Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part VI

If you missed the first parts of this blog series, you would benefit from reading them prior to this final entry. I have them listed here for you:
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Overview of Love Wins
Part III: Is Rob Bell a Universalist?
Part IV: Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave?
Part V: Understanding Heresy and Orthodoxy

I have made an update to this post, in regard to Origen’s condemnation. (3.23.11 at 5:15 p.m.)

Now with a better understanding of heresy and orthodoxy, how do these ideas help us judge whether Rob Bell in Love Wins is teaching heretical ideas or if his teaching is within the bounds of orthodoxy?

My Judgment on the Matter
First, it is important to note, as Bell does, although in an exaggerated way, that a “hopeful” universalism or what Peter calls in Acts 3:21apokatastasis” – universal restoration – is something that well-known theologians have taught throughout the age of the church. In All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origin to Moltmann, Steve Harmon, a theologian teaching in the School of Divinity at Gardener-Webb University and a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School, mentions that in early Christian theology there were three major readings in regard to those who did not respond positively to God during their earthly lives. The majority reading, held to by Augustine and Tertullian, held that such persons would experience separation from God in ever lasting torment. The punishment was eternal in duration. Justin Martyr and Arnobious, apologists living in the second and third centuries, offered a minority reading. They held to the annihilationist view, in that the punishment of the wicked was eternal in effect, once they are thrown in hell, they experience the “second death”, they are destroyed, and thus evil ceases to exist. There was another minority reading, which was represented by Clement, Origen and Gregory, who taught that “punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation” (MacDonald 2011:63,64).

In addition, Harmon notes that, while the Fifth Ecumenical Council branded some of the teaching of Origen as heresy, he thought the objection had less to do with apokatastasis than with Origen’s understanding of the pre-existence of the soul and cyclical time.   Though Alfeyev gives five distinct reasons that Origen’s understanding of apokatastasis was rejected.  First, it doesn’t align with the vision of scripture that we are moving in history toward a better place, not returning to the starting point.  Secondly, it practically excludes the idea that “one can follow Christ into eternal life only of one’s free choice” (116).  Thirdly, Origen’s system of apokatastasis is closely linked with the theory of the pre-existence of souls, an idea firmly rejected by the church.  And fourthly, “Origen’s version of the apokatastasis raises the question: what is the moral sense of the entire drama of human history, if good and evil are ultimately irrelevant before divine mercy and justice?” (116).  Alfeyev concludes,  “The council of Constantinople in 543 and the fifth ecumenical council in 553 condemned the teaching of Origen and his followers on the doctrine of apokatastasis. But having condemned Origin, the fifth ecumenical council said not a word about the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa, who also wrote of the total extermination of vice and the final salvation of all people” (Cunningham 2008: 116).  Alfeyev references Gregory’s work On the Soul and the Resurrection (7-10).  Thus Alfeyev would conclude the council condemned a view of apokatastasis, in particular Origens view. Harmon, on the other hand mentions Gregory of Nyssa, saying that he developed a “concept of apokatastasis virtually identical to that of Origen, save Origen’s protology, [yet] was never condemned by council or synod, [but] was revered by the later church as a staunch defender of Nicene orthodox, and was canonized as a saint with a feast day on March 9th” (MacDonald, 2011:64). In my e-mail conversations with Harmon, he confirmed that although some of Origens teachings were branded as heresy, the church never declared Origen a heretic.

With this said, I don’t think that universalism, as defined earlier in this essay squares with the teaching of Scripture, nor do I believe that Rob Bell is a universalist.  There seems to be much wisdom in a nineteenth century German pietist who said, “Anyone who does not [hope for] believe in universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass” (MacDonald 2011, 64). I also would agree with Hans Shwartz that “Only those who are already in this life connected with eternity in time, with Jesus Christ” can have assurance, and “even in our most sincere concern for them [unbelievers], we have to acknowledge the ultimate hiddeness of God, a God who is beyond justice and love. At this point we can only hope without knowing for sure that his never ending grace will ultimately prevail” (Schwartz 2000:396,7). And so with the Orthodox, “the question of the salvation of all humanity cannot be addressed theoretically: in invites not speculation, but prayer” (Cunningham 2008:118).


So should we divide over hell? How does the doctrine of unity and love shape our approach to our understanding of the fate of those who don’t believe? When Jesus says, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35), he unites unity and mission. His prayer in John 17 gives me hope that visible unity can and will be reality at some point. If this is to be an increasing reality, as Protest-ants we must recognize that there is something in our DNA that takes pleasure in dividing, because we have become quite skilled at it. We must recognize we have much to unlearn and would do well to take Jesus’ doctrine of unity and love seriously.

