The Narrow Road:

What is Bell’s understanding of Matthew 7:13-14, a key passage he does not discuss in Love Wins?

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

This text is difficult to argue around, and it is not surprising that Bell does not deal with it. The gate is described as “narrow” and “small” that leads to life. But the gate and road that lead to destruction are described as “wide” and “broad.”

In terms of sheer numbers, there are “many” that enter destruction through that wide gate and broad road. “Only a few” find the small gate and the narrow road that lead to life. We suspect — and here we are speculating — that Bell would agree that some go into a kind of temporary destruction, but certainly not for eternity.

A Prodigal Interpretation:

Bell uses the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 to prove two points: first, that it is a story of integration, not separation (169-170). However, the biblical text itself indicates that Jesus told the parable to reveal the Father’s heart toward sinners. We read in verse 2, “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” The religious leaders of Israel did not have the Father’s heart, and so criticized Jesus for reaching out to sinners. The story itself shows a disgusted older brother who doesn’t lift a finger to search for his younger, wayward sibling, and is ticked when the father welcomes the prodigal home.

 The story certainly sounds like a story of separation (the older brother separates himself from his prodigal brother and from his celebratory father). Bell understands the story to teach that both the prodigal son who went away and the elder brother who stayed were both in the family, but the latter simply refused to join in the party.[1] Hell is of his own making. Bell implies that the older brother is in heaven; he’s just sitting in a corner sulking. Bell’s interpretation of Luke 16 stands in contrast with Jesus often stating that the religious leaders will find themselves outside God’s kingdom.

Bell then makes a second point from Luke 16 and says, “The fatherʼs love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. It just is.” (187). He further says, “Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing Godʼs version of our story doesnʼt bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is.” (188). These statements imply that believing the gospel has no transactional effect upon the sinner, that belief is immaterial to the reality of being in the Father’s love.[2]

The Cry of Forgiveness at Calvary:

Referring to Christʼs statement on the cross of “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” Bell says, “Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it. Done. Taken care of.[3] Before we could be good enough or right enough, before we could even believe the right things.” (189).[4] Please notice that again Bell disparages belief, arguing that the reality of forgiveness applies to all even without their asking for it. How unlike human forgiveness Bell’s position is. On a human level, forgiveness must be accepted, responded to, received, to be realized. One is not surprised that Bell discourages conversations intended to lead to conversions.

Bell refers to I Timothy 2:4‘s statement that God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. This expression of God’s will leads him to a series of questions. In Chapter 4, entitled “Does God Get What God Wants?”, Bell asks, “Can one really believe that God doesn’t get what He wants?” “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” (98). “In the Bible, God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.” (101). “Will ʻall the ends of the earthʼ come, as God has decided, or only some? Will all feast as itʼs promised in Psalm 22, or only a few? Will everybody be given a new heart, or only a limited number of people?

Will God, in the end, settle, saying, ʻWell, I tried. I gave it my best shot, and sometimes you just have to be okay with failureʼ? Will God shrug God-size shoulders and say, ʻYou canʼt always get what you wantʼ?” (103). Godʼs very greatness is dependent on whether God gets what God wants. He writes: “How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great.” (97-98). If challenging the greatness of God is not blasphemy, then I am hard-pressed to define the term.

God’s Two Wills:

Bell is obviously missing the biblical perspective of what some theologians call the two wills of God. Some use the terms “permissive” (what God allows) and “perfect” (what God desires). When we read in I Thessalonians 4 that “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable . . .” (verses 3-4), does God always get what God wants? No. Even Christians fall into immorality. Do their sins compromise the greatness of God? Of course not. Bell has taken I Timothy 2:4 in a most absolute sense of God’s having to save every human being without exception. If He does not save every human being, His very greatness is called into question.

God Is Not Great?

