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

To have a better understanding of this series, first, read the introduction, then the overview of Love Wins.  In part three, we examined the question:  Is Rob Bell a Universalist? Having read each of those sections, you are ready for the next question.

Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave?
One of the more provocative teachings that Bell adheres to throughout the book is the teaching that God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave.  In other words, he consistently implies that people will have more opportunities to respond to God after death. Bell pushes for this extension of opportunity to decide for Christ postmortem in multiple ways. First, he emphasizes all passages in scripture that point to the universal scope and reach of God’s love.  He makes the case that, when God corrects, rebukes, or punishes, it is always for the purpose of healing, redemption, and love.  He reminds us that God has made peace with all creation through Christ’s redemptive work accomplished at the cross and he makes strong appeals to having a proper view of God.   For example, in Chapter 7, The Good News is Better Than That, he says,

“Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later the same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.  A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony” (Bell 2011:173,74).

He makes the case that if an earthly father was like this, we would call the authorities, and that if God can switch gears that quickly, it raises a lot of questions about whether God is trustworthy and good.

Bell here and in other places, makes the case for postmortem decisions.  Is he alone in this idea or is this something that the church has taught?  Most evangelicals give space for certain kinds of postmortem decisions.  Most would probably not sentence babies to an eternal conscious suffering, without some chance to respond.  They may mention David’s words about seeing his baby in the next life.  A number of people would give space for those who have never heard the gospel. Many would give space for those under 12 to respond to Christ, because they have yet to reach “the age of accountability.”

But for Bell, these feel quite random.  In addition, he says that if everything is about heaven and hell, as the traditionalist understands them, “then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to 12 years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever.  Why run the risk?” (Bell 2011:1).

So is the God of second chances only the God of second chances prior to death?  Don’t the scriptures teach, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)? How are we to understand this verse?  The Lausanne Covenant is one of the more ecumenical evangelical statements of faith, put together in 1974 by participants from more than 150 nations at the International Congress on World Evangelization.  Having read through this statement of faith, I saw how carefully it was crafted, especially as it relates to this current issue.  Under article three, when talking about the uniqueness and universality of Christ it states,

“All men and women are perishing because of sin, but God loves everyone, not wishing that any should perish but that all should repent.  Yet those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God”.[1]

Notice the careful wording here when it comes to the final judgment and the fate of unbelievers.  This statement is careful to condemn only those who have expressly chosen to reject Christ.  It makes no definitive judgments regarding those who have not had the chance to reject Christ, due to not hearing the gospel or their age.  One of the nuances that Bell brings up in his book is about the people who hear about Christ, but not the real Christ. He mentions a real-life example of a young lady who grew up in an abusive household where “my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer… my father molested me while singing Christian hymns” (Bell 2011:7).  Bell asks, will she face eternal conscious suffering in hell for rejecting that Jesus?  In Love Wins, Bell pushes for second chances for everyone, postmortem.  Are his arguments convincing?  Is all this just an emotional appeal, or does it speak to our view of God?  Are there other arguments that cause Christians to believe that there may be chances for people to respond after death that Bell doesn’t mention?

According to Karkkainen, roughly 25 percent of all self-identified Christians are Eastern Orthodox, which is the same amount of all Protestants put together.[2] So what are the Eastern Orthodox teachings on this matter?  Can we gain any historical and theological insight from this rather significant tribe of Christians?

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev is a leading theologian for the Orthodox Church with dual doctorates, a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University and a doctorate in theology from St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. His chapter on eschatology in the Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology has some rich insights on this question of postmortem opportunities.  Before examining this particular aspect, it would be important to understand some basic beliefs as they relate to final judgment.  According to Alfeyev, the Orthodox believe every human being will stand before God at the last judgment, whether they are Christians or pagans, believers or unbelievers. In regard to hell, he states,

“According to many theological and liturgical texts of the Eastern Church, Christ in his descent into hell liberated all people from hell – without exception.  Truly, hell has been ‘abolished’ by the resurrection of Christ: it is no longer unavoidable for people and no longer holds them under its power.  But people re-create it for themselves each time sin is consciously committed and not followed by repentance” (Cunningham 2008:114).

