Love and Hell: A Reply to Rob Bell
By George Paul Wood
At the outset of Love Wins, Rob Bell writes two statements that explain why his book created controversy among Christian readers. First, “Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.”1 Second, “Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what He came to do” (vii–viii). Among those “other stories” is this one: “A select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (viii). Bell alleges that this story is “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear” (viii).
Bell’s first statement is controversial among Calvinist readers who limit the scope of God’s saving love to the elect.2 But it should be uncontroversial to the rest of us, for the Bible teaches it. God “wants all people to be saved”; and to accomplish that salvation, “the man Christ Jesus … gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:4–6). God graciously offers “eternal life” to “whoever believes in [His Son]” (John 3:16). He patiently delays “the day of the Lord,” “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9,10). All people, whoever, anyone, everyone: These terms express the universal scope of God’s love.
Bell’s second statement is where the controversy really lies. On the one hand, it is a caricature of the traditional belief about hell. On the other hand, minus the caricature, it captures — almost quotes — what Scripture teaches about hell. Consider, for example, Revelation 20:10: “They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” This verse’s temporal language points at the finality of hell.
By contrast, Bell denies the finality of hell (though not its existence). Regarding humanity’s postmortem state, he writes, “There will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God” (107). And, “given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God” (107). And, “history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” (109).3 It is this denial of hell’s finality that explains where the controversy over Love Wins really lies, for Bell denies what Scripture affirms.
Bell on Hell
Bell does not believe he denies what Scripture affirms. Instead, he argues it is advocates of hell’s finality who have misinterpreted (“hijacked”) Jesus’ story. To determine who’s interpreting Scripture correctly and who’s misinterpreting it, we need to examine Chapter 3, “Hell,” of Love Wins, for there Bell lays out his case for hell’s penultimacy and against its finality.
Noticing what’s absent
The first thing to notice about his case is what is absent: the Second Coming. The Nicene Creed summarizes an important element of biblical eschatology when it confesses, “[the Lord Jesus Christ] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” The creed’s vocabulary mirrors the Greek and English New Testaments (cf. Matthew 24:30; 25:31 for “come in glory”; and Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; and 1 Peter 4:5 as judge of “the living and the dead”).4
Christ’s coming marks “the end of the age” (Matthew 24:3; cf. 13:36–43). The judgment that follows Christ’s second coming results in either “eternal life” or “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), “relief” or “trouble” (2 Thessalonians 1:6,7), “eternal life” or “wrath and anger” (Romans 2:7,8). In all these cases, the Judgment is an event — the event, really; Christ is the agent of judgment; and the judgments He delivers are (or appear to be) mutually exclusive (either/or) and final (“no chance for anything better” — or worse).
In and of itself, the absence of the Second Coming from Love Wins does not refute the book’s argument, but it is an interesting lacuna. Is the Day of Judgment consistent with “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God”? Is Christ’s verdict temporary in duration, perhaps even reversible? To answer these questions, we must turn from what is absent from Love Wins to what is present.
A confused understanding of hell
Traditionally, Christians understand hell to be a final state God imposes on those who persist in disbelief and disobedience. In Greek, its place name is geenna, which derives from the Hebrew word gēhinnōm, or “Valley of Hinnom.” King Ahaz “sacrificed his children in the fire” there (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 28:3), at a place called Topheth, as did King Manasseh (33:6) and other Judeans (2 Kings 23:10). The prophet Jeremiah denounced their idolatry (Jeremiah 7:30–34; 19:1–15). And through the prophets, God announced that Topheth and the Valley of Hinnom would become “the Valley of Slaughter,” where God would do to the idolaters what they had done to their innocent children (Isaiah 30:33; Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6). In the period between the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish sages began to use geenna as a watchword for “God’s final judgment of the wicked.”5 Geenna appears 12 times in the New Testament.6
Surveying the New Testament uses of geenna, Bell characterizes them as expressing “a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone” (73). This is his working definition of hell.7
Unfortunately, this definition goes wrong in two ways: It confuses the innocent suffering of victims with the punishment of their victimizers, and it obscures God’s role as the agent of judgment.
