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The Rob Bell controversy and search for alternatives to Hell

September 24, 2014

In his new book, Bell is challenging the traditional Christian belief of hell. Does it really exist? And if so, is it eternal or just a temporary place of “cleansing”? I do not think it is possible to overestimate the ramifications of the debate that will follow.

Bell is advancing a new belief, that suggests somehow the judgment mentioned in scripture is not really eternal, and thus all souls will eventually be in Heaven.
I wonder if it may tie in with what’s called “Millennial exclusion”, which I first encountered on a fairly conservative Christian debate forum (which quickly clamped down on it, while more legalistic belief systems that nevertheless maintained some form of eternal judgment, such as Catholicism, Campbellism and sabbatarianism, were allowed to peddle their doctrines longer).

It splits judgment up, basically. The standard view holds that all who are saved participate in the first resurrection and thus enter the Millennium (1000 years), which is a fixed up earth visibly ruled by Christ. All of those left out of this are then resurrected at the end of that period, and then sentenced to the lake of fire (eternal Hell). Millennial Exclusion says that many who miss the first resurrection and Millenium will suffer a kind of Hell during that period, but then still be saved in the second resurrection.
I quickly noted, it was basically a rehash of purgatory.

They did have some impressive scriptural or at least logical evidence (which I’ve forgotten by now), and the idea could easily explain many scriptures we were debating over, which seemed to effectively revoke salvation based on one’s works (which were the main argument of those three legalist groups I mentioned). They’ll simply miss the Millennium because of their works, yet still be saved by grace, in the end. But it still didn’t seem to deal with all of the relevant passages.

All of this was before Bell came up, so I’m not sure whether it’s the same teaching, and have not really read up on Bell much. From what I gather, Bell’s teaching is that some of the punishment passages normally interpreted as Hell were really just the “end-of-age” cleansing, and the souls experiencing that would eventually be freed, to enter life. Not sure whether this is affixed to the two resurrections and the Millennium, or not. Not sure whether annihilation of other souls (not redeemed) was involved too.

Now, here’s the major concern:

If Christians begin to believe that hell is a fictional place, it will lead to a major shift in the interpretation of the gospel. Emergers will intensify their arguments that God is all about love and no judgment. That Jesus came to earth as a good teacher—not a living sacrifice for our sins. That all we have to do is love one another and usher in a world of peace—that once we accomplish that, Jesus returns to rule in a world that we as humans have perfected.

Yes, Jesus really did teach that hell exists. He also clearly stated that no one comes to the father except through HIM. He is the Son of God who paid the price for sins of all of those who believe upon Him. He freed us from the bondage of sin. If people start to believe that hell is a fictitious place, imagine the consequences.

Many will be swayed into rejecting the existence of hell, believing that a loving God could never condemn anyone to eternal damnation.

We must be anchored in God’s truth and be able to refute Bell’s teachings with the Word of God. Imagine the slippery slope that appears when our youth and even youth pastors begin to reject the fact that God is a god who not only loves—but also judges. Doctrine and beliefs become unimportant. We do what we want when we want, because God would never hold us accountable for our actions.

Make no mistake, many will believe what Bell is teaching—and the consequences for the church will be very serious.

Of course, in any case, any threat to the doctrine of eternal unescapable Hell is of course going to be met with the charge that they’re trying to make God/Jesus “all love”, and eliminate His “judgment”, “holiness”, and of course, the motivation for men to repent and be holy, and lead to some “one world religion” (which they believe will then become the very “end-times deception” they are awaiting. It of course, threatens the fear-based power of the institution of the organized Church, whether the large ones, or the small, independent ones).

None of them sees this as compromising “by grace are you saved…not of works” and “true love casts out fear” (which is what this implies keeps people in the right doctrine and morality).
Also, as many of these critics complain, Jesus has already become “a good teacher, not a living sacrifice for sins” in the contemporary Church, even with the doctrine of Hell still officially on the books. And even that doctrine is already slipping, as some (including even leading figures such as Billy Graham) are allowing for those who have never heard to possibly be saved by “grace”. (I guess they’ll say both doctrinal shifts are apart of the same trend).

And many conservatives have just as much aimed through their doctrines and control, to usher in some age of perfection. Many have spoken as if there once was some golden age of righteousness, which the “forces of godlessness” (basically, any other political system or ideology) has ruined. (Even those who still believe things will get worse anyway, and then God will take them out of the worst part, destroy the present kingdoms, and establish His Kingdom Himself).

