In a recent interview with Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, Rob Bell again muddied the waters over the question of the fate of those who’ve never heard about Jesus. In doing so he also greatly misrepresented the evangelical answer to this question. Here are his words:

“If, billions and billions and billions of people, God is going to torture them in hell forever – people who never heard about Jesus are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of – then at that point we will have far bigger problems than a book from a pastor from Grand Rapids.”

Bell is responding to evangelicals who purportedly believe that people “are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of.” Let me say this as clearly as I can: No one will ever suffer for any length of time in hell or anywhere else for not believing in the Jesus they never heard of. Should I say that again or is it enough to ask that you go back and read it again?

Bell and others who make this sort of outrageous claim have evidently failed to look closely at Romans 1:18ff. Here we read that the wrath of God revealed from heaven is grounded in the persistent repudiation by mankind of the revelation God has made of himself in the created order. In other words, there is a reason for God’s wrath. It is not capricious. God’s wrath has been deliberately and persistently provoked by man’s willful rejection of God as he has revealed himself.

The revelation is both from God and about God. Therefore, in this case if the pupil does not learn it is not because the teacher did not teach. The phrase “evident to them” (v. 19, NASB), is better rendered either in or among them, probably the latter; i.e., God has made himself known among people (and thus, in a manner of speaking, to them, in their minds and hearts) in his works of creation and providence. 

Observe Paul’s paradoxical language in v. 20: he refers to God’s invisible attributes (1 Tim. 1:17) as clearly seen (oxymoron). Paul’s point is that the invisible is made visible via creation or nature. Divine wisdom, power, eternity and goodness, for example, are not in themselves visible, but their reality is undeniably affirmed and apprehended by the effects they produce in nature. That there is a God, supreme, eternal, infinite in power, personal, wise, independent, worthy of glory and gratitude, is clearly evident in the creation.

How are these truths about God made known and where may we see them? Paul’s answer is, “through what has been made” (v. 20). God has left the indelible mark of his fingerprints all across the vast face of the universe.

Theologian Robert Dabney put it this way: “They who have no Bible may still look up to the moon walking in brightness and the stars watching in obedient order; they may see in the joyous sunbeams the smile of God, and in the fruitful shower the manifestation of his bounty; they hear the rending thunder utter his wrath, and the jubilee of the birds sing his praise; the green hills are swelled with his goodness; the trees of the wood rejoice before him with every quiver of their foliage in the summer air.” Herman Bavinck put it succinctly in declaring that “there is not an atom of the universe in which God’s power and divinity are not revealed.”

Paul’s point here in Romans 1 is that this revelation is sufficiently clear and inescapable that it renders all without excuse (see Rom. 1:20). Consequently, there is no such thing as “an innocent native in Africa” any more than there is “an innocent pagan in America.”

What does Paul mean when he says that all humanity is without excuse? “The excuse that is banished,” notes R. C. Sproul, “the excuse every pagan hopes in vain to use, the excuse that is exploded by God’s self-revelation in nature is the pretended, vacuous, dishonest appeal to ignorance. No one will be able to approach the judgment seat of God justly pleading, ‘If only I had known you existed, I would surely have served you.’ That excuse is annihilated. No one can lightly claim ‘insufficient’ evidence for not believing in God” (Classical Apologetics, 46).

The problem is not a lack of evidence. The problem is the innate, natural, moral antipathy of mankind to God. The problem is not that the evidence is not open to mankind. The problem is that mankind is not open to the evidence.

Note well Paul’s words: “For even though they knew God” (v. 21a). Again, “that which is known about God is evident within them” (not hidden, obscure, uncertain, but disclosed, clear, and inescapable). There is no such thing as an honest atheist! All people know God. There is a distinction, of course, between, on the one hand, a cognitive apprehension of God, i.e., knowing that there is a God and that he is worthy of obedience, worship, gratitude, and, on the other, a saving or redemptive knowledge of God. All people experience the former whereas only the redeemed experience the latter. Thus the problem, again, “is not a failure to honor what was not known, but a refusal to honor what was clearly known” (Sproul, 51).

Paul believed the unbeliever’s knowledge of God was “real” though not “saving”. They have more than an “awareness” of God. They know both that he exists and that he is of a certain moral character and that they themselves are accountable to him. In other words, their knowledge of God brings “subjective” understanding, but not “saving” understanding. The God they truly and “really” know, they hate and refuse to honor. Their response, however, is not borne of ignorance but of willful rebellion and self-centered sinfulness.

But Paul is equally clear that all persistently suppress this knowledge (see vv. 21-32). He does not say they began in darkness and futility and are slowly but surely groping their way toward the light. Rather, they began with the clear, inescapable light of the knowledge of God and regressed into darkness. More on this below.