Understanding that unity is a gift and promise as well as a calling and task is foundational. Helping Christians overcome common myths in regard to ecumenicalism is imperative as well. Unity is not becoming Unitarian. Unity is not having unanimity on everything. We can walk hand and hand without seeing eye to eye on everything. It is not about losing our identity or our doctrine, but sharpening them. It is about bringing ourselves fully to the Lord’s Table to listen and learn from one another. And finally, unity is not uniformity, all of us doing the same thing in the same way at the same time. Unity values diversity. Unity seeks to “speak the truth in love.”

When it comes to the two questions we address here, in light of what we have learned from McGrath as well as Harmon and Alfeyev, I do not believe we can brand Rob Bell a heretic. And, in light of the fact that it seems like universalism has been a minority voice in the church since the early days, and the fact that some in the past have gone further than Bell on this matter, I do not think we can call Love Wins heresy either. That is probably why people like Eugene Peterson states: “In the current religious climate in America, it isn’t easy to develop a thoroughly biblical imagination that takes the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation. Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination. Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all” (From the cover of Love Wins).

Other notable Protestant leaders have chimed in with similar judgments, including Richard Mouw. So what about those who are calling Bell a false teacher or calling his teaching heresy? Well, in good Protestant form, Scripture is always the final authority in matter of faith and life, and each believer must make his/her own judgments on the matter, but of course the cry for heresy must be from more than a few individuals and it certainly needs to come from more than just one evangelical tribe, although each tribe certainly has the right to hold to their ideas of orthodoxy and heresy. But of course, that does not mean it applies to the entire church, or even just evangelicalism.

Maybe the best way to live up to our protest-ant name is to protest against death-oriented behaviors and death itself, whose sting was taken by Jesus so that death might be swallowed up in the victory of love. For who is it that has the keys of Hades and death in his hands? (Rev. 1:18) I have to say that I am glad it’s not in the hands of those who easily call their brother a “false teacher”, but rather it is in the hands of Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. He, alone, is worthy to judge, and I have confidence that his judgment will be exceedingly beyond all that we can ask, think, or imagine.

35 Responses to Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part VI

  1. Fantastic series, JR. Thank you for taking the time to unfold it with us.

    That final paragraph was epic and fired me up. You were like William Wallace in Braveheart or something. 🙂

  2. RobS says:

    Hey JR, I think that’s a good focus. Unity on what’s really important to advance the kingdom is bigger than a book filled with some interesting questions and ideas. And I’m sure that calling Rob Bell a “heretic” or John Piper a “pharisee” (as seen on Twitter) is not really going to advance the kingdom so I’d rather just steer clear of the debate when it gets down to that kind of level.

    Glad your blog and readers raise good and fair ideas. Appreciate it. Cheers.

  3. JR Woodward says:

    Jason and Rob,

    Thanks for the encouragement. I appreciate it!

  4. Matt Borst says:


    Thanks for the time that you spent on this series. I appreciated you historical perspective and your focus on unity. It was very refreshing reading your posts as oppose to some others that are out there.

    Thanks again.

  5. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks bro for the encouragement. Glad to hear that it was a helpful series.

  6. JP says:

    Thanks for the rich historical context to this conversation. I appreciate your footwork. Relevant and enriching!

  7. JR Woodward says:


    Glad to be of service. My hope is that we might unite under Christ instead of divide over hell.

  8. Kevin Williams says:


    I loved this discussion because you brought did more than just review the book. I
    hope we can learn to speak the truth in love and grow in unity. Thanks for your thoughts. This kind of discourse helps the church move toward unity.

  9. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks man. I appreciate your encouragement and hope this series adds to the church becoming all Christ desires her to be.

  10. Stephen Redden says:

    Hey JR, great job on this series. Thanks forsaking the time to cover this issue so thoughtfully.

  11. Stephen Redden says:

    Of course that should have read “thanks for taking the time…” Darn autocorrect!!

  12. JR Woodward says:


    My pleasure. Glad you found it helpful.

  13. JJ Haskins says:

    Thanks for an interesting series. History seems to have clearly repudiated Gregory of Nyssa and Origen’s teachings by condemning Origen. No need to do it twice. The church showed love by honoring Gregory later in life in spite of his earlier heretical teachings. One can refer to the Orthodox church of the East as if it refers to “orthodoxy.” But that doesn’t make it true. “He descended into hell” wasn’t originally included in the Apostle’s Creed. It was added later. I Peter 3:18-21 is one of the most unclear passages in all of Scripture. It would be letter to let clear passages interpret the unclear. There are some great readers here who are seeking to wrestle with the rough intellectual issues. So I’d suggest something like “4 Views on Hell” (http://www.amazon.com/Four-Views-Hell-William-Crockett/dp/0310212685/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1300949320&sr=8-2) rather than a popular work that doesn’t wrestle with the whole of Scripture, like Rob Bell.