The route I had since gone was the Fulfilled View, where the condemnation warned about was for the end of the Old Covenant system.
Bell’s position and Millennial Exclusion I see as being like traditional universalism, in, as Fulfilled View writer Tim King put it, that it “extends salvation to all apart from the covenantal framework of biblical eschatology” and thus “the concept of salvation is severed from its Hebraic roots, the victory of God is reinterpreted through the lens of human worth and Christ is removed as the central figure in the victory of God”, and thus “the true story of hope gives way to any number of stories and the foundation for the continued development of human society is compromised”. (“Comprehensive Grace”, Jul 30, 2002).

This is pretty much the same thing the traditional Hell advocates are saying. So we would have to agree on this point.
The traditionalists will still see our view as “all love, no judgment”, and then by extension, “Jesus is just a good teacher and not a living sacrifice”. It appears Jesus’ position as sacrifice seems to depend on most people ending up in Hell, and only the few having that sacrifice efficacious for them, which is what in practice is happening, in their view.
(In the end, it’s like God is most glorified by damning, and then forcing the damned in the fires of Hell to finally bend the knee and profess Him as Lord, rather than saving all by grace, who would in that situation naturally glorify Him).

Of course, this is from the need to have that covering manually applied (whether by free will, or unconditional regeneration leading to repentance), usually assumed to lead to one’s life being cleaned up, and most just aren’t applying it (even though hypothetically, all could).

I could say “if you want judgment so much, then let’s see how you would stand”, but since these people believe “salvation by grace” applies to themselves, it becomes a matter of them figuring all this necessary “judgment” is now for everyone else, as they have already met the “requirements”. (Here’s an article that touches upon this:

Most Fulfilled View advocates do teach something similar to Bell, but place it in that past judgment (AD70), saying that the people who “perished” suffered for awhile, and then still ended up in Heaven. Or they say the fiery destruction of Jerusalem and end of the “covenant” was the ONLY “[eternal] death”. I’ve never been able to bring myself to take it that far.

But at least, the AD70 view is based on the notion of an OVERLAP of covenants, where an “earnest” of Grace is given, but you still have to apply it by faith and “run the race” by works. This is what’s basically been extended, indefinitely, to the present and beyond by the common view. And it’s the main cause of a lot of this doctrinal deviation and confusion.

But for either Bell, Millennial Exclusionists, Fulfilled view advocates or others to simply reduce eternal punishment to temporal punishment, but still based on works (or lack thereof), still compromises “grace alone”.
Even if the “salvation” promised is from temporal judgment; if it’s “by grace”, then it is no longer by “works”, else, it is “no more grace” (Rom.11:6, 4:4).

Again, the AD70 view, with an “overlap” of covenants for the previous 40 years (the antetypical “Israel in the wilderness” for the Church) is what would explain the confict of grace vs works, and within a covenantal (Biblical) framework, that could better stand the scrutiny of the traditionalists.

[Continued with another quote, in the following article, on “presuppositionalism”.]

  1. One person on a facebook group asked why they were seeing some people say we are “no longer sinners”.

    In these groups, there are people holding different views, such as “Fulfilled” or forms of “universalism”, and the belief is that Christ payed for AND covered all unconditionally (the need for the sinner to have to voluntarily “turn” to Christ to be covered was temporary, in that “age” that was to end “shortly”, in the NT).

    So it’s just like what most Christians believe about being born again. We still sin, but God looks at us and sees Christ’s righteousness, instead of our sin (2 Cor. 5:19), but this beginning at birth, rather than at a later “conversion” experience. Basically, both “births” have been combined into one!

    So some people who hold these views say “we are not sinners”. (Just like some “born again” professing people in practice, at least a̲c̲t̲ as if they’re no longer sinners, like thinking their beliefs can’t be wrong).
    I don’t put it that way, to avoid confusion. Our behavior is still sinful (transgresses the Law), and this does affect our interaction in the world, and apart from Christ, we would still be judged as sinners, if judged on what we actually do.

    (An additional point from another discussion:
    Futurism [in contrast], assumes the Law ended at the death of Christ, but then look, there are still “laws”, commands to “repent” and threats of punishment for “sin” afterward, until “this evil age” ends. So they think THAT is “the New Covenant” and the “age of grace”.
    Pantelism teaches that that was an overlap of the two covenants, and the old one finally ended at AD70. What futurism has done is maintain that same overlap, but extended it to today and beyond.

    A person comments: “There is no verse from God that says one is born with sin. Augustine misunderstood the whole thing and the sperm became the vehicle of sin rather than choices.”

