on the Hellish treatment of Rob Bell…

Rob-bell1 North American Christians love a good bonfire.  And recently there has been a significant crowd of believers eager to fuel the flames.

The burning brush for the pile this time comes from Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, published by Harper Collins.  Even though this book won’t be published until March 29, Bell’s projected treatment of the topic of Hell has been like gasoline added to… well… Hell.  According to people who have not yet read the book, Rob Bell is hell-bent on abolishing Hell.  The Christian Twitter world is ablaze!  The labels are flying in the blogosphere: “He’s a universalist!”  “This man is a wolf!”  Just read some of the comments on Justin Taylor's article about Bell's new book.  Many of the comments have been hot-headed.  Some people are frantically praying down brimstone on Bell's head as if they were the prophets of Baal.

Surely there is a Hell… because I can see its evidence in the vehemence of thousands of Christian responses across the internet.  What an embarrassing debacle.  It’s as if we’re trying to prove to the world that God is not a God of love.  Hatred and condemnation seem more fitting.  The song isn’t ringing true: “They will know we are Christians by our love…”  What a great witness we are. 

Are we willing to toss vengeance at someone for questioning a contemporary theology of Hell?  Is it really worth such anger, hate and sin?  Oh wait, yes it is worth that.  That’s what Hell is made of.  That's the value of Hell.

If I were not a Christian and became privy to this intra-religious feud, I imagine I might react in one of three ways:

  1. I might continue to hope that there is a Heaven, not Hell, for me.  But I might want to search this out from some others who don't act like Hell is the more likely fate.  I think I would choose the way of hope if given the chance.
  2. I might still want there to be a Hell for people like Hitler.  In fact, there had better be a Hell for hellions like that.  And maybe for judgmental people too.  Oh wait, would that thought make me judgmental?  Only fair, I suppose.  I'll see lots of you there then as you rant at me.
  3. I might think at moments like this that Christians would rather pray for Hell on earth (or at least on others on the earth) more than Heaven.

Am I saying that Rob Bell’s purported denial of condemnation in Hell (if that’s truly what he communicates in his unpublished book) is not important?  No.  I believe that the topic of eternal existence in Heaven and Hell is extremely vital to every human being.  But for the sake of this specific post I'm not concerned primariy with the validity or invalidity of his ideas.  I am merely stating that we, if we are truly Christians, at the very least, need to show love to one another.

For those who have attempted to enter into this dialogue with civility and respect, I am thankful to you.  Normally I don't enter into the fray of charred flesh… but too many of my friends and students have approached me today asking for input.  You probably understand my hesitation to post any thoughts at all— partly out of concern that some hell-bent Christians might call down fire upon me. 

Of course, should some people try to ignite me, then I'll just become even more convinced then I already am that there is a Hell.

But… here's the difference.  And maybe you'll think this is water on the altar… While I believe Hell is real, and while I believe Jesus believes Hell is real, I don’t think we are supposed to put our faith in Hell.  My trust doesn't rest in Hell.  Praise God.  My faith lives in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, I will try with all my heart, soul and strength to love the Lord.  And I will try, then, to love my neighbor.  Even if that neighbor is someone as ironically hellish as some would claim Rob Bell to be… or more fittingly, perhaps, even if that neighbor is as hellish as I am.  Love wins?  In our actions as followers of Jesus Christ, at least, I hope so!

If interested, here are a few other links, on this particular subject:


  1. Thanks Ken, this was very helpful. And thanks for the links too, it was good to go and check out the original sources that started this firestorm. I appreciate your follow up piece as well on the right doctrine/right behavior question. And I really appreciated our conversation today at Dunn Bros.

  2. Thank you, Chris! Excellent. Very useful. At the end of the article he refers to the manner in which we should go about criticism… Do you know if he unpacks that anywhere. Thanks so much!

  3. CZ, thanks be to God! And thank you for your thoughtful comment. Some close friends have told me that a quick read of my blog could make it appear as if I am encouraging a lack of accountability for orthodox truth. This certainly is not my intent.
    And in fact, over the last 24 hours I have begun to pray through a couple deep questions to which we should all be held accountable: 1) Which does God value more, a right doctrine or right behavior? 2) If it is possible to have a heresy of doctrine, then is it also possible to exhibit a heresy of behavior?
    As I work through these two questions in consideration of Scripture, I’m considering that perhaps true doctrine is married with true behavior… and vice versa. Perhaps they go together. In other words, godly doctrine will never be devoid of godly behavior, nor will truly-right behavior ever be devoid of truly-right doctrine. Faith without works is dead = Demons believe the truth about God, but reject him. Pharisees with solid doctrine but improper behavior were scorned by Jesus. And yes, false teachers must be corrected. Good Samaritan, + Matthew 25, etc. Seems that doctrine and behavior go hand in hand.
    So we have found ourselves in the “Christian” blogosphere with someone whose doctrine is very presumably incorrect but whose Christian behavior has been for the most part kind and loving towards others (he’s not perfect I know)… AND we also have many people whose doctrine is perhaps “correct” but whose behavior in the process has been at times inappropriate, if not wicked. This is the theme of my blog post– We lose our voice if our doctrine is not married to behavior. Doctrine, true orthodox historical doctrine, is never segregated from true orthodox behavior.
    Having said all that. I’m as guilty on both counts as anyone I know. Thanks be to God for Romans 5:8.

