The Blog of Jack Holloway

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What makes a heretic?: Jonathan Edwards and Rob Bell

The works of Jonathan Edwards were reprinted in the 1970s-80s. This reprinting had a huge impact on Christian thinking.
Edwards believed that God is literally the direct cause of every single thing in the universe, and God causes all of it for his glory. And to deny that this is true, for Edwards, means to deny God altogether.(1)
God's causation of all things includes evil. God causes man to do evil. All the rapes, murders, genocides--everything evil under the sun was caused by God through man for His glory.

So, in this view, not only did God only choose to save some and not others, but he is also the direct cause of the evil that the reprobate commit. On top of that, God causes them to be punished for those sins forever and ever. God causes men to sin and then punishes them for the sin that he caused them to commit.

And somehow this is, on a general level, okay with Christians.
In fact, Edwards is considered "one of the most important theologians of American evangelicalism."(2)

Rob Bell, on the other hand, merely suggests that maybe people can come out of hell in the next life.

First, I need to make it clear that nowhere does Bell ever say that hell does not exist:
"Do I believe in a literal hell?
Of course.
Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs."(3)
Bell merely suggests that hell could be "'a period of pruning' or 'a time of trimming,' or an intense experience of correction."(4) 

He alludes to the idea that hell could be a refining fire, burning the sin and corruption off of the sinner so that he can die "the kind of death that actually brings life."(5) 

That's it. He doesn't take any of the horror out of hell; just the forever and ever.
When Christians hear this, they freak out.
They call him a heretic. They say he simply cannot be considered a Christian. They suggest that he is "New Age."(6)

This is not a defense of Rob Bell's Love Wins.(7) Rather, I am proposing a question.

The question is this: 

What is it about Christianity today that is okay with the idea that God directly causes all of the evil in this world, that he causes humanity to sin and then dooms them to torment in hell where they will be tortured every day, 7 days a week, 12 months a year, 100 years a century, century upon century--and he is glorified by all of it; yet, Christianity today will immediately, ruthlessly reject--with passion--the idea that hell is a refining fire that purifies the sinner of his corruption and evil?

What is it about Christianity that is okay with God being the cause of the evil and torment of billions of people, but is totally not okay with God bringing people out of hell? 

I would like to add that George MacDonald, who inspired C. S. Lewis and is a highly respected Christian theologian, believed the exact same thing.
Also, Origen, one of the church fathers, believed not just that God would reconcile the inhabitants of hell back to him, but that eventually God would reconcile even the devil and his demons back to heaven.   

(1) See Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Groves: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 506-507.
(2) Ibid., 509.
(3) Rob Bell, "Hell," in Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 71.
(4) Ibid., 91.
(5) Ibid., 77.
(6) This statement is absolutely false. The New Age movement is very out-of-the-box magic stuff light-years away from Christianity. It has to do with Shamanism and a lot of weird crap. People tend to associate New Age with anything that reinterprets Scripture. This is absolute ignorance and just shows that they don't know what they are talking about.
(6) I do not actually agree with Bell. However, I do think it is good that he is raising the questions (whether or not they were raised in the right manner is the question). And I do think his view holds water and is a possibility. I don't think there is anything wrong in his believing it, but I personally do not.


  1. These are good questions. From my own perspective, I think a lot of it comes down to people trying to defend the honour of God. I believe that it is a long-held, deep-seated Christian tradition to hold that any choices we make in this life live on for eternity. That that is simply how God created the world. And some people can only understand God as all-powerful if they imagine him literally as the cause of everything. They believe that to say God is NOT the cause of death and destruction is somehow to rip away his power. To "re-think" - for many (what Rob Bell does, for example) is to re-think ideas which already seem clear to them, so it becomes heresy. It's tricky. It has a lot to do with how people understand God. Personally, I think God does a good job of defending his own honour. He doesn't need us as much as we think he does.