The reference to them as “futile” and “fools” (vv. 21-22) does not mean all pagans are stupid. It is not man’s intelligence that is in view but his disposition. The problem with the unsaved isn’t that he can’t think with his head. The problem is that he refuses to believe with his heart. The unsaved man is a fool not because he is of questionable intelligence. He is a fool because of his immoral refusal to acknowledge and bow to what he knows is true.

What is the response of the human heart to this revelatory activity of God? Paul describes it in vv. 21-23. What he has in mind involves a distortion or deliberate mutation when one substitutes something artificial or counterfeit for that which is genuine. Clearly, then, when man rejects God he does not cease to be religious. Indeed, he becomes religious in order to reject God. He substitutes for God a deity of his own making, often himself.

This leads to three important conclusions.

First, the revelation of God in creation and conscience is sufficient to render all men without excuse, sufficient to lead to their condemnation if they repudiate it, but not sufficient to save. No one will be saved solely because of their acknowledgment of God in nature, but many will be lost because of their refusal of him as revealed there. In other words, general revelation lacks redemptive content. It is epistemically adequate but soteriologically inadequate. It makes known that there is a God who punishes sin but not that he pardons it.

Second, and please note this well, the so-called heathen are not condemned for rejecting Jesus, about whom they have heard nothing, but for rejecting the Father, about whom they have heard and seen much. Whatever about God is included in Paul’s words, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20), the knowledge of such is universal and inescapable and renders all mankind without an excuse for their unbelief, without an excuse for their failure to honor God, without an excuse for their refusal to thank God, and without an excuse for turning from the one true God to the worship of idols.

Third, general revelation is the essential prerequisite to special revelation. And special revelation is that which redemptively supplements and interprets general revelation. Therefore, if by God’s gracious and sovereign enablement and enlightenment, any unbeliever responds positively to the revelation of God in nature (and conscience), God will take the necessary steps to reach him or her with the good news of Christ whereby they may be saved.

What we have seen from this brief look at Romans 1 is that God has made his existence and attributes known to all mankind in every age: people of every religion in every nation on earth. These people may never hear the name of Jesus. They may never hear the gospel proclaimed. They may never hear of the cross or the resurrection. They may never hold in their hands a Bible in their own language. But they are totally and justly and righteously “without excuse” before God for their failure to honor him as God and their subsequent idolatrous turn to created things as a substitute for the Creator.

They will not be judged for their rejection of Jesus, of whom they have heard nothing. For Rob Bell or anyone else to suggest that we believe people will suffer eternally in hell for not believing in a Jesus of whom they know nothing is a distortion of what we affirm, and worse still is a distortion of what Paul clearly taught. People will be held accountable and judged on the basis of the revelation that God has made of himself to them. And this revelation is unmistakable, unavoidable, and sufficiently pervasive and clear that the failure to respond as well as the turn to idolatry renders them “without excuse.” They will be righteously judged for rejecting the Father, not for rejecting the Son.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    162 replies to "Bell’s Hell and the Destiny of Those Who’ve Never Heard of Jesus"

    • Jeremy Kidder

      The does not work. The whole point of that section is the “just as… …so then” nature of the argument.

      Christ’s action does not give us a perpensity for rightiusness, rather we are imputed with an alien rightiousness not our own. This new rightiousness determines how we are seen in the eyes of the law, it is what we are declared to be.

      Thus Adam’s action must effect us the same. That is the most str ate forward reading of “all sinned” and “were made sinners.” I don’t see anything in the passage mentioning “sin nature” do you? Other than a pre-commitment to avoid this historic view of Original Sin, what preom the text itself makes you think Paul is talking about our propensity to sin, or “sin nature”?

    • jim

      This is where we become circular. You said the whole point of that section is the “just as…so then” and I don’t agree with that becoming the whole point.

      “Christ’s action does not give us a perpensity for rightiusness, rather we are imputed with an alien rightiousness not our own. This new rightiousness determines how we are seen in the eyes of the law, it is what we are declared to be” I really don’t understand what you are saying here in reference to my question about “the MANY” Again, I think we are being circular here, you approach the text you say with no pre-set ideas or conclusions but you work the text to fulfill your bias. We all do this, this is why we say look at this verse in relationship to another chapter or verse as it supports our definitions. I understand your reading and application but disagree. We will leave it at that. The whole concept of dialogue between us is discussion and sharing not necessarily proving or winning a…

    • […] Storms answers a great question as to why everyone is without excuse for being under God’s wrath. It is a very good treatment […]

    • cherylu


      It seems to me that even with the verb “made” sinners being passive, that doesn’t rule out the possiblity of this referring just to being born with a sin nature because of Adam’s disobedience. If you are born with a sin nature, a nature that makes it inevitable that you will sin, you are still made a sinner by Adam’s disobedience, if his actual guilt is imputed to us or not. (Still thinking about this aspect of things.)