  14. JR Woodward says:


    Hey, thanks for dropping by. Actually, in regard to “history seems to have clearly repudiated Gregory of Nyssa and Origen’s teachings by condemning Origen” I think that is an opinion one can hold, but based on my current readings and understanding, I’m not sure that that opinion squares best with all the data. Here are some of the reasons I say that.

    1. It is a historical dispute on whether or not the actual fifteen anathemas against Origin were actually part of the council that took place in 553. Even if these anathemas are taken to be a part of the council, the form of universalism they do condemn is always and everywhere tied to Origin’s NeoPlatonic/Platonic outlook and never simply universalism as such. (Randy Boswell) Primary Source Material here would be Norman Tanner’s book “Decrees of the Ecumencial Councils”.

    2. After studying this issue out, Richard Bauckham has said, “Origen’s universalism was involved in the group of doctrines known as ‘Origenism’, about which there were long controversies in the East. A Council at Constantinople in 543 condemned a list of Origenist errors including Apokatastasis, but whether this condemnation was endorsed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) seems in doubt”. (Universalism: a historical survey)

    So it seems hard to hold to these things to dogmatically.

    With that said, I’m seeking to interview Steve Harmon at some point on my blog, because he is more of an expert in this issues, which is why I quote him in my essay.

    In regard to “He descended into hell” what is your citation that it was not a part of the original creed and that it was added later?

    In regard to I Peter 3:18-21, It is part of our scripture and it speaks very much to the arguments at hand, and so should not be ignored. Which scriptures are clear and unclear sometimes have more to do with our own spectacles (upbringing, history, culture, etc) that we bring to the text. At least something to think about.

    Of course, one could say there are clear texts that God loves all and God died for all and God wants all to come to him.

    In regard to books on hell, I’ve read a number of them, and found some of them helpful from a scholastic point of view. But my desire in this essay was to examine Bell’s book, because it is one that is likely to be read by more people (thanks of course to Piper and Taylor) than probably any book out there on hell, whether is is the “Four Views on Hell” or the “Two Views on Hell” or “The Fire That Consumes” or ‘Hell on Trial” or “Eschatology” or the Systematic Theology books that Grenz, Pannenberg, or Bloesh have written. But I’ve read most of those books. In fact, I will probably be posting my review of Two Views of Hell sometime soon.

    But what I found with some of these books is that some seem to miss the forest through the trees while Bell seems to look at the bigger picture fairly well. There are a number of things I could critique in regard to Bell’s book, but if you read my overview of the book, I feel he does a good job with both the questions people have today and the story of scripture as a whole.

    Appreciate any feedback to this, and thanks again for your comments.

  15. Penny says:

    LOVED your thoughtful and well researched series on the book. This is exactly the type of charitable response we should give towards this situation.
    My heart breaks at our lack of unity and as someone who can be in the minority of protestantism, it feels pretty darn horrible to be rejected by your brothers and sisters.

    Personally, I think there is much in Love Wins that needed to be said. I’m very grateful for the book and hope people can approach it open and learn. That doesn’t mean we must swallow everything. How often we we agree with everything every pastor yes? Doesn’t mean we have to start pull out scripture daggers and attack. “Sheep and Goats” have been so over used that the verse has pretty much lost all meaning.

  16. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate it. And you are so right in regard to the “Sheep and the Goats”. In this particular passage Jesus seems to be more worried about our orthopraxy, especially as it relates to the poor, disadvantaged and oppressed. He seems more concerned that we engage in social justice than anything else. Hell and eternal life are correlated on what we do or don’t do for the poor etc. He also talks about the surprise that comes at judgment, that those who are in thought they were out and vice versa. Sometimes it seems we miss the forest for the trees.

  17. brambonius says:

    Maybe I should read me some Gregory of Nyssa instead of Rob Bell. The eastern orthodox seem to like him and his ideas a lot.

  18. JR Woodward says:


    Yeah, Gregory would probably be an interesting read for you, as well as the Eastern Orthodox.

  19. Kevin says:

    Thanks for all the time invested. I am excited to have this well-researched article as a reference. You precede with care and the overall essay result is helpful.

  20. Pingback: Weekly Meanderings | Jesus Creed

  21. how can I subscribe by email? Thanks!

  22. JR Woodward says:



    Kevin M.

    I don’t have an email subscription but you
    can add me to your reader. I’ll check with my web guy about the email prescription. Thanks for asking.

  23. Lisa says:

    Hey JR!

