Heaven is for real. You’re just not going to end up there.

No, I’m not questioning your eternal destiny. (Well, maybe. But not how you think.)

The other day, a friend shared five things we get wrong about heaven. (I reacted by overenthustiastically quoting half the article on Twitter… which may have cost me a few followers.) All five things lead back to the question question of where. The answer to this question may surprise you if, like me, you grew up on a steady evangelical diet of “this world is not my home” and “I can only imagine.

But it’s not just the where that we get wrong. It’s the why. How did our view of eternity get so muddled? I think lot of it’s the result of how we answer one question: Does this world matter to God or not?

Did Jesus mean it when he talked about “the renewal of all things”? Or does he only care about snatching disembodied souls from the (not-so?) proverbial fire?

Is creation worth saving? Or is it destined to burn?

If God made this world to be his temple, will he occupy it again someday?

How we answer these questions will in large part determine why kind of eschatology we embrace. A world that matters to God is a world worth saving, not destroying. A world that matters to God is one worth coming back for.


(Not-so) Late, great planet…
It’s funny how one of Scripture’s most powerful images of God returning to earth became the basis for an escapist vision of the end.

The idea of the rapture—a faithful few being evacuated by Jesus before the world burns—hasn’t been around that long, historically speaking. It was developed by John Nelson Darby in the early 1800s and popularized more than a century later by the book The Late, Great Planet Earth — and by the Left Behind series a generation after that.

1 Thessalonians 4 is often cited in support of the rapture:

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

But a rapture-friendly reading hinges on something the text never actually says: that Jesus will escort the faithful back to heaven after they meet him in the clouds.

The scene Paul describes mimics a royal visit by the emperor of Rome. These visits were not unlike those made by heads of state today — full of pomp and fanfare. N.T. Wright describes the scene in Surprised by Hope:

When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly.

But here’s the crucial detail. After you met the emperor—after you heard the trumpet call and hurried out the gates—he didn’t whisk you away to some far off place. You escorted him back into the city.

This is the picture painted by Paul. Notice how he never says, “And then we will go away to heaven.” More from N.T. Wright:

When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord “in the air,” the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.

Heaven is indeed for real. But in the biblical narrative, we don’t go there to be with God. He comes here to be with us.

Salvation, judgment, and hell in the New Testament: Luke-Acts

A few weeks ago, I posted some broad-brushstroke thoughts about my experience reading through the New Testament, seeking out every passage that touches on judgment, heaven, hell, who goes where, and for how long. This little experiment was inspired by reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins earlier this year. I thought I’d dive a little deeper into one book in particular, Luke.

Luke is one of two volumes from the same writer. Luke tells the story of Jesus, while volume two (Acts) unpacks the movement he ignited.

More than any other gospel, Luke highlights the radically inclusive nature of Jesus. Time and again, Jesus subverts the “natural order of things.” Those who think they’re entitled to God’s favor end up on the wrong side of things. Those typically excluded — women, foreigners, the diseased, etc. — end up pleasantly surprised.

The gospel of Luke mentions hell (a.k.a. Gehenna) only once, in Luke 12:5. Three times if you also count references to Hades (Luke 10:15; 16:23).

In Acts… not one mention of hell.

As for judgment, there’s plenty to be found in Luke. But it’s not always what you’d expect.

John the Baptist warns of an unquenchable fire in Luke 3. But he also connects fire with baptism. One fire, different results — depending on what kind of person you are.

Twice (Luke 9:25-26; 12:8-10) Jesus says he’ll disown anyone who’s ashamed of him. The second time, Jesus also warns that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

And just what is blasphemy against the Spirit? This statement is set against the backdrop of Jesus’ clash with those who cynically credit his work to the devil and insist he prove his identity by performing signs at their command (Luke 11:14-16).

Two things worth mentioning…

First, you have to know someone in order to be ashamed of them. These texts say nothing about those who’ve never heard of Jesus.

Second, Jesus aims his rebuke at those who knowingly, persistently reject him. Those who see God at work and call it the devil.

Elsewhere, Jesus prophesies that three Galilean villages — Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum — will suffer a fate worse than Sodom because of their unbelief (Luke 10:1-15).

