Love Wins, But What About Hell?

May 13th, 2011

Rob Bell’s book about hell has drawn a lot of heat in the last couple months. Bell, pastor of the three-thousand-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, is a well-known author and creator of the popular Nooma videos. While Bell has always been unconventional, nothing he has done has generated as much controversy as his latest book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Love Wins looks at the challenge of reconciling God’s love and God’s judgment. Bell concludes that the idea that only a select number of people spend eternity in heaven while the majority suffer forever conflicts with Scripture’s portrayal of a God of love and grace.

For Bell, hell describes the “very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.” We are free to reject God, but this rejection doesn’t seal our fate for eternity. In this life and in the life to come, according to Bell, we can choose to turn away from hell and toward God’s kingdom.

Bell’s book has drawn harsh criticism from those who believe that hell is a place of eternal punishment for those who don’t have a relationship with Christ is an important part of Christian theology. Denny Burk, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, argues that Bell’s book is “an enormous revision of evangelical theology. At the heart of it, there is a disdain and contempt for the doctrine of God’s wrath.” The controversy has also found its way into local congregations.

What Does the Bible Say?

United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon says of hell in Scripture, “One thing that impresses me is how seldom it is mentioned. . . . There is good reason to say that it is a possibility, but there is no reason to say it is a significant part of following Christ.” Still, the issue of hell raises questions about grace, judgment, and salvation, all of which are significant to our Christian faith. What does Jesus have to say on the subject of hell? Jesus warns against a place where “the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:48, CEB) and an “outer darkness” (Matthew 25:30). He tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in which a rich man, after death, finds himself separated from Lazarus by an impassable chasm. Lazarus, the poor beggar who spent his life covered in sores, is with Father Abraham while the rich man suffers in agony. By choosing wealth over compassion, the rich man chooses to separate himself from God and suffers the consequences.

Gehenna, the word Jesus uses that is translated as “hell” in most Bibles, literally means “the valley of Hinnom” and refers to a valley in which the people of Judah built altars to false gods and practiced child sacrifice. The word brought to mind a dark period in the history of God’s people in which they did reprehensible, “hellish” things. The image served as a reminder of the dangers of turning away from God’s love and purposes.

It’s Up to Us

Jesus’ teachings on hell and other Scriptures about death and judgment have inspired many images and conversations about hell. While disagreements will arise, most Christians can agree (without controversy) that hell involves a separation from God. Bell says that hell describes a failure to “live in God’s world God’s way.” We can choose to turn away from God and reject God’s way. Or we can choose God’s way and live our lives in God’s kingdom now and forever. The decision is up to us.


This article is also being published as part of LinC, an exciting weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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