Should the Christian message include that we need Jesus in order to be rescued from God? How could that God ever be good? This is the question Rob Bell asks, read on for Greg Koukl’s response.
Rob Bell is a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His book, Love Wins, has climbed the charts on Amazon. In the book, Rob Bell advances, essentially, his version of a universalistic view of Christianity.
Rob Bell posted a video to support his book. He gained fame for making these three to four minute videos that are very compelling. The series of films is called NOOMA, and a lot of youth groups use them because they’re edgy, high-def, and well written. Typically in his videos Rob is in a compelling environment that appeals to youth. He’s a young guy himself, and he looks dead at the camera and asks questions that get people stirred up.
I think that’s good, as far as it goes. My sense is that the questions he asks are actually used to get people to question aspects of the Christian message that are sound and orthodox, and I don’t think that is good. If you’re using NOOMA videos for your youth group, I hope that you are able to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you are not very good at that, don’t show them, because I guarantee your kids aren’t capable to discern on their own, and they are susceptible to the emotional, rhetorical appeal that these videos offer.
I saw the video he used to promote his book, and have a transcript of the text for you that I want to respond to because I think that this video is especially insidious.
Remember, this is a high definition video. You’re looking directly at Rob Bell. He’s addressing the camera very confidently. There are cutaways to people doing visually appealing artwork.
Here’s what Rob Bell says,
“Several years ago, we had an art show at our church, and people brought in all kinds of sculptures and paintings, and we put them on display. And there was this one piece that had a quote from Gandhi in it, and lots of people found this piece compelling. They’d stop and sort of stare at it and take it in and reflect on it. But not everybody found it that compelling. Somewhere in the course of the art show, somebody attached a handwritten note to the piece, and on the note, they had written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’ Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure, and felt the need to let the rest of us know? 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 know? 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 baptized, or take a class, or converted, or be born again? How does someone become one of these few? And then there’s a question behind the question—the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people who were taught that the primary message, this center of the Gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what got 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 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. And what you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful, that whatever we’ve been told or taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.”
At this point the camera pans to the book, with its title, Love Wins.
Rob Bell has made a rhetorically clever, appealing, smooth, compelling statement that, in the questions he asks and the statements he makes, is making a broader statement. Even if they were just questions, you know as well as I do that questions can be used to make to make a point, and that is what he’s doing. He is saying that it is a false statement to say that you must believe in Jesus, or you go to Hell. Not only is he saying it is false, he calls it in the book “a toxic message.” And he tells you that he finds something far better than this other story, and that story is that love wins.
He’s basically telling us that most of us have gotten it wrong. That certainly happens sometimes, doesn’t it? And, you know, he’s not the first person who’s said that. Sometimes, there is something that we have been socialized to believe that actually isn’t true. In these cases we need to go back to the book and see what it really says. So, that does not trouble me. And I’m not even troubled that he’s asking this question if it were truly a question. But he’s not just asking this question, is he? He thinks he has the answer, and he’s telling us what that answer is, and that answer is that 2,000 years of Christianity has gotten it wrong.
It sounds to me like a challenge from someone who has never had any exposure to the historical teaching about the Scripture, Jesus, or the teaching of those who Jesus personally trained to take His message after Him, because for 2,000 years, there has been a unanimous voice from the Church on this issue. In other words, those questions he just asked—“Is Gandhi in Hell? Are only a few getting into Heaven? Well, then how do you do that?”—that’s what the Church has been preaching for a long time. And he’s acting like the Bible is unclear about the answers. And Rob Bell is virtually shocked that someone would suggest, for example, that Gandhi is in Hell. Worse, he chastises them and makes their opinion look ludicrous.
Why would Rob Bell think that Gandhi is in Heaven? Because Gandhi was such a good man? How does anybody know that Gandhi is such a good man? What we know is the man of history, and I am not going to take away from that man any of the good things he did in history. But how many people know much about his private life?