Bell mentions seeing Rwandan children whose enemies had amputated their limbs. “Do I believe in a literal hell?” he asks. “Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs” (71). He also mentions the experience of a woman being raped, of a child losing a father to suicide, of a cocaine addict, and of a family whose child has been molested (71,72). However “hellish” these experiences were for the victims, they are not “hell.” Hell happens to those who malign their neighbors (Matthew 5:22) or lust after their wives (5:27–30), who “cause people to stumble” (18:7,9; cf. Mark 9:43,45,47), or who practice “hypocrisy” (Matthew 23:15,33). Hell does not happen to the one maligned, lusted after, or caused to stumble.
Going beyond the specific language of geenna, we see the phrase “wrath of God” or “God’s wrath” (Gr., orgē theou) used to describe God’s judgment of sinners: John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:16; Revelation 14:16; 16:19; 19:15. More generally, the Bible describes the experience of hell using the language of “punishment,” “destruction” (which includes “perishing”), and “banishment.”8 This language makes sense as a description of God’s judgment against victimizers, but not of His attitude toward their victims.
Retribution and rehabilitation
Traditionally, Christians understand hell to have a retributive purpose. For example, 2 Thessalonians 1:6,7 says: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” Verses 9,10 say: “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.” Other passages that teach a retributive understanding of judgment include Romans 2:5–11, which says, “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done’ ” (verse 6). Similarly, Revelation 11:18 says, “The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small — and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
Bell argues, however, that hell has (or, at least, may have) a rehabilitative purpose. There are three prongs to his argument. First, he cites the promise of restoration after judgment by the Old Testament prophets as proof that “failure … isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction” (88). Second, citing 1 Timothy 1:20 — which speaks of two sinful Christians being “handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” — he writes: “Whoever and whatever he [Paul] means by the word ‘Satan,’ there is something redemptive and renewing that will occur when Hymenaeus and Alexander are ‘handed over’ ” (89).9 Third, he argues that the phrase “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46 is more accurately translated as “ ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction” (91). Each one of these arguments needs to be challenged.
Scripture teaches that “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6; cf. Proverbs 3:12). The purpose of such discipline is rehabilitative, not merely retributive. In other words, such discipline aims at the repentance and reformation of the one God disciplines. Bell is correct that the Old Testament promises of restoration after judgment and the New Testament language of “handing over to Satan” demonstrate a rehabilitative purpose. But he is wrong about who is being rehabilitated, when, and how.
For example, consider Bell’s use of Jeremiah 32:37. God says, “I will surely gather them [Judah] from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety.” This passage (and others like it10) pertains to corporate Israel. Rehabilitation for corporate Israel is consistent with retribution for individual Israelites. Or consider another passage Bell cites, Amos 9:11: “I will restore David’s fallen shelter.” Here, the focus is individualistic. Indeed, Jesus Christ himself is the fulfillment of this promise (Acts 15:16). But notice that the rehabilitation of the Davidic monarchy as a whole is consistent with retribution against certain Davidic kings in particular. In a word: Jesus Christ, yes. Ahaz and Manasseh, no.
For another thing, being “handed over to Satan” is not the same thing as being “cast into hell,” for the simple reason that Satan is not the master of hell but its most prominent resident (Revelation 20:10). He is, however, “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). What Paul seems to have in mind in 1 Timothy 1:20 and 1 Corinthians 5:5 is some form of excommunication whose purpose is to help sinful Christians come to their senses — spiritually, theologically, and morally — by reexposing them to the awful realities out of which Christ saved them. This excommunication makes sense in the present age, when there is still time for repentance (2 Peter 3:9), but the judgment of hell is final (see below).
Third, regarding “eternal punishment,” Bell has misled the reader on the specific words to be interpreted. The Greek phrase in Matthew 25:46 is kolasin aiōnion(an adjective and a noun), not “an aion of kolazo” (a noun and a verb) (91). Below, I will examine the meaning of aiōnion, which is typically translated as “eternal” or “forever” in the New Testament. Here, however, I want to focus on kolasin.
