Part I: Is this really about theology? The test case of Rob Bell and Tim Keller

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[For those who aren’t interested in being “in the loop” with evangelical pop culture drama – yes, it’s a sadly real thing – good for you, and please excuse all of the name-dropping that is about to follow.  Despite the lunacy in so much of this recent Rob Bell controversy, there are some important things being exposed, and that is what this post is about.  But before reading, say a prayer for or donate to relief for Japan – that’s way more important than this silliness.]

Pastor Matt Chandler once said in a sermon that Timothy Keller might be the next C.S. Lewis.  This is a hilariously gross overstatement, but what’s significant is that Matt Chandler said it – the same Matt Chandler who recently apparently tweeted, “Biblical literacy wins.” (if you don’t get the joke, don’t worry about it).  And don’t get me wrong.  Keller has my respect.  It’s nice to read a conservative, Reformed pastor who actually knows who Jacques Derrida is and understands neo-Marxist critical theory . . . though that’s not why I respect him 🙂  In his best-selling book The Reason for God – as with Rob Bell’s newest book – Tim Keller talks about hell and judgment.  Let’s see what he says (I apologize for not using page numbers, as I’m working with ereader versions on some of these quotes . . . I promise they’re still real!):

“The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation.  He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity.”

Then Keller quotes Yale theologian Miroslav Volf:

“If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence – that God would not be worthy of worship.”

Keller responds in agreement:

“Volf says the best resource for [resisting the temptation of vengeance] is belief in the concept of God’s divine justice.”

Now it’s Rob’s turn:

“Decisions have to be made.  Judgments have to be rendered.  And so [the prophets] spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments.  They called this day the “day of the LORD.”

“God says no to injustice.  God says, “Never again” to the oppressors who prey on the weak and the vulnerable.”

“When we hear people saying they can’t believe in a God who gets angry – yes, they can.  How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution?  How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply?”

Sound like the same thing?  That’s because it is.  These are just snippets.  I’ve now read both of their books.  Both of them agree that a God of love is also a God of judgment.  Let’s look at what they say about human freedom and the possibility of hell.  Here’s Keller’s take:

“Since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential.  If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell – the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy.”

“A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire.  Fire disintegrates.  Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates.  We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them . . . Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”

In Rob’s chapter on hell:

What we find in Scripture is people living

“one kind of life [that] is in vital connection with the living God, in which they experience more and more peace and wholeness.  The other kind of life is less and less connected with God and contains more and more despair and destruction . . . some destruction does make you think of fire.”

“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.”

“To reject those Lazaruses was to reject God.”

“There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”  (what a universalist!)

Both of them reject a literal hell in the conventional sense and describe hell instead with a responsible interpretation of biblical imagery and as the result of free will gone wrong.  They have given the same explanations for the “rich man and Lazarus” story (Luke 16); they acknowledge that hyperbole and agonizing language are used to describe the agonizing reality of sin.  And, unlike what so many are saying who haven’t read Bell’s book or haven’t read it carefully, both Keller and Bell believe that eternal separation from God is completely possible.  They even both affirm the importance of a substitutionary theory of atonement.

Why these similarities?  Well, first because Bell and Keller are using the same sources – most importantly, the Bible, with some good interpretive tools, and then of course C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce (what’s funny is that Lewis claims in the preface to his book that it’s not meant to be especially theological, yet everyone uses him for theology).

So here’s the question:  why are all of these conservative Calvinists condemning Rob Bell and not Tim Keller or C. S. Lewis? Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if much of his theology is similar in important respects to one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really primarily about theology?  Might there be a deeper political element of power underlying the “who’s theology is right” rhetoric?

Here’s a comment from Austin Fischer that I think is instructive for those caught up in this debate:

“In such a climate, is it really possible to be moderate? Is it possible to have deep convictions but be willing to change your mind? Is it possible to believe you need the voices of those you disagree with? I’m often told that the moderate sits on a slippery slope. That’s fair enough. But I suspect those criticizing moderates for being on the slippery slope have already slipped down…some to the left, some to the right. I don’t mind being on the slope. It’s when I’m not on it that it makes me worry.  Maybe we need more people on the slope.”

54 thoughts on “Part I: Is this really about theology? The test case of Rob Bell and Tim Keller

  1. Charlie Fuller

    Bill, this is a great post! I think we are living in a culture that struggles with “the middle.” You find it in our response to the arts, our political discourse, even in sports, where we have to have “sudden death” and overtime to make sure that we have a winner and a loser. Believe it or not there was once a day when there were “ties” in football. It seems to be a natural result of our culture’s obsession with commerce, yet another example of competitiveness. I think this competitiveness, even when we seek to deny it, has invaded all of our public discourse, either overtly or insidiously.

  2. Ellie

    That’s really unfortunate that that kind of behavior is going on. I have to agree with your seminary friend.

  3. josh carney

    Bill this was a really helpful post. It’s funny you framed this conversation the way you did. I was just talking with someone this morning saying that I’m starting to see Keller’s name pop more and more. Curiously it was on both sides of the fence as a good guy and in this conversation it was in relation to Rob. Very helpful and well crafted. good words.

  4. Bill Post author

    I just should say that I’ve discovered two important things: someone else made a similar post already –

    http://www.thesimplepastor.co.uk/2011/03/do-rob-bell-tim-keller-and-cs-lewis-agree-on-hell/comment-page-1/#comment-2080

    And Piper has indeed criticized the Lewis/Keller/Bell view of hell . . .

    http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/how-willingly-do-people-go-to-hell

    this helps me answer my question! To my knowledge, Piper has not been hostile to Keller in spite of this. Looks like the hunch might be right. Not about theology.

