Archives For Wrestling with “Love Wins”

I just finished Francis Chan’s latest book Erasing Hell and I have to tell you, I could not put it down.  From start to finish this book is one of his most accessible books for me to read and I could see his points connecting and it was a great book.  Chan seeks to discuss what Scripture says about eternity.  The title of the book comes from his inward desire to not want to talk about hell.  I must confess, I have avoided talking about hell in many circumstances because it is just uncomfortable for me.  The idea of people spending time in torment is not an easy subject to discuss.  So often we try to “erase hell” from our vocabulary, sermons, classes and conversations.  Chan seeks to give a thorough treatise of the subject and offer his critique of various opinions (Rob Bell’s Love Wins gets a hefty treatment in chapters 1-3).  His chapters are…

  1. Does everyone go to heaven?
  2. Has hell changed?  Or have we?
  3. What Jesus actually said about hell?
  4. What Jesus’ followers said about hell
  5. What does this have to do with me?
  6. What if God…?
  7. Don’t be overwhelmed
I enjoyed the book but I do not want to spoil it by telling you everything that is in it.  Below are some of my Pro’s and cons of the book.  I recommend this book to everyone.


  • Easy to read
  • Delves into the Greek substantially but on a simplified manner
  • Addresses most of the major issues
  • Has a high view of inspiration of the Scriptures
  • His sincerity, compassion and humility is obvious in his pleas to the readers.
  • Placed Jesus in his historical setting as a First Century Jew and that shaped Jesus’ view on hell.  Loved that!


  • Sometimes Chan is too simplistic in that he does not flesh out issues enough.
  • He really did not add much to the debate.  As much as I want to say he did he simply reiterated what many have at least discussed from the evangelical perspective.  He adds his eloquent touch and I agree with a lot of what he says but most of it is not new.  (maybe that is good?)
  • Chan’s view of “submission to God regardless of our questions” seems t0o dismissive to me.  I agree that at the end of the day “God’s ways are not our ways nor his thoughts our thoughts” but does that mean we accept that at face value and not question why things happen?  Chapter 6 basically is a sermon telling the readers that the clay cannot be the potter so we should simply (and fearfully) submit.  I struggled with this one.
Hope you enjoy the book.


Of all the chapters in Bell’s book the chapter I am discussing today is the most controversial and, from my perspective, Bell’s weakest theologically.  He begins with a story about someone in San Francisco who was standing on the sidewalks shouting, “turn or burn” (a theme he discussed in his nooma video Bullhorn) and he then moves to some difficult questions about the fate of mankind as it related to hell.  He posits the questions in a manner that surely God does not create people only to send them to hell.

“That’s how it is—because that’s what God is like, correct?  God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy—unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever.  That’s the Christian story right?”[1]

Right away you get a sense of Bell’s methodology in asking the tough question but as my friend noted in a blog post, “the ideas and reasons that he [Rob Bell] expressed during the questions and answers over the book leave me shaking my head as to why he wrote what he did about the subject of hell.”[2]  More on that in bit.

Bell then shows every occurrence of the word “hell” in Scriptures starting with the Old Testament then moving towards the New.[3]  He talked about the Hebrew word sheol (she’ol) as “a dark mysterious, murky place people go when they die.”[4]  Bell gives seven instances where the word sheol is used and then (quickly) gives lessons on the word death and summarizes, “…simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined.  For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with.”[5]

Bell then moves to the New Testament word for hell, Gehenna (γέεννα).  He gives the typical definition I have heard (and preached) as, “Gehenna, in Jesus’ day, was the city dump.”[6] He briefly discusses the usages of the word in the New Testament and says, “Gehenna, the town garbage pile.  And that’s it.”[7]  Finally, Bell discusses the Greek term Hades (ᾍδης) and essentially says that it is the New Testament form of sheol.

The rest of the chapter Bell does something very interesting in that he seeks to show that while most people think of hell in after-life terms he wants to show that people are living a “hell” right here on earth.  He then talks about the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) as a story of rich and poor not about heaven and hell.  The rich man is in torment and wants Lazarus to give him water and this is a metaphor for the rich and the poor and the rich not understanding Jesus’ abolition of hierarchical systems. Bell then moves on to talk about the need to abolish peoples “individual hells, communal, society-wise hells” and his now-famous statement, “There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”[8]

He also talks about the concept that there will not be punishment forever (second chance?) as he alludes to Matthew 10:15 and says that since Jesus said it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah than the religious people then there must still be hope for Sodom and Gomorrah and if there is hope for Sodom and Gomorrah then what does that say for other Sodoms and Gomorrahs?[9]  He closes by discussing the aion of kolazo which was, in Matthew 25, about the period of pruning for the goats but it does not mean, in Matthew 25, eternal punishment.