    1. Good point.

      If one of them is heresy, I think Edwards has the closer one to it.
      At least Rob Bell is basing a theology off of something God actually wants. He wants all people in heaven with Him.
      He doesn't want people to suffer. He doesn't want them in torment.
      Rob Bell says we choose hell when God wants us to participate in His love.
      Edwards said God chooses hell for us, making God contradict Himself.

  2. You are a deluded heretic pulling down Jonathan Edwards and building up a wolf in sheeps clothing like rob bell who tries to undermine God's truth. There comes a time wen u will see the folly of ur hard evil and degenarate heart to find fault with God's ways and truth. There is no pruning or refining after death, that will encourage sinners in sin. Its always a evil heart that hangs onto such heresies.

    1. I believe your critique or chastisement here would actually have some effect if you were brave enough to publicize your name. Everyone would also listen to you more if you said something with more content. All you seemed to have weighed in with is judgements based on measurements we don't know and will not be privy to.

      I can only say that I believe Rob Bell to be heretical in that the Bible and the Word is quite clear about how long hell and how long suffering will last (though I still leave quite some room for the redemption Jesus is unstoppably committed to producing). It will be eternity. At the same time the critique is warranted that Edwards' theology may also be somewhat askew. God does say "I will that no one should perish" (though His will is not always in line with His desire [causing pain to wake us from the death of sin]). If causing and willing are two different things, then why would He ultimately cause what He never desires? I believe it's within God's ability to cause some to turn away, but not that He universally causes all to turn away.

      All I can say is God is not afraid of us or our thoughts. When we fear Him, though, everything changes for us, and when we seek Him we find Him (not another kind of book, interpretation, exegesis, or theology). We find God.

  3. John,

    I have a few sincere questions for you. How do you deal with the "eternal" nature of the wording of several scriptures regarding hell? I realize that what we read today is a translation, and I'd love to delve into original meanings sometime, but from what I’ve studied, I just don't see much room to argue for a temporary hell. Hell is described as a place where the fires "never" go out, as the "eternal" punishment, and "the second death". The word death, especially, lends itself to permanence.

    I think it's hard to imagine God, who loves human beings deeply and wants them to be with Him, allowing anyone to suffer permanently. But I think the fact that we have that choice is very important. The fact that we can even choose to live an afterlife without God stems from the fact that we have the gift of free will. God wants us to choose Him. He doesn't want automatons. So he gives us that choice. An utterly permanent choice. He gave us His word, as well as metaphors and signs of Himself in nature and of the universe, and, having done that, gave us the ability to choose Him or not, and to face the consequences of that choice. I find the idea of hell being either nonexistent or temporary to be very people-pleasing, and spiritually dangerous.

    Aside from that, though, I totally agree with you about Edwards. He’s wrong. God doesn’t cause men to sin. He just made them in His image, and so they always have the power of choice. God can certainly work anything for His eventual glory, but He, because of His nature, cannot perform an evil or unjust act. That's on us and our fallen world.

    1. Great points. I have written blogs on universal reconciliation, both of which you can get to with the links below. I talk about the word 'eternal' and how it has been misunderstood. As far as the fires never going out, there is actually only one instance that says something like that, Mark 9:43-44, and the Greek doesn't actually include the word 'never'. That said, the fires are described as inextinguishable and unquenchable. It is important to note that the fires are described as such and not the actual punishment. Even so, I don't think the image was meant to be taken literally, as in these fires will never ever ever go out. The purpose of the image was to denote an extremely long period of time. This was a common practice back then. These huge words for describing periods of time were used even if they didn't literally refer to an unending span of time. For example, the fires of the destruction of Israel are described the same way in Isaiah, and obviously those fires did eventually go out.

      For your other points, I would read the blogs below. It's not as thorough as it maybe should be, but I hope it answers your question. If you're super interested in the question of the word 'eternal', I suggest reading "Terms for Eternity" by Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan, which I can get you free access to online if you're interested.

      Here are the blogs:

      Thanks for engaging!