Previous article in this series: August 2011, p. 436.
Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is full of heretical teachings. He proposes a “better story” than the biblical gospel preached by the Christian church for nearly two thousand years. The book has stirred up a firestorm of protest from Evangelicals and Reformed theologians. A number of the reviews contain extensive criticisms of his theology. They condemn Bell for his improper use and interpretation of the Bible, his universalism, his wrong view of sin (all horizontal), his vitiation of the atonement, and his erroneous views of Christ and of God. His teaching is rejected as old liberal theology reformulated, and as a new gospel, which is no gospel.
While all of that criticism is deserved, it is a bit surprising that these critics are thus aroused. For these things are not new from Bell. In 2005, Rob Bell wrote Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Virtually everything that Bell writes in Love Wins is found in Velvet Elvis, at least in seed form. So why the hue and cry over the new book? To be fair, part of the answer is that they are dismayed and/or angered that a well-known preacher is promoting heresies that cut out the very heart of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet, that is not the whole story.
The rest of the answer is that the newer book, by focusing on God’s love and the final destiny of all, is exposing the theological errors of the vast majority of Evangelical and Reformed preachers. (I use the label “Reformed” loosely.) Bell is teaching the same basic theology (i.e., basic errors) as his Evangelical and Reformed critics. In Love Wins Bell draws out the logical conclusions of these teachings. And his critics are not willing to accept these logical conclusions of their own theology. Although they recognize that Bell’s conclusions undermine the whole of the Christian faith, they will not see that Bell’s conclusions are the logical consequence of a universal love of God. Thus they try to reject the fruit (his heretical conclusions), while yet maintaining the heretical plant (Arminianism) that produced the evil fruit. The critics fail to acknowledge (whether deliberately or through lack of understanding) that the fruit is the natural product of the plant. They are theologically inconsistent. Rob Bell is consistent. Thus the sound and the fury of the critics. Rob Bell’s book teaches that the theology of a universal love of God eliminates hell and places all who ever lived in heaven. If a Hoeksema or an Engelsma points out the logical conclusion of Arminian theology, they are dismissed as hyper Calvinists. But when a Rob Bell does it….
Consider the remarkable agreement between the theology of Rob Bell and that of the overwhelming majority of Evangelical and Reformed ministers:
* God is love, and God loves everyone.
* God wants to save all, and offers salvation to all in the preaching, expressing His desire that all be saved.
* Christ died for all people, and also for the creation. This death is a demonstration of God’s love for all, not a penal substitution for the elect. The benefits are available for all.
* God is sovereign, that is, all powerful. (In reality, this is a meaningless, non-functioning sovereignty, for God does not, according to this view, exercise His sovereign power in salvation.)
* All children who die in infancy go to heaven.
* God is building His kingdom on earth. He calls all Christians to be kingdom builders (or, to use different terminology, to redeem creation).
How many preachers today, identified as Evangelical or Reformed, would disagree with those statements? Precious few.
The problem is that these teachings result in logical conclusions that blatantly contradict Scripture. For example: If it is so that 1) God loves all men and wants to save them, and 2) God is sovereign, then 3) all men must be saved. However, the Bible is plain that not all will be saved.
Or, consider this: If Christ died for all men, thus paying for their sins, then all men must be saved. But that conclusion too contradicts the Bible.
Or this: If God commands us to work to redeem the creation and to build His kingdom in the earth, to make the whole of this world subject to Jesus, then this earth must be or become heaven. For why should the church subdue the whole earth and restore it to its original purity, if the coming of Jesus means that this world will be literally burned with fire and we will be lifted off from it to a different place called heaven? But that conclusion, namely, that this earth is heaven, is too obviously contrary to the Bible. So the promoters of this earthly kingdom, not daring boldly to teach that heaven is here, teach a contradiction: build the kingdom of heaven here; yet there is a heaven somewhere else.
God loves all men, Christ died for all, God offers salvation to all, yet God saves only some.
How do these same preachers/theologians reconcile these contradictions? They do not. They rather call them paradoxes. Apparently contradictory. Such teaching may seem like contradictions to us, but God can resolve them. We must hold on to both, they insist.
Rob Bell solves other “paradoxes” of Evangelical/Reformed preachers. How can God who is love, put people into hell, a place of eternal torment? How is it possible for God to love a man all the time he lives on earth, but after the man dies, God pours out dreadful, killing wrath on the same man? A paradox, say the critics. No, says Bell. A loving God does not put a man into hell; the man puts himself into his own “hell”…temporarily. Eventually the love of God will melt the man’s obstinacy, and he will agree to love people and care for the creation, and he will effectively be in heaven, by his own choice.
What about this difficult question: Why does a sovereign God allow men (whom God loves, according to their teaching) to perish, when He could save them? Evangelicals and Reformed preachers will babble on and on at this point about man’s responsibility, and how hard it is to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. But they have no answer.