As I stated, this was the toughest chapter but my reasons are serious for disagreement on a number of different levels.

1.      First of all, it has been widely attested that there is much uncertainty that Gehenna was the town dump. 

G. R. Beasley-Murray (reknown scholar) in Jesus and the Kingdom of God, said this:Ge-Hinnom (Aramaic Ge-hinnam, hence the Greek Geenna), ‘The Valley of Hinnom,’ lay south of Jerusalem, immediately outside its walls. The notion, still referred to by some commentators, that the city’s rubbish was burned in this valley, has no further basis than a statement by the Jewish scholar Kimchi made about A.D. 1200; it is not attested in any ancient source.”[10]

Let’s say it was, for the sake of argument, the town rubbish, what was Jesus trying to say?  Wasn’t it a metaphor for something greater than the supposed town rubbish?  Furthermore, Bell ignores all the other passages in Scripture that discuss concepts like judgment (2 Cor. 5:10), not inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-10) and even of a conscious eternal fire pointed by John in Revelation 21:8.  Revelation 21:8 indicates an ongoing punishment (“burns” present passive participle….ongoing).  What about all of the verses in Scripture discussing God’s judgment for all wrong-doers?

2.      Bell does make a valid point in that people do suffer tremendously on earth.

This does not mean the church should remove our focus but we should be even more cognizant of righting wrongs and of evoking God’s justice.  That does not mean there is no hell afterwards and that there is no punishment for evildoers.

3.      His summary of sheol, hades, gehenna (tartarus?) all need polishing. 

If he is going to say, “that’s it” he better have some scholarly evidence to back it up other than his simple word.  I understand this makes it more accessible to a broad range of readership but this leaves people (who trust everything everyone says) at a loss for the biblical words.  At least footnote your research and discuss what people say about it.  For example, why is it that Sheol in the Old Testament is a place where both good men (Jacob, Gen. 37:35) and bad men (Korah, Num 16:30) end up?[11]  More needs to be discussed about this and even more about the terms for dead and death in the Old Testament and New Testament.

4.      Bell messes up in the Greek…again. 

He said that the goats, in Matthew 25:46, are sent to an aion of kolazo when the Greek actually says they went to an aiwnion (αἰώνιον) of kolasin (κόλασιν).  Kolasin is the noun form which actually occurs in the verse but kolazo is the verb form which does not occur.[12]  Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich define kolasis as, “the infliction of suffering or pain in chastisement or (as is the case in Matt. 25:46) transcendent retribution.”[13]  Furthermore, as noted in yesterday’s post, aion is a different word than aiwnion, so it actually does mean forever (unless the scholarship of Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich is erroneous.)

5.      Whatever you think about the chapter the questions Bell raises have to be answered. 

So who does get in?  If hell is a conscious, eternal suffering then who gets it?  Is it enough to say that all people get in through Jesus (soft universalism) or is there a specific way (i.e. pattern/formula/creed) where people get in to heaven and avoid hell.  All of these are valid questions and it seems we must come down hard on what we believe the Scriptures say about this.

This has been a brief summary of the chapter and probably his worst chapter as he makes broad sweeping assumptions.  He does ask some difficult questions but it still is not our job to speak for those whom God will judge.  Our task is to bring the kingdom of God across the world to right wrongs, disciple people and to pass on the legacy to our children’s children.  I do not want to say that the entire chapter was horrible as Bell does make some valid points about people suffering right here and right now while we sit in air-conditioned rooms, with our thousand dollar computers and a our cool looking shirt and tie.  That does step on some toes a little.  However, the chapter should be revised and polished.[14]

[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins, 64.

[2] Barry Throneberry, “Rob Bell–‘Why Is This Controversial?’–Part 2,” Theology with Throneberry, Accessed May 11, 2011.

[3] One thing that frustrates me about Bell’s writing is that he does not footnote much as to where he gets his material or even scholarly conclusions.  He often starts, “A Rabbi once said…” but does not tell which Rabbi or where he heard the story from.  Another thing that frustrates me is that when he gives a reference of Scripture he will only give the book and the chapter.  Quote the verse man!

[4] Bell, 65.

[5] Ibid., 67.

[6] Ibid., 68.