In Love Wins, Rob Bell reflects on a similar passage in Matthew, suggesting that maybe there’s hope for Sodom (p. 83-84). But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Luke’s text or the parallel account in Matthew.

Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are sometimes known as the “evangelical triangle.” This was Jesus’ home turf. Several of the disciples came from these villages. The evangelical triangle was home to some of the most devout, God-fearing people in ancient Palestine.

According to Luke, the fate of these otherwise good people who rejected the Messiah will be worse than that of the notoriously wicked who never met Christ (e.g. Sodom).

That’s because judgment is directly related to knowledge. Elsewhere, Luke quotes Jesus: “The one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows,” while those who know better “will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:47-48).

And in his next installment, Luke writes about a God who has overlooked human ignorance.

Does ignorance get someone off the hook for bad behavior? Not entirely. But the full force of judgment is reserved for those who ought to know better.

And then there’s the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this story, Jesus describes Hades as a place of “torment.” There’s a “great chasm” separating Hades from paradise — though the rich man’s refusal to accept Lazarus as his equal, even after their fortunes have been thoroughly reversed, is as much a chasm as anything else in this story.

Most scholars will tell you not to read too much theology into parables. But this story does reveal another dimension of judgment: it is in part about evening the score, providing justice for those who didn’t get any in this life (see also Luke 6:20-26).

In fact, if there’s one group of people for whom it’s almost impossible to enter the kingdom of God, it’s the rich (Luke 18:18-29). Which is small comfort for those of us who find ourselves among the wealthiest 1% of people on the planet.

Last, we have the religious leaders — Jesus’ nemeses in all four gospels.

Near the end of his life, Jesus singles out the religious establishment in a parable about a vineyard owner who executes his wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). No one misses the point (which is remarkable for one of Jesus’ parables): the “teachers of the law and the chief priests” are the wicked tenants.

A few paragraphs later, Jesus warns that the religious leaders “will be punished most severely” for making a mockery of religion and exploiting the vulnerable (Luke 20:45-47).

So yeah… there’s plenty of judgment in Luke. We’re talking more than just a slap on the wrist, too:

“Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.”

“Will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.”

“These men will be punished most severely.”

But Luke also seems to believe that not all sins are created equal. In God’s cosmic justice, the punishment always fits the crime.

This is a far cry from the brand of Calvinism which says that every sin — from breaking the speed limit to genocide — is equally repugnant in the eyes of a holy God.

But there’s more.

In Luke, Jesus is radically inclusive and divisive all at once.

When Jesus’ disciples try to stop someone driving out demons in his name, Jesus tells them to leave the guy alone, saying, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-51).

But in the very next section of Luke, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). (This was in response to those attributing his powers to the devil, for what it’s worth.)

Jesus insists he came not to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51), and he butts heads with the religious leaders… a LOT.

Yet Luke also says the religious leaders “rejected God’s purpose for themselves,” once more highlighting the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ message. Even the establishment — as corrupt as it was — was meant to be part of what God was doing.

It turns out God wants everybody, even misfits. Even outcasts. And even the ones oppressing the outcasts. That’s the whole point of Luke’s gospel.

One last thing to take from Luke: judgment isn’t our business. It’s God’s.

In Luke 9, as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem — toward his death — he and his disciples pass through a Samaritan village. The people refuse to welcome him. (Let’s just say there was a bit of ethnic hostility between Jews and Samaritans back then.)

The disciples ask if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the village… which was just a bit presumptuous on their part, don’t you think?

Jesus will have none of it. Luke simply says that he “turned and rebuked them.”

There’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo laments that his uncle Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. To which Gandalf replies: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

The same warning applies to all of us to debate heaven, hell, and who goes where. It’s God’s business, not ours.

Even those who have a relatively narrow view of salvation should hope and pray they’re wrong — that God will withhold whatever judgment he’s got in store and spare whoever they seem to think will be on the receiving end.

After all, if you figure the odds based on the New Testament, those of us who qualify as “religious insiders” have a better chance of being on the wrong side of things… precisely because we’re so sure we’re right.

But the good news is that God wants everybody. Outcasts, insiders, everyone.


6 observations on salvation, judgment, and hell after reading the New Testament


Shortly before Love Wins came out, I started reading the New Testament for Lent. Since Rob Bell had recently blown up the Interwebs with his provocative promo video, I decided to make note of every passage mentioning judgment, either directly or indirectly.

