How the Trinity helps us say "no" to Bell and "yes" to Hell
Following the recent publication of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins many leading Evangelicals have expressed major concerns with his view of God’s justice.(1) The focus of the criticisms has been Bell’s selective reading of historical texts, his sloppy exegesis of well-known Biblical passages and more fundamentally, his subtle attack on the traditional view of Hell as everlasting, physical punishment of the non-Christian. In this brief article, our focus will be on the latter point and in particular, how the Trinity bolsters the case for the traditional view of Hell. Specifically, we will consider how the ongoing relationships within the Trinity, helps us understand God’s wrath as an expression of His divine love.
Whilst the Doctrine of the Trinity has often led to perplexity and obfuscation, its primacy is evident by considering the major Christian creeds (2) as well as the main articles of faith of most denominations. (3) In sum, these documents declare that there is one God, who exists simultaneously in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God’s oneness is most clearly articulated in the shema: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (4) That there exist three different persons within the Godhead is deduced from the conversations and interactions of the Divine Father with His Divine Son and with The Holy Spirit. Thus for example John’s Gospel shows the Father glorifying the Son (John 8:50, 54; 17:1), the Son glorifying the Father (John 13:31; 17:4), and the Spirit glorifying the Son (John 16:14) thereby glorifying the Father through the Son. In other words, the Father, Son and Spirit are distinct persons in relationship and not merely different names for one being.
Trinity and Relationship
Of all the gods in all the religions of the world, only the Triune God of Scripture is truly relational. To take one vivid example: Allah, the god of Islam. The Trinitarian God of Scripture, unlike the utterly alone god of Islam is a God in eternal relationship. Put differently, the Triune God presents us with a personal God who has always had someone to love and ‘another’ with whom to communicate. This eternal relationship is vividly illustrated in Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17 where Jesus’ utterances to the Father are framed in the context of an abiding relationship (e.g. the plea for the Father to glorify the Son with the glory he had before the world began: John 17 verse 5). Not only does such conversation reveal the eternal nature of the Trinitarian relationships but they also display the ongoing focus to esteem the ‘other’ within the Godhead. Thus often in the Gospels when the Father actually speaks, it is to exalt the Son whom He loves (e.g. Luke 9:35). Similarly when the Son speaks to the Father (or about Him) it is with a concern to venerate Him (As in John 17). The same could be said of the Holy Spirit who even though is never recorded in Scripture as actually ever uttering any words, yet is shown to be the medium through which anyone can declare Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3). Simply put then the persons within the Godhead move and have their being to mutually glorify one another.
How the Trinity helps us say “yes” to Hell
The concept of an everlasting conscious punishment for the unrighteous as depicted in Deuteronomy 6:4 and cf. Mark 12:29 Scripture often induces fear and revulsion.(5) One of the major criticisms it provokes is whether it is fair or just for someone to be sent to hell. The notion of individuals enduring everlasting punishment as a recompense for their finite sins,
appears unfair to many.
However, by considering the abiding nature of the Trinitarian relationships, a biblically defensible and God-centred solution to this objection emerges. At heart, this focuses on the Father’s commitment to the Son. The Apostle John for instance records that the Father intends that all may honour Son (John 5:23). This commitment is an expression of the eternal Father-Son relations: the Father purposed in eternity the Son’s vocation and commits to honouring the Son. (6) Set against this backdrop, the everlasting punishment of the wicked thus becomes more an expression of intra-Trinitarian obligations rather than being merely a picture of commensurate punishment for human sin. (7) God’s wrath is an expression of a pure yet outraged love: ‘it is the love of the Father for the Son that he will not allow His Son’s name to be tarnished.’ (8) A parallel case can be made for the commitment that the Son expresses for the Spirit. Thus the Synoptic Gospels record, that the one unforgivable sin, is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit: Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10. A recurring motif in these verses is the Son’s zeal – via a sombre warning – for all to honour the Spirit: something akin to the Father’s desire for all to honour the Son. Consequently, to malign the Holy Spirit is to despise the reciprocal bonds that exist within the Godhead and this naturally evokes the severe penalty that Jesus highlights: God’s wrath in this age, and in the age to come. (9) Thus a key aspect of God’s wrath towards the impenitent is to express the eternal relational bonds that exist within the three persons of the Trinity. (10) Glory and Hell therefore cannot be properly conceived ‘apart from the illumination provided by a Trinitarian perspective.’ (11)
Understood thus, we can see that Bell’s Love Wins is actually an attack on God’s love. To posit that unrepentant sinners don’t deserve eternal conscious punishment downplays the intensity of intra-Trinitarian relationships and the zeal that they have for each other. We get a small glimpse of this intensity when we consider the righteous jealousy that a husband has for his wife (or vice versa). No husband or wife in their right mind will treat the scorn or attack on their spouse casually. Similarly the eternal Father who has loved the Son in all eternity does not treat lightly the mockery, rejection and opposition that the unrepentant display towards His Son. Bell’s book, fails to recognise this: that every member of the Trinity is jealous for the honour, glory and praise of the others. Accordingly, God’s everlasting wrath against hell-bound sinners is not primarily against their specific deeds, but against their passionate and deep-seated hatred of His Triune society. We should not therefore think of hell merely in terms of offended justice, as if God sits aloof, dispensing cold justice. Quite the contrary ‘God sees, feels and acts with the full passion of His infinite person’ recollecting the betrayal perpetrated by an unfaithful lover.’ (12)
All this, of course, leaves those of us who adhere to the orthodox, biblical view of God with a question: If our God is the dynamic, infinitely alive and relational God of Scripture, then what have we said, how have we lived and what have we done that has made Him appear cold, uncaring and impersonal? Are we responsible for the likes of Bell by our insipid Trinitarianism and the failure in many churches to preach and teach on the wonder of the Trinity?
