By Athol Dickson
Rob Bell is at it again. He has never shied away from controversy, and apparently his new book, Love Wins, is no exception. With the book not yet even released, already such stalwart evangelicals as Albert Mohler and John Piper are calling it heretical. An executive with a Christian publishing company, Justin Taylor, was apparently an early voice in the outrage against what Rob Bell might have written. (Taylor says on his blog, “I have not read all of Bell’s book, though I have read some chapters that were sent to me. . . . I think that the publisher’s description combined with Bell’s video is sufficient evidence to suggest that he thinks hell is empty and that God’s love (which desires all to be saved) is always successful.”) Speaking as a novelist and non-fiction author, I’m surprised a man with Mr. Taylor’s background in publishing would assume Rob Bell had total control over his publisher’s advertising copy. It’s possible, of course, but I could tell several disaster stories to demonstrate it ain’t necessarily so, and I’ll bet Mr. Taylor could, too. Take the trailer for Love Wins as an example. Are we expected to believe that Rob deliberately set out to do an Uncle Fester imitation? Surely that sweater was some publicist’s decision. (Sorry Rob.)
Rather than basing a response on what the man’s publisher wrote, unlike Justin and Al and John I think I’ll wait until I read what Rob wrote before I pronounce judgment from on high.
That said, the trailer does make it seem like Rob’s upcoming book will take on some tough questions about salvation. What is it, exactly? How is it made possible? Bell’s video asks if Gandhi is in hell, and he asks if we have the right to say so. Again, since the book is not yet out, everything is speculation, but it seems like Rob intends to explore the ideas of heaven and hell, and how we get to one or the other, and he intends to look at it a bit more broadly than Drs. Mohler and Piper might prefer. So what’s the problem exactly?
The Bible does clearly state that many of us are bound for hell. I hope Rob agrees with that, because if he doesn’t, then he has indeed stepped far outside of Biblical truth. Where there is much room for debate, however, is exactly what the Bible says about how to get to heaven. Fortunately, there is a core set of beliefs that virtually no evangelical Christian will dispute. They have been famously explained this way:
- God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life;
- All of us sin, and our sin has separated us from God;
- Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through him we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our life;
- We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s plan for our lives.
These are Bill Bright’s famous “Four Spiritual Laws,” and as I mentioned, they are universally believed in the evangelical community, as far as they go. But some evangelicals go further. Whereas Bill Bright said, “We must . . . receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord” some insist we must also add, “. . . and receive him by that name precisely, and consciously and deliberately believe in the historical details of his crucifixion and resurrection as a person who was both fully man and fully God.”
I suspect we would find Al Mohler, John Piper and Justin Taylor firmly in this camp. Theologians call it “Exclusivism.” At the opposite end of the theological spectrum is “Universalism,” which holds that God’s love and His desire that none should perish means everyone will go to heaven, and hell is empty (except perhaps for the odd demon). This is what Rob Bell has been accused of, but those doing the accusing seem to think there’s nothing in-between these two positions. If so, they could not be more wrong.
I wrote a chapter on the territory in-between in my memoir, The Gospel according to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me about Jesus
As part of the companion study guide, I collected a few quotes by other famous fundamentalist evangelical theologians on this subject. You can read those quotes here, and I strongly suggest that you pause a moment now, and go do it. You may not know me, or have any reason to believe what I write here, but I promise you will be familiar with many of the sources of those quotes.
All of the great Christians quoted in the study guide would disagree with the idea that a person cannot enter into a healthy relationship with God without—regardless of circumstances—first expressing faith or belief in the historical details of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God/man. Given that, some might wonder if these men are saying it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to suffer and die on the cross. Do they believe Jesus could have simply examined our hearts’ intentions and decided if we were worthy for salvation based on that, without all the torture and the blood?
It’s a natural question to ask, and based on everything we know about these men, I think we have to answer, no, they all believed exactly the same things every evangelical Christian believes about the reason, purpose, effectiveness and exclusivity of the cross and empty tomb. We get a hint of this when we zero in on a few of those quotes:
“…elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated, and saved by Christ…” (Westminster Confession of Faith)
“…all salvation is through Jesus…” (C.S. Lewis)
”…anyone thus saved would learn in the next world that he was saved through Christ.” (J.I. Packer)
They’re saying salvation–all salvation–is by grace through faith in Jesus alone. We know these men aren’t Universalists. None of them think Buddha or Vishnu or Allah saves. All of them believe every soul in heaven got there in “one way” only: through the mercy and justice of the cross. They would point to Hebrews 11 as one proof of this (the part that teaches that all the OT believers were saved through faith in a future event–the cross–even though “they did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance”). These men would say the crucifixion was essential, because it was not a mere symbol but was instead an objective fact, an effective and direct Divine intervention in history, by which the potential for justice was actually reestablished in our relationship with God, and a genuine process set in motion which will one day also reestablish all the laws of nature in the universe as they were originally created to be.
So that’s not the question they’re dealing with. Instead, they want to know this: if we say we must have faith in the historical details of the crucifixion and resurrection in order to be saved–if we must consciously assent not only to the “Four Spiritual Laws” but also to the full scriptural detail behind them–then what do we believe about the countless people who have lived and died without hearing and/or understanding those specifics of the Good News?
