Chapter three of Love Wins (pp. 63-93)  begins with a simple review of where the term Hell, Hades, Gehenna occurs in the New Testament.  There is nothing problematic with this in itself,  except  that the idea of Hell is much more profoundly found in the NT than the specific vocabulary terms for Hell.   For example, the idea is certainly there in  2 Thessalonians 1. 5-10, but the specific terminology is not.   In short,  you can’t whittle down the Hell idea to places where the specific terminology occurs.  In this chapter, Rob does not deal with a text like that.  Indeed, thus far, he overwhelmingly focuses on Gospel texts.

Rob’s  first main thrust is to stress that we have enough Hell on earth, to make it plausible for us to believe in Hell somewhere else.   Indeed, he is suggesting, as he did with heaven, in the last chapter,  that Hell begins here and now.    There is also a clear stress, very clear,  that “God gives us what we want, and if that’s Hell, we can have it.  We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.”  (p. 72).

While it may seem a little strange for me, an Arminian to say Rob has overstated the case for human freedom,  I think actually he has in some respects.   Human beings are fallen creatures, and most of their choices are made according to their own inclinations and predilections.   This is not so much divine determinism as the natural outworking of being a fallen person.   I also happen to believe in God’s prevenient grace which operates not just in the saved or those on the way to being saved, but in all persons.  It is this grace of God which restores in humanity a limited power of contrary choice.    But apart from that grace, the Bible is quite clear that we are all in the bondage to sin, trapped in a spider web of our own weaving.   Can we move about within the web?  Yes,  but outside of Christ we do not have true freedom, true liberation from the bondage to sin.   This is especially clear if we examine Rom. 7.14-26 followed by Rom. 8.1-4.    The person described in Romans 7. 14-26 is a fallen person, who,  while he knows better, knows God’s law,  cannot do better under his own steam.  By contrast,  the person who is in Christ has been set from the rule of sin and death in his or her life, by the rule of the Spirit in his or her life.     And this brings up another point.

If you don’t have an adequate theology of just how fallen human beings are outside of Christ, you will end up describing salvation and grace as something less than it is— a radical rescue, not a human self-help program.  This is one of the big problems in the homosexuality debate in the church.   Some folk seem to assume that if a person is ‘born that way’  then it must be seen as a good thing.    I am not sure at all that there is such a thing as being ‘born that way’ when it comes to tendencies towards same sex relationships and intercourse.  There is no scientific evidence to support this idea, and indeed the empirically evidence about zygot twins raised identically  (with one going in the gay direction, the other not) suggests it can’t be a matter of genetics or birth.    But even if it were the case that ‘some are born this way’,   we still have to ask the question— are they this way because of creation, or because of human falleness.  Plenty of people are born with unhealthy and unhelpful birth conditions that we would not want to call normal or good.   Indeed, we would seek to overcome and correct them.    A discussion of what the Bible has to say about ethical matters has to taken into account creation, Fall, and redemption, and if we minimize the devastating nature of human fallenness and make sin just about bad individual choices,  we have trivialized sin.

What I especially like about pp. 72-73 with its good rhetorical flourish is that Rob is rightly painting a picture of how we can create hell on earth by our sinful choices.  This is sadly all too true.   The exegesis of Luke 16 on the subsequent pages leaves much to be desired.   The chasm, says Rob is in the rich man’s heart, who thinks he can still treat Lazarus like a servant.  While this may be implied in the story, what is stated in the story is that there is an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell, between Abraham’s bosom, and Hells bowels.  And then it makes clear you can’t cross from one everlasting destination to the other,  apparently in either direction.    Now this parable should have stopped Rob dead in his tracks from saying things like,  ‘in the end God’s love wins with everyone’.    Sadly, that is not true, nor will it be true in the final future.   And the most profound reason it will not be true, which actually comports with Rob’s view of love is that love must be freely given and freely received.  It can’t be predetermined or destined.  And frankly the Bible is clear that in the end there will still be some who will say— ‘thank you but no thank you’ when it comes to God’s love.  And God will not make them an offer they can’t refuse.   Love doesn’t work that way.

I quite agree with Rob that it is an odd truth that some people who are most concerned with having a nice afterlife, don’t much care about hell on earth in this life, don’t much care about foreshadowing where all of creation is going, here and now.   And this is wrong.  It involves a truncated purely other-worldly Gospel,  which is more Gnostic than Christian.   I agree with Rob this is not the real Gospel Jesus preached.

There are both heavenly and hellish conditions here and now that foreshadow the future, and we should care about them, and opposing hellish conditions now, not just treat the Gospel as if it were some sort of heavenly life insurance or eternal fire prevention insurance.   The Good News is brought here and now, and it begins the healing, and reconciliation, and transformation of all of creation here and now.    And we can either engage in this total creation care now, or settle like Esau not for our Gospel birth rite, but for a bowl of chicken soup for the soul, served up warmed over that comes with a voucher, a get out of Hades free card.