    I think it’s not as simple as “choice”. It’s basically n̲a̲t̲u̲r̲e̲ gone awry. All of our drives are natural, but they become “sin” when they cross the lines established under the Law (And from a more spiritual perspective, when they hurt or defraud others). And we all are born with a sense of “the knowledge of good and evil” that is what led to the “Fall” and defined us as “sinners” to begin with.

    There is no one born who always “chose” to do what was right (never “chose” something sinful), except for Christ.
    So no, it’s not the sperm, as the dualistic Augustine taught (who was projecting his own sin and knowledge of good and evil onto the universe, and corrupted Church teaching for centuries to come with that). It’s that we’ve been left with the knowledge of good and evil, and redemption is purely by the grace of God, not being free of bad behavior.

  2. Since a link above is about Michele Bachmann, I might as well add this here:

    She is supposed to be a conservative Christian, yet states (regarding ISIS):

    “No, we aren’t all the same. We don’t believe the same things, nor do we hold to the same values.”

    So here, we have a division, into two types of people, the “good” and the “evil”, based on “beliefs” and “values” (and of course, behavior, stemming from both).
    This totally denies all that Paul (And Jesus) take such pains to teach self-righteous people in their day. That all are concluded in sin (Gal.3:22, Rom. 3:9ff). What this is doing is tantamount to someone committing some other sin, justifying himself with “But I’ve never killed anyone, like these terrorists!” Do they believe that will cover anyone? No, but they seem to think it entitles one to be seen as “right”, in this world (and thus that everything else they believe, do, and demand is right, then).
    In this dually divided world, evil is then seen in others only, while it is assumed that one’s own [acknowledged, in accordance with the doctrinal protocol] sin is either past or irrelevent. That’s precisely what the Islamists and others like them believe, which then leads them to feel justified in terrorizing.
    If she’s right, then salvation is basically by works.

  3. Here’s a good article, explaining the eschatological concepts of “Heaven”, “the earth” and “the sea” in relation to the Temple system:

  4. Curious to see if Horton might be addressing the unbelievable spectacle of much of evangelicalism supporting Trump, despite his ever growing list of increasingly scandalous moral lapses, I see Horton is sticking squarely with theology (at least on that site; maybe he has another outlet where he addresses current events?)

    So I see this article excerpt (another lament on how the modern church is shying away from the doctrine of Hell), which then leads to the full article on Modern Reformation:

    “In response [to the doctrines of ‘God’s justice not requiring Hell (Edward Fudge), “God’s justice cannot requite it” because it “offends our moral sense” (Clark Pinnock) and “God’s Love Conquers all” (Open Theism)] we must declare frankly that there are some things God cannot do. He cannot acquit the guilty. He cannot simply let bygones be bygones. There must be payment for sin, whether by the sinner or by a Substitute. Even if it offends our moral sensibilities, the truth is that ‘God is jealous, and the Lord avenges and is furious.The Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserves wrath for his enemies; the Lord is slow to wrath and great in power and will not at all acquit the wicked…’ (Nahum 1:1-6)”

    What this ignores is the context all of these judgement scriptures is referring to, and that, the judgment of Israel. The clue should have been the quote that followed this last piece, of Paul in Romans, where he speaks of “those under the Law“. Which is the other point missed. They have built up a whole doctrine of this thing “God cannot do“, based on this scripture (which does not even say cannot; it says will not, and there is a specific CONTEXT there that does not extend into something so universal that He is forever bound by this principle and thus can’t ever do. (And these Calvinists are usually the ones mocking others for a “weak god who cannot…” do things!) But this is how “historic orthodoxy” has always read scripture, and then they wonder why doctrines like Hell get dissented from, or just chalk it up to “human sensibilities”.

    The argumentation also fails to realize that the whole concept of “sin” and “payment” comes strictly from the Law, which was not some universal “principle” that resided in God from eternity, but was “added” (Gal.3:19), so that man being under the Law in the first place is from OUR taking upon ourselves the “knowledge of good and evil”, which led to our spiritual “death”, which we then lived out in the world through systems of give and take (i.e. “payment”); both political (with each other) and especially religious (presumably between us and God). This is where the tendency of trying to justify ourselves by our own works comes from. And “turn or burn” is also still the same thing. (Even if you downplay the literal fire, and insist “We should not fear fire, but fear God”, for Hell is “in His presence” , but “as Judge rather than father” as Horton argues).
    Again, some “principle” of “justice” is made some starting point that necessitates God always sending sinners (who don’t meet a requirement) to Hell. (This ultimately stems from the “supralapsarian” basis of Reformed theology, which makes sin and judgment ends in themselves; for the sake of God’s “glory”, which is like a competing attribute to love and mercy).

