Compatibilism and The Doctrine of Hell

Rob Bell's new book comes out tomorrow.

The book has stirred up a lot of controversy and has triggered a series of responses from the body of Christ's Reformed, white blood cells.  I don't want to read the book and don't want to get caught up in the back and forth, illusion-of-progress evangelical battle tides.

But I have found myself thinking a lot about hell today.

And one of the things I find myself doing is a practice I call "compatibilism."

Now, I'm sure that I'm using the word wrongly.  Philosophy majors and grammar buffs will wince when I talk about "doing compatibilism," but I don't know how else to describe this practice.


A few years ago I encountered Henri Blocher's Evil and the Cross and Don Carson's How Long, O Lord?.  These two books deeply helped shape my theology, particularly my thinking about evil.

In both books, Blocher and Carson assert as truth what the Bible actually says and resist with violence attempts to use a razor to synthesize and harmonize.  They find the Bible filled with tension and mystery when it comes to evil, like thin smoke filling a room.

Carson wields the term "compatibilism" to describe his efforts, drawing on an essay from JI Packer's Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Compatibilism is akin to putting the puzzle pieces on the table, believing that they fit together without alteration, even if you cannot see it yet.


Assertions that I can't yet reconcile swirl through my head.

"The last revealed chapter of the biblical story shows a large crowd worshipping God.  The emphasis falls on the size and diversity of the crowd.  Tears are wiped away."

"God designed hell for the fallen angels, not for humans, but hell won't be populated by angels alone."

"God promises justice, vengeance."

"Jesus drank to the bottom the cup of the wrath of God, finished and, in one sense, took our place in hell without remaining there for all eternity."

"God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

"Depart from me.  I never knew you."

And so on ...

My challenge is to try to fit these assertions together without clipping them, without ignoring the ones I find inconvenient or confusing.  To do so would dishonor God's word and lead me the wrong way around the circle.


On the one hand, people say "God is loving, merciful and compassionate and he's all-powerful, so everyone must end up in heaven in the end."

On the other hand, people say "The formula for solving your hell problem: negative be plus or minus the square root of Romans 3:23 squared minus Romans 6:23 and all that divided by Romans 10:9."

What happens to God's justice?  What happens to God's love?

What happens to God's real person, revealed in Christ?

Our attempts to systematize and synthesize reveal something beautiful about our humanity.  We are created in the image of the One who knows and orders the universe.  We are created in his image, but we are not him.

We see through a glass, darkly, now.

We need theologians with the courage both to honestly own their limited capacity to see how it all fits together and still to assert with confidence the things they know to be true.


What would change if we said "I don't know how it all fits, but I do know ... "?


  1. Steve -

    Great thoughts, as always. I appreciate you sharing.

    Did you see the interview with Rob Bell last night? He made an interesting comment, the essence of which I'd already encountered through some other friends much smarter than I am.

    He essentially said that we need to learn how to live with unresolved biblical tensions. Our western mindset tries to process everything through the either/or binary when the Hebrew worldview doesn't necessarily do that.

    Example - in Revelation, there is "the new Jerusalem", the city of God where he dwells with his redeemed people in the new creation (which is bigger than the city, apparently).

    There are also people outside the city (result of judgment). And the city gates? They stay open.

    Meaning what, exactly? I have no idea but I think I need to be okay with that.

  2. I missed the Rob Bell thing last night. Do you know if it's posted online somewhere?

    Appealing to people to live with unresolved biblical tension sounds like a great idea. But how do you get people to agree on which tensions are unresolved?

    As for the Hebrew worldview not having a binary process, that's for someone better read than us to comment on.

    All I can say is that the Pharisees and the breathing-murderous-threats Saul seemed to be pretty binary. :)

  3. Very true. And certainly the whole clean/unclean dichotomy seems pretty clear. =)

    Your second paragraph hits the nail on the head and I for one don't think I have the wisdom or energy needed to try to work that out.

    I think you can find the link to the interview at