The idea of tying God’s greatness to the necessity of His saving everyone is not a new one. John A.T. Robinson put it this way: “[T]he truth of universalism is not the peripheral topic of speculation for which it has often been taken. If God is what ultimately He asserts Himself to be, then how He vindicates Himself as God and the nature of His final lordship is at the same time the answer to what He essentially is. The truth or falsity of the universalistic assertion, that in the end He is Lord entirely of a world wanting His lordship, is consequently decisive for the whole Christian doctrine of God.”[5]

Nels F.S. Ferré tries to make a similar point when he says, “Some have never really seen how completely contradictory are heaven and hell as eternal realities. Their eyes have never been opened to this truth. If eternal hell is real, love is eternally frustrated and heaven is a place of mourning and concern for the lost. Such joy and such grief cannot go together. There can be no psychiatric split personality for the real lovers of God and surely not for God himself. That is the reason that heaven can be heaven only when it has emptied hell, as surely as love is love and God is God. God cannot be faithless to Himself no matter how faithless we are; and His is the power, the kingdom and the glory.”[6]

In Ferré’s view, not saving all means not only that God is not great, but that He suffers from a psychiatric condition! How foolish to connect the very nature and being and greatness of God solely to His saving work! Robert Jeffress responds to the comment that God must save all if He is to save any by writing, “. . . imagine that the president of the United States pardons an individual from death row due to extenuating circumstances surrounding the case. Some may not agree with the president’s decision, but does anyone accuse him of being unmerciful because he did not pardon every prisoner on death row? The fact that he pardoned one person is evidence of the president’s compassion, not cruelty.”[7] He was under no obligation to save any. Such an anthropocentric approach undermines the grace of God, making God man’s debtor.

Three Options:

Based on our survey so far in Love Wins, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that there are really only three options (discussed in Christianity) when it comes to the eternal fate of the wicked:

1. annihilationism: This view is sometimes called “conditional immortality” and teaches that the wicked will be put out of existence. (Sadly, John R.W. Stott sided with this perspective in his book Evangelical Essentials).

 2. universalism: This perspective teaches that all will eventually be saved, either in this life or in the world to come (some even include the devil and the demonic world among those who will be redeemed).[8]

3. eternal conscious punishment: This perspective teaches that a second category of human beings will continue to exist, separated from God and God’s people, for ever. Bell has to fit into one of these categories, doesn’t he? Throughout Love Wins he attacks with vehemence the 3rd view (eternal conscious punishment) and repeatedly states that Jesus will save all. Logically he fits into category #2.[9]

Larry Dixon

End Notes:

[1] Surprisingly, Bell recommends Timothy Keller’s study The Prodigal God (which emphasizes, I think, the opposite point which Bell is making).

[2] See Martin Bashir’s interview of Bell where he asks Bell three times: “Is it irrelevant and immaterial about how one responds to Christ in this life in terms of determining one’s eternal destiny?” To each instance of the question, Bell responded that belief is vitally important, but never explained why. As Bashir said, Bell wants to have it both ways: that salvation is true regardless of one’s response and that one’s response is absolutely relevant and matters greatly.

[3] This sounds very much like the statement by the universalist Philip Gulley who said of Jesus’ statement on the cross: “Grace, not justice, was his choice. After his resurrection, having already forgiven his enemies, he saw no need to destroy them.” (If Grace Is True, p. 80).

[4] This reminds one of Berkouwer’s challenge to Barth’s universalism where Berkouwer writes, “The new situation exists independently of the proclamation or non-proclamation of it. It also exists independently of belief or nonbelief in it. The Kingdom of God ‘has its truth in itself, not in that which in pursuance of it happens or does not happen on the earth.’” (The Other Side of the Good News, p. 42).

[5] John A.T. Robinson, In the End, God (London: James Clarke, 1950), pp. 102-103.

[6] Ferré, The Christian Understanding of God, p. 237.

[7] Hell? Yes!, p. 86.

[8] Those who hold this viewpoint have to purposely overlook Revelation 20:16 which says, “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

[9] Larry Dixon, “Farewell, Rob Bell”: A Biblical Response to Love Wins [Columbia: Theomedian Resources, 2011] , 12-16, 17.

See also: