A few weeks ago I posted a copy of a letter I sent to the BBC regarding it’s decision to commission a three-part series entitled ‘The Bible’s buried secrets.’ Here is the BBC’s reply with my comments on their reply in italics.
Dear Mr Powell
Thanks for contacting us regarding ‘Bible’s Buried Secrets’ broadcast on BBC Two.
I understand that you felt this programme was biased against Christianity (No, I didn’t say that. I said that the BBC is biased against Christianity. My letter was a complaint that the BBC is very willing to broadcast programmes critical of the Bible and that the BBC seems willing to broadcast quite sensationalist claims about all sorts of errors in the Bible but would never broadcast programmes critical of the Qur’an), and feel there should be other similar programmes exploring other religions beliefs (that bit is right).
Whilst I appreciate your concerns, Christian programming is, and remains, the cornerstone of the BBC’s religious output (not sure how that actually addresses my concern). In addition to exploring and celebrating all the other major faiths in the UK, the BBC delivers a range of content that reflects, celebrates and debates Christiaintiy across TV and radio.
It’s simply not correct to say there are no programmes on Islam or that the BBC would not address issues about Islam. (Oh dear. It really would help everyone concerned if you had read my letter and interacted with my arguments than answer points I’m not raising.) Since the events of 9/11 there have been numerous programmes about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, extreme beliefs of some Muslims and issues about Sharia Law. (Again that’s not my point ).
On the subject of the Qur’an (at last!) Channel 4 did address academic studies that question the conventional reading of the authenticity of the Qur’an (Well not exactly. The documentary, entitled The Quran broadcast in July 2008 was a genuinely good piece of broadcasting, but a very different one from the BBC’s on the Bible. The channel 4 documentary didn’t address the issue of the authenticity of the Qur’an as you suggest it did. Rather its focus was the issue of diverse interpretations of the book. At no point did it criticise the Qur’an or suggest in any way that it might be merely a human book full of errors in the way that the BBC’s Bible’s Buried Secrets did for the Bible.)
This programme was only transmitted two years ago and no new academic work exists to warrant another film at present (You’ve got to be joking! In my original letter I gave examples of Islamic scholars questioning the origins of the Qur’an that have not been touched by any documentary maker, ever, in the UK. So why not make the programme that no broadcaster dare make ‘The Qur’an’s buried secrets’ on how a growing number of scholars are arguing that the origins of the text of the Qur’an was from pre-existing, pre-Islamic writings.)
So there we have it. The BBC is willing to broadcast programmes about Islamic extremism, channel 4 is willing to broadcast a programme on how the Qur’an is interpreted, but if this response is anything to go by the BBC still thinks it’s a good idea to give the Bible a good kicking but not the Qur’an. I wonder why?
How do churches grow? Great preaching, interesting programmes, good music? All of these are hugely important but what sort of conversations we take part in before, after and perhaps in services changes the culture of the church and makes a big difference as to whether they are likely to stick around, settle in and grow up in their Christian lives.
How can we as individuals and as churches ensure that our churches are places where the new-comer is made to feel welcome and community functions through our conversations.
A state of mind
1. Make it your business, a stated prayerful intent, to make a difference to someone else’s life at each church meeting, service or event. Pray that God will use you to speak words of life and hope into someone else’s life.
2. Adopt a deliberate mindset of looking out for others, thinking who’s new, who’s sitting on their own, who looks weary and be strategic in your conversations.
3. Plan to be there early. In your mind think of the church service as starting at least 5 minutes before the service start time rather than 5 minutes after the service start time.
Meeting someone for the first time
4. Look to meet someone you’ve not met before. Don’t leave it to others. You don’t need to be an extravert or have profound things to say you just need to care. If you’re the shy type then try and involve someone else in the conversation.
5. Greet people with a friendly smile and a ‘hello’ even if you can’t stop at that moment to speak with them.
6. Don’t assume someone you meet for the first time is a Christian or even a regular church-goer.
7. Do be discreet in how you ask someone what they believe. Maybe ‘do you have a faith?’ is better than ‘so are you a Christian?’
8. Once you’ve chatted for a few minutes with someone new why not introduce them to someone else and after a brief introduction leave them to it.