Guest article by Kip' Chelashaw
(1) E.g. Albert Mohler, “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology,” n.p. [cited 13 April 2011]. Online: http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/; Kevin De Young, “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins,” n.p. [cited 2 May 2011]. Online: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/; Doug Wilson: “Doug Wilson responds to Rob Bell’s Universalism,” n.p. [2 May 2011]. Online:http://www.canonwired.com/featured/wilson-vs-bell/; Adrian Warnock: “Search: Rob Bell,” n.p. [cited 2nd May 2011]. Online: http://adrianwarnock.com/?s=Rob+Bell
(2) I.e. the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The Athanasian Creed for example states: “3.And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; 4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. 5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. 6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), “Athanasian Creed,” n.p. [cited 15 April 2011]. Online: http://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html and also see Christian Reformed Church, Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Publications, 1988), 5-9.
(3) E.g Article 1 (of the Anglican 39 Articles) states that “THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting [...] And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” In similar vein, the FIEC Basis of Faith states as its first belief that “There is one God, who exists eternally in three distinct but equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is unchangeable in his holiness, justice, wisdom and love. He is the almighty Creator; Saviour and Judge who sustains and governs all things according to his sovereign will for his own glory. ”
(4) Deuteronomy 6:4 and cf. Mark 12:29
(5) Alluded to in a recent interview where Rob Bell was asked if he was happy with a God who would punish an unrepentant 17 year old for over 17 million years to which Rob Bell replied “No”. YouTube, “Rob Bell defends his view of Hell in "Love Wins" debate,” n.p. [cited 2nd May 2011]. Online:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agRu8SZRMME&feature=player_embedded. An author who expressed his revulsion even clearer was John Wenham who wrote that the ‘unending torment [of an everlasting conscious hell] speaks of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine which I do not know to preach without negating the loveliness of God. From the days of Tertullian it has frequently been the emphasis of fanatics. It is a doctrine which makes the Inquisition look reasonable. It all seems a flight from reality and common sense.’ John Wenham, Facing Hell, An Autobiography, 1913-1996 (Cumbria:Paternoster, 1998), 254.
(6) Thus commenting on Jesus’ words in John, Packer writes that ‘all Jesus’ references to his purpose in the world as the doing of his Father's will, and to his actual words and works as obedience to his Father's command […] all his further references to his being sent by the Father into the world to perform a specific task […] and all his references to the Father “giving” him particular persons to save […] are so many testimonies to the reality of the covenant of redemption.’ Jim Packer, “Introduction: On Covenant Theology,” n.p. [cited 26 April 2011]. Online: http://www.gospelpedlar.com/articles/Bible/cov_theo.html.
(7) In any case the objection that challenges the proportionality of hell as punishment for finite human sins, overlooks on the one hand, the affirmation that after death, our souls continue to exist (Ecclesiastes 12:7, Luke 16:19-30; 23:43; Hebrews 12:23) as well as scripture’s portrayal of the wicked as those who continue rebelling even after the Lord’s severe judgements (see, e.g. Revelation 16:9, 11, 21). The latter point is significant given that the everlasting punishment of the unrighteous in hell, is not strictly limited to just those sins committed whilst on earth, but is also an expression of the on-going antipathy of the unrighteous towards God and their continuing sin. Thus in commenting on the phrase ‘gnashing of the teeth’ – a frequent expression of Jesus to describe the reprobate’s experience in hell – Donnelly writes, ‘the damned will be grinding their teeth in rage, in helpless anger at their companions, at themselves, at their sins, at God himself.’ 39, Italics added. Also see, e.g. Larry Dixon, The other side of the good news (Wheaton, IL: Bridgepoint, 1992), 163.
(8) Ralph A. Smith, Trinity and Reality: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2004), 61.
(9) Matthew 12:32.
(10) Smith, Trinity and Reality, 61, 189-190.
(11) Smith, Trinity and Reality, 201.
(12) Smith, Trinity and Reality, 190