Rob Bell does. Salvation is entirely up to each person. Live in love, and you bring heaven to earth. Live in hatred, and you create your own hell on earth. Man controls his own destiny. Bell wants us to believe too that all who ever lived will end up in heaven, eventually. That this blatantly contradicts the Bible is of no concern to Bell. It is consistent with the basic tenet that God loves all men, which teaching is proclaimed by virtually every Evangelical and nominally Reformed preacher.
The issue comes down to this: Who saves, God or man? The Reformed (biblical) position is that God alone saves. God eternally determined to save certain ones whom He loved, predestinating them unto adoption as His sons (Eph. 1:4-6). Others God rejected, forming them as vessels of wrath, fitted to destruction (Rom. 9:22). In time God sent His Son to lay down His life for His sheep (i.e., the elect, John 10:14, 15). God by His Spirit powerfully regenerates His elect people, giving them a new, spiritual life (John 3:3-8). God gives faith, and by His sovereign, particular grace, God saves from death and hell, and gives eternal life (Eph. 2:1-10). Through the preaching God commands all men everywhere to repent and believe in Jesus (Mark 1:15; John 3:36). Through the power of sovereign grace, the elect believe, they repent, they turn to the living God (Rom 10:13-15; Acts 14:15). The reprobate hear and are hardened in their unbelief (II Cor. 2:14-16). God preserves His own unto the end, and brings them through death unto Himself (Phil. 1:6). The reprobate, on the other hand, are justly condemned to hell on the ground of their sins (Rev. 20:13-15).
This is the theology of sovereign grace. It is a sovereign salvation. It is a gracious salvation. And it is a particular grace (and love) that saves—the only kind of grace (and love) that the Bible teaches.
That theology, however, is loathsome to most preachers and theologians. They want a place for man. “Man’s responsibility”—that is the touchstone and the battle cry, as if a command from God to repent and believe is not enough to establish man’s responsibility. Accountability is not the real issue. What they loathe is the teaching that God sovereignly determines whom He will save, and then effectually saves them, and them alone.
But if God does not determine who will be saved and who will not be saved, then who does? The logical answer is, Man does. But preachers are a bit hesitant to say that, for the Bible is rather plain on that—For by grace you are saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:8, 9). So most preachers would say, No, man does not save himself.
But that answer is inconsistent with the theology that God loves all and offers salvation to all. Rob Bell gives the answer that is consistent with the “God-loves-all-men and God-offers-salvation-to-all-men” theology. Bell’s answer is: Man determines his own destiny. And Bell is explicit about this. As he ridicules the biblical teaching that God saves through preaching that God sovereignly sends where He wills, Bell draws the reader up short—”This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else’s hand?” (Love, p. 9). The Arminian abhors the thought that someone else might be in control of his future. The Reformed believer answers without hesitation, Indeed, my future is in Someone else’s hand. Thank God that it is!
In so many ways, Bell’s teaching is a warning to the church world of the end product of their theology. Virtually the whole of the church world has adopted some form of higher criticism of the Bible, thus destroying the church’s stand that the Bible is, word for word, God’s inspired word, infallible and inerrant. Bell takes that to its logical end—insisting, for example, that the story of Adam and Eve’s fall is not important because it happened, but because it happens. Bell is not even convinced that the canon of Scripture is closed. Such a low view of the Bible allows Bell to pick and choose the verses that he likes, and to ignore the rest. The reviewers rightly criticize Bell for this, but they are guilty of the same. Most of them present God’s plan of salvation as if John 3:16 is the last word on the matter, and close their eyes to explicit passages on salvation such as John 10, Romans 9, and Ephesians 1 and Ephesians 2.
Bell follows N.T. Wright, as does virtually the whole church world today. N.T. Wright also teaches that heaven is right here on the earth.
Bell plays with Roman Catholicism, as so many Evangelical and Reformed folk do. When he speaks of the Lord’s Supper, he claims it includes an altar. More significantly, in his defense of purification in the next world, he uses the same texts that Rome uses to defend the heresy of purgatory.
The chickens come home to roost. And it makes the preachers uncomfortable.
This is God’s warning to the church that teaches that God loves all and wants to save all. Through Rob Bell, God sets before the seminaries, the preachers, the elders, and the people the proper, i.e., logical, conclusion of their false theology: Universal salvation, heaven on earth, man determining his own destiny. Will the preachers listen? Let them turn and seek the old paths of sovereign, particular grace. Let them call the people to worship the true God who is holy, just, and truly sovereign. And let them honor the God who revealed not only that He is love, but that He is also the one who “hath…mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom 9:18).
Is this a hard doctrine? Of course. Is it offensive? It certainly is! It offends me daily! Nonetheless, it is the gospel of God revealed in the Bible. A preacher, as an ambassador of Christ, must speak what the King commands him to speak, even if it brings the wrath of the whole world upon him.
… to be concluded.