Meeting someone a second time
9. When you meet someone a first time try and jot down their name and one or two details. Use that to pray for them in the week.
10. A second conversation, maybe a week later, is often of greater value than a first. The fact that you’ve remembered a name and gone to speak to someone again communicates a great deal about the value you put on someone.
11. Maybe try and introduce them this time to someone who you think that they may have something in common with or appreciate meeting.
12. Promote a culture of deeper conversation by remembering a key point from the sermon and one thing that you learned from it. Rather than simply asking ‘what did you think of the sermon’ offer to them instead one way in which you were helped by the sermon and only then ask what they got out of it.
13. Don’t hide behind the fact that if you are in a larger church you may not know the individual
Making it last
14. If you’re hosting church people for lunch why not leave one or two places to be filled after the morning service. That way the newcomer gets an invite to lunch.
15. If you a part of a good social network in the church and there is space for others to join eg group cinema trip or Frisbee in the park why not look to include and involve someone who otherwise might face a quiet weekend.
16. Organise a bring and share church-lunch on a regular basis to extend hospitality and welcome. We have one once a month after the morning service and approximately 60% of the congregation stay including a surprising number of visitors.
17. It can be a bit awkward and may not be something you do every week but why not include an opportunity in the service to ‘talk to someone you don’t know’ along with an encouragement to carry on the conversation afterwards.
18. Whether or not you have anything as formal as a welcome desk or welcome team at least ensure that there is someone at the door to offer a friendly greeting as people arrive and a friendly goodbye as people leave.
1. Do we understand that our own church has a ‘culture’ including a set of often unspoken assumptions that shape the attitudes and opinions surrounding the question of whether women should return to work?
2. Does this culture create and enforce an expectation that there is only one godly thing a family can do in deciding if and when women return to work. Does that culture operate blindly ie without any regard for each family’s set of circumstances and situation?
3. To what extent is the culture of our church informed by biblical principles of child-rearing and to what extent by culture and tradition. Do we expect a uniform pattern of behaviour amongst women once children come along? Are women under an unfair pressure in terms of what is appropriate as a ‘Christian’ in the decision as to whether they return to work or not?
4. How do we provide practical advice and assistance for couples starting a family as they reach their decision? How do we appropriately help them assess where they stand on that spectrum between choosing to work – having to work – choosing to stay at home.
5. Do we prepare young couples before children come along eg in marriage preparation so that the decisions that they make on Continue reading »
It was AW Tozer who said ‘What comes into a person’s mind when they think about God is the most important thing about them.’ Nowhere is that statement more obviously true than in chapter 4 of Bell’s book ‘Love wins’. It is in this chapter that he is at his most controversial and it is his doctrine of God that enables him to consider the possibility that perhaps in the end all will be saved.
What comes into Bell’s mind when he thinks about God is that ‘God is love.’ For Bell that is God’s essential attribute and it shapes the discussion of the chapter.
There is no talk in the chapter for example of God’s holiness and Bell’s decision to single out one attribute to which all others must eventually give way (why else the title of the book) leads to his tentative conclusions that for God to be God almost requires the final salvation of all.
Does God define himself as love above all else?
The book of 1 John is so instructive for us on this matter for in it we find two statements from John about God’s very nature. God is love John tells us in chapter 4 but God is light we are reminded in chapter 1. God in the scripture reveals himself as a God of love but not a God of love only, also a God of holiness. God’s punishment of sin is an outworking of his holiness. If God’s holiness must give way to his love we find ourselves ever-closer to the position of Bell. The problem for Bell is that Jesus never does this and neither do the New Testament authors.
So what happens when one attribute of God is singled out in this way?
Well with his doctrine of God clear in his mind Bell turns to his doctrine of salvation.
Bell does not give us a lot of Bible in this chapter but he does choose to quote Paul and 1 Timothy 2 where Paul writes ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’
Given God is love and given what therefore God wants ‘will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants?’
Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end?
And Bell is absolutely right to recognise that the God of the Bible does get what he wants. We are reminded time and again in scripture that God’s plans and purposes are unstoppable.
In the Bible, God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.
This God doesn’t give up. Ever.
What has the church taught?