I finished just before Good Friday. I wound up with 75 some-odd pages of notes. For me, the experience affirmed much of what Rob says in Love Wins. But it clarified some areas where I have a different understanding of hell and judgment, too.

In general, I’m more convinced than ever that Rob has started an important conversation. We need to wrestle with the questions he raises Love Wins, not dismiss or distort them. Above all, we need to explore these questions without the vitriol that’s characterized much of the discussion to date. (This is, after all, the week of the Rally to Restore Unity.)

Here are some general observations…

1. Judgment is part of the New Testament story… a BIG part.

Like I said, 75 pages of notes.

It’s hard to read the New Testament and NOT get the impression that a day will come when God separates good from evil, darkness from light — banishing one from his presence. Maybe forever.

There’s hardly a book in the New Testament that doesn’t address judgment head-on. (Possible exceptions include Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John — all of which share one thing in common: they’re tiny.)

Speaking of tiny…

2. Hell is a tiny part of what the Bible has to say about judgment.

If you’re trying to craft a New Testament theology of judgment, you won’t get far by doing a word search on “hell.” In most translations, “hell” occurs just 23 times. And it may not even be the best translation, since “hell” is used for three different terms — each of which had a distinct meaning and origin.

I’ve said it before; and after reading the New Testament, I’ll say it again: our picture of hell owes more to a medieval caricature than it does the Bible. The fiery torture chamber that many of us imagine has little to do with the biblical picture of judgment.

3. Not all judgment is restorative.

This is one of the really big questions that Rob raises in Love Wins: do people get a second chance after death?

C.S. Lewis explored the idea of postmortem salvation in vivid detail. Martin Luther accepted the possibility, but cautioned it’s purely speculative. It can’t be proven from Scripture, he argued.

And that’s pretty much the sense that I get.

In the New Testament, there’s a strong hint of finality to judgment — or at least one aspect of judgment. Maybe those in hell can repent (as Lewis suggested) between now and some future, final judgment (i.e. the judgment depicted near the end of Revelation). But there’s a strong indication that at some point the curtain will drop. And whichever side you’re on, that’s it.

Yes, there is restorative judgment — i.e. discipline. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves,” and all that. But the Bible also talks about “everlasting destruction, “the second death,” and the like.

It’s one thing to suggest that “everlasting” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it does, as Rob argues in Love Wins. But even if that’s so, there’s still the matter of words like “destruction” and “death,” which have an unmistakable ring of finality.

4. Annihilationism and conditional immortality are at least as plausible as eternal conscious torment — if not more so.

The fact that the Bible talks about “everlasting destruction” and “second death” is a big part of why I believe in an irreversible judgment.

It’s also why I think we should take annihilationism and conditional immortality more seriously. (They’re two related but different theories of what happens to those who reject God.)

In my journey through the New Testament, I found two passages that I think could be read to support the notion of eternal conscious torment. There were a heck of lot more that talk about destruction, death, etc. Not exactly happy stuff. But as John Stott and others have noted, it’s hard to reconcile these images with the evangelical notion of eternal conscious torment.

5. Judgment is focused on those who knowingly, persistently reject God and work at cross-purposes with him.

The Bible has a lot to say about judgment. The question is: judgment for whom?

Judgment, as depicted in the New Testament, seems focused on a rather narrow set of people.

In the gospels, Jesus mostly directs his judgment diatribes at religious insiders — i.e. those who should’ve known better and rejected him anyway. In his letters, Paul refers to the judgment awaiting those who knowingly, consciously reject God. Revelation depicts judgment as vindication for the persecuted faithful.

I didn’t find a single passage where judgment is directed at those who’ve never heard about Christ or those who heard a toxic distortion of the gospel. These are questions the New Testament doesn’t address directly, but there is reason to believe that people aren’t judged for their ignorance.

6.  Simplistic, dismissive answers will not do.

When you ask about the fate of those who never heard the gospel, there’s a tendency in some circles to quote Acts 4:12.

As if that somehow settles the matter.

As if this passage is somehow talking about those who never heard.(It’s actually a warning to the Jewish religious leaders that if they reject the Messiah sent by God, no one else is going to come and save them.)

