Rob Bell Denies Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I just saw the promotional video from Rob Bell’s upcoming book, Love Wins.  Up front, I’ll admit that I haven’t read the actual book, but if the video is any indication, I’m pretty positive that I don’t want to (exceptions to this statement are made below for those of you would want to immediately label me as unjustifiably close-minded).

In the video, Bell talks about the traditional Christian view of salvation.  He argues that Christians have been conditioned to believe that Christianity is for a select few, that God is our angry judge, and that Christ is the one who rescues us from the angry judge…

To this, Rob Bell has an answer: the above story is pretty much wrong and we are supposed to go with Rob Bell’s notion that “love wins.”

Unlike some, who have seen the video and immediately critiqued Rob Bell for denying the existence of Hell and advocating a salvific doctrine of universalism, I detected a much more poisonous teaching.  Personally, I don’t think either of the other two critiques can be fully justified based on this video.  Maybe Bell’s book would provide sufficient proofs to confirm or deny these critiques.  Perhaps I’ll pick it up to consider it in light of these critiques of the promotional video…

At any rate, Rob Bell really goes astray here–and it’s not with regard to universalism or a rejection of Hell.  The real thing that worries me in his promotional video is his explicit attack on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as understood in church tradition since the days of Paul.  This doctrine is clearly articulated in Paul’s letters, but probably most explicitly articulated to the Romans.  Whether or not Rob Bell wants to believe it or not, Scripture teaches very clearly that Christians are a small elect few. Or would Rob Bell say that Christ himself didn’t really mean what He taught in Matthew 7:13-14:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (ESV, emphasis added)

In this passage, Christ clearly warns that many will follow the way of destruction, but only few will find the narrow gate.  Those are Christ’s very words and they stand in stark contrast to the decidedly anti-scriptural notions that Rob Bell presses in his promotional video.  It is simply a scriptural fact that Christians are saved from the judgment and wrath of God.  That’s what makes Christ’s sacrifice infinitely more powerful…he bore the wrath of the almighty, righteous, and holy judge so that we would not have to.  Let that sink in for a moment and then think about which side has the real grasp on the concept, “God is love”: the traditional Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement or Rob Bell’s fuzzy theology.   What could be more terrible than an omnipotent force of completely justified fury?  And yet, when Christ had the chance to call down a thousand angels to deliver him from the greatest punishment ever imaginable, he said, “Not my will, but thy will be done.”

I am strongly convinced that if Christ did not come to satisfy the wrath of God, then there was no need for the crucifixion at all.  If it was a matter of freeing everyone from Satan’s grasp, God could have simply crushed Satan under his fist and delivered everyone with no questions asked.  No cross necessary.  If it was a matter of simply forgiving people of their sins so that God could form a relationship with us, then no cross was necessary.  The cross only makes sense if there was a penalty to pay.  The penalty was the wrath of God.

Nowhere is this more explicitly stated than in Isaiah 53:10, which is the most famous Old Testament passage predicting the death of Christ.  In it, the prophet wrote:

“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;  he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (ESV)

I once read this passage to a professor that teaches emergent theology and is a humongous fan of Rob Bell.  At the time, I was not aware of his associations with the emergent church and their rather explicit denial of the scriptural understanding of penal substitutionary atonement.  I presented it as one of my favorite verses and he rather rudely ignored me and quickly changed the subject.  I was surprised at the time, but no longer have that surprise.  No matter how much Rob Bell doesn’t want to accept the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, it’s what makes Christianity…well, Christianity.

At my church recently, my pastor very passionately asked the congregation: “You came this morning, not to hear an opinion, but to hear the word of God, did you not?”  At the end of the day, the points raised in Rob Bell’s promotional video stand in stark contrast to the lasting legacy of the scriptural doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.  Not only do Rob Bell’s comments force him into a stand-off against such great theologians as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Lloyd Jones, Greg Bahnsen, John Knox, John Calvin, and St. Augustine; he has also to contend with the words of Isaiah, Paul, and even Christ himself.  This on one of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity.