  5. Jared O

    Granted, I haven’t read Bell’s book yet. But what I have read of the reviews, and seen in his interviews, his stance and Keller’s are worlds apart in this: Bell believes that this hell will end for everyone at some point (almost a purgatory like view, except for everyone), while Keller, though he articulates the Hell of the Bible as something more than physical punishment, he does believe that it is eternal. He never suggests that it ends for people who never confessed the name of Christ and believed that God raised Him from the dead in this life. In short, Keller is clearly not a universalist, or pluralist. Even if you would call C.S. Lewis a pluralist to some degree (which as you stated, the books we would appeal to he specifically, wisely, stated were not meant to be theological teachings), he admitted to NOT being a teacher/preacher of the Word, and still held to a Hell that is real and exists forever, and people don’t eventually escape from.

    In short: While Keller and Bell may articulate certain things that are true, the same way, Keller is clearly not a universalist/cecessionist/pluralist and Bell is clearly not orthodox. And that is why Keller is in the huddle and Bell is not.

  6. Bill Post author

    Jared, Thanks for your comment of dissent! I need someone to disagree with me here.

    Despite what you suggest, Bell in fact does not say that hell or purgatory will eventually end. I don’t know where you are getting that other than from misleading reviews, interviews, etc. Obviously Keller is not a universalist. Neither is Bell. And neither of them are pluralists – everyone who is saved is saved through Christ somehow. That is traditional inclusivism. Nothing new, same as C. S. Lewis and many, many others. And actually, Lewis’ view in the Great Divorce is completely open to the possibility that all will be saved, insofar as all decide to repent, give up self-serving, prideful, destructive ways, and submit joyously to communion with God. Lewis just simply believes this is incredibly unrealistic. Bell and Keller are saying the same thing. If we got them all in the same room, I’m sure there’d be some differences, but based on their writings, what I’m saying still holds. To say that they are worlds apart, as you have, is very mistaken.

    Just as important as their agreement about “who” will be saved, however, or “how,” is there discussion of the nature of hell itself, and this is what I like most. All three are in agreement that language in the Bible is metaphorical when describing hell. This does not mean that hell isn’t real, or that it isn’t “suffering” per se, or that it shouldn’t be feared, etc. Hell is more of a “state” though where we become less and less human as a result of rejecting God/life/Jesus/loving relationship with others, etc. It disallows us from participating and living in the kingdom of God – heaven on earth, when all things are made new, and we will see the resurrection of the dead. This is what Bell is saying.

  7. Jared O

    I am glad to respectfully disagree! And so here we go. Here are some quotes that I pulled from his book (as quoted by various reviews). Assuming these quotes are accurate, how would one read these and not come to the conclusion that Bell is some version of Universalist/pluralist and that people will be able to repent after they die?

    “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, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires. (115)”

    He is being ambiguous about something that is clearly taught in the Word.

    “A staggering number of people have been taught that 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. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (viii)”

    Here he seems to be saying that people will be able to repent after death (hence, “love wins”).

    “And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a “renewal of all things,” Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will “restore everything,” and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ “God was pleased to. . . .reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (107, ellipsis in original)”

    And here he seems to be saying it’s possible that all people will be saved somehow, someway, (through Jesus).

    This is decidedly NOT what Tim Keller believes. Furthermore, for our discussion, I think we should leave C.S. Lewis out of it, because, while he may have had some less than orthodox beliefs about heaven and hell (which he did not outright teach, mind you), he was not a pastor or teacher, nor did he claim to be. Rob Bell is leading massive amounts of people astray, irresponsibly. He’s acting as if all these questions he’s bringing up aren’t clearly taught in Scripture. I am not debating whether or not Bell is right or wrong or whatever (I think he’s seriously deceived), but I’m showing you that the approach, responsibility they take, and the conclusion of what Bell and Keller teach on heaven and hell are incredibly different, except that Keller would “agree” with Bell that the descriptions of hell in the NT are metaphorical of something worse (but I think Keller would say their actually worse than we can imagine and worse than a physical burning forever).

  8. Bill Post author

    Glad you replied again. I’ll try to give a relatively short response:

    Bell leaves the question of univeralism open, which does not make him a universalist – like I said before, open to the possibility. And, when he mentions that the tradition includes the belief that God is going to restore all things and all people, he mentions this precisely, well, to mention it. Otherwise, he would have asserted it. But he did not. And, mobility in the afterlife is not unorthodox – unless you define orthodoxy in a very narrow, post-reformation sense. Nor does it imply universalism, yet again. With respect, I’m afraid you are drawing speculative conclusions from ambiguous evidence – evidence without having read the book and having placed these quotes in context – because you have already decided something about Bell and this book. And, as you say, if Keller were asked, he would probably leave things less ambivalent with regard to universalism, but the principles at work in his theology are nevertheless strikingly similar to those of Bell – love requires freedom, and we shouldn’t put limits on God’s mercy. Hell and judgment are real, etc.

    Lastly, did you really mean to say that Keller would claim hell to be “worse” than “burning forever”? Feel free to ask him. I suppose I could guess where you’re going with that . . . “worse” because you’d be without God and alone or something, but saying it’s “worse”? Probably not the best way to phrase it.

    To get back to the bigger picture, why the defensiveness about hell anyway? Why does it have to be soooo terrible? Bell wants people to repent and love Jesus’ forgiveness as much as you do, and he wants to be very missional about it. He too thinks sin is terrible and serious. He believes we need the blood of Jesus. Why such a reaction on the part of so many? I’m not saying we can’t disagree. I’m also not fully defending him. And I’m not suggesting you’ve been hostile. But none of us have a hotline to the absolute truth on these questions, or to the one, singular correct interpretation of Scripture. We need space and room for patient discourse, and for gentleness. I’m not meaning to be rude with these questions. I just think truth has less to fear than many Christians are letting on.

    I mean, I’m with you in some ways. Universalism is an irresponsible position in many respects, but more than that, it’s a speculative one, and that’s the biggest problem I have with it. It’s hard enough sometimes to believe that God is going to literally come back and make this world a better place one day. This is why Bell is actually very cautious. He knows better. And then there’s the whole question of other religions that isn’t really addressed here, and their potential truth value. I have many questions myself, but Bell is not even close to a real threat to the gospel. Versions of the faith that are trying to say who’s in and who’s out more so than talk about God’s love on the other hand – now we’re talking about threats, and I’m scared these threats have taken their toll. Bell is combating them, however imperfectly, and I applaud him for taking the risk, while at the same time I ask Christ to have mercy and work through his efforts despite any errors.

  9. CJ

    Bill,
    What Jared has pointed out is that the issue with Bell is really about theology. You are trying to lump Keller in with Bell when they do not share commonality about opportunities after death. Furthermore, I think Lewis’s Great Divorce should be understood as focusing on the concept that the people in the story ultimately wanted their “idols” more than God and thus had become permanently in rejection. It is a sort of “even if” story and not meant to express a view on what will actually happen. It is a classic thought experiment. The response to Bell’s book, for the most part is about theology whether anyone wants to admit it or not.

  10. Jason

    Bill,

    I would encourage you to watch Rob’s msnbc interview. You will see there that you are focused on the wrong issue. The issue is not about hell being eternal or an anialasionist view of hell. The issue is salvation in Christ alone. When asked directly, and called out for not answering Bell was not able to assirt that faith in Jesus is essential for salvation. That is the issue. In fact, in the interview it appears (as Rob admits) that Rob is trying to work out his personal issues with God and does not seem to have any answers himself. He was not able to answer basic questions about the Christian faith when asked directly. Again, the issue is not Rob’s view on hell it is his view of Jesus and salvation. What he seems to believe about Jesus and salvation is then shown in his answer on that interview that those whom reject Jesus will in the end find salvation in the age to come. I am not shure, after listening to Rob’s own words, how one could say that is not some form of universalism.

    I would also say thatnis the difference between he and Keller, Keller may be an anialsionist, I do not know, and many believers are. However, Keller and Bell clearly have different understandings of Jesus and salvation.

    Let’s make the real issue the main issue, it is all about Jesus.

  11. Bill Post author

    CJ – good points about C.S. Lewis. You are right in some ways. I’m not necessarily trying to lump Keller and Bell together though. I’ve said already that they’re obviously going to be different. Just look at their books and listen to the their sermons . . . I’m just trying to point out that they have many more similarities and much more common ground than you would expect in light of the polemics. And both of them are indeed relying heavily on the Great Divorce – though yes, I would concede with you that Keller does not talk about mobility in the afterlife. If you read Bell carefully though, he doesn’t assert this either! He just leaves it open. You might disagree, but I don’t think that makes him an enemy. I’m interested in orthodoxy generously construed, because that’s what the tradition is (I’m not referring to McLaren here). And of course this is about theology, but I think it’s about more than that.

  12. Bill Post author

    Jason, yes, I saw the interview. I’ve also been reading and listening to Bell for four years, so one interview doesn’t really make it or break it for me. Plus, he didn’t say anything “wrong.” He just didn’t say what you wanted him to. You bring good remarks as well, so thank you, but let me try to explain where I think you’ve missed something, and imagine that we’re having a very calm conversation 🙂 First of all, if what you’re saying is true, the issue is no longer universalism but pluralism. But Bell is neither of these. You are confusing “how to get to Jesus” with “going through Jesus.” Bell is a traditional inclusivist. This means that for him, everyone is saved through Christ, but as far as how everyone single person gets to Christ, Bell is comfortable with some mystery there – the obvious and most typical examples include native Americans 1000 years ago for instance. This barely scratches the surface of the discussion and is rather superficial, but I hope you see what I’m saying. I’ve written quite a bit about this in much more detail in older posts. Please read the book for yourself, and a lot of this will be clarified – or just listen to pretty much any one of his sermons. But, again, I’m not as interested in defending Bell as I am in clarifying what he is and is not saying.

  13. Jared O

    Yes CJ, that is mostly what I was getting at, thanks for making it clearer.

    Bill, I don’t know if you meant to imply that I was being defensive about hell, but that is not my intention. My blood was as cold as ever when I typed my last post. As for hell being worse than burning forever, I do believe that. I think you do to, because eternal separation from God, dwelling only on your pain, sorrows, miseries, and self-centered sinful ego is worse on many different levels. I get that burning forever would physically hurt, but I think Keller’s point in his metaphorical imagery is that burning forever, outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, is the closest we can come to the kind of mental and spiritual anguish those who are separated from God with only His wrath and their own sin to deal with.

    My main point is that while Bell may be “open” to Universalism, Keller is not. And Piper, Mohler, Taylor et al, are on board with Keller that there are many things about heaven, hell, and the Cross that are abundantly clear in Scripture, and Bell, seemingly in an attempt to “win” others or become more popular, has refused to state plainly what the Scriptures say (2 Cor. 4:2 – “But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God”).

    I disagree with Bell on many points, and I’m probably not willing to debate them, but in an effort to answer the question of your post, I was pointing out exactly why I think Keller is accepted, even though him and Bell may have similarities in the way they talk about hell, and why Bell is not.

  14. Bill Post author

    Jared, I appreciate your input. I did not think you were being defensive.

    As I’m thinking about it more, I think I have been unclear on something that is really important. Bell leaves universalism open, because he’s mentioning that some in the tradition have believed in it, even without being condemned for it. But, Bell himself doesn’t say he’s open to it. He’s just saying it’s a viable option – not necessarily a good one. Perfect recent examples – Karl Barth, or Jurgen Moltmann, two of the greatest champions against liberal theologies. Anyway, there’s a subtle but significant difference there.