It’s one thing to say Christ is the only way to God. It’s another matter to presume to say how God can and can’t use Christ to bring people to himself.

Quoting a single line of Scripture — out of context, no less — doesn’t do justice to the immensity or complexity of the questions at hand.

We have to do better than that.

Related post: Six(teen) views on hell

Photo by Joseph Novak on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

4 (more) final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

I my previous post, I shared 4 final thoughts on Love Wins. Well, I wasn’t quite done. Here are four more parting observations…

1. Let’s be willing to ask the hard questions.

Rob raised a lot of them in Love Wins. But for me the biggest are still:

  • What about those who never had a chance to accept or reject the gospel?
  • What about those who seemingly reject Christ but in reality are rejecting a misrepresentation of him, as opposed to the real thing? Who will God hold accountable? Those who reject the distortion or those who created it?

What might a God who is “rich in mercy” have in store for those who never had a chance to embrace the real thing? If God has “overlooked such ignorance” before, what’s to keep him from doing so again?

Furthermore, if you believe (as I do) that infants who die go to be with God — in spite of the Bible’s silence on this question — why is it so unthinkable that God might save those who never heard or those who were presented a toxic caricature of the real thing?

These are not easy questions. And my goal here isn’t to answer them. But as Scot McKnight recently suggested, to play the agnostic — to answer “I don’t know” or “It’s in the Lord’s hands” without seriously considering the issues at stake — is a copout.

These questions have to be wrestled with. And simplistic, patronizing answers will not do.

Loads of people were asking these questions long before Rob Bell wrote Love Wins. He may have given a fresh voice to their inquiries, but they’ve been asking for a long time. We might as well create a safe space for questions like these to be explored.

6. For those who disagree with Rob: stop putting words in his mouth.

To say that Rob soft-pedals sin, denies the bodily resurrection, or rejects some other tenant of orthodoxy (all of which has been postulated in response to Love Wins) is not only reading between the lines; it’s reading the worst possible meaning into his book.

Granted, if you’re one for doctrinal checklists, you may never be satisfied with what Rob has to say. But consider the evidence from Love Wins:

  • Rob acknowledges every human being is affected by sin (p. 42).
  • Rob acknowledges that heaven and hell are real (p. 42, 55, 71, 79).
  • Rob acknowledges the incarnation — the fully divine, fully human Christ (p. 146-149).
  • Rob acknowledges the resurrection (p. 133).

It is possible to disagree with Rob without being inquisitorial. (Scot McKnight provides a good example of the right way to disagree with someone.) Unfortunately, far too many have taken it upon themselves to denounce Rob as a heretic. What kind of hubris does it take for some random blogger/pastor/armchair theologian to decide for the rest of us who’s a heretic and who isn’t?

7. Also for those who disagree with Rob: practice what you preach.

Rob could’ve been more careful citing Scripture and other sources to make his case. No argument there. But you might want to stop misquoting Love Wins before you take him to task for such alleged carelessness.

Exhibit A: Martin Bashir. After his confrontational interview with Rob, Bashir went on the Paul Edwards Program to explain what got him so worked up. Bashir was irritated at how Rob (allegedly) misquoted key sources — namely, Martin Luther. Actually, Rob didn’t misrepresent Luther, but I digress.

Bashir explained he cannot tolerate anything less than the highest standards of journalistic accuracy when quoting a source.

Then he proceeded to misquote Rob:

He says in his book, God’s love melts everything in the end. And that at the end of the day, you can be antagonistic to Christianity, but after you die, God’s love will melt your opposition and you will walk into heaven.

Except Rob never said this. He says many believe that God’s love will melt even the hardest heart in the end (p. 108) but that we can’t know for certain whether this will, in fact, be the case (p. 115).

Let’s all deal with the planks in our own eyes before worrying about the speck in someone else’s, shall we?

8. We can (and should) do a better job telling the good news.

Near the end of Love Wins, Rob Bell makes perhaps the most important statement of his book: “The good news begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved” (p. 172).

Is that really the story we tell? The one where “God so loved the world”? Really?

When the fledgling Jesus movement was getting off the ground, what drew people in by the thousands? Was it the threat of judgment? Was it Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Or was it the promise of victory over death? Was it the radical, equalizing love the believers had for one another?

