Rob Bell, Love Wins 5

One more post on chapter 1, looking again at complaints about Bell’s ‘orthodoxy.’ The chapter begins with a story that Bell told in the promotional video, and which has therefore become famous. An art exhibition at church included an exhibit with a quotation from Gandhi; someone attached a post-it note reading ‘Reality check: he’s in hell.’ Bell writes:

Gandhi’s in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without any doubt?

And his pre-publication detractors once again took him to task. And again, they were badly wrong – in my view, and in the view of (here) virtually the entire Christian tradition.

Remember Johann Heidegger from a couple of posts back? He was the Reformed writer who held that the number of the saved would indeed be small. Shedd and Warfield condemn him for being far too conservative in his theology. Heidegger wrote about precisely this question, and said this:

No one except those who sin unto death ought to or can determine anything certain before the end of life, concerning the eternal reprobation of himself or of others. Of others indeed we must have good hopes by the judgement of love, 1. Cor.13:7 (beareth, believeth, hopeth, endureth all things)…  (q. ET from Heppe, p. 188, with error silently corrected).

Let’s do a kind of scale of theological conservatism here, shall we? Shedd and Warfield are conservative – I believe that will be generally granted. They reprove Heidegger for being far too conservative. That makes him, what? Ultra-conservative? Heidegger then rejects as far too conservative the position that we can know for certain that any other human being is damned. We’re somewhere off the scale now, in the company of those who think the Taliban are dangerously liberal. I have thought hard about anyone in the Christian tradition who held to this position, that we can know for certain that a particular person is in hell. There were, to be fair, some Landmarkian Baptists. And Dante, I suppose, although he might claim his allegory was not meant to be taken like that. Certainly, there are not many.

And yet when Bell doesn’t even say that this is wrong, but merely questions whether it is right, we are told that he has committed an error so grave that he must be publicly castigated.

I can’t quite decide whether this is simply brilliant debating work from Bell, enticing his opponents to defend a position so extreme that no one in their right mind would touch it, or whether his opponents really, genuinely, don’t realise just how far behind they have left anything resembling historic orthodoxy.

This is not mere theological hair-splitting.  This point is pastorally vital. Bell’s other example concerns an atheist teenager, killed in a car crash. ‘There’s no hope, then,’ comes the comment, reflecting this ridiculously extreme position. All of us who are Christian pastors have performed funeral services for those with no visible faith, and have been offered care and counsel to those, actively Christian or not, who have lost an apparently-unbelieving family member or friend. The first rule of such pastoral engagement has always been not to speculate about the fate of the dead person. One speaks with confidence the promises of Jesus, proclaims the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead, announces with utter conviction the defeat of death and sin and hell in the cross, and invites, implicitly or explicitly, the hearers to place their own faith and trust in these realities. The one who has died is in God’s hands, and it is not for us to judge. The gospel of Jesus is never, ever, ‘there’s no hope, then.’

This point is utterly vital, and Bell is simply right.


  1. PatrickM
    Mar 21, 2011

    Thanks for the impartial and fascinating series with a much needed historical perspective.
    Thought you’d retired from blogging (nearly was going to take your link off my sidebar) and suddenly a veritable burst of posts!

    • Steve H
      Mar 25, 2011

      I was acting up in an administrative role last semester, and found all my idle ideas were about matters of academic policy, rather than theology, hence the long silence. I came away with an enormous respect for anyone who manages to think theologically at all without being employed to teach the stuff…

  2. Rachel
    Mar 21, 2011

    Sometime on this blog or elsewhere I would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts about how the orthodoxy-that-isn’t-orthodoxy-at-all (“we know that Gandhi’s in hell”) acquired so much power. I can’t help wondering, at the moment, whether it’s being reaffirmed/reinforced in the minds of some Christians as the mirror-image of an anti-religious caricature (“all these faithheads think everyone who doesn’t agree with them is going to hell”); but that would not explain where it came from in the first place.