    I understand your concerns with Scripture. It’s just not a simple as these guys are making it – Piper, Mohler, Taylor, et al. Bell is saying, for instance, that the words for “eternal” and “everlasting” in Greek don’t necessarily mean forever in the way that we think of it – we’re just not certain. How do Piper, Mohler, and Taylor know this is wrong for sure, when some respectable scholars have found evidence to support exactly what Bell is claiming? I just think that’s something worth contemplating. It’s easy to assume that things are soooo clear in the Bible, when a of times they aren’t, and we have a lot of unlearning to do. What frustrates me most is simply when these guys are so quick to assume their understanding and interpretations of words and contexts is inerrant – not talking about the Bible itself here.

    Thanks again.

  15. Jared O

    That’s fair enough, and I would have no problem with agreeing to disagree or respecting the position you’re taking. I agree with you that your first point is subtle but significant. However, what I saw of Rob Bell in the various interviews, and what I’ve seen in some of his other books and speaking engagements, I’ve seen enough to know that he is unnecessarily vague on things that we ought to be very clear about. When asked in that hour long interview with the Jewish lady (her name is escaping me), what the point of the resurrection is, he doesn’t even give her a clear answer. He never mentions that Christ came to make atonement for sin on the Cross, and he leaves things very open-ended. There is great clarity on Cross and Resurrection in the Bible, even if we say (rightly), “there may be more to this and parts I don’t fully understand, nevertheless, here are the things that are clear” we still ought to concisely say things that we know to be true and are helpful for promoting understanding, rather than obscurity (which seems to be Bell’s favored approach).

    I.e. he is treading way too close false teacher characteristics (even if he’s not one). And this is why he would never be in the same camp as those other guys. They make plain what they mean and own up for it when they don’t know, and teach things that are clearly taught in Scripture.

    Now, I also understand your concern about them assuming their position is inerrant. But, are you not assuming that they haven’t already done the research on this topic? After all, Mohler, in his review, specifically stated: “We have read this book before.” I.e. this is not new, and this liberalism has already been dealt with. I would guess he has probably spent more time digging into the original languages and that specific doctrine, and it’s historical position within (or out) the Church than you, me, or Bell.

    So I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that they haven’t done their homework. They may be wrong, and they may learn/unlearn/apologize for it later, or not. But I would definitely give some leeway to someone like Piper, who has been studying the Word, seriously, for longer than you or I have been alive, and who went from a fervent Arminian in the theology to a Calvanist after wrestling/debating it for years at college, and who has openly confessed sins and weaknesses and temptations he has as a Pastor, which is all very abnormal and refreshing from a pastoral standpoint, instead of the countless men and women who have simply been indoctrinated at their respective, and widely varied, seminaries and bible schools.

    I have enjoyed some of your other posts while roaming around here. And you’ve been very cordial in disagreement. Suffice to say for now that we disagree on the reason Rob Bell has been left out of the circle of trust, whether you agree with the theology of the Reformed figureheads or not, they are sincere in their belief that Rob Bell’s teaching is dangerous and are not just playing games with who they like/don’t like etc.

  16. Jason

    Bill,

    I have no interest in debating Rob Bell, as I choose instead to focus my time on sharing about Jesus so this is simply a clarification on my previous comment and your response. First let me say, I am not sure you can truly separate defending Bell and clarifying what (you believe) he is saying. This is the most frustrating thing about Bell’s interviews this week is that he does not give a straight forward answer but dodges every single answer. As the interviewer on msnbc said, you cannot have it both ways.

    I have listened to Rob for years, tons of sermons, read all his books, up until this one, I have been to two of his speaking tours, been to a conference at his church, ordered his series on sermons. I enjoy his style very much and appreciate his creativity and passion. For some time now I have been a bit concerned about what exactly Rob believes about Jesus, as he never, even at conferences for pastors comes and out and says his view of Jesus as Messiah and Savior. Instead he kind of always dodges the issue, which I know is part of his style, trying to leave the hearing to come to their own conclusions and think for themselves. I understand that, and appreciate that, as I incorporate much of that in my personal style of preaching and teaching, however, at the end othe day a follow of Jesus needs to have some convictions they are clear about in regard to Jesus.

    Is he the Messiah, Lord he claims to be. Is he the one who can forgive sins as he claims, is the the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep as he claims, is he both the spotless lamb and the one who requires the sacrifice of the spotless lamb? Is he the originator, founder, and developer of the new covenant, is he the one who allows himself to be sacrificed to defeat sin and death, is he the one who raises to new life and offers new life to humanity by grace through faith? Is receiving his gift of grace necessary for eternal life in his presence (heaven) and does rejecting him lead to life apart from him in the life to come (whether eternal or ultimately anihalated)?

    These are the questions that Rob refuses to answer in his interview on msnbc and his interview on Monday night. Why? Why does Rob’s dogma make him incapable to answer simple direct questions about Jesus? Because of the mystery surrounding Native Americans? Is there a problem with developing your dogma around the mystery as oppose to around what is know to be truth?

    Here in lies the problem, Rob’s refusal to answer questions demonstrates truths about his doctrine. Please do not try and argue as he does that he does not have a dogma or doctrine and is just starting a conversation, we are not stupid. This is also the irony in this entire situation. Rob decries the dogma or doctrine of others while in a very enjoyable, conversational way, exposing his own. He also, ironically seems to form his based on the mysteries we will not ever understand in this life instead of around what we are able to know and leaving some room for the mystery. How exactly does that work. I will ignore what is truth because there is some mystery I cannot understand, instead of this is what I know to be true and there are some areas of mystery I do not understand.

    When it all comes down to it, it is about Jesus. Jesus the Messiah, Savior. Not a great analogy of peace, love, and hope. The one who is peace, love, and hope. The one whom when we know inspires us to live out the truth of who he is to bring glory to Him, not to be bring glory to his characteristics, but him.