Read the book of Acts and count how many times the apostles use the threat of hell in their proclamation to outsiders.

Read the gospels (particularly Matthew, which scores highest on the “hellfire and brimstone” meter) and ask: who was Jesus speaking to when he warned of judgment?

You may find the answer a bit unsettling if, like me, you’re a religious insider.

Love Wins is not a perfect book. Nor is it the heretical train wreck some have made it out to be.

There were things I resonated with and things I disagreed with. But in Love Wins, Rob does what he does best: he forces difficult questions to the surface.

And that’s a good thing. Because people were asking them long before Rob wrote Love Wins. So let’s dispense with simplistic answers and self-righteous denunciations and actually wrestle with the questions in this book.

4 final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

I’ve blogged my way through most of Love Wins. I never got around to the last two chapters… but really, there’s nothing I could’ve said that a thousand others haven’t already.

So here are my parting thoughts in response to Love Wins. (True to form, I can’t manage to get this to a reasonable word count, so I’m dividing it into two posts.)

1. Let’s admit we’ve painted a one-dimensional picture of salvation.

The Bible stubbornly resists simple answers to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rob zeroes in on this in his first chapter. It may make us uncomfortable, but it is what it is.

(In fact, after reading the New Testament, you’d be forgiven for thinking the PR consultant whose job it was to make sure everyone stuck to the approved “salvation” talking points severely neglected his duties. It’s almost as if the New Testament writers didn’t even HAVE a PR guy…)

Take just a few examples. In Romans, Paul characterizes salvation as a simple matter of saying “Jesus is Lord.” In the same vein, he insists in Ephesians that salvation is a matter of faith, not works.

But in the gospels, Jesus warns that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter his kingdom. At one point he quotes Psalm 62, telling his disciples that the Son of Man “will reward everyone according to what they have done.

And this is just one example of the tension we encounter. To be clear, tension is not the same as dissonance. But salvation is more than a one-note melody. There are many notes to this score, and they all must be heard.

(For more on the NT’s multifaceted picture of salvation, see Scot McKnight’s latest post on Love Wins.)

2. Let’s admit we’ve confused salvation for evacuation.

Love Wins reminds us that at the end of the story, heaven comes crashing to earth. We don’t get whisked away to some distant realm.

(And if you’re wondering about the passage that says we’ll “meet the Lord in the air and so…be with the Lord forever,” understand that Paul is describing Christ’s return in the very specific language of an emperor visiting one of his colonies. Upon his arrival, heralded by a trumpet blast, the emperor’s subjects would march out to meet him. Then they would escort him back to the city. That’s the picture Paul paints in 1 Thessalonians, not one of evacuation. For more, see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.)

Others (including Wright) have made the point more comprehensively than Rob Bell does in Love Wins. But it still bears repeating:

If God’s kingdom is coming to earth — and, in fact, has already started coming — then we can either participate in this reality here and now… or not. There is another choice. The invasion will not be uncontested.

Love Wins helps us to see the many ways in which heaven and hell (and Rob affirms both as real places) collide with our world every day.

3. Let’s admit that much of what passes for a biblical notion of hell is anything but.

Close your eyes and picture hell. Chances are, the image in your mind owes more to Dante’s Inferno (or one of cartoonish depictions from The Simpsons) than Scripture.

The Bible says little about hell. It’s mentioned 23 times… only it isn’t. Not really.

Most of our modern Bibles conflate several different terms under the rubric of “hell,” obscuring the fact that each term had a distinct meaning:

  • Gehenna (12x) | a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, a valley south of Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to the god Molech during OT times, which Jesus uses as a metaphor for judgment (thanks to Scot McKnight’s recent post for the clarification)
  • Hades (10x) | the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew term sheol, referring simply (and ambiguously) to “the realm of the dead”
  • Tartarus (1x) | borrowed from Greek mythology, used only once in Scripture to describe a place where angels are judged

These terms are pictures of judgment, not necessarily the thing itself.

4. Let’s also admit there’s much more to the biblical picture of judgment than hell.

For me, this is the biggest weakness of Love Wins. It’s not enough to read every passage that mentions hell (or uses a term that’s been translated as such). Hell is such a miniscule part of what the Bible says about judgment.

