Rob Bell and Hell
Rob Bell's view of hell vs. the traditional Christian doctrine of hell and eternal damnation.
Rob Bell and Hell
Kevin Harris: Welcome to the Reasonable Faith podcast with Kevin Harris and Dr. William Lane Craig. Bill, this is not exactly a topic that I like to talk about – I don't think anybody wants to talk about – the topic of hell. It's in the news lately.
Dr. Craig: It is.
Kevin Harris: In particular the works of Rob Bell. What do you know about this controversy.
Dr. Craig: Well, this made the cover of Time magazine, so it's obviously made a splash in popular culture. Rob Bell is a very popular megachurch pastor who, I think, has rather shocked the evangelical community by coming out against the traditional Christian doctrine of hell and eternal damnation. Not that he adopts annihilationism, which some other evangelicals have moved to, but . . .
Kevin Harris: And what would that be?
Dr. Craig: Well, that would be the view that God simply destroys the damned, that he annihilates them. And some people like John Stott, notably, have adopted annihilationism as their view of the afterlife for the unsaved. But Bell's position is more radical. He has adopted a position that's actually been condemned by the church as heretical, and that is that the damned will have postmortem opportunities for salvation, and eventually a God of infinite love wins out and everyone will be saved. Hell will be emptied, or the realm of the separated lost will be emptied, and everyone will be won over by God's love and be saved.
Kevin Harris: This is not our first rodeo when it comes to hell. We've done podcasts on it. Your famous debate with Bradley has been viewed time and time again on the topic of hell. For one thing we want to refer people to that debate. Tell us a little about that debate for anyone who hasn't seen it.
Dr. Craig: Well, that was a debate that I had with Dr. Ray Bradley, who is a very prominent philosopher, several years ago at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.1 And Bradley was a very vituperous opponent. He had slides, I think, of a Catholic priest that I think he called Father Furnace who seemed to delight in the idea of burning the unsaved in hell, and all sorts of colorful and very emotionally tendentious sorts of slides and PowerPoints in opposition to the Christian doctrine of hell. And he raised a number of philosophical objections to the doctrine as well, which then I did my best to address in a responsible way.
And in addition to that, Kevin, in the meantime since the debate I have responded to questions about this in the question of the week several times. So if folks are interested they can consult the archive there and they'll find quite a bit of discussion.2 In fact, I think there are few, if any, Christian philosophers, Kevin, who have been more forthcoming in addressing in print and in debate the questions raised by the traditional doctrine of hell as I have.
Kevin Harris: Plenty of resources at ReasonableFaith.org. So go there—get some of the basic questions answered. We're going to talk about it again because we're starting to get some questions flowing in. Bill, my own anecdotal observation doing work in apologetics is that the number one objection is usually some form of the problem of evil. Number two would be the age of the universe—is the universe old or young according to biblical teaching? And then number three would be hell, would be the concept of hell as just intolerable and there's no way it could be true, and so on. I guess that this breaks down to two things about hell. One, the duration of it—is it eternal or temporary? And number two, what's it like—in particular, is it really going to be a place where you feel your flesh burning for all of eternity? So, what are we to understand?
Dr. Craig: Well, I think there are two ways in which the objection to hell could be framed. One would be that it's inconstant with the love of God, and then the other objection would be that it's inconsistent, ironically, with the justice of God—that a just God wouldn't send people to hell. And so that would be a convenient way of separating the objections and dealing with them one at a time.
Kevin Harris: Is there room to doubt that the flames of hell or the chemical combustion that we're familiar with on this earth?
Dr. Craig: I think so. It seems to me that the images of the state of the damned in the New Testament are meant to be pictorial metaphors.3 Sometimes it talks about the outer darkness where the worm does not die, or other times it will use the image of the lake of fire, and so forth. I don't have any confidence that these are meant to be taken to be literal descriptions, as opposed to metaphorical images of how awful it is to be separated from God. And I don't want to minimize the horror of hell because even if it doesn’t consist in physical punishment the idea of eternal separation from God is horrific, and is a terrible, terrible punishment—the worst state anyone can be in. So these physical images, if they are that, are nevertheless meant to express the agony and the pain and the anguish of the damned, who are eternally separated from God.
Kevin Harris: You've pointed out that the Bible never describes hell as a torture chamber.
