Much has been made, and rightly so, in recent days about popular preacher Rob Bell’s denial of the Christian doctrine of hell in his new book Love Wins. Reading this book over the past couple of days, I was prepared for what Bell was up to. I’d seen his promotional video, for one thing. For another, his arguments are the same efforts at hell-denial Christianity has seen, and rebutted, in almost every generation from the first century onward. What caused me to gasp out loud though was Bell’s dismissal of the blood of Jesus.
“There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never lose its power’ and ‘Nothing but the blood will save us,’” Bell writes. “Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods.
“People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways,” he continues. “But most of us don’t. What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand.”
On this point, Bell couldn’t be more wrong.
First of all, he’s wrong about the place of blood in the biblical story. God is not using blood atonement as a “metaphor,” picking up on already existing pagan practices. God’s emphasis on blood in the Bible is prehistoric. Abel’s offering is received, and Cain’s rejected, precisely because of blood (Gen. 4). Immediately after walking off of the ark into a new creation, the patriarch Noah is commanded not to eat blood, since it is “the life of the flesh” (Gen. 9:4).
God then commands an entire system of blood sacrifice, to his people who were to remain separate and distinct from the pagan nations around them, a bloody system he fulfills in the shedding of the blood of Jesus himself (Heb. 8-10). Again, the people of God were not to eat blood since the blood is “the life” of the animal, and is to be handled reverently because of its place in atonement. This prohibition is no mere metaphor of Israelite ceremony. It is repeated in the Jerusalem Council’s instruction to Gentile believers as an “essential” (along with abstaining from sexual immorality) of Christian practice (Acts 15:28-29).
All of this points, of course, to a new covenant, offered up by Christ Jesus, through the shedding of blood (I would cite Scriptures here, but the sheer number of them would overcome my word count). All of the Bible points to a bloody Passover Lamb who approaches the heavenly places with blood, not of goats and calves but his own (Heb. 9:12). The gospel is all about blood.
If God were accommodating himself to a cultural understanding, he certainly did a poor job of it. Yes, the ancient people of Judea and Galilee were familiar with the shedding of animal blood, but that’s precisely why they were so offended by Jesus. They heard Jesus call for the tearing down of the Temple (and with it the blood sacrificial system). Even worse, they heard Jesus call for the eating and drinking of his own blood.
Let’s not lose sight of the scandalous nature of Jesus’ call to the crowds at Galilee: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn. 6:53). This was not to just a generic mob but to those trained from childhood not to eat even the blood of meat, much less the blood of a human being. This is why even Peter is offended, and would walk away, except that he has nowhere else to go.
Bell is also wrong about contemporary culture. He assumes modern people are beyond this association between blood and judgment. And he’s not alone. Our churches often want to appeal to our neighbors by being as antiseptic as possible: with gleaming restrooms and shiny foyers. Christianity seems clean and bright.
And yet, the people around us are obsessed with blood, from our cholesterol checks to our pharmaceutical advertisements to our cultural fascination with vampires that runs the gamut from movies to romance novels. Our culture is fascinated, and yet repulsed, by blood. That’s why the flickering image of blood running down a shower drain is the scariest scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. That’s why highway patrolmen seek urgently to clean blood from the scene of a highway accident. All around us, people know, instinctively and intuitively, that the sight of blood means something bad.
And that’s where the scandal of Bell’s revision of hell and the scandal of Bell’s diminishing of blood language come together. Blood means judgment. When the Holy One of Israel wishes to remind Pharaoh that he is a man and not a god, he turns the king’s life-giving Nile River into blood (Ex. 7:17-25). The Apostle John sees the same judgment on a self-worshiping humanity. The waters they need for life turn to blood (Rev. 8:8).
By removing the blood language, the language of sacrifice, we remove what it means to sing with the redeemed of all of the ages, “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). If you remove the blood from the doorposts of Egypt, all that’s left is judgment. The same thing happens when you remove the blood from the gospel.
Jesus offends us with our own blood, reminding us that what runs through our veins will one day run cold. He tells us then that in order to live, we must be united to the life-blood of another, a blood spilled for rebels like us. Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than Abel’s. It tells us precisely what Bell would like us to ignore: God is just and judgment is sure.
The people around us already believe in hell, and not because they’ve heard a guilt-inducing message from the church. They may deny it consciously; everyone does, at first. But the Scripture tells us that, apart from Christ, we are all in captivity to the devil who holds us in bondage “through fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). How does anyone get free of this? It’s only by countering the accusations of Satan, and that can only happen, if there’s a just God, if there is a judgment. In Christ, we’ve already been to hell. In Christ, the devil’s indictments are answered. We have conquered him “by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:10).
That’s why every church that has embraced universalism had died out, withering away from the gospel. In order for people to see Christ, they must see sin and, yes, judgment. In order to see justification, you must also see justice. If you drain the blood out of the church, all you are left with is a corpse.
Dr. Russell D. Moore is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.