Back in 2011, Rob Bell released his very controversial take on “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived” in a book called “Love Wins.” In it, he tries to reconcile the loving and good nature of God with the doctrine of hell and eternal punishment.
Bell touches on quite a few subjects, branching out beyond what we normally associate with the doctrine of hell. For instance, he talks quite a lot about the idea of outsiders and insiders in regards to heaven, hell, and Christianity, and he rebukes that idea at every turn.
As soon as the door is open to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe and so forth. Not true…What Jesus does declare is that he is saving everybody. Then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation.
In this quote and throughout the book, I see the good intentions Bell has in trying to dismantle the “club” of Christianity that has often corrupted the church. That I can agree with. But he also throws the baby out with the bathwater, suggesting that Jesus will save everyone regardless of their choice to accept God’s mercy.
To be sure, cliques and exclusivity have no place in the church. The Body of Christ is a place for people of every color, background, parentage, socioeconomic status, etc. But it is only by faith in Christ and what he accomplished on the cross that this is possible. The only reason we see people of every tribe, nation, and tongue around the throne in Revelation is because of the Lamb who was slain for us.
The righteous Muslim, the kind Buddhist, and the altruistic atheist won’t experience eternal life apart from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This isn’t new. This isn’t hateful. This is a foundational truth of Christianity, one that has been a key part of the faith from the beginning. Jesus preached on this several times: (Matthew 25:31-46; Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43; Mark 9:42-48). His apostles did likewise: (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Jude 7,13; Revelation 14:9-11, 20:10,14-15). If we want Scripture to be the foundation of our faith, we can’t ignore these passages simply because they’re uncomfortable or might turn people off.
Francis Chan’s “Erasing Hell” addresses this sort of rationalizing:
It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace. No one wants to ditch God’s plan of redemption, even though it doesn’t make sense to us. Neither should we erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with us. As soon as we do this, we are putting God’s actions in submission to our own reasoning…
I wish that hell didn’t exist. I wish that only people like Hitler, Stalin, Nero, and Lenin went there. I wish that it was based on some kind of merit, or at least, our view of merit. I wish there were second chances in the age to come. I wish, at the very least, that after punishment the damned cease to exist and suffer no more.
But wishing does not make it so. If I spend all my time wishing people into heaven, I’m letting them slip further and further away from eternal life. In Rob’s attempt to highlight the more desirable parts of God by sterilizing the distasteful, he is loving people into hell.
The doctrine of hell isn’t easy. It isn’t pleasant. But it is necessary. Why? Because it is the truth. Is it unloving of God to do this? Chan states elsewhere in his book that God “defines what love is. We don’t have the license to define love according to our standards.”
We do not dictate what God will and won’t do. No matter how confusing the world around us looks, God is God. We are not. He is infinitely wiser than we could ever hope to be. His actions may appear to us unjust, unloving, and even cruel. But this is only in our finite wisdom.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:
What should we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not!
But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’
- Romans 9:14,20
We may never know why God does what he does. We may never fully understand why he judges sin so harshly. We may never comprehend the deepness of his love in the cross. God created us, and he, as God, has the right to do with us as he wishes. Yet, in spite of our depravity that is so much worse than we can imagine, he chose to make a way for us to be saved from the punishment we fully deserve. Like I said, this isn’t an easy doctrine to grasp, and it isn’t meant to be. But it is crucial in knowing God fully and to understanding the deepness of his love for us.
Hell is the backdrop that reveals the profound and unbelievable grace of the cross. It brings to light the enormity of our sin and therefore portrays the undeserved favor of God in full color.
- Francis Chan