Dr. Craig: That's certainly true. These medieval paintings of hell where you have torture racks and red hot pinchers and other sorts of tortures being inflicted on the damned are clearly a reflection of the dungeons of medieval Europe rather than a reflection of biblical teaching. That is very clear.
Kevin Harris: So it's a place of torment which is internal, as opposed to a place of torture which would be an external or physical thing.
Dr. Craig: It's not clear, I would say, that it involves as you said flames of fire that burn a person up. I think that is meant to express in a pictorial way the horror and the anguish of the essence of hell, which is separation from God. In 2 Thessalonians 1:8f Paul says that those who do not know God will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might. And I take it that that represents the essence of what damnation is. It is this state of eternal separation from the presence of God and hence all that is good and lovely and wonderful, and just being left with one's own selfish, crabbed heart forever.
Kevin Harris: I wish I had a nickle for every time I heard the objection that God created the world so that if you don't believe certain things you're threatened with hell. That kind of gets the cart before the horse.
Dr. Craig: Oh, I think so.
Kevin Harris: How so?
Dr. Craig: Well, I don't think God ever intended anybody to go to hell. That wasn't his intention. In fact it says in the book of Revelation that the so-called lake of fire was created for the devil and his angels. No human being is ever intended to be there. The only reason that anybody goes to hell is because they freely and irrevocably reject God and his purposes for their life, and therefore thrust God from themselves. So I think it's against God's will that people go to hell. And in that sense it's quite a misnomer to say God sends people to hell—people send themselves.
Kevin Harris: John is very clear on this in that Jesus did not come to condemn the world but that we were condemned already. In other words, we already had this problem. This was not a problem that was created in order to promote the cure—you know?
Dr. Craig: No, that would be utterly a mistaken understanding of the New Testament.
Kevin Harris: Well, it is. And so what we have is we have this separation problem already, which is why Christ came.
Dr. Craig: Yes, and I think, Kevin, that people's repugnance with the doctrine of hell is, I suspect, largely a reflection of the fact that we have lost a consciousness of human sinfulness. In bygone ages where people had a robust sense of our sinfulness and how wicked we are it wasn't difficult to believe that apart from the grace of God we were on our way to eternal perdition. But our modern culture has largely lost the sense of human sinfulness and wickedness and how really desperately evil we are. We have the view that we're basically good folks and that everybody is down deep really a good person; the sort of Dr. Phil mentality—get in touch with your authentic self. And the thought would be unthinkable that your authentic self might be evil and twisted and wicked—that would just be unthinkable for these modern folks.4 Instead everyone is really a good person deep down. And so the idea that people could actually deserve eternal separation from God is just a foreign concept to folks because they've lost this sense of human sinfulness in comparison with God. And that probably in turn is a reflection of the loss of the doctrine of the holiness of God. I don't think people understand the idea of God's terrible purity and holiness and his inability to look upon sin with equanimity, to countenance sin. We've lost the doctrine of God's holiness. We think of God, as one British journalist said, as a sort of chap up there and wonder why should this chap be so incensed with our foibles and failures? Because we've lost a sense of the holiness of God.
Kevin Harris: So, Bill, then, the controversy seems to be with Rob Bell, and there are some prominent journalistic publications that say that he may be changing Christianity, he may be changing the face of Christianity and what Christianity is considered. It's hard to pin Rob Bell down on his view because he doesn't really claim to be a universalist, but then all of his indications in his writings are that he is some sort of a universalist—that God's love would just not abandon anyone to such a terrible fate. Well, that goes back to what you just said about the holiness of God.
Dr. Craig: Right, and human free will. If you believe in human libertarian free will then God cannot coerce people to believe in him, and it's always possible that someone will stubbornly resist every freedom permitting initiative of God. Of course God could overwhelm people with a vision of him that would be so attractive, so irresistible, that they would be drawn to him, and in a sense that's what our Calvinist brethren do believe God does – he provides or imparts irresistible grace to people. But if you believe in libertarian free will that makes the doctrine of hell not so hard to believe. Given human sinfulness and depravity I don't find it difficult at all to think that some people would resist every freedom permitting effort of God to win them over. In fact I've had debates with people like this. I think of Henry Morgantoller in Canada (whom I debated) who said, “Even if God were to prove to me that he exists I still would not bend the knee to worship him because I don't think you should worship anybody. You shouldn't bend the knee to anyone.” And I've heard many others say that as well – that even if Christianity were true, and they knew it to be true, they would not bend the knee and worship God. They would prefer to repudiate him and if that means being sent to hell then to hell they will go. So if you have a commitment to libertarian freedom the very fact that God is not a coercive God makes the doctrine of hell very plausible.