      But still the question remains, is it just to punish someone that can’t help but sin because of his nature that he was born with or the guilt he was born with, (whichever way you understand original sin,) when he has no opportunity–no choice–to be otherwise?

    • John I.

      The interpretation put forward by Jeremy is a possible reading of the text, but it is neither the only possible reading, nor is it the only viable reading.

      Paul is dealing with the fact that we all recognize, and which we admit applies to those who have not heard the gospel: we are all sinners. Paul deals with sin using Jewish categories and means: Adam as representative of us as a whole. But he does not get into, and does not need to in order to make his point, the fine-grained details. Does our immaterial spirit come directly to us as a portion of our parents? If so, how is Christ not sinful? If it is created anew, or put in by God, how is it that it has sin? etc., etc.

      Deut. 24:16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.

      Ezekiel 18:20 The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.

    • Jeremy Kidder

      @John I,
      While the Bible is not explicitly clear, I believe texts like Zech 12:1 indicate that God directly creates the soul of man at conception. The alternate view that you mentioned is called “traducianism” and is held by many godly men.

      The next issue to ask is this: in what sense is Adam the “head” or “representative” of the race? There are some who simply see him as the seminal head and thus our “sin nature” gets handed down to procreation. Those who hold this position generally also hold to traducianism. The other view that I think has more Biblical support is called “federal headship.” In this sense Adam is the legal (or federal) representative of humanity in the same way that Jesus legally represented us. Romans 5:12ff seems to argue this way. The Law viewed and treated Jesus as if he had committed our sin just as the law viewed and treats us as if we had committed Adam’s sin. Both men are representatives of groups and both men’s actions are imputed…

    • Jeremy Kidder

      @John I,
      The verses to refferance cannot be taken to have no exceptions else Christ would not be able to justly be punished for our sins. It would seem based on passages like Rom 5:12ff that Adam and Jesus as the heads of the two humanities are the two exceptions to this otherwise absolute rule.

    • John I.

      Aah, but here’s the rub Jeremy: Jesus was sinless, was God man, and took on the sins voluntarily. That puts him into a class of one and makes his situation not directly comparable, consequently the verses still stand. Furthermore, if sin was inherited from Adam, how would Jesus, who was fully man and born of a woman, have avoided participating in the sin of Adam? Yet we are told by Scripture that Jesus was sinless. I don’t think your dog hunts.

      John I.

    • Rob Holler

      As an ArminiCalvinist, I thought this review of Bell’s theology was well done.

      I do find it odd that so many comments take aim at Sam Storm’s defense of Biblical Soteriology and “narry at shot” was levied at the blazing heretic Rob Bell. It may the case that an anti-Calvinist may disagree with Sam’s position, but we would all do well to remember that Sam is not the heretic here. Seriously my brothers and sisters, Calvinists and Arminians meet under the Nicean Creed and worship at the foot of the Cross. Let us band together against heresy if must, but never against each other. Good review Sam. Sorry that I am over a year late to the party.

    • fRANCIS

      I’m new in this debate-conversationMay 21, 2013); havinG just read Rob Bell’s, LOVE WINS, I too was ministered to by the Michigan pastor’s book.
      Salvation for me, understood through my relationship with God through Him in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, includes most significantly: REPENTENCE and the gift from God, FAITH and through faith a TRUSTING and OBEDIENT RESPONSE to God’s commandents (yes, The TEN); JUDGE NOT–believe through God-given intelligence AND faith, understood by God giving discernment, understanding and mercy. Always, as much as possible for any human being reborn: act-respond-will, choose prayerfully, patiently with less and less anxiety, with confidence-trusting in our God with whom I have relationship through Jesus Christ. I daily thank and praise God from whom all blessings flow.

      Also, God occasionally enlightens me through secular ( meaning not necessarily, specifically scriptural or ‘religious’ witnessing) like the 2001 movie, THE RED SHOES.

      God’s grace, especially the gift of faith is what I’m thankful for–not that I’m ‘elected’ as the Calvinists say or understand but that I choose with free choice (which is part of the Image of God, by the way) what I spent most of my life refusing to do: I choose God on the throne, not my self. (ie. Bill Bright’s four spiritual laws.)–thank you for ‘listening’.

    • Aaron Ginn

      “They will be righteously judged for rejecting the Father, not for rejecting the Son.”

      Absolutely, 100% incorrect.

      Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. — John 3:18

      Please stand by what your book claims. It claims that those who do not believe in Jesus are condemned. If they haven’t heard of Jesus, tough luck according to orthodox Christianity.

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