[7] Ibid., 69.

[8] Ibid., 79.

[9] Ibid., 85.

[10] G. R. Beasley-Murray, Jesus and the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986): 376, note 92.  See for other examples of scholars who dismiss the town rubbish theory.

[11] See R. Laird Harris, “she’ol” in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, eds R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke.  (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980): 2303-04.  The word she’ol actual comes from the root word shā’ah meaning to crash into ruins and to gaze (in the Hithpael).

[12] Kolazo does occur in 2 Peter 2:9 where it is said that the unrighteous will be kept under punishment (kolazo) until the day of judgment.  Interesting parallel.

[13] Walter, Bauer, F.W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek- English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed, (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000): 555.  See 1 John 4:18 for another usaged of kolasis.

[14] For a better review see Scot McKnight’s “Exploring Love wins 5” on his Jesus Creed blog

I am returning back to my analysis of Love Wins by Rob Bell and a bit late as many other bloggers (e.g. Scot McKnight) have done far better a treatise than I will do but I feel like there are some things we still need to wrestle with from his book.  Please catch up on readings by going to my first three posts (1, 2, 3) and reading those so you can have a context at where this post will go.

This post is about chapter 2 in his book which is entitled, “Here is the new there.”  He begins by discussing the typical images of heaven and then he asks questions about “what it will be like.”  Bell’s desire in the entire chapter is to get people to focus on the proleptic sense of the heaven in which Jesus’ invitation to heaven is not for us to experience sometime in the future but to experience it right now (sometimes this is called in scholarly circles as realized eschatology).  He talks about various passages from the gospels like Matthew 24, Luke 20, Matthew 13, Luke 21 and Luke 18 where the word “age” is used.

The word for age is the word “aiwn” (he says aion but it is actually an omega [w] not an omicron [o]…picky picky…I know).  Bell says this about aiwn:

One meaning of aion refers to a period of time as in ‘the spirit of the age’ or ‘they were gone for ages’.  When we use the word like this we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time.  This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever…The first meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end (31-32).

He bases his whole chapter on this definition which has some bearing on or theology but is that what was meant by Jesus in Luke 18?

I do not want to spoil the chapter for you so I just want to summarize what  I think he is trying to get at.  First he wants to dismiss evacuation theologies that says this world will be burned up and we will go (i.e. evacuate) somewhere else.  He says that in believing this we tend to not want to do anything with the plight of this present world (see 44-45).  I agree with Bell here in that I believe God will take everything that is old and make everything new in a New Heavens and New Earth but it will be filled with surprises of which I think are crucial (read Isaiah 25; Revelation 20-22).  Second, his desire is to discuss the need for us to make a difference right here and right now.  He is right in that “eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now” (p. 59).  There are serious implications in how we approach our lives now that has effects on the future.  That was a principle in the deuteronomic codes and it seems to have carried over into the New Testament with moral codes specifically in the Pauline epistles.  So far Bell is saying the right things in that heaven is proletpically experienced now but not specifically yet.

I do have a major issue with this chapter though (Scot McKnight points it out as well here) in that the story of Luke 18 is about a future, endless period of time that bears implications right here and now.  Bell, as quoted above, says that the Greek word for age (aion) is employed in Luke 18:30 but he missed it…let me show you…

Here is the text in Greek:  ὃς οὐχὶ μὴ [ἀπο]λάβῃ πολλαπλασίονα ἐν τῷκαιρῷ τούτῳ καὶ ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

Notice the highlighted (in red) words…they are aiwni (from aiwn) AND aiwnion (from aiwnios).  The second word is crucial because that word, according to Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich’s A Greek-Engligh Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed), means “a period of time without beginning or end” or, “a period of time of unending duration” (p. 33).  It’s in the Matthew 25 passage Bell alluded to (51-52) and Jesus speaks about a future point in time that is endless.  Bell missed it here and should have sharpened his Greek better.

However, the point is valid in that we should not be concerned with saying who get’s in and who does not as God is the judge of all things but we should also be very concerned about what is required of us in Scripture and seek to follow what the Lord wants for us to do.  In summary, I agree with the concept of the New Heavens and New Earth (much like N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope alludes to) in that we should be very concerned about all people right here and right now.  I disagree with Bell’s sweeping assumption that everyone who believes in evacuation are least concerned about helping those right here and right now.  I have personally met with people otherwise.