    • Steve H
      Mar 25, 2011

      Hi Rachel, I think there is a ‘grim satisfaction in the damnation of others’ strand in Christian spirituality – even in Scripture (Obadiah or Ps. 58, say) – it’s deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition of apocalyptic, even if the author of Revelation does a reasonable job of subverting it. A joyless spirituality finds its meaning in thinking about how much more others will suffer one day.

      • Rachel
        Mar 28, 2011

        Yes, that would explain the attraction ‘certainty that non-believers are damned’ might have for an individual or a group; I’m also interested in the key stages in the process by which it became, in certain circles, a touchstone of ‘orthodoxy’. Despite being, as per your discussion, not really very orthodox at all.

  3. Stephen Norris
    Mar 22, 2011

    Dear Prof Holmes,

    Thanks for this helpful analysis.

    It seems to me that much of Bell’s analysis and rhetorical style at this point (and hence the direction of your analysis) takes its point of departure from the awful post-it note in the Gandhi exhibit. And awful it is. But it seems to me that to then approach the issue on that basis presents something of a straw man issue with regard to the afterlife.

    No one can pronounce with absolute certainty that certain named individuals who have died are damned. Agreed.

    But can we say this: if Gandhi died without ever placing his faith and trust in the realities which you refer to at the end of your post then he is in hell?

    That seems to be quite a different way of construing the issue, despite how similar it sounds to the post-it note approach. The post-it note approach presumes to know what Gandhi did or not do, and what God did or did not do, before he died. The other approach simply presumes that people who die without trust in Christ are in hell. It does not presume to name who those people are.

    This way of looking at it is, I imagine, still unacceptable to Rob Bell or others (and to you?), but it is I think a traditional way of thinking about the question and one which suggests that Bell’s approach (at least at this point in the book) engages only an aberrant position (and we might point out an emotive one) and not a traditional psotion.

    Does this make sense?


    • Steve H
      Mar 25, 2011

      Hi Stephen, welcome.
      The construction you offer is certainly there in the tradition – pre-Reformation, baptism would have been important too, of course. It seems to me that much of the Reformed tradition (the bit I know best) has wanted to be slightly less absolutist though; the classic ‘crack’ is babies dying in infancy, but the idea that God might sovereignly elect some of the heathen is taught by many mainstream figures – Zwingli; Zanchius; Baxter – and is arguably (Shedd and Helm variously make the argument) in central confessional documents: the Westminster Confession, or the Conf. Helv. Post.

      Two further comments, though: first, someone – like Gandhi – who knows the gospel stories well and has chosen not to accept the claims of Jesus is not the person these writers have in mind; they are imagining the one who has never had the chance to hear the claims of Jesus. Second, this is never, but never, salvation by works – it is the elect pagan who is saved, by sovereign decree of God, and through the merits of Christ, not the good pagan.

      • Richard Cronin
        Mar 31, 2011

        It seems to me that rather than the post-it writer primarily showing his belief in certainty of knowledge about someones eternal destiny he or she was showing their belief that without faith in Christ (for which Gandhi was known for not having) then a person is bound for hell. I appreciate the prof’s remarks here but I feel he has focused on the wrong thing.
        I find it interesting to see that predestination has finally entered the conversation.! Surely its the easiest answer to the question of what happens to those who are not christians when they die? Mind you I would love to know if one could be elect and be surrounded by christians and yet not become a christian.??? Any pointers anyone?

  4. Stephen Norris
    Mar 22, 2011

    Prof Holmes,

    One more thing. I looked at the Heidegger quote in Heppe and have read it several times. May I suggest that its meaning is not quite what you have suggested it is?

    Is he not simply saying that ‘before the end of life’ (key words) it is not possible to pronounce with certainty on whether or not someone is reprobate or elect? And at least as Heppe presents it (and I know it’s schematised so we’d need to check the original in its context to be 100% sure), this is the old chestnut of how do I know I am one of the elect (if the Reformed binary model is assumed)?