Bell argues, “The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish” (91). By extension, when used metaphorically of punishment, the word refers to “an intense experience of correction” (91). For the sake of argument, let’s say that Bell is correct about the etymology of kolasin/kolazō. Even so, etymology alone cannot determine whether “punishment” is rehabilitative or retributive. Why? Because when we prune a tree, the tree is rehabilitated but the prunings are not. In John 15:1–8, Jesus uses the image of pruning to describe the Father’s relationship to Jesus’ disciples. “He cuts off [Greek, airei] every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does not bear fruit he prunes [Greek, kathairei] so that it will be even more fruitful” (verse 2). What happens to the cuttings and prunings? “If you do not remain in me [Jesus], you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (verse 6).
So, etymology alone does not settle whether kolasin/kolazō is rehabilitative or retributive. So we must look to usage. The New Testament uses the noun kolasin and the verb kolazō two times apiece: Matthew 25:46 and 1 John 4:18, and Acts 4:21 and 2 Peter 2:9, respectively. First John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” In this verse, a rehabilitative understanding of fear makes little sense. Why, after all, would a person fear being rehabilitated? In Acts 4:21, the verb kolazō describes the Sanhedrin’s desire to “punish” Peter and John so they would stop preaching Christ. Such “punishment” is hardly rehabilitative, however. It is torturous, coercive, and a bad model for understanding how God rehabilitates sinners. In 2 Peter 2:4–10, Peter contrasts those whom “God did not spare” (fallen angels, the “ungodly people” of Noah’s day, “the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah) with those whom he “protected” (Noah) and “rescued” (Lot). And he concludes: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment” (verse 9). This “punishment” does not seem to be rehabilitative.
How long is hell?
Traditionally, Christians understand hell to be “eternal,” “everlasting,” or “forever” in duration. For example, most English versions of Matthew 25:46 translate the Greek phrase kolasin aiōnionas “eternal punishment.” Bell thinks this is mistaken. Applied to God, he argues that the Hebrew word olam— and, by extension, the Greek word aiōn which translates it — “is much closer to the word ‘forever’ as we think of it, time without beginning or end” (92). In other instances, however, he argues that olam/aiōn is “a versatile, pliable word, in most occurrences referring to a particular period of time” (92). Consequently, he interprets kolasin aiōnionin Matthew 25:46 as “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming” or “an intense [but temporally limited] experience of correction” (91).
This conclusion seems to be wrong. For one thing, the noun aiōn does not have the same semantic range as the adjective aiōnios. In 43 of the 70 uses of aiōnios in the New Testament, it modifies the noun zōē (“life”) and clearly describes life that begins today and extends forever.11 Often, zōē aiōnios appears in texts where it stands in contrast to an alternate outcome, variously described as “perishing” (John 3:16; 10:28), God’s “wrath” (John 3:36; Romans 2:7,8), losing life (John 10:28), “death” (Romans 5:21; 6:23), “destruction” (Galatians 6:8). However, on occasion, aiōnios also modifies the nouns that describe this alternative outcome. The New Testament thus speaks of “eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8; 25:41), “eternal punishment” (25:46), an “eternal sin” that “will never be forgiven” (Mark 3:29), “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), “eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:2), and “the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7). If the primary meaning of aiōnios is “eternal,” everlasting,” or “forever” when it modifies zōē, it stands to reason that this is also the primary meaning of aiōnios when it modifies the alternates to zōē. This is evident in 2 Corinthians 4:16–5:5, where Paul contrasts “an eternal glory” that outweighs “light and momentary troubles,” an “unseen” future that is “eternal” compared to a “seen” present that is “temporary” (prokaira, “for a time”), and “an eternal house in heaven” that will replace “the earthly tent” that is being “destroyed.”