    When ask directly if faith in Jesus is essential, Rob is not able to respond, yes, knowing Jesus is what it is all about. You are right, he seems to believe some sort of pluralism/universalism which when you think about it is really the same thing. If you believe everyone will eventually be won over and end up with God for eternity then pluralism is just another form of that working itself out. However, if you are a Christian, you believe in Jesus. So if that is what Rob believes let him actually answer a question (in whatever style he chooses) that leads to the conclusion, of Jesus. He seems to not be capable of doing that which shows the truth of his dogma.

    Sorry that his might be scattered and not grammatically correct, I am using an iOS device which makes both of those a little harder. Bill, I pray that as you considder to investigate into these areas that you will continually be draw back to the role of ambassador and witness for Jesus. Thank you for presenting this forum.

  17. Bill Post author

    Thanks Jason. Check out my most recent post. I’m grateful for your concern, but pluralism and universalism are not the same thing. Pluralism confesses significant ignorance about who God really is. Christian universalism (there are also non-Christian universalisms) affirms Christ as Lord. I don’t like either of these perspectives, but the latter is a lot closer to the tradition than the former from a Christian standpoint.

  18. Bill Post author

    Jared, I would also direct you to my most recent post with respect to Mohler’s charge of “liberalism.”

    You are right that Bell is unclear in these interviews, and I too wish he would say more. You have legitimate concerns. But, in the book, Bell addresses atonement quite clearly, and the resurrection, in orthodox fashion (literally, Easter orthodox fashion especially). In fact, I would highly recommend reading that chapter in light of your comment about the supposed “great clarity” in the Bible. There are multiple motifs with regard to the cross, and Bell says we need all of them, not just one (i.e., substitionary atonement). I think this is a wise thing to say.

    As for their “homework,” You can spend your whole life digging really deep, and learning from a very narrow well. That is what those like Piper and Mohler have done.

    Thanks for your cordiality as well.

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  20. LeadFromTheFringe

    Bill – I am coming late to the party here but THAT was great post ! wow 🙂

    I am also more than impressed with the first several response posts. Good conversation!

    and thank you for your example of being cordial in response. Especially to those who think that already have all the answers and have it all figured out. You are a real model of grace. peace to you -Bo

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  22. Dustin

    Bill, just wanted to clarify something:

    “Bell is a traditional inclusivist. This means that for him, everyone is saved through Christ, but as far as how everyone single person gets to Christ, Bell is comfortable with some mystery there…”

    What I THINK you meant was “…for him, everyone -who is saved- is saved through Christ…,” as this is actual the traditional inclusivism of Rahner and others.

    Not to nit-pick, but as long as we’re dealing with technical theology it helps to be clear on this.

    I recently heard Carter’s sermon on hell where he said Jesus would probably say “yes, that’s what I meant” to Dante’s “Inferno.” Keller and Bell would CERTAINLY disagree with this.

    Re: a power struggle, I think it’s important to realize that while this might be the case, it isn’t a power struggle for the sake of power. BOTH sides are striving for the most powerful voice because both believe they are the most correct. I want to be very careful to be fair to both sides and not demonize either. I’m not always Bell’s biggest fan, but lately I’ve chosen to do a lot of defending him because some folks decided he writes what he does to please more people, instead of accepting that maybe he’s a good pastor with God-given love for his church and the Church Universal. Theology is complex enough – I’m hesitant to start trying to determine everyone’s motives as well.

  23. Bill Post author

    Thanks for your remarks Dustin. Your ammendment would make my statement more precise, yes, but as it is, in light of the context, the “who” is certaintly implied. As for the power issue, you’ll see that I address that more explicitly in the post “Part III.” Also, I think some my comments in response to others cover this well. Obviously the debate isn’t about power as such – rarely do things ever involve power as the end, but the means, and this case it’s the means to just what you’ve said – control of the “right” message. I’m glad you’ve chosen to defend Bell some, but as I’ve also admitted, I think he brought a lot of this on himself with the provocative way he subtitled and promo-ed the book, whether he intentionally did this or not. And I agree with your comment about not trying to determine people’s motives . . . nonetheless, I think motives do become more clear in times like this, and sometimes this must be pointed out if it has the potential to be edifying.

  24. Mike

    Check out this link. I think this interview say’s it all. First, Rob Bell can’t even answer a fundamental question about God and suffering. Second, in the interview, he never denies being a Universalist when he has plenty of chances to do so. Pastors speak truth with clarity not ambiguity. This interview certainly doesn’t add any bit of credibility to this guy as a leader.

  25. Bill Post author

    Yeah, I’ve seen this interview already, but no, I do not think it “says it all.” In fact, it says very little. This interviewer was incredibly difficult to talk to. His questions were narrowing, and addressed in a way so as to corner Bell into a modern, rational paradigm that he is interested in transcending anyhow. I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood him. Have you read the book? He’s not answering the questions directly, precisely because his whole project is to encourage us to ask different questions. This isn’t about “universalism or not” – that’s an old discussion Bell is wanting to get away from (why he chose this particular subtitle then is beyond me . . . actually, it’s not – it was to sell books 🙂

    Your last comment about pastors “speaking truth with clarity not ambiguity” is a particular preference of yours. Maybe the difference here is that Bell isn’t as “certain” about what the truth is or how easily it can be managed/accessed as you’d like it to be, and that’s ok with some people. I’m just trying to say what I think Bell would say in response to your charges.

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  31. Peter G.

    I don’t think it’s been mentioned, but I would refer readers to Keller’s fuller statement on his Church’s website: “The Importance of Hell.

    Those who find comfort in Keller’s non-literal descriptions of hell should note this sentence well: “To say that the Scriptural image of hell-fire is not wholly literal is of no comfort whatsoever.” If you find Keller’s images more comforting than the more-literal images of hell, either you have misunderstood Keller or he has not explained himself well. He does not intend them to be more comforting. Whether he achieves this intention I leave to you to decide.

