By Dr. Roger Fankhauser, FGA Executive Council member and the pastor of Burleson Bible Church in Burleson, Texas. Dr. Fankhauser can be reached at rsfankhauser at bellsouth dot net.
With a title like this, I know I will evoke a range of responses. The English teachers I had the privilege to work with at Evangel Christian Academy have now labeled me a heretic. However, many of my former students at the same school are crying out, “Amen!” People who know me know I love to read, and know a punch line should be coming soon. And here it is: reading is dangerous if we are not careful about what we read and how we read. In the realm of reading books about God or the Bible, we need to ask, “Is that what the Bible really says?” Without asking that question, we may end up swayed by a work that misrepresents God’s Word and His plans.
Case in point: Love Wins, by Rob Bell. The book purports to be “about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” I don’t normally publicize my thoughts when I disagree with someone, so why critique this book? The answer is simple: Bell is popular; the book has received a great deal of press; and the problems he poses strike the core of the gospel.
Bell does make some valid points in his book. To give just one example, he rightly points out we must present the “right” Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible: “It is about how you respond to Jesus. But it raises another question: which Jesus?” (p. 7). The question is valid. However, the problems of the book far outweigh any positives. The methods Bell uses to reach his conclusion are fraught with problems. I won’t exhaustively address the issues, but I hope the examples below paint the big picture:
- He presents caricatures of the God who believes in a literal hell. The back cover of the book says this: “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace freely, through no merit on our part.” So far, so good. But he continues, “Unless you do not believe the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In hell. Huh?” In the book, he makes statements like this: “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death… A loving 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 tormenter who would assure they had no escape from an endless future of agony.” (p. 174). Assuming for now that hell is real, those who end there may feel this way about God (I don’t really know what they will think – we’re not told in Scriptures), but that does not mean God changed. The truth is, God’s character never changes. He cannot become “cruel and mean” at the point of death. Our circumstances cannot change the character of God.
- He presents an erroneous gospel. In the first chapter, he paints a confusing picture about the alleged requirements for receiving eternal life For example, he writes, “Is it what you say, or who you are, or who we forgive, or whether we do the will of God, or if we ‘stand firm’ or not”, (p. 14). At the heart of the confusing list is a failure to examine the passages he uses within their context to understand what the biblical author meant. Most of the alleged difficulties resolve themselves simply by considering the context of the passage. Later in the book, he says “a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they don’t say or believe the correct things… isn’t a very good story” (p. 110). Throughout the book, he questions the idea of entering hell for failure to believe the “correct things”. But, the writers of Scripture repeatedly condition receiving eternal life on “belief in Jesus” or “by faith” (for just a few examples, see John 3:16, Romans 5:1, Galatians 2:16). So, one’s destiny is, in fact, determined by believing the “correct things”. Sadly, Bell never clearly defines his gospel.
- He incorrectly defines “believing” as a work. He writes, “And aren’t verbs actions? Accepting confessing, believing – these are things we do. Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent upon something I do? How is any of that grace? How is that a gift?” (p. 11). Believing, or faith, is not a work, however. It is a response. To believe means to be convinced something is true. In fact, Romans 4:5 distinguishes between faith and works: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (emphasis added). Granted, some reformed pastors and theologians (I am not one of these, by the way) would agree that faith is some sort of work, but even they would not describe it the way Bell does. But that’s another story.
- He incorrectly represents the meaning of the original languages. I firmly believe we pastors should use the Greek and Hebrew texts when we study. However, we create a problem when we say “The Greek word here means….” if we don’t accurately represent what the word actually means. The average person in the pew has neither the tools nor the training to evaluate the reliability of our statement. This is particularly true of books written for the popular audience. In Matthew 25:46, the New American Standard says, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Indulge me for a minute here. The Greek word for “eternal” here is “aionios” (αἰώνιος) and for “punishment” is “kolasis” (κόλασις). You can check this out easily in Strong’s Concordance! Bell, however, incorrectly says the word for “eternal” is the Greek word “aion” (aiwn) and the word for “punishment” is “kolazo” (kolazw). He says one of the definitions for aion refers to “a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (p. 57, emphasis his) and that kolazo “is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of branches of a plant so it can flourish” (p. 91). He concludes that “forever” is not a category the biblical writers used (p. 92) and, pulling these conclusions together, decides the Matthew passage may be translated “a period of pruning” or “an intense experience of correction”. Bell makes three significant mistakes here. First, the word used is aionios, not aion. The correct term (aionios) does refer to “eternal” in many passages, such as Romans 16:26, “the eternal God”. Second, assuming the word is, in fact, aion, the definition Bell gives cannot be found in the standard Greek Lexicons (dictionaries). Nowhere is aion defined as “intensity of experience”. Third, the word kolasis means “punishment”. The meaning of the correct word cannot support the idea of trimming or pruning. However, Bell must redefine the words the way he does to support his contention that hell is not everlasting punishment but some form of temporal misery.
- He fails to address other attributes of God. Bell focuses on God’s love, which in itself is good. More Christians need to see the great depths of God’s love! But he fails to address God’s justice which must deal with sin. He fails to address God’s general revelation in nature which sufficiently renders all people “without excuse” (Romans 1: 20). He also fails to address God’s sovereign ability to get the gospel message to anyone, anywhere (as in Acts 8:25-37). For example, he argues, “If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us – what happens if they don’t do their part?” (p. 9). The arguments he uses against traditional evangelism place far too much weight on the acts of the messenger and far too little on God. By failing to address these attributes, he creates an unbalanced picture of God’s plan for salvation.
- Finally, Bell uses bad logic. For example, in his discussion of heaven, he writes, “If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to ‘somewhere else,’ then why do anything about this world?” (p. 46). This world is not our real home. Philippians 3:20 makes this amply clear, “For our citizenship is in heaven“. However, even if this planet is only a temporary home and heaven is “somewhere else”, the conclusion that I have no motive to do anything in this world does not necessarily follow. At the least, we ought to care for this world because we are stewards of what God gives us and we should love our neighbors! Heaven being “somewhere else” has no impact whatsoever on these principles. Bell’s conclusion does not follow logically.
Based on what the Scriptures really teach about heaven, hell, and the gospel, Bell’s work falls under the umbrella of false teaching, and therefore falls under the category of “dangerous reading.”