Consider the prophets. Consider the judgment parables in Matthew 25, where those on the wrong end of things are characterized as being in a perpetual (or at least indefinite) state of exile. Consider Paul’s words for those persecuting the church in Thessalonica.

Judgment is part of the redemptive story. Without it, the good news isn’t really good news for those on the receiving end of exploitation in this life.

Yes, judgment is often restorative. But sometimes the Bible talks in terms of destruction. So how do you reconcile restoration with destruction? It’s a fair question.

Rob seems confident that judgment after death is restorative (p. 86), but what is the basis of this confidence? It’s also a fair question…especially when most of the passages he cites seem to focus on judgment in this life.

And even if judgment after death is restorative, how can you be sure the hardest of hearts will take the bait? Another fair question.

Speaking of fairness, many Christian thinkers — yes, including Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis — have left open the possibility of a second chance after death. And it’s worth remembering that Rob is arguing only for the possibility of universal salvation, not the certainty of it. In the end, I’m not sure he made his case, because I’m not sure he dealt adequately with the full biblical picture of judgment. But still…

More tomorrow.

Is he or isn’t he? Yet another review of Love Wins (part 5)

On to chapter 4 and the really big question of Love Wins:

Does God get what God wants?

Another way of unpacking this is to ask two questions:

  1. Does God want all people to be saved or not?
  2. Does God have to get everything he wants in order for “love wins” to be true?

Rob Bell seems to answer yes to both questions. I say seems to because (as I mentioned in an earlier post) just when you think Rob is about to hop on the universalism bus, he takes a step back and says something like:

Will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility. (p. 114)


Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions… we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t. (p. 115)

Rob leaves room for the possibility that everyone might be saved in the end, but he stops short of saying everyone WILL be saved.

Anyway, back to the questions…

1. Does God want all people to be saved or not?

Rob alludes to this on p. 97, quoting a well-known passage from 1 Timothy:

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.

Pretty straightforward, right?

Except there are some — particularly those who believe in a limited atonement (i.e. Christ died to save only the “elect”) — who would say, “Hang on… ‘all people’ must really mean all kinds of people!”

This is the approach Kevin DeYoung takes in his review of Love Wins, for example.

And it’s disgraceful.

You want to talk about twisting Scripture to fit your theological presuppositions?

You want to talk about “preaching a different gospel”?

Even John Calvin allowed that, on some level, “all people” means what it says. And as he noted in a sermon on this very text, if this is God wants, then we should want it, too — even if, like Calvin, we don’t think it will turn out this way in the end.

And if it isn’t obvious enough, the context makes clear that “all people” means all people. Paul’s argument to Timothy (and by extension, to the church he pastored) was basically this:

There’s no one you should exclude from your prayers, not even the cruelest dictator. [Bear in mind Paul had just been released from prison, so these were anything but hollow words for him.] Why? Because God wants all people to be saved. Because our one and only mediator, Jesus, gave himself as a ransom for the entire human race.

No, Paul is not saying here that every individual will be saved. But he IS saying that Jesus had the whole world — no exceptions, no exclusions — in mind when he came to rescue us from sin and death.

In fact, the whole biblical story moves in this direction. God’s redemptive plan starts with one guy, Abraham. Then it grows into an entire nation. A chosen people. But get this: the chosen nation is supposed to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19) — a light for the whole world, illuminating the path to God.

Then God really blows the lid off things in the New Testament. Salvation is no longer just a Jewish thing (not that it ever was, if you read carefully). It’s for Gentiles, too. It’s for outsiders. It’s “all nations.” “The whole world.” “All people.”

In contrast to the picture Calvinism paints, one in which a select few are predestined for heaven while the rest of us are simply out of luck, the Bible presents a picture of salvation that’s ever-expanding.

Just look at how the book of Acts unfolds. It starts with a band of Jesus-followers based in Jerusalem. But it can’t be contained there. Soon it spills into Samaria, which was hard enough for some Jews to swallow. But then, Gentiles start believing too. Pretty soon the good news is spreading into Asia (modern-day Turkey) and Europe and Rome itself.

It’s ever expanding. The circle grows ever wider to include more and more people who were previously (and mistakenly) regarded as being outside the circle. Outside of God’s plan. Beyond the reach of his love.