    Also, perhaps a minor difference because Bell admits he doesn’t want to make too much of it, but Bell suggests that the gates of the new Jerusalem never shut so that “people are free to come and go” (see pp. 114-115). Keller, however says, “Hell is therefore a prison in which the doors are first locked from the inside by us and therefore are locked from the outside by God (Luke 16:26.) Every indication is that those doors continue to stay forever barred from the inside.”

    So in Keller’s model, it doesn’t matter much if the doors of the New Jerusalem are never closed. The doors of hell are locked, inside and out. There’s no hope in Keller’s model for post-judgment coming and going like there is in Bell’s.

  32. Bill Post author

    Thanks Peter. You are right to point out these differences, and I am not unaware of them. Looking back, a more accurate title of this blog post might have been, “Is this really only or mostly about Theology? At the same time, if Rob Bell had written Keller’s book, for instance, he would have received much more criticism than Keller did from the conservative evangelicals – Keller probably didn’t receive any criticism – and that is my main point. And, just to add one detail, Bell does not defend or put forth post-mortem mobility as his view. He merely mentions it as an orthodox option. To me the biggest different between Bell and Keller is probably more related to the cross and whether hell is punitive at all in nature As for Keller’s comment about “comfort” on the church website, I think that is lipservice to appease a more traditional crowd – anyone who reinterprets hell language to be more metaphorical is undoubtedly making a “comforting” move – however slight – for defending God’s character on some level. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  33. Anthony B. Bradley

    Bill, maybe Keller didn’t get any criticism because (a) he wrote this: http://www.redeemer.com/news_and_events/articles/the_importance_of_hell.html and (b) as a PCA teaching elder he confesses he belief in what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:” Question 29: What are the punishments of sin in the world to come?

    Answer: The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever.”
    CHAPTER XXXIII.

    Of the Last Judgment.

    I. God has appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.
    II. The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fulness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power.

    III. As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity: so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly, Amen.

    As an elder in the PCA, if Tim Keller did not believe in a literal in the conventional sense he would be kicked out of our denomination immediately.

  34. Bill Post author

    Well, Dr. Bradley, you’ve said a lot here, and you have made some strong claims, so I’ll do my best to respond thoroughly, but I’m sure I’ll miss some things.

    First, I never claimed to be doing “scholarship”, so that’s probably why you don’t “understand” it. This is just a blog. I’m just taking exactly what Keller said from his book – isn’t that using “direct teaching”? Furthermore, after looking at the link you sent me in detail, I don’t find anything surprising; there is little there that would change what I already concluded about Keller. Your description above of hell and judgment is somewhat different from his. Did you notice the following quotes from that link?

    Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical. (Since souls are in hell right now, without bodies, how could the fire be literal, physical fire?)

    What is hell, then? It is God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen-to go our own way, be our own “the master of our fate, the captain of our soul,” to get away from him and his control. It is God banishing us to regions we have desperately tried to get into all our lives. J.I.Packer writes: “Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . [H]ell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.” (J.I.Packer, Concise Theology p.262-263.) If the thing you most want is to worship God in the beauty of his holiness, then that is what you will get (Ps 96:9-13.) If the thing you most want is to be your own master, then the holiness of God will become an agony, and the presence of God a terror you will flee forever (Rev 6:16; cf. Is 6:1-6.)

    This second quote in particular goes directly against what someone like John Piper has said about hell – one of my major points.

    This is still akin to what C.S. Lewis has said about how one ends up in hell, which Bell also relies on. Another one of my points.

    Now, to answer your question about their differences: Keller does say the metaphorical interpretation shows that hell will be “worse” than if the teaching were literal. So perpetual, physical burning is better than the metaphorical view? Thanks, but I’ll take the metaphor. That is not what Keller means. Rather, this is just a typical way of emphasizing that to be without God is the worst thing imaginable. Well, sure, but let’s not confuse these categories. The word “worse” here has a different meaning, that I’m sure Bell would be fine with.

    The second difference, admittedly, is more significant: the stress of hell as judgment rather than merely a “natural consequence.” Again though, I’m taking Bell for his word, and not speculating. That is, Bell never denies that hell is also God’s judgment on sin. Nor does he deny the substitutionary theory of atonement, which means he obviously understands that sin must be punished by God. He’s simply stressing instead that God is just enough to give us the choice. The amount of criticism that has been leveled at Bell for things he hasn’t said is excessive.

    The final difference, which I’ve already mentioned several times, is that Bell considers post-mortem mobility to be a possibility, whereas Keller has not said this. Because they are both inclusivists, however, I do not see this as a big difference at all, because both of them are open to the possibility of people still being saved even though they haven’t heard the gospel, just like C.S. Lewis was. Whether God can give people a second chance after death, or see directly into their hearts and save them despite their mistaken beliefs – both possibilities amount to the same reality: his mercy is wider than traditional exclusivism suggests. This is tremendously different from those like Mohler, Piper, etc., who insist via Rom. 10 that only those who have been preached to can be saved. Keller explicit rejects this in his book “The Reason for God.”

    Therefore, I still firmly believe that Keller and Bell are more similar to each other than Keller and Piper, for instance, despite some significant differences.

    I think you are correct though in saying that Keller did not get any criticism because he is affiliated with the PCA and claims to agree with the Westminister Confession of Faith. But this only serves to further prove my point! It is precisely because Keller is located in this camp, that he is viewed with a hermeneutic of generosity, by those within his denomination, rather than with a hermeneutic of suspicion, as is the case with Bell. In other words, the difference is more of a political one than a theological one in many respects, though theology is still playing an important role. Please let me know if that does not make sense.

    To summarize one more time: The biggest two contributions Bell is making in his book, in my reading, are the following: defending 1) inclusivism and 2) free will with respect to salvation. Keller explicitly affirms both of these positions as well, no matter what other creeds he has signed on to or what church branch he is affiliated with (just see the quotes I cited above). Hence, I stand by my original argument.

  35. Bill Post author

    Here’s another good quote from the link you sent me that agrees with both C. S. Lewis, and Rob Bell:

    The image of ‘gehenna’ and ‘maggots’ means decomposition. Once a body is dead it loses its beauty and strength and coherence, it begins to break into its constituent parts, to stink and to disintegrate. So what is a ‘totaled’ human soul? It does not cease to exist, but rather becomes completely incapable of all the things a human soul is for–reasoning, feeling, choosing, giving or receiving love or joy. Why? Because the human soul was built for worshipping and enjoying the true God, and all truly human life flows from that. In this world, all of humanity, even those who have turned away from God, still are supported by ‘kindly providences’ or ‘common grace’ (Acts 14:16-17; Psalm 104:10-30; James 1:17) keeping us still capable of wisdom, love, joy, and goodness. But when we lose God’s supportive presence all together, the result is hell.

    And this one:

    First, it tells us that people only get in the afterlife what they have most wanted-either to have God as Savior and Master or to be their own Saviors and Masters. Secondly, it tells us that hell is a natural consequence. Even in this world it is clear that self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness makes you miserable and blind. The more self-centered, self-absorbed, self-pitying, and self-justifying people are, the more breakdowns occur, relationally, psychologically, and even physically. They also go deeper into denial about the source of their problems.

    On the other hand, a soul that has decided to center its life on God and his glory moves toward increasing joy and wholeness. We can see both of these ‘trajectories’ even in this life. But if, as the Bible teaches, our souls will go on forever, then just imagine where these two kinds of souls will be in a billion years. Hell is simply one’s freely chosen path going on forever. We wanted to get away from God, and God, in his infinite justice, sends us where we wanted to go.

    And then Keller just goes ahead and quotes Lewis explicitly:

    Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.

    I feel I should ask once more, did you notice these statements by Keller? They are utterly opposed to neo-Calvinism.

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  37. cort

    just like Bell does with the Bible, you are taking snippets of Keller’s book and not telling the whole story. Really biased, sloppy, post.

  38. Bill Post author

    Not sure if you were able to read through the comments, but I think you would see that I’m aware of the “whole story” if you did. Nonetheless, I would concede that there is more going on with Keller than I acknowledge – but NOT according to his book “The Reason for God.” Only from subsequent material could one deduce any hostility to Bell on Keller’s part. Most recently this was revealed in a comment he made about the necessity of hell’s eternity in order to do justice to God’s holiness. This was the conference with D.A. Carson and others on universalism. I think what he said there was completely unfounded. Keller also tried to “take possession” of C.S. Lewis as if Lewis was on Keller’s “side” rather than Bell’s, even as both of them rely heavenly on his imaginative work in the Great Divorce for their concepts of providence, finite freedom, God’s love, etc. This too was an underhanded move. I think Keller has come under increasing preasure to align himself more closely with TGC, and that is unfortunate, because based on what I read in his work, I don’t think he belongs there. At the same time, with comments like the one he made about hell (he was speaking “philosophically” more so than biblically – and that is a key point), he’s quickly going to lose credit even with moderates.

    What Keller is not as forthright about is the degree to which God’s judgment and punishment is something that has to happen in addition to what takes place on the cross. In other words, I’m not certain what Keller believes exactly with respect to limited atonement. This would be a helpful bit of information, and it might better draw out the real differences between him and Bell.

    In making such a dismissive comment of my post, it would be helpful for you to be more specific. Not sure where exactly I’m guilty of being “sloppy” and “biased,” so I’m inviting and encourage a more charitable interaction here. Feel free to respond with more.

  39. Kevin

    I’ll keep it short and sweet, but I recently listened to one of the free sermons on Kellers Redeemer website and the sermon largely dealt with his views on hell.

    To quickly summarize, “Thy Will Be Done”.

    The believer calls out for God’s will to be done.
    The unbeliever, God allows for their own will to be done, which is to be their own God.

    Obviously Keller sermons are long and he went into more detail, but that’s the extreme cliff notes.

    Love does win, but only because of Jesus’s work on the cross – and that doesn’t mean hell doesn’t exist.

    Do yourself a favor… listen to some Keller sermons on his site and stop trying to take snipits from full books to try and make them look in the same camp. I mean by the snipit standard I guess Mormon’s for example, because they mention Jesus occasionally preach the same Gospel as Rob Bell.

  40. Bill Post author

    Have you read Love Wins? Bell argues the exact same thing. I’ve listened to a number of Keller’s sermons already, but why would I need to do that when I’ve read three of his books? Bell and Keller work with the same logic. The “thy will be done” comes from C.S. Lewis, which I’ve already mentioned. They both draw on it. Your criticism is vague and unenlightening. And your tone is unnecessarily condescending. I’m not really sure what your point is. Bell doesn’t question the cross. Nor does he say hell doesn’t exist. In fact, he says it does, both now, and in the afterlife, but only for people who consciously reject God’s invitation. You would know that if you read the book (I don’t mean to be rude when I say that – it’s just true). What primarily differentiates him from Keller is that Bell is open to there being a “second chance” after death or some kind of postmortem mobility. Also, Keller believes hell has to be eternal. Bell probably doesn’t think that. Again, I’m pretty sure I’ve already said all this somewhere in the thread. Lastly, your comparison of Bell to Mormonism is uninformed and unfounded. Bottom line – the extent to which these two are in different theological camps has been exaggerated by the polemical context of the evangelical landscape. I’ve never claimed they are the same. The purpose all along has been to call into question the polarizing and reactionary nature of this worn-out, unedifying controversy.