    Great job! I saw that Chris R. had a nod to this essay on FB; I was so glad to have seen it! Thanks so much for taking the time to carefully look at what Bell is saying, as well as carefully looking at the accusations against him. I really appreciated you dissecting it bit by bit, all the while educating the reader about what these words really mean, as well as what other branches of Christianity believe. I also appreciated your challenge to take seriously Christ’s prayer for our unity as believers. It is so much easier to “cut off” than to continue to work towards unity; not same-ness, but diversity in whole-ness. I’ve been interested in the controversy surrounding this book, not so much because of it’s impact on my beliefs, but more out of curiosity as to why we feel the need to so quickly “cut off” others, like Bell, from the Christian family. Seems like it’s a poor example of demonstrating our love for one another…seems kinda un-Christ-like… Thanks again!

  24. JR Woodward says:

    Hey Lisa,

    Great to hear from you. Thank you for your encouragement. Hope all is well with you. Glad you found the essay helpful. Historically speaking, it often took years upon years and a strong straying away from the central story before something was declared heretical. Now people decry heresy, often prior to even reading what someone wrote. This only shows this proclivity to “cut off” others as you say. Sad. It would be wise for us Protestants to figure out better ways to deal with these things.

  25. CO Fines says:

    JR, sir, my first time with you. I await delivery of Rob Bell’s new book and your series on it gives me much needed hope for the church. Astute, fair, and open minded. On page 182 of Bell’s 2005 Velvet Elvis, the following endnote: “Read everything John Piper has ever written, beginning with Dangerous Duty of Delight.” Hmmm.

  26. JR Woodward says:


    Glad for your visit and thank you so much for your encouragement. I hope that Rob still loves his ‘brother’ even though the mistreatment. Though I have to say, if Piper didn’t make the tweet, the book would not nearly be getting the attention that it is getting at the moment. So it might be a gift in disguise for Bell. lol

  27. Tom Brandt says:

    JR, I stumbled onto your blog by reading other blogs on Love Wins. Thank you for a thoughtful, careful review. I look forward to reading Bell’s book.

    Your last sentence above is a perfect summation of what Christians should be thinking. Thank you.

  28. Bear says:

    Well done. But I need to go now – people are in need of help in my world today and I can’t be wasting time debating less-than-essential issues… (smiling).

  29. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks man.


    Exactly. Let’s join God in the renewal of all things!

  30. Greg says:

    A few notes on St Gregory of Nyssa that may be helpful:

    First, St Gregory is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, hence one if the architects of our understanding of the Holy Trinity. In other words, he carries tremendous weight as a theologian. In fact, the Orthodox call him “the father of fathers.”

    Second, much of his work is in print in English including a handy edition of his writing on the soul and resurrection in the very useful Popular Patristics series. Also, don’t miss the very accessible Life of Moses.

    Third, David Bentley Hart has a very interesting if a bit dense application of St Gregory’s theology to the work of many postmodernists in the Beauty of the Infinite. Worth reading.

    Fourth, the feast of St Gregory is January 6 in the east – my nameday, so I thought I would just point that out.

    At the risk of seeming unconstructive an alternative approach to Protestantism is to try to be ‘c’atholic.

  31. JR Woodward says:


    Thank you for the various thoughts in regard to St. Gregory, and yes, all of us who call on the name of the Lord out to be as you say, ‘c’atholic. For God has made us whole, lacking in nothing (catholic), but we are also to become catholic – universal, orthodox, extending to the ends of the earth. Thanks again.

  32. Tim Courtois says:

    Thanks so much, JR. This helps me a lot – I’ve struggled with anger and judgment towards Rob Bell in the wake of this book, and this series of posts is a gentle but firm reproof for me. Much appreciated.

  33. JR Woodward says:


    You are welcome. Glad you found it helpful in regard to dealing with anger and judgment. Peace bro.

  34. Fred Hayward says:

    OK, I just finished this one and your last paragraph clinched it!!! Bravo!!!

    Even though I am moving towards an eastern “room” of the church please understand that I am ALL OVER the unity thing!!! I am not heading east because I think they are so right and everyone else is so wrong.

    What I’m trying to say is that I LOVE my Roman Catholic Brothers and Sisters and my Protestant family will never stop being my family no matter what Parish I call home.

    My brother Don and I were blessed to be able to attend his eminence Metropolitan Ware’s visit to Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit a few months back:



    It was very encouraging to say the least… at least to those who have been aware of the ongoing dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches for the last 60 years. I admit I shed some tears. Remember, these two traditions form over half the Christians on the planet. If some kind of real, top-down/bottom up, authentic, communal unity could be hammered out between these two bodies, well… I think that would make much for much rejoicing both in heaven and on earth.

    Here is the document (written 2007) that displays so much hope in that direction.


    Anyway, much peace and brotherly love your way! Keep up the good work and God bless you once again!

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