    So while focusing on these other three objections to Hell, they are not yet aware of a fourth; one that keeps the judgment language of both testaments in its proper context of the end of THAT age; which people living then would live to see; not something delayed indefinitely, and still in our future; basically with everyone still under the Law.

  5. Jacob M. Wright
    Facebook, 10-23-16 at 2:22pm ·
    “God is too holy to look upon sin.”

    If you grew up in evangelicalism and are familiar with the prevalent theology, you will recognize this phrase very quick. In fact, odds are, many of you probably even heard it in church today. It is plucked from the book of Habakkuk, excluded from its context, and used to instill in people a general sense of distance with God, that he’s too good to even look at us, that he basically has to avoid us like the plague. God is too holy to be around sinners, they say. After all, since God has always been in heaven for eternity, he hasn’t built up an immunity to a fallen world. That stuff is dangerous! When you’re holy, you can’t just be around that stuff without some kind of Ebola protection suit.

    (Nevermind a guy named Jesus who dwelt amongst us, that’s besides the point. Right now we are talking about Habakkuk.) …

    Habakkuk says it right there, “Your eyes are too pure to see evil, And You can not look on wickedness.” (Hab. 1:13) The only problem is, if you don’t stop right there in mid-verse, but keep reading, you end up getting a different idea. Habukkuk continues, “Why then do You look on those who deal treacherously?” Hold on. What did he just say? God actually does look on sinners? That’s the actual conclusion of that verse? Yes, this verse is expressing Habakkuk’s confusion as to why God is not meeting up to his beliefs about God. Habakkuk is saying, “God! You’re too holy to look upon sinners! So why do you?”

    How many evangelicals have been taught that God is too holy to look upon sin, and thus have been hindered from truly seeing God in the face of Christ and relating to God as Jesus showed him, as an Abba, Father? People who believe that “God is too holy to be around sinners” might have missed the entire gospel. You know, that part about God becoming flesh and dwelling with humanity. That’s a really important part. And if that isn’t enough, while in the flesh, God went out of his way to hangout with drunkards, thieves, and prostitutes. He was called “the friend of sinners.” Hmm. Either God lost his holiness when he came to earth, or the idea that Gods holiness is allergic to sinners is a big lie. (Hint: it’s the second one). The Pharisees were “too holy” to be around sin, not Jesus. God is like Jesus, not like the Pharisees. Sometimes when describing God’s holiness, people end up describing an omnipotent Phrarisee. But such is not the God revealed in Christ. God’s holiness is wholly Christlike.

    The incarnation obliterates the idea of distance with God. God has shown himself to be united to humanity in Christ. This was not something that began in 0 AD, but has always been, and was revealed in Jesus. The incarnation reveals God to be amongst us, in us, for us, one of us. Gods holiness is Christ, and it shines all the brighter in its purity and love when blazing in our darkness, relentlessly pursuing humanity to bring redemption and restoration.

    Another interesting article, from someone who believes in duty-faith (not realizing it’s it’s just as much a “work” as any other form of “repentance”, as he addressed), but really goes after the “life change” doctrine.


    Good article, but it seems what’s being advocated there is some sort of temporary punishment, and that would basically be more akin to Catholic purgatory. But this still would maintain works or efforts (even if reduced to “belief”).
    The true answer to this is that all the judgment referred to the end of THAT age, and it was was fulfilled when the system of Law (which is what mandated the judgment in the first place) ended with the destruction of the Temple.

  7. What the Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity
    Will we ever learn to disagree without immediately resorting to “heretic”?

  8. Here, we get a sense of what the original “Gehenna” or “lake of fire” (valley of Hinnom dump, and the destruction of Jerusalem it prefigured) might have looked like.
    This is from a mound of sulfur igniting at a recycling center (and producing sulfur dioxide), in an area of Worland, WY where large sulfur deposits had been left behind from a sulfur plant decades earlier.
    Looks like what we might think of as the traditional picture of “Hell”, doesn’t it? The low bluish flames running cross the ground even look like water or some other liquid. Hence, “lake”.

  9. If There’s No Hell, What Are Christians Supposed to Do?
    View at

  10. “You’re Going to Hell”
    How to Respond To A Flaming Fundamentalist When They Tell You You’re Going to Hell

    View at

  11. 6 Alternatives to the ‘Loving God, Fiery Hell’ Paradox
    Can’t reconcile love with torture? You’re not alone.

    View at

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