Don’t Bell’s questions imply that Bell thinks that Gandhi would go to Heaven because he was good? Recall the account of the Pharisee and the publican from Luke 19. The Pharisee in the front, proclaiming his good works to God, and the publican in back beating his breast saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said it wasn’t the guy in front who’d done all the wonderful things that went away justified, but the man in the back. So if Rob Bell is putting Gandhi up there, and saying, Look at all the wonderful things he’s done, of course he’s in Heaven, look at how good he is, then he is at odds with Jesus on this particular point.
He says, “Will only a few select people make it into Heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in Hell?” Let me answer with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:13–14: “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Has Rob Bell ever read those words?
He continues, “And then there is the question behind the question—the real question: What is God like?” In other words, What kind of God is this that millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the Gospel, is that God is going to send you to Hell unless you believe in Jesus? That isn’t the message, although a lot of Christians are confused on this. The message is not that people go to Hell because they didn’t believe in Jesus. People go to Hell because people break God’s law. They go to Hell because they’re criminals, not because they didn’t accept the pardon.
The basis on which God judges as stated in Revelations 20 is their deeds. They are found wanting. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. “But what kind of God is that” he says, “that we need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? How could that ever be good news?”
I draw the opposite conclusion that he draws. Not that this is what is subtly taught by our view, but that this is what ought to be taught explicitly. That is, that the Gospel rescues us from God. Why would I ever say that? Because that’s exactly what the Bible itself says.
- John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life, but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides in him.” Who said that? That would be Jesus.
- Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
- Romans 2:5: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
- Romans 3:5: “But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what should we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is he?” Isn’t that, by the way, what Rob Bell is suggesting—that we are rescued from God? “What kind of God is that?! That’s a bad God.” Well, Paul says, “No, that’s not a bad God.”
- Romans 5:9: “Much more than having now been justified by His blood, we will be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”
- Romans 12:19: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God.”
- Colossians 3:6: “For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience.”
- 1 Thessalonians 1:10: “Wait for the Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead; that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.”
Did Rob Bell read any of these verses? Does he not understand that propitiation is satisfaction of the wrath of God? He’s a pastor, for goodness’ sake! He’s a graduate of Fuller Seminary. Doesn’t he know that this is what the Bible teaches? He could say he doesn’t believe it. Fine. But he is purporting to give us the true biblical message.
In the book of Revelation, the wrath of God is mentioned ten times, more than any other book. By the way, the book of Revelation is the endgame, right? It’s eschatology. It’s the final things. It’s the kind of thing that Rob Bell is talking about in his own book.
Why do we talk about Hell? Because the Bible talks about it. Jesus talks about it.
What kind of God is this? It’s the God who’s holy. It’s the God who redeems us. That’s what kind of God it is, Rob Bell.
He says, “This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an analyst’s list of absurdities and inconsistencies, and they say, ‘Why would I ever want to be part of that?’”
My response is, why would he be surprised that most people don’t want to be Christians because of that message? Isn’t this precisely what we were told was going to happen? The message is a message of man’s sin covered by God’s love, but the problem comes before the solution. And you have to admit your problem before you can take advantage of the solution. That’s hard to do. Why is that surprising to Rob Bell?
In 2 Timothy 1:8: Paul says, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, but join with me in suffering for the Gospel.” The Gospel indicts all people as guilty before a sovereign God. Christians might wilt back from this because it is not going to be approved by many people. Paul says, Don’t be ashamed. Step up, take your lickin’ when the lickin’ comes from being faithful to the Gospel. Expect to be persecuted for this view. Expect to be rejected for this message.
Bell closes the video about his book by saying, “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.” My response is, that is exactly right. “And what you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful, that whatever you’ve been told or taught, the Good News is actually better than that, better than we can ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.” And that is also exactly right, but for the opposite reason that Rob Bell thinks it is.
Friends, love does win, but Rob Bell’s view does not.