Kevin Harris: Hell is apparently not created for man, but for the devil and his angels. Now, the angelic realm of beings would be immaterial. So what sort of place, then, would hell be?
Dr. Craig: Well, now that's an interesting thought, Kevin. I hadn't thought of that angle before. That would give some grounds for thinking, for example, that the lake of fire is a metaphorical image rather than a sort of geographical place.
Kevin Harris: A place of quarantine.
Dr. Craig: Yes.
Kevin Harris: A place of torment. A place of regret. A place of separation from the only source of love and life—God himself. And we have no idea what that would be like. There will be a resurrection body, Bill, and the redeemed in Christ will be like Christ and his resurrection, glorified bodies. I don't know, is there going to be any kind of a body in hell?
Dr. Craig: Well, that's a very good question, and it does seem to suggest in, I believe, Daniel it talked about the resurrection of the just and the unjust, and does seem to suggest that the damned will also receive some sort of corporeal existence. And that would give me pause about simply dismissing these physical images as images. If there is a kind of body that the damned have then perhaps there would be physical agonies associated with hell, too. I think here we're just basically out of our depth – we don't know – and so we can only speculate.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, and perhaps it's just not – even if there are physical things – it's not like what we understand here on earth.5 If Jesus' teaching on the rich man and Lazarus is not merely a parable, but actually gives us some insight on this controversy . . . if it's not and we get some insight into the afterlife, we have a man who's having a conversation even though there seems to be these physical manifestations of flames and things like that. And, Bill, if you're in flames you're not having a conversation.
Dr. Craig: Right.
Kevin Harris: You know? And he's having a rational, cogent, back and forth conversation. So apparently it's not the same as if you were on fire today.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, and I think it would be dangerous, hermeneutically, to press these sorts of parables for doctrine with respect to the afterlife. I think that the parables are intended to make one basic point. And, again, we need to be very cautious in trying to draw inferences because of the imagery that they use.
Kevin Harris: Bill, there's something about passing out of this body, and the self or the soul continues on, receives a resurrection body and so on, that seems to be a cut off point. After death there seems to be something about the afterlife that tends to be kind of too late.
Dr. Craig: Oh, I agree, Kevin. I think this idea of a postmortem salvation is foreign to the New Testament—I don't see that anywhere in the New Testament. And that's why, as I say, the early church condemned the early theologian Origen for his Rob Bell-like doctrine. He believed that eventually all the damned would be saved and reconciled to God. And Origen consistently, I think, went so far as to say that eventually all the demons and Satan himself would be reconciled to God. And I wonder if Rob Bell is willing to go that far. Does he think that Satan will ultimately experience salvation, that all the demons will come to know redemption and reconciliation to God? That's what Origen thought, and he was condemned by the church for this view as a heresy, despite the fact that Origen was one of the greatest of the church's thinkers at that time.
Kevin Harris: You notice, Bill, that we could really go over each Scripture and do exegesis on each Scripture and everything, but what we're trying to do is do a little broader philosophical, theological overview of what's going on.
Dr. Craig: And I think both need to be done, Kevin. There are really two issues here. First, what does the New Testament teach about the state of the afterlife? What does it teach about the doctrine of hell? And then the second one would be: are there philosophical problems or objections to the biblical teaching?
Now, I take it that someone like a Rob Bell claims at least to be offering an exposition of what the Bible actually teaches. And I think there he's simply erroneous. I think that our atheist friends have the more credible position where they say, “Yes, the Bible teaches the doctrine of hell, and now we object to that doctrine as morally unconscionable; we think that doctrine is false.” Someone like Bell will say, “No, the Bible doesn't teach that doctrine.” And there you do need to do a serious exegetical study of the New Testament. I've already mentioned 2 Thessalonian 1:8f as teaching that there will be eternal destruction and separation from the presence of the Lord for those who don't believe in Christ. And Matthew 25 talks about the judgment where the sheep and the goats are separated, and the one goes away into eternal punishment and the other to eternal life. And the word that is used there for eternal punishment is the same word, Kevin, that is used to describe the eternal life to which the blessed go. So people who say, well, things like this Greek word eionios just means 'age-long' or 'age-lasting' or something of that sort, not necessarily eternal, they need to understand the way the word is used in especially a passage like this is exactly the same for the eternal life that God gives those who know him as it is for the eternal punishment of those who have rejected him.