So if we only get this life to choose heaven and hell in this life by the response we make to God. If it really is ‘One or the other, forever.’ Then Bell logically concludes ‘God in the end doesn’t get what God wants’
No wonder Bell leaves the door open to what is sometimes called post-mortem salvation. The idead that after death given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state?
Now Bell realises that this will sound heretical to many ears especially coming from a bible-believing evangelical. So it is important for him to establish that his view has a history. It has no such pedigree amongst evangelicals and his abuse of a Martin Luther text in his book to suggest it does is something that has been highlighted by a number of critics notably Carl Trueman. One can only hope that for the sake of integirity it is removed from any future editions.
So with no history of evangelicals adopting such a view Bell turns to the ancient church fathers
Beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who bleive that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody.
Bell cites Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nysaa and Eusebius in support of his views. It was certainly the case that a number of the fathers held that punishment in hell that was restorative.
Here is an extract from one scholar on the view of the early church on the doctrine of universal salvation:
Early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation.
What brings God glory?
But we find ourselves returning again to the major note of Bell’s book. If God is love then everlasting punishment cannot bring God glory.
Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.
God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts
If Bell is right on this point then one has to ask could it bring glory to God for Satan to be in hell. If eternal torment does not bring glory to God then how can the torment of angels, created by God as good creatures, bring God glory? Surely Satan given enough time will choose life and does not God’s own glory demand it.
Of course those of us who seek to affirm that God is love but God is also holy see God’s glory made manifest in the salvation of some but also the condemnation of others. Paul in Romans chapter 9 writes:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.
For Paul God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect justice as an expression of his holiness in the punishment of sinners. God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect love in the salvation of sinners. Both reveal God’s glory. One should not be set over the other. Heaven and hell together manifest God’s glory, wisdom and power.
What then do you have to believe to be a Christian?
For Bell ‘you don’t have to believe it [eternal hell] to be a Christian.’ Clearly he regards it as no heresy to believe in a hell in which punishment is finally restorative and he may be right. And if heresy is understood as a denial of the gospel on a par with a rejection of the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection or the trinity he I guess has a point.
But it’s crucial to remember that Bell is asking for a lot more than that. He is asking for this minority view to have an equal place at the table. To be considered a valid option alongside traditional interpretations despite the weight of Biblical evidence against him.
To shun, sensor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.
But the tone of the book goes even further. Surely Bell, in presenting his own views in the way he does is not actually arguing that his view is one of a number of valid options but really the only view that presents a true picture of the God of the Bible and the view that alone brings glory to God!
God’s love means human freedom to choose heaven or hell
So will hell eventually be empty? Bell certainly is hopeful but he is not dogmatic. In a sense neither he nor God can decide. For it is the choice of every individual, even in hell, to choose.
Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.
We see people choose another way all the time. That impulse lurks in all of us. So 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 the possibility.
So is Bell a Universalist?
If God is love but human beings have a real freedom then it’s a question he can’t answer. It’s a question no-one can answer.
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.
If Bell is not a universalist he should be
The more I’ve reflected on this chapter of the book the more I think that Bell ducks the question in his conclusion and the more unsatisfying I find his final position..
1) Bell has maintained that God wills the salvation of all and he rightly asks can God’s will fail. Surely his will cannot fail.
2) Bell has maintained that the torment of souls in hell cannot bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t
3) Bell believes in the sovereignty of God. Surely such a God knows the end from the beginning. Surely Bell believes, therefore, that God would only make a world in which his will could be finally done.
4) Bell, wisely, is unwilling to be counted as a dogmatic universalist. He cannot find definitive proof in the Scriptures for universal salvation nor can he work out how God will ensure his will is brought to pass. But his doctrine of God should make him an optimistic universalist.
How God’s will will be done he does not know that his will will be done he should be ready to affirm.
In his book A short history of nearly everything Bill Bryson writes ‘It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.’
Yet we must all answer the question first asked by Leibniz ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ or to put it in more scientific language ‘why is the universe here?’. There are only three options open to us;
1) The universe has always existed
2) Someone or something caused the universe – that which some people call ‘god’
3) The universe came to be literally from nothing (without a cause)
Now what I find striking and very revealing is that most atheists opt, like Bryson, for option 3.