But what about the noun aiōn? Bell is right that it sometimes refers to a limited period of time, most obviously “this age,” which is “coming to nothing” (1 Corinthians 2:6). But sometimes it refers to eternity. Here, the relevant issue is not the meaning of the noun aiōn in isolation, however, but of the noun phrase eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn, which the New Testament uses on 20 occasions.12 Literally, it means “from the ages to the ages,” but it is commonly translated as “for ever and ever.” This translation makes perfect sense, given the words it modifies. A variety of virtues — predominantly “glory” but also “power” — belongs to God and/or Christ “for ever and ever” (Galatians 1:5; Philippians 4:20; 1 Timothy 1:17; 2 Timothy 4:18; Hebrews 13:21; 1 Peter 4:11; 5:11; Revelation 1:6; 5:13; 7:12). Christ and/or God the Father live “for ever and ever” (Revelation 1:18; 4:9,10; 10:6; 15:7). Christ’s throne exists “for ever and ever” (Hebrews 1:8), as does His reign (Revelation 11:15). Those who are with Christ in paradise will also reign “for ever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).
In each of these instances, the meaning of eis tous aiōnas tōn aiōnōn clearly connotes eternity or everlastingness, not “a particular period of time” that is limited in duration. When, therefore, the New Testament uses the same phrase for judgment, the same implications of eternity and everlastingness apply. So, “The smoke from her [i.e., Babylon, which God has just passed “judgment” against, “condemned,” and “avenged”] goes up for ever and ever” (Revelation 19:3). And “the devil,” “the beast,” and “the false prophet” will be “thrown into the lake of burning sulphur,” where they “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” along with anyone “whose name was not found written in the book of life” (Revelation 20:10,15).
There is a strong prima facie reason why the Christian tradition understands hell to be eternal in duration. That is what the New Testament itself teaches. It uses the same adjectives and noun phrases to modify words that describe heaven as words that describe hell. What applies to the former therefore applies to the latter.
In Love Wins, Rob Bell contrasts two stories: “Jesus’ story” and “other stories” that have “hijacked” “Jesus’ story” — the story of God’s universal love and the story of a final hell. What I have tried to demonstrate in this essay is that, according to the New Testament, these two stories exist alongside one another. God loves and desires to save everyone, but those who persistently refuse to receive His love or to act in loving ways themselves — incur the judgment of hell, a judgment which is final.
Admittedly, the doctrine of hell is neither easy to understand nor to proclaim. We want no one to go to hell. After all, that is why Jesus came and died on the cross for our sins. And that is why we also give ourselves to ministry—to “rescue the perishing, care for the dying. Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.” In the last analysis, Scripture teaches—contra Rob Bell—both the universal scope of God’s love and the reality of final judgment and eternal hell. It is a dual reality that we should preach with hope and through tears.
1. Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), vii. Hereafter, page citations to Love Wins will appear in parentheses in the body of the essay.
2. For an excellent critique of Calvinism on this point, see Roger E. Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 110–21.
3. One could argue that Bell is summarizing the viewpoint of Christian Universalists in these quotes, not stating his own. However, his use of the catchphrase “love wins” clearly connects him to them.
4. Matthew 25:31 uses the verb erchomai (“come”), but the New Testament also uses parousia (“presence”) and epiphaneia (“appearance”) to describe Christ’s second coming.
5. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1992), s.v. “Heaven and Hell,” 310.
6. Matthew 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6.
7. See also the penultimate paragraph on 93.
8. Christopher W. Morgan, “Biblical Theology: Three Pictures of Hell,” in Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 142–48.
9. First Corinthians 5:5 also uses the phrase, “hand over to Satan” in a disciplinary context.
10. See Love Wins, 83–88, for Bell’s list of restoration passages in the Old Testament prophets.
11. Matthew 19:16,29; 25:46; Mark 10:17,30; Luke 10:25; 18:18,30; John 3:15,16,36; 4:14,36; 5:24,39; 6:27,40,47,54,68; 10:28; 12:25,50; 17:2,3; Acts 13:46,48; Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:22,23; Galatians 6:8; 1 Timothy 1:16; 6:12; Titus 1:2; 3:7; 1 John 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11,13,20; Jude 1:21.
12. See also tou aiōn tōn aiōnōn (Ephesians 3:21), eis hēmeran aiōnos (2 Peter 3:18), pro pantos tou aiōnos…pantas tous aiōnas (Jude 1:25).