Do Rob Bell, Tim Keller and CS Lewis agree on hell?

In 2011 the debate of the year amongst Christian bloggers was over hell and the views put forward by Rob Bell in his book ‘Love Wins’. But do other, less controversial, leaders also share Bell’s view on hell?

Quite possibly. That would change the controversy I suspect if it was widened to include those two luminaries.

Let me make my case. In reading some of the multitude of posts about Rob Bell in recent days, I discovered the following.

I came across Tom Batterson who as a bookseller has read an advance copy of Love Wins and quotes from it. Let me share those quotes.

Could God say to someone truly humbled broken and desperate ‘sorry too late?’ Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in only to hear God say through the key hole ‘Doors locked, sorry If only you had been here earlier, I could have done something but now its too late.

Now let me quote Tim Keller from The Reason for God (p76).

Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says, ‘Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!’

Can you spot the difference? Not sure I can. Batterson then quotes what he sees as the final position Rob Bell comes to.

… In speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love. Namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them ‘Not here you won’t.’ Love demands freedom. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.
Now let me quote Keller again (who also quotes CS Lewis).
The people on the bus from hell in Lewis’ parable would rather have their ‘freedom’, as they define it, than salvation. Their delusion is that, if they glorified God, they would somehow lose power and freedom, but in a supreme and tragic irony, their choice has ruined their own potential for greatness. Hell is, as Lewis says, ‘the greatest monument to human freedom.’ As Romans 1:24 says, God ‘gave them up to…their desires’. All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that? (p79)
Then Keller quotes CS Lewis:

There are only two kinds of people – those who say to God, ‘thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. (The Problem of Pain)

Can you tell those three apart? Not easily you can’t. So maybe we’ll be asking questions about Keller’s theological trajectory but I doubt it. Lewis is already living his. Either way if those quotes are accurate Bell could easily say ‘I’m just agreeing with Tim Keller or CS Lewis’.

It’s fine to disagree with them all, but perhaps things would have been different had he an endorsement from Keller instead of Brian McLaren! We shall see.

  • I read Matt Hosier, who pointed me to Liam Thatcher who pointed me to Tim Batterson
  • For those of you interested Andrew Wilson reflects on Keller’s views on Hell as presented in The Reason for God in this talk

Photo by Thomas Hawk


Thanks for this really interesting post and for joining those dots together. How do you think Matthew 25 fits in particularly the Parable of the Ten Virgins particularly verses 11-12 which see the virgins literally pleading to get in but God not letting them?

Well those are exactly the sort of verses that need responding to because on face value they certainly suggest that there will come a time after which Christ says, ‘sorry I don’t know you’. I’ve no idea if or how those texts are handled. Does anyway know of a sermon or resource by either Keller or Bell on that passage?

But, and it’s a big but, the trajectory of Keller’s ministry is radically different from Rob Bell’s. Tim Keller has yet to put together a book promo that sneers at the Biblical understanding of salvation, on the back of many books that undermine the historic evangelical faith.

I just pulled TRFG off my shelf to check that quote in context. Keller goes on to say, p77 ‘Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self absorbed, self centered life, going on and on forever.’ Later on p79 he says ‘it is a travesty to picture God casting people into a pit who are crying out ‘I’m sorry! Let me out!’ The people on the bus from Hell in Lewis’s parable would rather have their ‘freedom’ as they define it, than salvation.

Bell argues that God doesn’t put ‘truly humble and desperate’ people into Hell simply because their time is up. Keller is arguing that those people would not want to repent even if they were given the chance. There will be no ‘truly humble and desperate people.’

If this was the first thing Rob Bell has ever written or said publically, the evangelical blogosphere would be a lot calmer, Given his track record tho, it’s hard to see him on anything other than a path away from the Gospel.

Ed, thanks for the comment. I did also us the quote on p79 but I see that as reinforcing my point that what Bell and Keller are saying may not actually be all that far apart. Now I’m not actually trying to defend Rob Bell (as I don’t actually know what his views are yet) but I’m sure we’re jumping the gun a bit. So let’s take the video and the Gandhi question. Is Rob Bell questioning whether Gandhi is in hell or that people assume they know he is in hell? I think the latter but most think the former. It’s open to interpretation and discussion which was probably the point. You might be right about what he says, I’m just offering the cautionary note that he might not be going quite as far off track as we think.

Hi Matt, I agree we all need to be thoughtful of the consequences of lines of thinking and of course history is enormously helpful in seeing who else walked this path – Origen for example!

But I guess I’m not keen on ‘theological trajectory’ for a number of reasons – firstly I doubt there are people with really a consistent theology or we agree with someone here but not there. So which bit of the trajectory should I judge? Is the trajectory of this doctrine the one I should be worried about or all of them and what if they’re not going in the same way?

Secondly it seems to me that it too often excludes nuance and leads to pride; ‘Oh I always knew he would end up there’

Thirdly it goes against the grain of a journey in theology. I’m sure the non-charismatics were/are very concerned about our theological trajectory and so I’m not sure where it gets us. But journey is often the more accurate description of most leaders theological development.

So if Bell comes out as a universalist in his book then so be it, or some form of optimistic inclusivist or even an annihilationist (along with Stott)but I just doubt that the ‘trajectory’ line is all that helpful.

Phil, you seem to dislike the phrase “theological trajectory” but this is something that we should actually all be asking of ourselves – Where is what I believe now likely to lead me in the future? And we can get a pretty good idea of what the answer might be by knowing something of historical arguments in the church, and the lives of saints & heretics.