For the Orthodox, “hell consists in being tormented by sorrow for the sin against love” (Cunningham, 2008:114).  It is the belief of the Orthodox that, after death, the sorrow one has for sin is a belated remorse that is unfruitful, for true repentance is remorse and a change in the way one lives.  And one only has a chance of correcting their mistakes in this life.  “As Symeon the New Theologian writes, after death there begins a state of inaction, when nobody can do anything, good or evil.  Thus, one will remain as one was at the end of one’s earthly life” (Cunningham 2008:114).  The orthodox hold to a judgment at death, as stated by Symeon, but at the same time they make a distinction between the judgment that takes place at death – “state of inaction, when nobody can do anything, good or evil” – and the last judgment.

According to Alfeyev, the Orthodox have always rejected the idea of purgatory, “where it was always thought that God’s mercy cannot be limited to just a certain category of the deceased.  The Orthodox belief is based on the idea that, until the Last Judgment, changes for the better are possible in the fate of any sinner” (Cunningham 2008:115).  This possibility of postmortem decisions for the Orthodox is developed fully by Alfeyev in his book Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective. In this book, he gives a rich history of the line from the Apostles’ Creed that most Protestants are totally unfamiliar with: “He descended into hell.”  He mentions that, while the Catholics view this descent into hell as Christ delivering the Old Testament righteous from it, the New Testament speaks of the preaching of Christ in hell to unrepentant sinners, and quotes I Peter 3:18-21:

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited” (I Peter 3:18-21).

This text does not stand alone for the Orthodox, for the descent of Christ to Hades is a rich theme in Orthodox history.  As Alfeyev mentions:

“Many church fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that having descended into Hades, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only for the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception.  They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell, and that after Christ’s descent into Hades there was no one left there except for the devil and demons” (Alfeyev 2009:10).

It is for these reasons that the Orthodox while not dogmatic, have a hope for all who have died and all who will die until the final verdict of the Judge is pronounced at the last judgment.  According to Alfeyev, the Orthodox believe that “God will always, eternally, wish for the salvation of all people; but God will always, eternally, respect the free will of the person, and cannot save people against their will.  This is the great paradox of the mystery of salvation” (Cunningham 2008:117).  For the Orthodox, “the question of the salvation of all humanity cannot be addressed theoretically: it invites not speculation but prayer.  As long as the Church lives – and it will live forever – the prayer of Christians for those outside the Kingdom of heaven will not cease” (Cunningham 2008:117).  Their faith is backed up by works, as every day when the church gathers around the Eucharist, it prays for the salvation of all people who were created and made in God’s image.  So does this help resolve the matter?  Some may choose to discount the Orthodox position, but on what basis?  Will they also exclude what Augustine has written?  I think not.  I side with C.K. Chesterton when he says, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors” (Chesterton 1959:45).

When Bell proclaims the universality of God’s love and holds out for people to have the opportunity to make decisions for Christ postmortem, should this be taken as heresy or orthodoxy?  Is he a heretic or a saint?  How are we to discern this?  Is it just up to our own personal judgment or does it involve something more than that?  In the next post, we will seek to better understand heresy and orthodoxy with the help of Alister McGrath.


[1] Found at http://www.lausanne.org/covenant

[2] Karkkainen, Veli-Matti, Lecture notes for ST503, Ecclesiology and Church Global, pg 8.


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

  1. Andrew Arndt says:

    Appreciate this bro. Thanks so much.

    So you’re saying the orthodox DO maintain that postmortem “decisions” for Christ, so to speak, are possible? Is Symeon the New Theologian just a minority perspective w/in EO then?

    Sorry if I’m misunderstanding.

  2. JR Woodward says:

    Andrew,

    What I’m saying is that the Orthodox position on this, including Symeon, is that there is judgment at death, that one can do no good or evil, but this is to be distinguished from final judgment or the last judgment. Between judgment at death and final judgment, people may respond to Christ. So the Orthodox do hold to postmortem “decisions” for Christ, which is why in their normal liturgy they pray for the dead.

  3. Tim says:

    Fantastic post, I’m loving your thoughtful and carefully researched approach to this topic.

  4. JR Woodward says:

    Tim,

    Thanks bro. I’m hoping that my research helps add to the conversation, so it is great hearing your feedback.

  5. B.D. says:

    I appreciate the research you have put into this JR. Its helpful to be able to show some reasoned approach for those of us who are in disagreement with some of the claims lodged against the book.