  41. Steve

    I wouldn’t think this should be a difficult question – Rob Bell and Tim Keller are in entirely separate categories not because of anything written here, but because they disagree with whether the condemnation of hell is or is not eternal – and (relatedly) if there are any “second chances” after death.

    Keller (and C.S. Lewis, I might add) absolutely affirms the eternality of eternal condmenation. Bell denies this. I don’t follow what, precisely, is difficult to notice about how entirely different and separate these two positions are, how much ever other similarities there may be here and there…?

  42. Bill Post author

    This has indeed already been discussed in the thread, but to review, actually one of the major themes of the the Great Divorce is precisely that C.S. Lewis does not affirm the eternality of hell. There is mobility and the possibility of change, because God’s love never stops. While Keller does not agree with this, in the Reason for God he does allude to conditional immortality or what is often called annihilationism, in which hell is eternal, but the conscious torment is not, because the separation from God eventually turns human beings into something less than human, practically leading to the point of extinction.

    As for Bell, what you’ve said is not entirely accurate. It would be more precise to say that Bell believes hell might not be eternal. He does not explicitly deny its eternality, as you suggest. So to answer your question – as I’ve been saying, these important subtleties once again indicate that Bell and Keller are not as far apart as many have assumed. The difference is a matter of degree more so than kind, in many respects. Your description of their differences as “entirely separate” is definitely an exaggeration.

  43. Aaron McCarter

    Keller did actually say that his view of hell is worse than the typical images of fire and teeth gnashing…explicitly. It was in a sermon, sorry I can’t recall which.

  44. Camille Caudill

    Having read both “Love Wins” and “The Reason for God,” I have very much enjoyed reading this post and its comments. I think it is extremely helpful to listen to the insights of others on some of these thorny issues, and I particularly appreciate the generally respectful tone used in the debate. Far too often conversations like this dishonor our saviour because folks try to outdo one another with sarcasm, namecalling, and ugly comments. Thanks to all who shared! Keep up the good work!

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  46. Terry McCall

    Bill, thanks for your insight into Bell and Keller’s wrestlings with a purposeful God and human destiny. I am not so familiar with that larger conversation but have wrestled with the same theme for years. Having served abroad as a missionary much of my adult life and now as owner of a business, Freedom Climber LLC, I have done my wrestling from an armchair with the likes of Abraham Kuyper and Abraham bar Terah. I have recently written a book entitled “Hell in the hands of a Gracious God” which explores both faith and hell in light of a purposeful God. I have inserted a press release and self information below. If you would be inclined to read it I would gladly send you a copy. Blessings on your blogging. Terry

    “Hell has a hellish reputation, and that is the problem,” argues Terry McCall, author of the new book Hell in the hands of a Gracious God. McCall believes in a literal hell that is an afterlife experience, he believes Hell is a place of separation, sorrow, and judgment. But he believes those who go to Hell are not separated from God but are separated to God where they come into those ‘unsearchable judgments’ of God.

    McCall asserts “Hell has taken on dimensions that are beyond the teaching of the New Testament. There are just enough inconsistencies with the Hell that has evolved down through the years that when those inconsistencies are brought into relation with the God revealed in the Scriptures – there is little wonder that Hell is such a debatable, problematic subject.”

    Focusing on a New Testament definition of Hell and emphasizing the sovereignty, purposefulness, and graciousness of God; the author makes a case for Hell being a means to an end rather than an end in itself. He also makes a case for Hell being eternal, but eternal in nature rather than duration. The book addresses the subject of Hell but focuses more on God’s purposeful judgments.

    As a conservative, evangelical who has taught Bible for decades both as a missionary abroad and as a pastor in church settings in the US, Terry McCall has sensed that there is an increasing number of Christians who are looking for alternative explanations when it comes to final judgment and the destiny of the human race. His sense is that this growing number of Christians is not necessarily disillusioned with Hell but only the Hell that has been handed down to them.

    In readable, accessible style, well supported with scriptural and theological evidence, the author explores the images of Hell that modern Christians have inherited. Relating stories from his life as a missionary and now inventor/businessman, the writer makes a case for considering alternatives he believes are more consistent with the New Testament picture of Hell.

    Chapters in the book develop the theme by looking at such issues as the voices that shape our lives, the regeneration to come, the obedience of Jesus, the origin of faith, the origin of the Hell we know and then the author concludes with an alternative read on final judgment.

    For readers who have themselves struggled with the traditional explanation of Hell in light of a purposeful and gracious God, or who have questions about judgment that feel unanswered, Hell in the hands of a Gracious God provides much food for thought, from the perspective of deep and abiding faith in a loving God.

    Hell in the hands of a Gracious God by Terry McCall is available as a paperback through Amazon’s Createspace ISBN 9780984847617 https://www.createspace.com/3742492 and as an ebook through Kindle ISBN 9780984847600

  47. Bill Walker Post author

    Thanks, Terry. Your book sounds fascinating and definitely like something I would benefit from reading. I’ll email you my contact info.

  48. Rick Dykema

    you wrote, “Pastors speak with truth and clarity not ambiguity.”

    I’m sorry, but that can’t even be said about Jesus. He spoke with all sorts of nuance and ambiguity. How many times did everyone around him “get” exactly what he was saying? How often did even his disciples not understand? You may have the expectation that a pastor should speak without ambiguity, but at least be honest that it is your opinion. You can’t possibly say it is an absolute truth.

  49. Ryan

    The big difference between Bell and Keller is, well, BIG. Rob Bell has attempted to create a gospel that is more “palatable”… Rob Bell says that we should be careful to not “speculate” as to what happens when we die. Speculate? I know what happens when people die. They either go into the presence of God forever, or out of the presence of God forever. These two options are determined EXACTLY by how one responds to the invitation of eternal life, as given by Christ. In His book Bell says, “Gods love will eventually melt hearts”… I don’t know what that means. Do you? Sounds like ear tickeling to me (2 Tim 4.3-4)

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