Kevin Harris: Exactly. You really can't get around it. It's the same duration. Bill, maybe we need to distinguish what the real problem is: one of them seems to be Rob Bell and others don't want to threaten people with hell. And people don't want to be threatened with hell. But perhaps there's a difference between a threat and a warning. A threat is motivation to get you to do or behave a certain way. A warning is, these are the facts; these are the facts of life in the universe, in God's universe, and the kindest, most gentle man that ever lived,6 Jesus Christ, warned us of hell. That should give us pause.
Dr. Craig: Yes, like a doctor giving you a diagnosis that you've got terminal cancer unless you treat it. He is giving you a warning about a terrible condition that you're in. And it would be unloving for him to withhold this information from you because it might be painful to learn that you're dying of cancer. Well, we are all dying of sin; we've got a terminal condition here called sin that if untreated by the grace of God and the atoning death of Jesus Christ will result in eternal destruction. And so, of course, people need to be alerted to this fact and given the solution, given the cure, which is the blood of Christ.
Kevin Harris: Norm Geisler, our good buddy, said something that kind of made me slap my forehead one time because it changed my thinking on it a little bit. He said there are plenty of people in history who have come to Christ for fear of hell, because of fear of hell. We say, “We don't want you to come to Jesus for fear of hell or out of fear.” He said, “Hey, there are plenty of people who come to Jesus for fear of hell!” [laughter]
Dr. Craig: Well, Kevin, if I can speak personally. As you know, I wasn't raised in a Christian home. And when I first heard the Christian message it struck me as sort of good news/bad news. On the one hand it was good news: there's a God who loves me and wants me to know him. On the other hand the bad news was I was separated from him, and I was going to hell. And I have to say that in my own decision to come to Christ, during those six months that I thought about this, the love of God drew me, but the fear of God and hell impelled me to Christ. So I was both drawn and impelled by the love and the justice of God.
Kevin Harris: Absolutely. Well, apparently there's something intuitive in us that recognizes the reality of justice, of punishment, and if you don't believe in hell just turn on the T.V. for five minutes. I mean, there is something intuitive that would support this concept of not only separation but also punishment. We see punishment in everyday life, we see consequences, we see that we have a problem, that we have an insanity problem called sin, a spiritual insanity. And so there seems to be an intuitive recognition of this in mankind.
Dr. Craig: Certainly. We want justice to be done. And if God did not act justly then it would mean he is not a morally perfect God. If he were not a just being he would not be God. So, as Steve Davis, a Christian philosopher says, we can thank God for the wrath of God. It's the wrath of God that saves us, in a sense, because it indicates that we are dealing with a perfectly just being, a morally perfect being, and we can be grateful for that. I think part of the problem, Kevin, is that people think that the reason folks go to hell is because it's punishment for sins like adultery or theft or covetousness or lying or things of that sort. And I don't understand the doctrine of hell to be that Christ has died for those sins. What ultimately sends a person to hell is the rejection of God himself. It is the refusal to accept the grace of God in your life, and the provision for sin that he has provided, and pushing God away, putting him at arms length and saying 'I'm going to be Lord of my life rather than bow the knee to you and let you be Lord of my life.' And that, I think, is a sin of infinite gravity and proportion because it represents the creature spitting in the face of his creator and rejecting him and not giving him his due. And that, I think, is a sin that truly does merit eternal separation and punishment.
Kevin Harris: Bill, this controversy is going to rage; this Rob Bell controversy is something that we'll keep an eye on here at Reasonable Faith and comment on when necessary. It's a real conversation starter and an opportunity to share your faith as well. We'll wrap up today. I'll ask you two quick philosophical speculations. Are there philosophical problems with annihilationism, that is, the utter destruction of even the soul, the annihilation or the winking out of existence of the soul, being that it's immaterial, maybe like God, made in the image of God, or some things like that? Do you hear where I'm going with this?