    I find it interesting that you referenced orthodoxy because Bells statements that make people wary that he’s a universalist seem quite in line with my understanding of orthodoxy through Ware, which is that we should hope for universal salvation while realizing there are some who will always resist.

  6. JR Woodward says:

    BD,

    You have hit it on the head. Bell falls right in line with basic Eastern Orthodox thinking. He takes this view consistently throughout his book.

  7. Ian says:

    I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that “Bell proclaims the universality of God’s love and holds out for people to have the opportunity to make decisions for Christ postmortem”

    Chapter 4, he states a perspective “that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.”

    As far as I can tell he doesn’t state “I believe thus” but this is the climax of the discussion thread over the preceding paragraphs and he goes on to explore how this belief fits within the “long tradition” of Christians who believe God will restore all things.

    From his book, he seems to advocate that everyone, eventually, will choose God and enter into heaven.

  8. JR Woodward says:

    Ian,

    In chapter four, Bell talks about the Universalist tradition in church history, and that those who hold a universalist stance (which has always been a minority voice) insist as Bell says, “that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.” Bell in this way is simply quoting what universalist believe. But his own conclusion of the matter is summed up at the end of the chapter, which is where we would expect someones conclusions to come. And it is there Bell says, “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.” This conclusion is more in line with the Eastern Orthodox tradition not the universalist understanding. I don’t know how one could come to another conclusion, unless one desires to read a conclusion that isn’t there.

    On top of that, if we are confused, we should then go to the author of the writing to get clarification. And since he is still living, we can ask him what he means, and he has told us, he is not a universalist. But, even if Rob declared himself a universalist, as we will see in this series, this has never been regarded as heretical in the church, but it has always been a minority opinion.

  9. Tony Stiff says:

    Thanks for putting the time in here JR. The orthodoxy question is certainly an important one. What about the exegetical question: has Bell provided a sound exegetical argument? Does his point of view on the passages he uses connect with biblical scholarship in a clear way? Is their support for Bell that is historical and biblical?

    Both I think need to be explored carefully. I know you’re not done with the series yet so I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  10. JR Woodward says:

    Tony,

    You are right to recognize that I have yet stepped in to give my thoughts on the matter. So stay tuned.

  11. Dave Burkum says:

    Thanks for this series. I think you’re providing the most thoughtful and helpful assessment I’ve seen. Looking forward to more!

  12. B.D. says:

    Hey Ian, later in chapter four he says

    “if we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins. ”

    This is after the thought that you referenced. At least in my reading it feels a little uncharitable to read that thought without his conclusion of the chapter. When I read the chapter I thought Bell did an excellent job highlighting the tension of whether God gets what God wants and whether humanity gets what it wants, and it seems a little unfair to read the thought you mention without dealing with the rest of that thought.

  13. JR Woodward says:

    Dave,

    Thanks bro.

    B.D.

    You are right to point to Bell’s conclusion in the chapter as his conclusion of that matter.

  14. Ian says:

    JR, BD: thanks, I see what you mean now.

    Is it just semantics though? I’m not sure I see a difference between what the book says, and outright empty-hell universalism. Well, what he wrote seems aimed to compel us towards obedience in this life whereas I suppose universalism proper doesn’t carry such ethical implications.

    As far as I can see.

    Even so, does God’s love really leave the choice up to us?

    We all know the Reformed tradition would have difficulty with that. However, I study at a Methodist college, and have had many discussions on the subject of prevenient grace. That is to say, human beings have no capacity to choose God in and of themselves and God must first do something. That something varies between traditions, but I think I missed this if Rob mentioned it at all.

    I know he believes God to be patient enough to wait as long as it takes for a person to come to trust in him. Is this prevenient grace? Is this prevenient grace extending into the grave?

    At the end of the book, it became clear that Rob is only trying to do what is best for his parishioners, trying to show them God’s love in a way that truly impacts their existence. I commend this effort, though personally I think he has missed the mark a little. I think he trusts too much in humanities capacity to respond to love.

    Not sure if that’s theology or cynicism speaking though.

    Great discussion.

  15. RobS says:

    Biblically, this seems to be a gray area. Romans 10 tells us of “believe in your heart and confess with your mouth” the truth of Jesus’ victory over sin. Would we be able to do that in physical death? I don’t know, I’ve never seen it happen, heard of it happening, or read in the Bible the process for how it happens. If it was part of a path of salvation, I would think maybe God would have given us some details in that area given that He does want all to come to fellowship and repentance with Him.

