This past Saturday, as I was preparing my lesson for the adult Sunday School class I lead, I took a break to check the mail. As I pulled out the new issue of Time magazine I immediately noticed the cover story dealt with religion. This gripping headline graced the cover "What If There's No Hell?".
The article which spawned the headline dealt with a very popular pastor, Rob Bell, and his new bestselling book "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived." The underlying premise of the book is predictable. Bell casts doubt on the very notion that there is an eternal punishment for those who reject Jesus Christ.
People far more capable than I am have dissected Rob Bell and the book Love Wins. I refer you to John MacArthur's insightful views on Rob Bell, http://www.gty.org/Blog/B110418 (note the related links on the topic), and Frank Turk's open letter to Bell at Pyromaniacs which contains excellent insight on Love Wins http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2011/03/open-letter-to-rob-bell.html. I have followed this controversy for the last month or so and there are many other similar excellent critiques. Yet staring at the magazine in my hand, I knew the time had come for me to address the issue.
What struck me as I looked at the cover was how this evangelical controversy (Bell has self-identified himself in the past as an evangelical) had attracted the attention of the mainstream media. Here was a purely secular magazine devoting its cover and significant article space to a religious issue. Controversy sells, and such a provocative attack on traditional evangelical belief was apparently too much to pass up, even for Time.
As I pondered things my mind immediately began rethinking my Sunday School message. I had been planning on giving an exhortation on being a doer of the Word from James 1:22. However as I read the cover headline and underlying article, my mind was drawn to the protective shepherding duty set forth by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-31. Even though this is the controversy of the day, it is part of a larger epic battle that has been waged by Satan from the beginning. The ultimate issue is not really about Rob Bell or his book. Rather the ultimate issue is the authority of the Bible and the truthfulness of God.
Attacks on God's Word are at their source Satanic. Satan's initial attack against mankind recorded in Genesis 3 was an attack on the accuracy and authority of God's Word. Satan questioned God's Word in Genesis 3:1 and called God a liar in Genesis 3:4. What is being done by Rob Bell and others is nothing new, but it is equally as wicked. All such lies share a common source. Jesus Himself made it clear: Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). The arguments of Bell and others are merely perverted offspring of a truly wicked progenitor.
Furthermore, the attacks we see today on Scripture are not happenstance. They are part of a planned and orchestrated program of deception that God's Word warned about thousands of years ago. The Apostle Peter warned believers to prepare themselves so that they would not be carried away by the errors of unprincipled men who distort Scripture (2 Peter 3:14-18). Paul likewise, in the aforementioned exhortation to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:28-31, warned that from within the church savage wolves would arise seeking to destroy the flock of God by speaking perverse things. These perverse things would lead people to become disciples of the wolves rather than the Great Shepherd.
These planned Satanic attacks, in their myriad forms over the centuries always attack eternal truths. Satan from the beginning lied about the effects of sin on humanity. Rob Bell's claim that perhaps there really is no eternal punishment for sin is remarkably similar to Satan's attack in Genesis 3:4. Paraphrased to line up, one can almost hear the sweet sounding lie, "if you reject Jesus Christ you surely will not be punished." Again, God's Word showed this relationship early on. Jesus in Matthew 7:15 warned of false prophets He called ravenous wolves who would come in sheep's clothing. Interestingly this warning following Jesus' teaching that there was a wide and broad way leading to destruction, and a narrow way that leads to life. I don't believe it is an accidental context for such a warning. Satan wants everyone on the broad way leading to destruction. It is only natural that the ravenous wolves he sends out disguised as sheep would attack the foundational reality of eternal punishment in hell for those who reject Jesus Christ. Masking the true nature of the wide and broad road to hell is perhaps the best way to insure that the road remains crowded and well traveled.
What makes the current controversy involving Rob Bell so dangerous is that he is a very capable and persuasive source. He is a gifted communicator and skilled writer which makes his deceptions sound all the more enticing. Someone like a David Koresh is immediately recognized by most as a lunatic who will never draw more than a few dozen followers. But a gifted and talented person like Rob Bell can reach millions. His church according to multiple sources draws 7,000 plus each week. His books have sold hundreds of thousands, if not millions of copies and are best sellers. Furthermore, even the mainstream media, like Time magazine, pays attention when he speaks. Sadly and more tragically, thousands upon thousands of true believers will give Bell a voice, and may perhaps be lead astray by his persuasive lies. Yet what so many regard as highly intellectual and thoughtful opinions uttered by a great thinker (in this case on the issue of hell) are shown by Scripture to be the thoughts of one who does not even understand the most basic truths of God's Word.
I recently preached a sermon on Hebrews 6:1-3. The writer of Hebrews was rebuking his hearers for their spiritual immaturity in Hebrews 5:11-14. Then he exhorted these immature believers to, in essence, grow up and move on to maturity. As part of this exhortation he described what he considered to be the basic abc's of Christianity. Part of what he described as elementary principles, or milk fit for infants, was "the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment" (Hebrews 6:2). These "new" and "profound" musings of Bell that will attract so many are really devoid of any depth at all. Rather, they reflect on a spiritual level a lack of knowledge that even a spiritual kindergartner is expected to possess.
Yet Bell consistently makes his foolish statements sound appealing and self evident, which makes them all the more dangerous. One illustrative example stands out from the Time article. The writer notes that Bell has embraced a theology that says the most important thing for you is the here and now, not eternity. He then quotes Bell ‘When we get to what happens when we die, we don’t have any video footage,’ says Bell. ‘So let’s be honest that we are speculating, because we are.’
What an appealing statement to our modern minds. And of course there is truth in the statement. We do not possess video footage of hell. But the statement upon reflection is neither true or appealing; it is a lie and damning. The very premise of the statement is unbiblical and false, namely that if we don't have video footage of something, i.e., if we cannot see it, then we cannot know if it is real. As a pastor I worry that many will accept this reasonable sounding (but false) proposition without thinking it through in light of Scripture.
Jesus gives us a much more reliable picture of eternal punishment than any video when He describes the reality of the afterlife for the rich man and Lazarus, including the very real agony and torment of the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). But even without such a real and compelling image from Christ, we are never told to only believe what we see. In fact, after Jesus' resurrection, the Apostle Thomas for a brief time adopted the "I will believe only what I can see" approach proffered by Bell when he was told by the other disciples that Jesus was raised from the dead (John 20:25). After seeing Jesus however, he immediately realized the folly of his doubt (John 20:28). But what is most telling and enlightening for believers tempted to adopt Bell's approach is what Jesus said next at verse 29: Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed."
Rather than needing video proof to know truth, we have God's Word. The absence of a video or other such "evidence" hardly makes the clear teaching of Scripture on life after physical death mere "speculation" as Bell so arrogantly claims. Rather believing God's Word on faith receives Jesus' commendation and blessing. Bell's paradigm of "seeing is believing" is all the more troubling given that he claims to be a believer. God's Word affirms without hesistation that true believers walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Bell's approach to understanding hell finds no warrant or support in God's revealed Word.
The warning of Paul to the church at Colassae seems a fitting conclusion and exhortation. Paul was concerned that those peddling "persuasive arguments" would delude the saints, which of course is the same danger posed by the likes of Rob Bell. Paul in such a context gave the church this warning:
6 Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
Paul, through the Holy Spirit, has given every believer the tools needed to avoid being ensnared by the Satanic inspired deceptions of false teachers like Rob Bell. May God give us the wisdom and discernment to stand firm against the devil's schemes.