Rob Bell is back. At least, he’s back through the views professed by his sometime student, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers made headlines this week when a clip from an interview he did with Danica Patrick went viral.
In the interview, the uber-talented Green Bay Packers quarterback sounded Bellesque tones when he spoke against divine judgment for sin:
“I don’t know how you can believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet to a fiery hell … What type of loving, sensitive, omnipresent, omnipotent being wants to condemn his beautiful creation to a fiery hell at the end of all this?”
Rodgers addressed a question that many people struggle to answer well. How can there be eternal destruction? If it is real, is God good? It is not exaggerating to say that this may well be the toughest in a line of tough questions that confront those who engage Scripture and its teaching. This is especially true in a climate like ours, when the goodness of every person is assumed and loving affirmation is what people think they naturally deserve, not judgment. Several years ago, Rob Bell offered such teaching. In a carefully-marketed book—Bell is nothing if not a thoroughgoing capitalist—he reworked the justice of God in its eschatological form, assuring us that “love wins” and so we need not fear everlasting damnation for sin.
Divine justice, we should note, is no trifling doctrine. It makes us all sit up straight. I sympathize with those who find their minds blown by the biblical reality of divine judgment. We are after all talking about divine justice, and so we should not neatly think that everything God teaches us in his inerrant Word will click into place in a breezy kind of way. He is God, and we are not. He is the Creator, we are the creature. The fact that God will judge the wicked for all eternity is no small matter.
This is all a way of saying that God is beyond us. He is not only beyond us metaphysically, but is beyond us ethically. He is right in all he does, Scripture teaches us, and higher than us (Isa. 55:8-9; Eph. 3:20-21). But Rodgers—following Bell—denies this truth. He has sought a god that he likes, and he has found one. He says this, basically, in his interview: “I’ve had some good friendships along the way that helped me, you know, to figure out what exactly I wanted to believe in, and ultimately it was that rules and regulations and binary systems don’t really resonate with me.” How tragic this is. Rodgers seems to think that faith is selecting the being or system you most prefer. He does not articulate what Scripture teaches: that faith in biblical terms is not consumeristic or therapeutic or innately affirming to our natural self, but instead involves bowing to the holy God of heaven and earth because of his over-spilling greatness.
Rodgers explicitly speaks against such a divine figure. A righteous God who sorts people into “binary” categories, he says, who sees people as “saved and unsaved,” is not a God worthy of following. Rodgers unwittingly makes one of the most common mistakes of our age: he trashes “binary” thinking only to use it. If we’re paying attention, his binary is not “saved and unsaved,” but rather something like condemning and non-condemning. Traditional evangelicals are the first kind, and he (and Bell by extension) are the second. This shows us that binaries are stubborn things. Even if you’re “non-binary” in the postmodern gender way, after all, you’re not actually separated from binary thinking. You’ve just created a new binary, “binary and non-binary,” to replace the old one (male and female). Rodgers is making the same move in sorting people into condemning and non-condemning categories. He’s found a righteousness for himself that acquits him, which is truly what the human heart craves: righteousness without God (see Romans 10:3).
Even as he holds himself up as righteous, Rodgers denies God’s righteousness. He tells us that he can’t believe in a God who executes justice against the wicked. Here is my response: I don’t know how you can believe in a God who doesn’t execute justice against the wicked. When I look at our world, I see depravity of unfathomable dimensions. We live in a world where racists, murderer, genocidal maniacs, child-abusers, sex traffickers, pedophiles, spouse-killers, and liars flourish. Many evil people never come to justice, or if they do, do not receive sentences proportionate to their crimes.
When you think about the wickedness of humanity (including, notably, your own!), you are then prepared to understand how God must punish the wicked. The evil deeds mentioned above do not vanish into the air. God will deal with evildoers on the last day. This doctrine is not a defeater for Christianity; quite the opposite. As I have argued in a recent book (with a full chapter on justice), divine justice is one of the strongest biblical reasons to trust God. There is ultimate justice in the cosmos. God is going to make every wrong right. God is undoing every evil scheme. All the sad things will come untrue, and all the sad things are coming untrue in Christ. There is no such hope outside of the Son of God; there is no one who can put the world to rights. Justice is, and must be, theocentric and Christocentric.
The religion preached by Rob Bell is one without justice. It gives us a god who is no God at all. It is a being of human fashioning. Bell’s theology is not a form of Christianity, an acceptable one; Bellite religion is not Christianity at all. Bellite religion rejects the true God, and makes an idol in his place. In the terrible alchemy of sin (see Romans 1), as we rebel against God we create a new god for ourselves, and this god is us. This god believes what we believe; this god meets our needs and wants and creature comforts; this god affirms us in our sin; this god asks for no death to self, no Spirit-wrought transformation, no cross on our back. This god is our god; as G. K. Beale has incisively argued, this god looks like us, thinks like us, and ends up—it must be said—being us.
We must not make this move. Divine judgment is terrifying in human terms, it is true. It sends a shiver down our spine, and it should. This doctrine is meant to send us running to Christ. It should be preached regularly in every Christian pulpit. But that is not all divine justice effects in its hearers. When we know the Savior, we come to understand that divine justice is also profoundly comforting. This doctrine shows us that the cosmos is not void of hope. There is one who has entered our world to end the reign of evil. He has fought for us by dying, he is fighting for us now by interceding, and he will fight for us on the last day by finally destroying the enemy (Revelation 5; 12; 19).
The time is short. While there is day, let us call those who—like us—deny the goodness of God’s justice to run to Christ. We do well to critique their arguments and expose the lies they are following. But we cannot stop there. In compassion and love, let us pray for Bell, Rodgers, and many who agree with them to see that divine justice is not what rightly drives us away from God. It is part of the whole biblical witness that rightly drives us to God.
I have engaged Rob Bell’s theology before. See this podcast (the most popular one we’ve ever done for City of God), this essay, this interview, and this open letter from several years back that got a serious response.