From a conservative Evangelical viewpoint the Keller/Lewis view of hell is questionable, and does have an unhelpful trajectory – which is why Piper goes for it.

Just stumbled across your blog. Maybe we will see a ‘Farewell Tim Keller’ soon as a result of your findings! Even if nothing else comes out of the Rob Bell book and pre-emptive cyber-excommunication by John Piper, at least there has been some fascinating blogging going on, not least this one. Great post.

Johnny, I don’t think I lifted Keller’s quotes out of context but I don’t have the context yet for Rob Bell’s views. I think there are clear differences now that the reviews are appearing but that’s not to say that they aren’t completely dissimilar in some respects either.

Thanks Matt, I think my observation was that if in reading the extracts that I quoted the two positions aren’t actually all that different. I agree Bell surrounds all those statements with questions and ambiguity but my questions was whether the actual positions were all that different. I’ve still not read the book but from all the reviews I’ve read it seems that Bell articulates the possibility of post-mortem salvation which I think is very different from Keller, but in other areas not so much. Thanks for the link though.

Interesting post. Thanks for sharing this! I am the producer of the documentary film, “Hellbound?” Currently in production the film seeks to get to the bottom of the hell debate – why do so many well meaning people come to vastly different conclusions and what does it all mean? Find us on FB and check out our website… Thanks for your article…I posted it on our Hellbound fan page.

Hey, you are ripping Lewis/Keller out of context! if you read the entire book of The Great Divorce and The Problem of Pain, you will realize Lewis supports a literal Hell. To compare Keller and Lewis to Bell is absurd. You can’t take tiny glimpses of writers and make assumptions based on them. I have read 35 books and essay compilations of Lewis in which there are only 7 of the 24 quotes I have found where Lewis supports a literal Hell. 

1.   “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts”2.       “Hell is not eternal life with torture but something far worse: eternal dying. What goes to hell is not a man, but remains that are constantly dying in the eternal flames”3.       ” The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it—or else that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever in Hell.”4.       “God can’t condone evil, forgiving the wilfully unrepentant. Lost souls have their wish – to live wholly in the Self, and to make the best of what they find there. And what they finds there is hell. “5.        “Our Lord uses three symbols to describe hell – everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46), destruction (Matthew 10:28), and privation, exclusion, banishment (Matthew 22:13). The image of fire illustrates both torment and destruction (not annihilation – the destruction of one thing issues in the emergence of something   else, in both worlds). It may be feasible that hell is hell not from its own point of view, but from that of heaven. And it is also possible that the eternal fixity of the lost soul need imply endless duration. Our Lord emphasizes the finality of hell. Does the ultimate loss of a soul mean the defeat of Omnipotence? In a sense, yes. The damned are successful rebels to the end, enslaved within the horrible freedom they have demanded. The doors of hell are locked on the inside.”6.       “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell chose it.”7.       “The choice of every lost sould can be expressed in the words, ‘Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.’ ….. There is always something they prefer to joy — that is reality.”When Lewis says “it is the sinner gaining the greatest freedom from God” it is the truth. For what is the greatest pain of Hell? Being eternally separated from God. When Piper refutes keller/lewis it is on free will vs calvinism not universalism. You can disagree about the free will debate, but to say someone is a universalist without substantial evidence is as if walking on thin ice. That is a huge accusation that should take years of research to the writer, not a couple quotes. I hope you will take this comment into careful consideration.

Hi Pete, thanks for the comment and the quotes. Actually I don’t think I’m ripping Lewis or Keller at all. I have read Lewis and reviewed The Great Divorce ( So I actually agree with you that Lewis thinks there is a hell, but certainly not as Piper conceives it as your quotes illustrate. I think Keller essentially follows Lewis and Bell is different but not as different as many think. I don’t think he is a universalist and you can see reviews of Love Wins on here too.

Now that it’s been almost a year since LW we are wondering what the impact has been.  Perhaps the upcoming movie “Hellbound?” will open up the topic again. 

As this is still your “most viewed post” I wanted to invite your readers to check out an Open Letter to Tim Keller regarding his position on hell.

Thanks for fixing the link!  Here’s another for the home page: The site was in response to Love Wins obviously but from a former Calvinist’s perspective.  But there is plenty for all backgrounds of theology to consider.  Right now we are exploring the idea that Ultimate Restoration is not an “imported doctrine” but rather something coming from out of the inherent “DNA” of the Church herself.  This has been evident in at least 10 areas.  The very theologians like Keller, Piper, Plantinga, McKnight who hold to a traditional view of hell astonishingly are being found to be constructing and supporting a universal application of redemption!  It’s a very curious thing.  We discuss this throughout the site but that particular article will be posted on the attached blog.grace and peace,

Well, it appears that the link again did not work from this site.   It also skewed the format of my comment. Sorry, you’ll have to fix it again. Thanks …


I’m sorry but this is just misquoting. At least the first quote from Keller. He clearly says that this is what modern people think but he doesn’t say whether that is what he thinks too. But as far as I remember he clearly argues against that thinking

Hi Hans, thanks for the comment. I kind of see your point but what I was trying to do was show they both actually set up the same. So Bell & Keller say ‘this is what people think but it’s not like that’. I don’t think or think I say in the post that Keller holds to the view in the first quote because I go on to quote him below. What I was trying to show was that Bell’s view then wasn’t as far away from Lewis (who Keller quotes approvingly) as people make out. It’s not the same and I don’t agree with Bell on it (as my reviews of Love Wins show) but simply to point out the similarities.

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