Rob is also right in his analysis on pp. 80-83 that Jesus talked about Hell to his fellow Jewish believers,  and furthermore,  he talked about them being in danger of going there because of their bad behavior— like that of the rich man in relationship to Lazarus.  Behavior might not get you into the Kingdom,  but it sure can get you an early checkout notice from being amongst the elect.   This is precisely what Paul is saying in Gal. 5.19-21 when he warns his converts in Galatia that if they persist in behaving badly, in these various listed ways, “you will not inherit God’s kingdom”.    Jesus says nothing different from this.

If the so called elect or saved behave consistently or continually in such a way that their lives as a whole could be characterized as a life of adultery etc.   they will have committed apostasy, and will not enter God’s coming future kingdom.   These warnings are incompatible with an eternal security notion, which neither Jesus nor Paul affirmed.   Rob is quite right— it the pious Jews, the truly converted, even the Christians, who are being warned about apostasy in such texts.   And it is not like they are the only NT figures giving us believers such warnings—go read Hebrews 6 again.    As Rob puts it on pp. 82-83— “whatever chosen-ness or election meant, whatever special standing they believed they had with God was always, only, ever about their being the kind of transformed, generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood.”   Amen to that.

In pp. 84-87,  Rob begins to list a series of passages which share the theme of restoration after judgment.   Now, almost all of these passages are about restoration on earth, after temporal judgments on earth.  They are not about final judgment.  Rob is right that these judgments are often viewed as corrective rather than penal in character, disciplinary rather than exacting final punishment.   This is true.   And when Jesus is talks about Sodom and Gomorrah he does suggest it might go better for those cities on judgment day than say on Capernaum.  He doesn’t however say it will go well for S+G on that day however, so we need to avoid reading too much into this warning which is after all focused on cities in Jesus’ day.

Rob then proceeds to deal with some of the sifting by Satan passages ( 1 Cor 5, 1 Timothy, but oddly not the Lukan one involving Peter).   These are indeed interesting passages, and in each case they seem to be passages somewhat analogous to the story of Job— a temporal testing or sifting by Satan or some sort.  Only in the cases in Paul’s letters, it doesn’t involve a testing of a righteous person, but a handing over to let people experiences the consequences of their sinful behavior and some temporal punishment for it in those natural consequences.   It is passages like these, it would appear, that seem to suggest to Rob, that perhaps we could downgrade Hell to purgatory— a place of pruning, and  burning off of our bad ore.

And here, we find, on p. 91 a truly incorrect exegesis of  aionion in the parable of the sheep and the goats. As various reviewers rightly point out— the word means the same in the phrase involving the goats and the phrase involving the sheep.  Are we really supposed to believe Jesus is talking about ‘really long life’  for the sheep and ‘really long suffering’ for the goats?   This doesn’t work  since Jesus does indeed talk about everlasting life here, and elsewhere.   So, no.  On further review,  Hell in Jesus’ teaching does not get an extreme makeover and is not turned into purgatory—- a long Marine like boot camp until you are whipped into shape and say uncle to God’s love.    As I said before— sadly,  God doesn’t win in the life of some of the lost, not least because, they prefer being lost to being loved by God.     Even in Luke 16,  the rich man only asks for water so his Hades experience will be more bearable.  He doesn’t ask for a promotion to the bosom of Abraham, only drink service in Hell.    Sad,  yes,  but true.

Forward Thinking on Reading Backwards’– Part Six
Forward Thinking on “Reading Backwards”– Part Five
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part One
  • Anon

    What do you make of his treatment of kalazo?

  • Richard

    So the chasm in the parable is to be taken literally but the statements regarding universal restoration (S & G, etc) are supposed to be taken figuratively? What hermeneutical principle determines this?

  • ben witherington

    Hi Richard:

    The story of universal restoration has to do primarily with creation itself, and involves more specifically all things not created in the image of God. Those created in the image of God have a choice about their eternal destiny, as Rob Bell himself says. On the unbridgeable gulf in the afterlife, see C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.

    As for Koladzo/ Kolasin it means punishment, without any doubt.