To the extent that Scripture does talk about predestination, it’s always about people being chosen so they can share the blessing with others. It’s a lot like being an ambassador. (In fact, Paul says something just like this.) You’re not chosen for your own benefit, so you can have something nice to put on your CV. You’re chosen so you can spread the message of whatever kingdom you represent far and wide.

So does God want the whole world to be saved? Or is he only interested in a select few? Which story is truer to the picture painted in the Bible?

I’ll save the second question (Does God have to get everything he wants in order for “love wins” to be true?) for another post.

Kolasin aionion

Nerd alert: This post deals with ancient Greek. (In case you were wondering about the title…)

There’s one thing especially worth noting from chapter 3 of Love Wins Rob Bell’s take on the “sheep and goats” passage in Matthew 25, where Jesus says:

Then they [those who didn’t care for the needy] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [those who DID care for the needy] to eternal life.

Setting aside the REALLY provocative thing about this text (that people are judged based to how they treat suffering believers), what are we supposed to make of the phrase “eternal punishment”?

On pages 91-92, Rob suggests the Greek word translated “eternal” (aionion, from the noun aion) can also mean an age of unspecified duration. And the word translated “punishment” (kolasin) can mean corrective punishment — as opposed to punitive punishment (that is, punishment quite literally for the hell of it).

As you might expect, many think Rob is playing fast and loose with the text. But whether or not you agree with his interpretation of Matthew 25, his definitions of aion and kolasin are both plausible.

Let’s take just one of the major Greek-English lexicons (this one, in case you get a kick out of stuff like this). It lists four possible meanings for aion:

  1. a long period of time (possibly, but not necessarily eternal in scope)
  2. a particular unit of history—i.e. an era or an age
  3. the world
  4. a guy named Aeon

(We can probably rule out #4 when it comes to Matthew 25.)

The point is, aion doesn’t necessarily mean “eternity.” There are some cases where “eternity” may be the best translation. And Matthew 25 may be one of them. But there are also several instances where it clearly doesn’t make sense to translate it this way. (See Chad Holtz’ blog for a helpful overview.)

So how about kolasin? Rob may be reading too much into the fact that kolasin comes from a horticultural term for pruning (which, I’m told by successful gardeners unlike myself, does not normally involve destroying the plant in question).

But there IS evidence from ancient Greek literature that kolasin meant corrective punishment. (Again, see Chad Holtz’ blog for more, because I don’t feel like turning this into yet another monster post.)

In any case, the passage in Matthew 25 could be translated, “Then they will go away to the age of punishment, but the righteous to the age of life.” (Which at least would leave it more open to a range of interpretative possibilities.)

Now, there’s a lot more to the kolasin aionion debate than this. (Riveting, isn’t it?) And saying that kolasin aionion could mean an “age of corrective punishment” isn’t the same as saying it definitely does mean an “age of corrective punishment.”

But whether you agree or disagree with Rob, understand that his interpretation of this text IS within the realm of possibility.

Comparing Rob Bell & C.S. Lewis on hell

Humanity is already “saved” in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation.

— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Scot McKnight has a guest post from Jeff Cook (author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes) comparing the theology of C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell. Jeff’s main argument is this:

There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis.

Jeff highlights numerous similarities between the two writers on salvation and hell… and one or two areas where they differ. For example, Jeff notes that Lewis was more pessimistic than Rob about whether those in hell are willing to swallow their pride and repent. Hell, Lewis suggested, is “locked from the inside.”

But given the similarities between them, one question keeps coming back to me:

If you’re so eager to not only disagree with Rob but denounce him as a heretic, are you prepared to do the same with C.S. Lewis? Are you going to suggest a book burning and so rid the world of Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Chronicles of Narnia (especially The Last Battle)?

Now, there is another area where C.S. Lewis and Rob Bell part company. Rob seems to believe that love doesn’t win if, in the end, some individuals are forever consigned to exile. (I say “exile” because I believe the fires of hell are a metaphor for life outside God’s presence. And, in fact, “exile” is one of the dominant motifs in the Bible.)

C.S. Lewis agreed that anything less than a universal salvation represented, in one sense, a defeat — God getting less than what God wants. But Lewis wasn’t particularly bothered by this. Just the opposite:

It is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.