Dr. Craig: I do hear where you're going, and I have to say, Kevin, I haven't reflected philosophically on annihilationism very much because, I guess, for me it's a non-starter because I don't think it's the doctrine of the New Testament. And so it doesn’t even come into play because I think it's exegetically unfounded.7 But I could well imagine that there would be problems with annihilationism. For example, if the person is able to sin against God and repudiate God, and then simply be annihilated I would think that he might be, well, quite satisfied with such a fate, that in fact justice hasn't been done in that case because then you could live the most rotten, evil, God-hating life, and all that means is that then the lights are out when you die, that God annihilates you.
Kevin Harris: And that you'll feel nothing and know nothing.
Dr. Craig: Exactly. So in one sense I'm not sure annihilationism does justice to the justice of God and the evilness of sin and the punishment that it merits.
Kevin Harris: If universalism were true what kind of philosophical ramifications would that have as far as Jesus even needing to suffer such a death and pay such a price for our atonement?
Dr. Craig: Well, I wouldn’t see, personally, any inconsistency there because the universalist would say it is precisely on the basis of Christ's atoning death that the penalty for all mankind has been paid. And so the only question is: can God get everybody to freely receive the grace of God and the benefits of Christ's atoning death? And the claim is that if he can't get them to do it in this life, well he'll get them to do it in the next life. He'll keep jump-starting them again and again until he finally gets everybody – and if Origen is right, even Satan and the demons – to come around, and love will win. You see, that's the idea.
Kevin Harris: So, hell will be remedial, then?
Dr. Craig: Well, in a sense hell kind of turns into purgatory, in a way. It isn't really the traditional doctrine of hell anymore. It's closer to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Hell is just sort of the temporary place where these stubborn people go until God can win them over and bring them out of hell and get them into heaven. And that's a doctrine that I just don't see anywhere taught in the New Testament.
Kevin Harris: No, that one verse in Matthew just kind of nails it, that Jesus said; it really does.
Dr. Craig: And the verse in Hebrews where it says “It is appointed unto man to die once and then come judgment.” It seems to me that excludes this idea of postmortem salvation. Now this raises an interesting philosophical objection. Someone might say, well, but what about the person who dies and if only he'd been able to live a little bit longer he would have maybe heard the Gospel or he would have gone to a Billy Graham crusade and been saved, or something. And what I want to say is that a God who is equipped with middle knowledge, Kevin, can so providentially order the world that no one who dies and is lost would have been saved had he lived a little bit longer.
Kevin Harris: Molinism, middle knowledge: some of the things that we have resources on. Oh, it just occurred to me, Bill, have you ever heard any doctrines that there's a possibility that there are levels of punishment in hell.
Dr. Craig: Certainly. That is a popular doctrine. You see this in Dante's Inferno, for example, the great work on the progression of the soul to heaven. And I would say that there's Scriptural grounds for that.
Kevin Harris: Jesus said something along the lines of talking about the court system. Some got more severe punishment than others, and I think a lot of people point to that passage. Again, this doesn't make hell any more tolerable.
Dr. Craig: No.
Kevin Harris: Because ultimately it is a place of separation from the only source of love and life; it is a terrible, terrible tragic fate.
Dr. Craig: It is; it's a tragedy that human beings should end in the trash heap of the universe in this way. And what we want to say as Christians is that the only person to blame for this are the damned themselves. They send themselves there of their own volition, by refusing the grace of God and God's every effort to save them.
Kevin Harris: Thank you so much for joining us on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. We'll see you next time.8
1The debate transcript of the “Craig-Bradley Debate: Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?” is available at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/can-a-loving-god-send-people-to-hell-the-craig-bradley-debate and an audio recording of the debate is available at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/craig-vs-bradley-canada (links accessed April 29, 2014).
2For example, see Q&A #35 “Bradley on Hell” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/bradley-on-hell and Q&A #55 “Do the Damned in Hell Accrue Further Punishment?” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/do-the-damned-in-hell-accrue-further-punishment (links accessed April 29, 2014)
8 Total Running Time: 29:56 (Copyright © 2011 William Lane Craig)