    So, to me this is an interesting philosophical idea of course, but I would be cautious to advocate that Bell’s message is real (guaranteed) truth. How many people would choose their own selfish desires now anticipating a second chance to get right with God one day? ie. I guess I’m saying I would be happy and comfortable to discuss the idea Bell has, but I would be very cautious (likely oppose) to the preaching and teaching of the idea as Biblical truth.

    Maybe there are a dozen other concepts that aren’t in the Bible that exist that people believe are in the Bible… we all respond in unique ways. I’m not sure what those are now, but I’ll give possibility to other concepts that may exist.

  16. JR Woodward says:

    Ian,

    Thanks for your comments here. In regard to God making the first move, I think the scripture seems clear that God loves all, Jesus died for all and the Spirit convicts all.

    Now whether God’s grace extends beyond the grave is still a matter I have yet to draw conclusions on. Partly what I am doing at the time is discerning heresy and orthodoxy in a general sense. I will give my conclusions of the matter later in my paper.

    My point in this post is to broaden our perspective of what the church has taught and what the church now teaches in some places. Keep following along.

  17. JR Woodward says:

    Rob,

    I would agree with you that biblically this area does seem very grey. As I mentioned to Ian, at this point, I am seeking to point out what various Christians hold to and why they hold to what they hold to, there theological, scriptural and historical support for what they believe.

    I have yet to give you my conclusions on the matter, as it relates to my personal understanding. Part of the reason I am first going “wide” is because the theme of this essay is discerning heresy from orthodoxy in the light of the doctrine of love and unity and how the church ought to go discerning heresy. Upon doing that I will also give my personal judgment on the matter which is coming soon.

  18. greg says:

    What a welcome post in a public discussion that has been characterized by some of the most impressive displays of historical unawareness that I’ve ever encountered. A few things to help understand the Orthodox perspective. Fr. Thomas Hopko has an interesting way of putting it – “It is never too late chronologically to be saved, but it may be too late ontologically for some.”

    Also, the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ is understood to be the place where all is revealed for what it actually is – where all self-deceit is exposed and the true reality of our sinfulness is unveiled.

    One thing we would not endorse is the idea that those who experience hell are eternally separated from God, who Himself fills all things. Rather, those that reject Him will experience His very presence as fire. Met. Hilarion’s book (which I cannot recommend strongly enough) discusses this as well.

    Orthodoxy is liberating on so many levels, one of them is the ability to simply rest in the fullness of truth – God knows the Church is full of sinners and we have our problems, but these kinds of nasty and frankly pointless ideo-theological wars are not one of them.

  19. JR Woodward says:

    Greg,

    Thanks for your rich addition to this conversation. If I had more time, I would have developed a fuller treatment of Orthodox thought. So is sounds like you are orthodox. Have you been part of the Orthodox church for a while? Again, thanks for your addition thoughts, your resource recommendation and your encouragement.

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  21. greg says:

    Thank you for your kind words. I am a dilettante, so please don’t mistake my comment for anything absolutely authoritative. I grew up in a family that was partly Orthodox, though I myself converted in mid-life. The interesting thing about my early experience is that my primary reference to Orthodox Christianity was in the contexts of Pascha and funeral services – both of which reflect on this theme of death, hell and judgment.

    Incidentally, if you have the chance, the Vesperal Liturgy for Great and Holy Saturday dwells explicitly on the theme of Christ’s harrowing of hell. It is a very rich service and worth attending to soak in the hymns. In fact, no matter what your Christian orientation, Orthodox Holy Week is worth doing end to end from Lazarus Saturday to Great and Holy Pascha at least once in one’s lifetime. Just make sure in advance the services are in English – most parishes will be, but a few that primarily serve immigrant communities will still use greek, slavonic, arabic or some other language. Most years Orthodox Holy Week is not the same as Easter on the Gregorian calendar, so it makes it easy to attend services without feeling that you have to miss your own community’s celebrations and services.

  22. JR Woodward says:

    Greg,

    Thanks for the recommendation of the Vesperal Liturgy for Orthodox Holy Week. I will surely check it out. Thanks again for your comments.

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