We will look next about his chapter on hell…

So I had a rare treat last night in that I had the opportunity to hear Rob Bell speak about his new book Love Wins at Belmont University.  I had every intention of taking notes but for some reason I was drawn to his speech in a way where taking notes seemed a bit superfluous.  Besides, the way Rob Bell speaks makes it hard to take notes since he tells a captivating story from start to finish.  This was the first time I have heard Bell speak (in person) and I was impressed.  In his speech he basically gave snippets of ideas he expressed in his book (which I will address in forthcoming posts) and then fielded questions for about 20-30 minutes.  I was interested in the Q&A because of a couple of particularly engaging questions I thought were helpful.  The first question (which was one of the last questions asked) was asked by a lady in this manner (I am paraphrasing):

“When I told someone I was reading your book they said I was a universalist and I really did not know what that means.” [It was not really a question but the question behind the statement was, “Are you a universalist?”]

Rob did a great job answering as he said: “You are probably like me and
thought, ‘Yes I do belong in this universe!'”  He broke it down into some categories where he said “there are some who say that everybody gets in and the problem I have with that are the Nazis.”  But then he really did not answer the question all that well but made a good statement about defining universalism articulately.

A second question asked by another lady was essentially this:

How do you, Rob Bell, love your enemies considering all of the criticism you have received in the past couple of weeks?

At the heart this was what I wanted to hear because I read the book and already knew what he believed.  His answer was powerful.  He shared that the past couple of weeks (“Quite honestly” to quote him) has been difficult for him personally.  He said it has been “the most difficult two weeks of his life.”  Pretty powerful for a man who has seen a lot of brokenness.  But, he said that the brokenness he experienced allows him to form a response in a way in which he too can help people in their own brokenness.  I was amazed.  Rob Bell, like you and I, is a human being.

Whatever you say about Bell and other authors you may or may not disagree with is irrelevant because at the end of the day they are fellow people created in the image of God.  In reading all of the posts, blogs and updates about Bell I have encountered few people who share concern about him personally and that question seemed to provide hope for people like me.

It was a great evening and I was blessed to be there.  As Rob signed my book I also leave you…

Grace and Peace

This is a second post exploring chapter one of the book Love Wins by Rob Bell.  The chapter (“What about the flat tire?”) aims to set the tone for the rest of the book and Bell’s is dead-on.  In Bell-like fashion he introduces a series of probing questions asking his readership to think deeper about the issues at hand.  For example, on page 2, he says:

“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer torment and punishment forever?  Is this acceptable to God?  Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?”[1]

The point of the rows of questions is to get you to think about the larger questions like: What is heaven?  What is hell?  Who goes to heaven?  Who goes to hell?  Who decides?  Those are the larger questions at hand.  Bell is concerned that some people equate certain rituals and rites as THE process for getting into this place called heaven.[2] So do you say a specific prayer to get there or do you get baptized or does someone get baptized for you when you die which brings another question of where do those people go when they die?  All of these questions Bell introduces yet, and a big yet at that, he offers (at this point) no real answers.  On pages 6-7 I think Bell is on to something when he says that the problem with people who want to be “somewhere else” (escapist view of heaven) when they die is that leaves less concern about what we are doing right here and right now.  For instance, those who believe in leaving the world and going to heaven could care less about creation-care (environmental concerns, reforestation, etc.) because at the end of the day (or time) God is going to destroy this world and take us all up “somewhere else.”

Let me pause here and say that I believe this is too broad of an assumption on Bell’s part because there are many people I know who believe in creation-care who also believe that God will destroy this earth and start with a new one.  An analogy may help: Why sweep the floor if it is going to get dirty again?  Well, because it makes things better and you treat the floor because it has been entrusted to you.  I believe Bell is making broad assumptions at this point however, he does point to a deep issue that I believe we need to be concerned about: If God will destroy this earth then why should we bother taking care of it?

Bell also introduces the McLaren-like idea that people have been purporting different types of Jesuses all of which must be rejected.[3] I agree with Bell if what he means is that the Jesus that needs to be followed is the Jesus that comes from Scripture which comes from careful exegesis.

In the end, chapter one I thought was helpful in asking questions that perhaps we have ignored or, worse yet, we have assumed we understood.  Bell is right in that our eschatology informs our ecclesiology, christology and our soteriology.

What did I just say?

Bell is right in that what we think about life after death effects how we are the church but also it affects how we believe we get in the church.  Tough chapter…but filled with a bunch of answer-less questions…but a good chapter.

[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HaperOne, 2011): 2.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 7-9.  See Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007): 141-47.