Do we believe every infant who ever died is in hell? Every adult with a baby’s mind? Every American Indian before Columbus? Every person who lived before 33 AD?Of course most Christians have had this conversation many times, and most of us would say, no, the God we love would find a way to save such people. But then we must ask, on what basis does He save them? That is where most of us throw up our hands and answer simply, “God will find a way,” but the men I quoted are a bit braver than most, and tried to take it deeper.
Think of stories we’ve heard about missionaries who encounter people in the deepest jungles and tell them the Gospel, only to learn those people already somehow believe in a God who died for them. In these missionaries’ stories, the jungle people are delighted to learn the real name of their God, “Jesus”, but what if one of these people who previously believed in a strange “God-who-died-for-us” had passed away the day before the missionaries arrived? She knew some of the facts—the substitutionary sacrifice part—but would she have gone to hell because she died without hearing that God’s name, Jesus, or the fact that he was both fully God and fully man? In other words, must she know all of the historical details, or are only some of them enough? And if only some, which ones, exactly?
We believe those missionaries’ stories, and stories about Muslims meeting Jesus in their dreams and so forth, because we believe in miracles. But are those stories really about paranormal miracles, or do we think such revelations are completely normal? Do we think God somehow tells everyone on earth the historical details of the gospel before they die? No child dies in Pakistan until they know it? Every mother in the Amazon? Every man in the mountains of Tibet already knows all the historical details of the Gospel? The Bible does say everyone is “without excuse” because of God’s self-revelation through the glory of creation, but does that passage also mean God has revealed the full story of the crucifixion to everyone? If so, if God would never let anyone die without first revealing the historical facts behind the Gospel, miraculously if necessary, why would Jesus command us to go throughout the world and spread the Gospel? And if we don’t believe God reveals the full Gospel to everyone, if there are unreached people on the earth who die in ignorance of it, does that mean those people will suffer in eternal fire forever?
Or could it be that some of those people–probably only a few because the gate is narrow for us all—could some of them in total ignorance of the facts of the Passion nonetheless see the Lord around them in creation’s glory and recognize the truth of what they see, and reject the worship of “images” even as they sense the utter impossibility of climbing up to such a holy God as that, and fall on their face in utter desperation, filled with love and desiring nothing for themselves except a relationship with the One they love, offering themselves completely to a Mystery they long to know, and begging Him to have mercy on them, to find a way to climb down to them instead, to let them simply love Him and be loved by Him?
If someone prayed that way, yet died in ignorance of the cross, how would Jesus Christ respond? That is the real question.
Quoting one of many similar verses (“No one comes to the Father except by me”) some devoted Christians believe Jesus would still condemn such a person to hell, because after all, if God had wanted such a person to be saved, surely He could have found a way to speak the historical details of the Gospel into that person’s mind. Plus of course, He is God, and quoting this perhaps, some say who are we to question His decisions? And I think every true Christian would agree God could indeed reveal every detail to everyone before they die, if that were God’s intention, and God does indeed have every right to do with everyone exactly as He wills.
But other Christians—equally devoted—pointing elsewhere in the same scriptures think God has already made His preference known, and He desires us all to live with him if we only will. They believe God might choose to save the person I described above, and do it on the basis of the cross, even though the person does not know the cross exists. Fine Christian men like Justin Martyr, C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and Billy Graham might suggest it is not the historical fact of the cross which saves us; it is the One who used the cross to change history. They might point to James’s famous statement that even demons believe, and shudder. They might mention that throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus was much more concerned with the content of the human heart than he was with religious belief systems. And they might ask, what does “except by me” mean, primarily? Does it mainly mean “except by knowledge of a Jewish carpenter?” Or from looking at the very next verse, might it much more likely mean, “except by the intercession of the second Person of the Trinity?” (I say “mainly” because of course, Jesus was both, but can it really follow that one must understand that fact in order to be saved? And if so, are we all lost, for which of us really understands it?)
In short, some Christians think we’re saved by what we know; others think we’re saved by who we know, but one thing is for sure: if any Christian wants to accuse another of heresy over this, then they’re going to have to include men like John Wesley, John Stott, Justin Martyr, Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis among the heretics. Given such a cloud of witnesses, personally I think it’s much wiser to leave the accusations to Satan, who loves to do such things, and admit that I don’t know the mind of God on such a matter.
Finally, given all of this the usual next question is, “In that case, why bother to evangelize?” and the answer is: 1) because it helps our neighbors to draw closer to the Lord through deeper knowledge about the sacrificial nature of His love for them, and; 2) because Jesus Christ commanded it. Either should be more than enough motivation for any Christian.
I have no idea what Rob Bell has written about all of this. If he did believe in a God who doesn’t care about justice, who allows unrepentant Hitlers to live forever in heaven alongside repentant saints, then I do think he would be horribly wrong, and worse than wrong, I think he would be in grave spiritual danger himself for leading many people astray. I also think he will be in grave spiritual danger if his new book does teach Universalism, because that doctrine is not Biblical, and leads to damning complacency among its adherents. But I don’t know that Rob believes any of that. Neither do Albert Mohler, or John Piper, or Justin Taylor. And oh, how I wish we Christians would learn not to attack a brother (in The New York Times, no less!) before we know it’s absolutely necessary.
So far in this matter, the only things we know for sure are these: 1) there have indeed been famous pastors behaving poorly, and; 2) they have not been Rob Bell.