    Indeed, in your quotation you leave out a phrase, so that actually it begins ‘From the means of reprobation rehearsed, no one except those who sin unto death ought to or can determine anything certain before the end of life …’ Here Heppe places the Heidegger quotation after quotes from Polanus and Cocceius which relate to the signs of reprobation. This then means that Heidegger – again, as arranged by Heppe at least – is saying that on the basis of the evidence we have for reprobation of/in a person no one can actually pronounce on this for certain before the end of life … and that is simply because (as the rest of his quote shows) there is still life to be lived and there is time for the zeal of faith and good works to make calling and election sure, and so on.

    In other words, Heidegger is saying that I have no business going around looking at the ungodly and saying whether they are reprobate or not – for who knows what the future holds? It is still – as you were suggesting – a position of some generosity. I have no need to look at my own sin and conclude that therefore I am not elect. But for Heidegger, particularly of others we must have good hoeps of what may yet become of them.

    All of this is, I think, fairly far removed from your reading which suggests that Heidegger is commending to us a model of agnosticism in the scenarios that Bell is offering. Whether it is theologically right to be agnostic there is another question. But I don’t think it’s a good reading of Heidegger here to use him in relation to the Gandhi question.

    And if Heidegger’s views on the signs of reprobation are indeed represented by the views of Polanus and Cocceius which precede him in Heppe (p. 188), then I’m pretty sure he’d be amazed to see himself being used in support of agnosticism in the case of someone like Gandhi.

    • Steve H
      Mar 25, 2011

      You may be right about Heidegger; I use him only for some rhetorical force. I stand by the general point, though.

  5. C. Ehrlich
    Mar 24, 2011

    Suppose the post-it note had instead read, “Reality check: for all we know about Gandhi, God has justly condemned him to hell.”

    This revised note would still carry a significant message–and one that is still closely related to the first and still alarming to morally sensitive people for what it says about the justice of God. Yet I take it that this slightly revised statement would not be so easy to dismiss as “ultra-conservative.”

    • Steve H
      Mar 25, 2011

      Hi, Welcome. OK, but it’s not an interesting thing to write, is it? I do not know the reality of saving faith in anyone’s heart – you could include any name you like, save that of Jesus Himself, in that sentence and it would remain true.

      • C. Ehrlich
        Mar 25, 2011

        Hi – and thanks for the wonderful discussion (indeed, it’s the best I’ve come across on this topic)!

        While it is true that the phrase “For all we know….” can be used in more than one way, it is often used to mean “Barring any relevantly surprising fact we’ve yet to encounter, the facts that we do have would lead us think…” When used in this sense, the revised post-it not is indeed interesting – and it is not something that many Christians would say is also true of Billy Graham, Jeffrey Dahmer, or even almost any of one’s fellow churchgoers.

  6. Brian Davison
    Apr 14, 2011

    If our eternal destiny is defined before clinical death (eg heart stopping) what was the point in jesus’ “descent into hell” and preaching to the souls “in prison”?

    Where does scripture define the moment of “no return” after which we cannot be saved? – the only verse I have seen on that topic is (Heb 9:27 NIV) “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”, but it dies not define a closing point to the offer of life

    If ans Barth argues, we are all in Christ as we are in Adam, unless we opt out how firm and clear does the opting out have to be, at what time, is there any opportunity for change between brain stem death of the body and final judgement ?

    I’d be interested in replies on this, but in the meantime, we have ways of being assured of a positive outcome (accepting Christ’s sacrifice now, in this life) but if that is not done, there are way too many uncertainties to be sure either way

    So can can know positively, but not negatively.

    And finally, what does it matter (except to Ghandi himself) if he is in hell – it doesn’t devalue the wisdom of his words

  7. Nicolas
    May 5, 2011

    Brian’s point above is very good. As Heb 9:27 says, after death comes judgement — and indeed we’ll ALL be judged.

    It’s almost as if some people look at that verse and read: ” … man is destined to die once, and after that comes never-ending punishment … “


  1. Bell … seriously considered « All Things Considered - [...] Steve Holmes’ excellent (and developing) series as he walks slowly through Bell’s Love Wins: part 1, part 2, part…

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