It’s striking because in doing so it’s hard not to accuse them of thinking irrationally. After all there is nothing in science and nothing in our known experience to suggest that something comes from nothing. It’s striking because atheists enjoy nothing more than mocking Christians for believing in something without evidence or proof, namely god and yet do exactly the same when it comes to the origins of the universe.
After all what could be more improbable than believing that the universe simply came out of nowhere. Is it not in fact the most counter-intuitive and illogical option of the three available to us. It is to go against everything that we know and everything that science teaches. When something happens we ALWAYS look for a cause. We seek a reasonable explanation. We ask where does it come from. We never shrug our shoulders and say things just happen. If we did we’d give up scientific endeavour.
Atheism’s article of faith
Belief in the god of the Bible is dismissed as being as fanciful as belief in pink unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster. But Atheists don’t enjoy being reminded that their whole worldview rests on believing an extremely unlikely idea – a self-creating universe – and believing it as an article of faith.
It’s why I not only ask atheists ‘why does this universe exist?’ but most importantly ‘what reason do you have for holding the answer that you do?’
So when an atheist such as Quentin Smith concludes ‘the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing’ he is not speaking from reason but against reason for there is no reason at all to believe that things come into being from absolutely nothing. An atheist who believes in an uncaused universe is not being reasonable at all. In reality they are doing what the theist is accused of doing all the time – playing the faith card! They are saying ‘I believe because I believe and I may not have a reason to believe it but it’s what I want to believe and that is enough for me.’ Maybe they think that one day we will find reason to believe it but we all know that at present there is none and by any other name that is religion. Belief not based on what you know to be true but what you want to be true.
What is the conclusion?
Atheists are as much people of faith, belief, maybe even superstition, as the rest of humanity. We believe things because we choose to believe them and we believe things not because they are scientifically based, logical or likely but we believe because the one thing we know is that we don’t want to believe the alternative.
We are all of us believers and believers in something that we cannot prove. Welcome to the club my atheist friend.
Why is it that so many Christians can really know the gospel and delight in the gospel, celebrate the gospel and still fall into sexual sin? Why is it that something like pornography continues to have a power and hold on the Christian life. So much so that one recent study suggested that half of Christian men and a quarter of Christian women struggle with internet pornography.
It seems to me that at least part of the answer is that we don’t look to the gospel to meet our needs as human beings and too easily look to something else. We believe the gospel but we don’t look to the gospel to address our needs for human identity, value, and significance.
Tim Chester in his book Captured by a better vision describes how if we don’t seek our answers in the gospel we will look elsewhere. I call that the gospel according to porn. I want to explore some of the themes and ideas from the book under six headings:
The good news of porn becomes attractive when…
1. Porn says ‘in my world you’re significant’
The fantasy-world of pornography is attractive to people because at least in that world they are not only noticed but they rule! Porn provides a fantasy world in which you’re potent, adored, the centre of attention. Women ‘offer’ themselves to you. That is a very attractive thought to self-centred fallen humanity.
Is that really good news?
Any gospel that put’s you at the centre and through which everyone else exists only to serve you is not good news at all. It’s not only fake reality but a very damaging one! The gospel is the daily lesson of learning not to see yourself as the only one that matters.
God’s gospel also says ‘in my world you’re significant’ but in a true way.
We’re significant because we matter to God. He loves and adores us but not because we are lovely but simply because he has chosen to love us. So we receive God’s love in an undeserved way because of Jesus. The result – God is in his proper place and I am in mine.
2. Porn says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’
Porn promises the relationship we seek and the intimacy we crave. In the world of porn I don’t face rejection and I never need feel lonely.
As Tim Chester comments; Porn offers a safe alternative to intimacy
‘It seemed like a safe way to be sexually active without getting involved in a real relationship.’
‘Fearing rejection, we retreat into the fantasy world of porn in which women adore us and offer themselves to us without risk.’
God’s gospel is one in which he says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’. Continue reading »
Yesterday I posted on the danger of Christian ministry that is fueled by the need to secure a relationship with God rather than being fueled by enjoyment of a secure relationship with God.