In short, I’ll take Scripture and thousands of years of Christian theological tradition over the “opinion” of Rob Bell.


About Jason Hughey View all posts by Jason Hughey

2 responses to “Rob Bell Denies Penal Substitutionary Atonement

  • P. F. Pugh

    Jason, the fact of the matter is that penal substitution is not the only option on the table historically. It’s a doctrine that was only formulated as such in the 1000s by Anselm of Canterbury. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but in what sense? Did he die to conquer them? (the Christus Victor theory) Did he die as a ransom? Did he die as a moral influence to inspire us to take up our cross? (Abelard’s theory) Did he die to bear the penalty for our sin? Did he die to restore the imago Dei? I think all of these (except ransom theory) have some support in Scripture, so while yes, I might agree that the atonement is not less than penal substitution, it is more. Much more.

    You’ve also conveniently left out the really hard issue of the atonement in the metanarrative of Scripture of creation-fall-redemption-consummation (Kuyper’s terms). That is to say, there is an indication in Scripture that in Christ, God was redeeming the world from sin and drawing it back unto Himself. The Bible speaks in these universal terms that we simply cannot ignore. As one (very reformed) professor of mine has said, “You cannot be a good and careful scriptural theologian and not wrestle with the question of universalism.” The fact that it took the church almost one thousand years to wrestle with this issue and come to the doctrine of penal substitution should give us pause to consider that it is not the only theory of atonement, nor does it exhaust the doctrine of atonement.

    Bell’s problem is not just a defective doctrine of atonement, but a defective doctrine of the fall, and therefore of creation.

  • Jason Hughey

    I’m not familiar with the version of the Christus Victor theory that you reference. The way I’ve heard it, the Christus Victor theory speaks of Christ rescuing his people from the powers of darkness, such as the devil and his demons. Gregory Boyd, who is himself a theologian who advocates the Christus Victor viewpoint, argues this view in “The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views.”

    If that truly is the right understanding of the Christus Victor viewpoint, then I already mentioned it in my post without explicitly naming it. If your new version is correct though (“died to conquer sin”), I don’t really understand what that means. If he died to conquer sin, that still doesn’t answer why the nature of conquering sin required death on the cross as a punishment? Death is not an agent itself that demands a penalty. There’s no “Grim Reaper.” Sin is the same way. Only God sets the penalty for sin and death, therefore, if Christ did indeed die “to conquer sin (and death),” that statement implicitly assumes that he died to satisfy God’s justice. And we’re back to penal substitutionary atonement.

    The way I see it, you and I are saying the same thing (for once), just through two different ways. You’re saying that Christ accomplished more than penal substitutionary atonement when he died on the cross. I agree wholeheartedly. However, in my post, I’m concerned with the issue of why Christ had to die such a horrible death on a cross in order to accomplish everything he did, admittedly emphasizing the reconciliation of individual believers to himself. It’s not that I deny the other things he accomplished, it’s just that I view that as the most important element of atonement theology.

    Thus, the issue is not what Christ accomplished on the cross (we agree it was a lot), but why did he have to accomplish it in they way that he did (If you disagree with what I said in my post regarding this point, then nothing you said in your comments conveys such a disagreement). I contend that only penal substitutionary atonement provides a comprehensive biblical framework to understand why Christ had to die. Other views may certainly be compatible with the idea of penal substitutionary atonement (i.e. conquered Satan, conquered sin, conquered death, reconciled creation, set a good moral example, etc.) But they all can’t really answer the question: why did it have to be specifically the cross?

    “Bell’s problem is not just a defective doctrine of atonement, but a defective doctrine of the fall, and therefore of creation.”

    I’m sure it’s all three combined. But I was pointing out his flawed doctrine of atonement in this video because that’s really all I can critique based on this video. Everything else is hinted at and perhaps presuppositionally vulnerable, but that would get a little too technical and long-winded.

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