Rob Bell On Justice

by Matthew Raley

Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn’t finish it. Bell’s inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)

Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren’t able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.

That’s what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.

Bell is aggressive in making this case.

So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word “sin,” my first response is to ask, “Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?” (p 72)

I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life’s clean-up crew — law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.

But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin’s cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn’t it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?”

Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.

Our sins are finite?
They are?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?

I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.

1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?

2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let’s say? It’s true that I can lose sight of a sin’s impact, but that doesn’t mean I really know where the impact stops.

3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That’s a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?

Bell doesn’t follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.


5 thoughts on “Rob Bell On Justice

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  1. “Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let’s say? It’s true that I can lose sight of a sin’s impact, but that doesn’t mean I really know where the impact stops.”

    Quite right. Concerning David’s sin with Bathsheba, God’s says through Nathan the prophet “…because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme…”. The blaspheming continues today. Atheists still use David as an argument against God; ‘This is a man after God’s own heart?’ they will ask. The impact of that sin continues on.

    David’s sin was paid at Calvary. Not so for the unsaved.

    It is a sobering thought if sins can still be compiled (against the lost) after the first death, awaiting the Great White Throne of judgement. Joseph Smith comes to mind.

  2. It seems that it also needs to be factored in that sinners, upon death do not stop sinning. Isn’t it possible that if hell is eternal, it is so because there is no repentance there?

    I am admittedly puzzled, though, by the notion that sin and evil will continue to exist for all eternity and never, ever be put to a final end and that God’s creation will never be forevermore entirely purged of it.

  3. Laurie, I think you’re quite right. Hell continues to exist so long as sin and unrepentence does. I believe that thought is consistent with Bell’s argument, too. Bell’s take, though, is that it isn’t eternal; that judgment, including that after this life, always works to produce repentence, that given enough time, eventually love wins. I sure hope he’s right. I can’t hardly imagine why anyone, Christian or non, wouldn’t (though I can see reluctantly stating he’s wrong in light of a number of biblical passages).

    I think the line of thought about sin being infinite because it’s against an infinite God, though sounding right at first listen, has flaws. John Piper and Jonathan Edwards have used this line of thought, and it has to be considered. But though against an infinite being, it is committed by a finite being. We take into account the relative finitude of beings in our own courts. People with severe mental disabilities are judged by a different standard than people without, for instance. Moreover, this line of thought only damns us all, save for grace, but that raises the question why us and not others. I think it is the injustice of the application of grace that drives Bell’s thought.

    I think the assertion of the justice of hell based on the continuing ramification of sin argued here is solid logically and theologically, but it leaves me asking the question, “OK, so how come I get to escape it and someone else doesn’t?” Because I happen to have been lucky enough to have been saved by grace? Well, yes, but grace itself teaches me not to be quite satisfied with that. I think that is where Bell is coming from and why I hope he is right.

  4. I think a more fundamental issue Bell may be grappling with is the existence of evil itself. Many Christians haven’t dealt clearly and Biblically with the question, “If God is sovereign and good, why does evil exist?” Answering this question requires us to ask why God does anything in the first place. Why did he create the world in the first place? Why did he create us? Why did he create a world in which evil exists? He is sovereign, after all, which means He did allow it.

    The very short answer is that if God is good and sovereign over evil, then it is good that evil exists. But now we must ask, “What is ‘good’?” How do we define ‘good’? And this is where we often go wrong and come at the answer from a man-centered rather than God-centered perspective.

    For example: Bell places a lot of emphasis on God’s love. “If God is love, how come hell is eternal. That’s not loving. If *I* were God, I would save everyone” He might argue, and so might we.

    The problem with Bell is that he takes his narrow, human understanding of love, narrowly defines God as love according to this definition (without sufficient consideration that He is also just and holy and sovereign, among other things) and then attempts to deal with the reality of hell. Again, “If God is loving, why does eternal judgment exist?” This is where he errs.

    God’s response? “You though I was altogether like you”. But we are not.

    We need to have a thoughtful, Biblically-centered response to the problem of evil, if for nothing else but the strengthening of our own faith. This may not solve all the emotional issues we face in dealing with this topic. But it will at least help us to say, ‘I understand what the Bible says about the existence of evil, and I may not like it, but then again, I am not God.’ The clay can then submit to the potter.

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