  4. Wow, Chris. Great great comments. Except for calling me a geek. 🙂 I would like to give more studied insight into the doctrine of Hell in the near future… especially in terms of how the orthodox strain of Christianity has approached it throughout history. I’m reading right now some of the early debates concerning Hell… It’s fascinating! But I hadn’t considered all of the historical discussions/debates as a comparison to this particular argument with Bell. I suppose there are some important similarities… but they didn’t have facebook, twitter and publishing companies back then either. Hmmm… You’ve got me curious, bro! Thanks! (p.s. See my reply in the next comment for more thoughts on approaching historical debates)…

  5. A friend sent this on after I had sent her a number of postings re Rob Bell, a person who I think the church should be concerned about. With all due respect Ken you mention love several times and in your final paragraph you make mention of loving God and your neighbours. Do Christians understand that when Christ talked about those two laws that love is one of the hardest things we are asked to do? I can easily refrain from stealing but loving God as I should and loving my neighbour, that’s hard. When is my love for God or my neighbours enough?
    In addition judgement is not wrong if done rightly. In fact 1 Corinthians 6 indicates that we are to do just that. I haven’t read many of the comments to the various blog postings and I am sure there are many that are downright nasty. But let us not forget that Paul on multiple occasions publically spoke out against people, the best example being Galatians 2:11 when he opposed Peter to his face.
    Lastly I think the doctrine of hell is also a reminder of the holiness of God. Let us not forget that we cannot fully appreciate the love of God in the sacrifice of His son Jesus until we understand His holiness. When we come to that right repentance where we see God’s holiness and our own sinfulness then we fully understand that we deserve hell. It isn’t hell that scares us into heaven but our sin and our total inability to do anything to prevent our rightful condemnation. It is all of Christ and none of us. Thanks be to God!

  6. Love it Ken! Thanks for bringing love to the forefront in all this! Since i read the Taylor blog comments, I’ve been really saddened by the whole thing. What a horrible testimony this all is to the world.
    There is no doubt a better way to deal with this than viral warfare – but I do think it has to be critiqued (probably most appropriately done after the book gets out so we don’t start assuming things that aren’t there). As a fellow history geek, I can’t help reflect on Athanasuis’ condemnation of Arius, the battle between Augustine and Pelagius, Luther’s thoughts on the Pope, and even how hard Paul is towards the Judiazers and the Gnostics in his letters. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of grace towards those who are veering towards damaging views. In fact, Jesus himself was the most hard on those who were religious teachers pointing people astray. I do wonder what would have happened to Christian Orthodoxy if it wasn’t fought for and defended through-out history. Would Christianity today be more Arian/Pelagiun/Judiazer/Gnostic, etc. (you get my drift)?
    In my complete discomfort with how this has gone down so far, my thought and challenge is how should we maintain and defend a Nicene/Orthodox version of faith while still showing love/grace to those threatening it. What do you think? I can’t help but think of Stackhouse’s blog a few months ago on why he feels the right to critique and challenge Christian thinkers. It’s certainly been done historically, and I think we can all be grateful for hard-nosers like Paul, Athanasuis, Augustine, and Luther, to name a few.
    So while I’m in total agreement at the embarrassment of how the Christian conservative world is dealing with this, I can’t help but wonder if keeping our mouths shut and just loving isn’t the answer either. Clearly that’s not the approach our Christian Fathers took. There has to be a happy medium?
    I hope that when the book comes out, Bell doesn’t claim universalism and the haters will be embarrassed for letting it get this far in the first place. Love does win, who can argue against that.

  7. Thank you for writing this, Dr. Castor! I am learning to test the waters when it comes to Rob Bell because he is someone I enjoyed listening to and reading about when I was in high school… It has amazed me to see so many of my conservative, evangelical peers crucify Rob Bell because of various things that happens; and this one astonished me the most. I could not believe how Kevin DeYoung and Justin Taylor were so quick to jump on the “Crucify Rob Bell” bandwagon, and do the very thing you wrote about: reacting in a manor that reflects what they were accusing Rob Bell of- being hellish. I have come to learn that Rob Bell does have some skewed theological viewpoints, borderline if not heretical, but I like what Steve wrote: “I am pretty sure Rob Bell is a pretty nice guy trying to figure out how to follow Jesus like the rest of us.” Thanks again for giving me something to think about, Dr. Castor- even when I’m not in your classroom! 🙂

  8. Thanks Glen. Had Yancey for a class at Regent College in the late 90’s – the topic was his _Jesus I Never Knew_ book. Amazing class. Images/lessons from that course stick with me today. Thanks for stirring those memories!

  9. Too many people with not enough to do would be my conclusion- also an evangelical mindset that thinks the best way to defend God, propose God, share God is through writing and literature. Thank God most non Christians don’t read our books and our blogs. I have been reading this class book recently called the Holy Bible-a really interesting call to action and love- apparently the writer new something about these things. Good blog Ken- insightful and balanced and loving. I am pretty sure Rob Bell is a pretty nice guy trying to figure out how to follow Jesus like the rest of us.

  10. Good points Ken. I’ve used some of Rob Bell’s videos at our youth group in the past until someone (in leadership) asked me if he really even spoke of the gospel, or of Jesus directly. I went back and watched the ones we had shown (albeit not all of them), and was surprised that he hadn’t done that. I’m not a big fan of his, and I do think there are serious issues with his doctrine, but there are appropriate ways (without hatred) to discuss those topics.
    I’m reading Yancy’s classic on grace – that’s what we’ve all been shown, and grace should always be our first reaction.

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