The doctrine of justification is a life-changing one – when we grasp it and live by it. It transforms our relationship with God, it revolutionises our service of God and it inspires total dedication to God!
Five signs that your ministry is the working out of a secure relationship with Christ
1) You are happy to minister out of your relationship with God so that it doesn’t really matter whether anyone sees what you’re doing and applauds you for it.
2) You take as much delight or joy in the ministry of others as your own.
3) You are ready to be a risk-taker, happy to be seen to fail, because it’s not your reputation that is at stake.
4) You able to make sacrifices in your life for ministry because your life here and now seems a little less important to you.
5) You are ready to take on ministry not because it is the easiest, or most convenient or even best suited to you but because through it you can make a significant contribution at the time the church most needs it.
Five signs that your ministry is working for a secure relationship with Christ
6) You find that you are crushed if you are overlooked when an ‘important’ ministry opportunity arises.
7) You become bitter or resentful if in your ministry area responsibility is taken away from you and given to someone else.
8) You are concerned to promote or raise the profile of your ministry area out of all reasonable proportion and at the expense of others.
9) You are not concerned to raise up new, younger, leaders and to pray that they will do a better job than you and develop the ministry area further. You must be at the centre and ‘in charge’.
10) All of church life, as you live it, is really an PR exercise. Conversations over coffee, prayer meetings, e-mails to the pastor all serve the purpose of promoting you and your ministry.
As a Christian do you find it hard to see how the gospel inspires and motivates your life as a Christian?
We see how the gospel affects our justification (our legal standing before God) but we struggle to see how it shapes our sanctification (how we live for God).
But it really matters. Asking what motivates or drives your Christian life is like asking what fuel to put into a car engine. Petrol engines are designed to run on petrol, put the wrong fuel in the engine and try to drive on regardless you will very soon find yourself in serious problems.
Maybe one key insight from Martin Luther will help us.
The default position even of the Christian, left to ourselves, is to find our confidence and joy in the Christian life from our performance in the Christian life. It could come from how strong we feel our faith is, how bold we have been in speaking for Christ, whether we have yielded to temptation or not or a whole host of other performance indicators. When we do that we are saying to ourselves my faith is the thing that justifies me rather than God’s grace.
We subtly swap ‘my faith’ for ‘God’s grace’ and find ourselves looking in the mirror of our own performance. When we do that it’s like putting diesel in a petrol engine.
But here is Luther’s insight. Our faith is not our fuel. Faith is simply the means (the instrument) by which we grasp hold of our justification. Our faith is not the grounds of our justification.
Martin Luther said
It is, of course, true that I and you do not hold and believe the saving truth so firmly as St. Peter does. Yet we have one and the same treasure. Two persons may hold glasses of wine in their hands: the hand of the one trembles, the hand of the other does not. Two persons may hold a purse full of money: one with a weak hand, the other with a strong hand. Whether the hand is strong or weak, please God, it neither increases nor decreases the contents of the purse…
To bring the analogy into the 21st century imagine two passengers on board a plane. One is totally assured, completely confident that this plane is going to get off the ground, the other a nervous wreck who can’t see how it’s possible to keep 163 tonnes in the sky. Which one of them is going to make it to their destination? Does the strength of their faith in the plane change anything? No. What matters is the strength of the plane and that weak or strong that each of them is on the plane.
What matters then is not the strength of our faith but that our faith exists at all!
How does that change things?
It teaches me that each day I need to place my trust not in my performance for Jesus but Jesus’ performace for me. Like filling up at the petrol station I need to pay very careful attention to which fuel I put into my Christian life.
If I fill up on ‘God’s gospel’ I drive off into the day assured of God’s love, confident in his grace and with a renewed joy I determine to serve him in the strength he provides.
If I fill up on ‘my faith’ I drive off into the day trying hard to please God, trusting in my own abilities and with a fear that I may not live up to God’s exacting standards.
It makes all the difference in the world.
No wonder Luther also said:
‘Most necessary is [the gospel] that we know it well, teach it to others, & beat it into their heads continually’.
The doctrine of justification is a life-changing one – when we grasp it and live by it. It transforms our relationship with God, it revolutionises our service of God and it inspires total dedication to God!
