Rob Bell’s best-selling book, Love Wins, argues that God is too loving to send people to eternal damnation. His book has caused a stirring debate, even among Christians. He views God somewhat like a child views Santa Claus–a benevolent giver of good things.
In the end, Bell writes, God’s love overpowers his judgment. And he says that Hell isn’t biblical.
So, where did the idea of Hell come from, and is it truly biblical?
We get our word Hell from the Hebrew words, Sheol and Gehenna, and the Greek word, Hades. Each word conveys punishment after death to those who refuse God’s forgiveness.
But is that punishment temporary or eternal? Is Bell right when he states that God will ultimately forgive everyone?
To answer that question, we will focus on what Jesus said about the ultimate fate of the ungodly after death. We will also look at what Jesus said about who goes to Heaven.
Jesus astounded people with his love and compassion. He healed the sick, lame and blind. He cared for the downcast. And he always spoke of God as his Father who loves each of us beyond human comprehension.
Jesus told us that the reason he came was to save us from our sins so we could have eternal life with him. Most of us are familiar with this wonderful promise.
“God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NCV)
Although this verse promises God’s love and forgiveness to those who believe, it also speaks of the fact that we are lost without such faith. But what does it mean to be lost? Let’s look at Jesus’ own words about what happens to those who don’t put their faith in Christ and his forgiveness.
Jesus continually divided people into two camps: those who believe in Christ, and those who don’t. He warned that unbelievers are doomed to destruction.
For example, Jesus told his followers,
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13,14, NASB)
Although Jesus made it clear that God greatly loves us, much of what we know about Hell and judgment comes from his own words. Jesus frequently referred to people in contrasting terms such as sheep and goats, sinners and righteous, children of God and children of the devil, and wheat and tares (weeds).
In an illustration about farming, Jesus spoke of wheat and weeds growing together until the harvest when they would be separated. Referring to himself as the Son of Man who plants the seed, Jesus told his disciples,
“Just as weeds are gathered up and burned in the fire so will it happen at the end of this world. The Son of Man will send out his angels and they will uproot from the kingdom everything that is spoiling it, and all those who live in defiance of its laws, and will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be tears and bitter regret.” (Matthew 13:24-43, J. B. Phillips)
In another reference to this fire of God’s judgment, Jesus reveals to the apostle John the ultimate destiny of those who have rejected his free offer of eternal life.
“If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:15, J. B. Phillips)
The lake of fire depicts the horror of spending eternity apart from the love and joy freely offered through Christ. Those who reject his love will be “burned” to the soul as they suffer the severe pangs of loneliness in an eternal state without love. How tragic!
So is Rob Bell right when he states that love wins, and everyone will escape judgment? Does that seem to be the intent of Jesus’ words? It would be extremely difficult to draw that conclusion from these verses, as well as other New Testament passages.
However, love really does win for those who want to be forgiven and be granted eternal life. God has provided a way for each of us to avoid judgment, and it is by faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross. The Bible makes that point clear immediately after his promise of eternal life in John 3:16.
“God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through him. People who believe in God’s Son are not judged guilty. Those who do not believe have already been judged guilty, because they have not believed in God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:17, 18, NCV)
This wonderful promise states that all of us are judged guilty of breaking God’s laws. But Jesus came to free us from our sins and take God’s judgment upon himself. His death on the cross paid for all our sins–no matter how many, or how bad they are.
However, unless we believe and choose God’s free pardon, we remain under his judgment, and according to Jesus, will be “thrown into the lake of fire.”
Bell and others consider that unfair. It seems contrary to God’s love. But the gospel tells us that it was God’s great love that caused him to send his only Son to the cross. And his salvation is free to everyone.
However, Jesus makes it clear that God will not force us to accept his free pardon. God allows us to choose our own destiny: Heaven or Hell. Love does win–but only if we let his unconditional love penetrate our hearts.
C. S. Lewis reasons that it isn’t God who sends us to Hell. Those who will go there do so willfully, because they reject Christ’s free pardon for sin and judgment. Lewis writes,
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened.”
Some counter, “What about little children and those who haven’t heard of Jesus’ free gift?” Of course, since God is perfectly fair, he will save those incapable of making that choice, including young children, the mentally impaired, and others who have open hearts, but have never heard of Jesus Christ. Scripture tells us, for example, that Old Testament saints prior to the time of Christ went to be with God after death.
In fact, the New Testament tells us that all men and women have an awareness of the Creator, who knows each person’s heart and thoughts (See Romans 1:18-32). We must trust the fairness of our loving God who gave his only Son so we could be saved.
Yet, the Bible clearly states that the only way we can be saved from our sins is through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Without his blood being shed for our sins, we would be doomed to an eternity apart from God’s love and grace.
For those of us who are given the opportunity, we must make a choice: to accept his free pardon or to reject it. Have you chosen his loving forgiveness–or his judgment?
This is what God told us: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life, but whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11, 12, NCV)
To discover what God’s love and justice means to you personally, and to know for sure whether or not you will go to Heaven, we encourage you to read Is Jesus Relevant Today?.