's judgment is a powerful resource for living at peace on Earth, then you've lived a sheltered life."
KNOW GOD'S LOVE
Finally, the understanding of hell and God's judgment is necessary in order to see God's love. It is to this point that the development with Rob Bell and his new book is the most ironic. To repeat Keller again, "Ironically, people by getting rid of the idea of judgment and hell, try to make God more loving, and they make Him less." First question that comes to mind is, why do we do this? Probably, either because we care too much what people think, or because we do not adequately understand what we are talking about. I can't really help you care less about what people think. But you should. There; that is my best effort. But I can, hopefully, help you understand what the hell you're talking about (pun intended again).
The second question is why and how is this so? In other words, why and how does the reality of judgment and hell show God as more loving? It is actually quite simple when you think about it. Again, I'll let Keller explain for me. Stay alert! This is so important for you to grasp!
"In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says that no physical destruction can be compared with the spiritual destruction of hell, of losing the presence of God. But this is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross - he was forsaken by the Father (Matthew 27:46.) In Luke 16:24 the rich man in hell is desperately thirsty (v.24) and on the cross Jesus said 'I thirst' (John 19:28.) The water of life, the presence of God, was taken from him. The point is this. Unless we come to grips with this 'terrible' doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself. But consider--if our debt for sin is so great that it is never paid off there, but our hell stretches on for eternity, then what are we to conclude from the fact that Jesus said the payment was 'finished' (John 19:30) after only three hours? We learn that what he felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together.
"And this makes emotional sense when we consider the relationship he lost. If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you--that hurts. If a good friend does the same--that hurts far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you saying, 'I never want to see you again,' that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more tortuous is any separation. But the Son's relationship with the Father was beginningless and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. He experienced the full wrath of the Father. And he did it voluntarily, for us.
"Fairly often I meet people who say, 'I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I don't believe in Jesus Christ at all.' Why, I ask? 'My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin.' But this shows a deep misunderstanding of both God and the cross. On the cross, God HIMSELF, incarnated as Jesus, took the punishment. He didn't visit it on a third party, however willing.
"So the question becomes: what did it cost your kind of god to love us and embrace us? What did he endure in order to receive us? Where did this god agonize, cry out, and where were his nails and thorns? The only answer is: 'I don't think that was necessary.' But then ironically, in our effort to make God more loving, we have made him less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a god like this will be at most impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful selfabandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We could not sing to him 'love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.' Only through the cross could our separation from God be removed, and we will spend all eternity loving and praising God for what he has done (Rev 5:9-14.)
"And if Jesus did not experience hell itself for us, then we ourselves are devalued. In Isaiah, we are told, 'The results of his suffering he shall see, and shall be satisfied' (Isaiah 53:11). This is a stupendous thought. Jesus suffered infinitely more than any human soul in eternal hell, yet he looks at us and says, 'It was worth it.' What could make us feel more loved and valued than that? The Savior presented in the gospel waded through hell itself rather than lose us, and no other savior ever depicted has loved us at such a cost."
So does hell exist? Hell yeah! And we are better off because of it. Praise God that Jesus experienced that horror on our behalf so we wouldn't have to, though we deserve it very much. And then he rose from the grave to give us hope that His sacrifice can apply to and save us, if we trust in Him. This message is good news! And hell is an essential part of making sense of it. We will try to get rid of hell at our own peril, and doing so will take away our joy, even before it waits to destroy our soul. God forbid! Trust in Jesus!