Remember that will you the next time you fill up the engine.
Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
Is that how we should think of Hell? A place of conscious eternal torment. Is that really the response of a God of love to those who do not worship him in this life? Is that what Jesus taught? Bell is not so sure.
I have a hard time believing in hell not least because most of my family and friends don’t follow Jesus. There is a part of me that so much wants Bell to be right on Hell.
What does the Bible mean by hell?
Bell argues, perhaps rightly, that the Old Testament picture of what happens after death isn’t very clear. ‘Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a but vague and ‘unworldly’.
In the New Testament the word ‘hell’ is used almost exclusively by Jesus. He takes the word Gehenna which was literally the city dump outside of Jerusalem. The place where rubbish was thrown and a fire continuously burned. The other word used occasionally in the New Testament being ‘Hades’ the greek equivalent of ‘Sheol’ which we find for example in Revelation 1,6, and 20. But actually there isn’t much in the Bible.
‘And that’s it’ says Bell.
So is the concept of hell outdated?
Bell says a resounding ‘No’. At least in that sense Bell is clearly not a universalist.
‘Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.’
There is too much evil in the world. Think Rwanda. Think rape and murder.
‘I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.’
So Jesus teaches ‘hell’ and Rob Bell believes in ‘hell’. What then are the big theological ideas in Bell’s understanding of Hell.
The two big ideas in Bell’s Hell.
1. Hell is what we do to ourselves
Hell is less the place that God in his judgement consigns those who reject him and more a place that we send ourselves. It is a self-imposed exile from God and all that is good.
‘God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.’
Hell in Bell’s language is ‘a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity.’
So far is Bell ready to take this idea that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16 that when Abraham says ‘between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, not can anyone cross over from there to you’ Bell argues ‘the chasm is the rich man’s heart!’
So hell is what I do to myself. It is a subjective experience rather than an objective place of punishment. It is where I experience the torment of my own sin and that means it looks different for all sorts of people.
‘There are all kinds of hells’ says Bell.
‘There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’
‘There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously’
2. Hell might not be forever
Secondly Bell wants to show that there is still hope for people in hell.
Failure we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.
So he takes us through a most unlikely interpretation of Jesus teaching on Sodom and Gomorrah along with some selected words from the prophets of Israel that promise an end to the judgemtn on hte nation and concludes
‘I list them to simply show how dominant a theme restoration is in the Hebrew Sciptures’.
So what should we conclude about Bell’s hell?
One of the things that make this book a difficult one to weigh up is that Bell is very selective in his use of the Bible. To assess Bell’s book we need to spend as much time considering what he leaves out as we do what he puts it. The sin of omission is as important as the sin of commission.
When a doctrine of hell is formulated without any mention of crucial bible texts that speak directly on the subject we have to be concerned and that is what we find here.
God has given us the whole Bible for a reason, that we might know his mind. We need all of scripture to know God’s will.
A number of years ago Jim Packer said in words that seem so apt to describe our concerns about Bell’s book ‘part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.’
And that is what we find with Bell on hell.
So where in Bell’s chapter do we find , for example, the book of Romans?
Where in his book is there mention of Romans 2:5-11?
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.
Where in the book does he mention 2 Thess 1:8-9?
8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.
Where does he deal with the most sobering text on hell in the New Testament, Revelation 14:9-12
9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
These texts are conspicuous by their absence and yet they change everything.
Hell is a place of punishment. It is the final expression of the holy and righteous anger of God against all godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1:18).
Hell is forever. Not because I like that fact but because the texts that Bell omits teach that fact.
Hell is the place of conscious eternal torment. There is no rest day or night. (Rev. 14:10-11).
In this chapter Bell sets the tone for the remained of the book and builds the platform on which his hopeful-universalism will be built.
Bell wants us to think of hell as where I put myself rather than where God sends me. He wants me to think that if I change (repent) in hell then because it is a self-imposed exile there may be a way back. If the chasm that separates heaven and hell is not the one fixed by God (objective) for all eternity but exists in my heart (subjective) then hell can reform me and maybe all will be free.
The problem for us all is that Bell’s view of hell falls so far short of what the Bible teaches.
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