— C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pages 113-114

Is he or isn’t he? Yet another review of Love Wins (part 3)

A majority of evangelicals think we’ll spend eternity as disembodied, spiritual beings in an ethereal realm called heaven. The goal of salvation, then, is to escape this world.

That’s why we write hymns like “This World Is Not My Home,” in which we sing about treasure “laid up somewhere beyond the blue” and how we “can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

That’s why at funerals, pastors point to caskets and say things like, “That body is just an empty shell. It’s not the real person.”

There’s only one problem.

The Bible paints a very different picture. It anticipates a future where heaven comes crashing to earth. Where God is interested in a whole lot more than just “saving souls.” He’s out to restore the whole of creation — this world.

This is the view Rob Bell argues for in chapter 2 of Love Wins. According to Rob, “eternal life” isn’t something that begins when we die; it starts when we join up with God’s redemptive program, going on now in this world.

It’s not something with future implications only. After all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come [to this world].”

And, “Your will be done, on earth [this world] as it is in heaven.”

Or as Rob Bell likes to say, “Jesus drags the future into the present” (p. 41).

This is precisely the picture John paints in Revelation 21-22, where he describes the New Jerusalem — God’s dwelling — coming down from heaven to earth. This world.

It’s consistent with 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul argues that because of Jesus’ bodily (and not metaphorical) resurrection, we can look forward to new, incorruptible bodies as part of our own resurrection. We will not be disembodied spirits floating around some other world.

And it’s consistent with Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospels that his kingdom has, in one sense, already come to earth.

In fact, the alternative view — the one that says heaven is some future, far-off place for disembodied spirits — owes more to an ancient heresy called Gnosticism than it does to anything in the Bible.

Rob is hardly breaking new ground here. His view of heaven is not entirely different from the one found in Heaven Is a Place on Earth by conservative theologian Mike Wittmer. Though, to be fair, I’m sure Mike (my former thesis advisor) strongly disagrees with Rob on many points in Love Wins.

Many of Rob’s ideas have also found expression in Surprised by Hope and other books by N.T. Wright (who even John Piper concedes is one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world — and John Piper’s no fan of N.T. Wright or Rob Bell).

Incidentally, Rob also follows N.T. Wright in rejecting “progressivism,” the notion that humans will eventually create “heaven on earth” by their own power. Instead, Rob embraces an “already/not yet” view of the world: God’s kingdom is here, and it’s at work. But only God can bring about its ultimate fulfillment (see pages 45-47).

In any case, Rob’s main point in this chapter is that this world matters immensely to God (p. 34). Couldn’t agree more.

That’s not to say nothing bothered me in this chapter. Other bloggers — including both supporters and critics of Love Wins — have argued that Rob is sometimes careless or selective in his quoting of Scripture. See, for example, Kevin DeYoung, Jeremy Bouma, and this guy, who has one of the most insightful takes on Love Wins that I’ve come across so far.

Anyway, whether it’s careless or selective quoting (and I don’t think we should presume to judge motive, like I’ve said before), I do think some examples can be found in this chapter.

On pages 32-34, Rob highlights a number of texts from Isaiah which, read on their own, seem to paint a universalistic picture of the future. But in each case, the immediate context suggests something different.

So yes… Isaiah 11 says, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” But it also says God “will slay the wicked” and will gather a “surviving remnant” from his people. Hardly the stuff of universalism.

And yes… Isaiah 25 talks about God preparing a banquet “for all peoples.” But in the immediate context, “peoples” appears to be a synonym for “nations.” (Note the parallelism in verse 7.) So while God’s banquet will transcend ethnic barriers (i.e. it’s not just a Jewish thing), this passage doesn’t speak to the eternal destiny of every human being.

In fact, Isaiah 25 emphasizes the significance of human choice in determining whether people experience God’s deliverance: “We trusted in him, and he saved us.”

In fairness to Rob, he doesn’t advocate for a universalism that tramples over human choice. Which is another way of saying that what we advocates for is something less than universalism.

And also, it’s worth pointing out that Rob offers what I think is one of the best explanations of Matthew 19 (the story of Jesus and the rich man, see pages 40-41) that I’ve ever come across. Just saying…if I’m going to point out where I think he got it wrong, I might as well point out where he got it right, too.