  • Douglas Bilodeau

    I’ve long been curious about the differences in statements by Paul and Jesus about judgment. Paul most often exhorts in a positive sense (endure, hold fast, run the race to the end, your suffering will be validated). He rarely speaks in the harsh metaphors and sweeping characterizations which Jesus commonly resorts to (evil generation, whited sepulchers). This seems to me to be because they are on different missions – one appropriate to the Son of God, one appropriate to the last and “least” of the apostles, untimely born (like the runt of the litter, is that the image Paul is modestly invoking?). Paul is an evangelist, primarily to the gentiles. Jesus before the cross is still speaking primarily to Israel, exhorting them to accept him as messiah and lord, however hopelessly. He is like a parent who is exasperated with his rebellious children, and hurls curses in desperation. The harshness presumes a prior intimacy, and prior obligations between God and his people. The redeeming sacrifice on the cross has not yet happened. This, along with his gift for hyperbole (splinters compared to two-by-fours, plucking out offending eyes) must, it seems to me, be taken into account in interpreting the words of Jesus regarding final judgment. Exactly how to take them into account … that’s above my pay grade. In any case, I think it should be clear that Paul’s approach is a more instructive pattern for evangelizing.

  • Richard


    My recollection of TGD wasn’t so much that they couldn’t cross as they wouldn’t want to (grass is too hard, light is too bright, etc). Wasn’t that the point of the bus service between the “grey city” and the foothills of heaven? I thought that was the point Bell made regarding the chasm in the parable – that the rich man remains unrepentant, even in the torment of his punishment since he still views Lazarus as a servant beneath him (aka the doors of hell locked from the inside), was it not?

    I have always assumed that the universal restoration elements included image-bearers in light of Paul’s words that the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (even before I started leaning towards “evangelical universalism”) and I hadn’t picked up on a theme of distinguishing between image-bearers and the rest of creation. Assuming that distinction, when Ezekiel refers to the restoration of S & G, what is it referring to – the restoration of the walls of the city? Some of the residents? Whatever we decide regarding S & G is also what must bear on our understanding of the restoration of Jerusalem, is it not?

    Something that Bell doesn’t deal with but I’ve wondered about as it relates to our understanding of hellfire, what do you make of Jesus statement that “all will be salted with fire” in Mark 9:49? What’s the point of “salted”?

    BTW, props to your Tar Heels, they’ve come further than I thought they would. Hope you can catch the game a little later.

  • Ron Krumpos

    Here and Now

    My initial comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

    Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.

  • jayflm

    Dr. Witherington, thanks for contributing to the important discussion on this subject. You sound quite convinced that ‘aionion’ has a primary meaning of ‘everlasting’.

    My Southern Baptist Greek professor over 25 years ago described it as a ‘slippery’ word, since it roughly translates as ‘of an age’. With that concept in mind, I have tended to think of the contrast in Mt. 25:46 between eternal life and eternal punishment as that between life of the age to come and a punishment that will be experienced in the age to come. The one is seen as everlasting because it is life in an age when death will be destroyed. The other is not necessarily everlasting because there is nothing inherently so in the concept of punishment. It could be everlasting, but it could also be that it is a finite event/process that occurs in an everlasting age.

    Viewing the contrast this way, I have found myself driven by the Scripture to the conditional immortality position. My question, based on the way you handle the translation of the word, is whether this thinking is completely off base.

  • Justin B.

    Isn’t that the chapter where Bell examines the Hebrew word “olam”? Is he correct when he writes that the word is used to denote time without end when describing God but, when used to describe humans, it refers to a certain period of time?

  • AAJD

    None of this debate is as new as many seem to think, for reasons discussed here:

  • Daniel

    John 5:29 describes the final judgment as a “resurrection of condemnation” and it is juxtaposed with “resurrection of life.”

    The use of the term “resurrection” suggests that the duration of hell is just as eternal as the duration of “heaven” (i.e. God’s new creation).

  • David Gibbs

    In the end much of this boils down to whether the vast majority of mankind who has ever lived from Adam up until Jesus’s coming – will be saved or lossed. It seems that the vast tmajority of mankind down throughout the ages have either died never having heard of Jesus, or having heard and yet rejecting Him.

    If the vast majority are lossed (“narrow is the way that leads to life and few be they that find it”) then do we say that satan won the battle? If however the vast majority of mankind are saved then we can say that Jesus wins (“He is not willing that any should perish, but that all shoud be saved”).

  • Craig

    Hi Ben,
    You mentioned the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) in this review, and I have a question for clarification.

    I’ve been reading volume one of your book “The Indelible Image” and I came across this quote by you in reference to Acts 2:25-28 (page 718):

    “Notice that ‘Hades’ here, as elsewhere in Luke-Acts (see Lk 16:23 in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; cf. Lk 10:15), refers to the land of the dead (not hell) or, in Old Testament terms, Sheol.”

    This is the same argument I made regarding Luke 16:23 in one of your previous Hell posts (URL below), but you told me that you were unconvinced that Hades meant Sheol in this text.

    Have you since changed your mind? Your critique here of Bell suggests you now have a different view of Luke 16:23 – referring to Hades as “Hells bowels.” Have I missed something? I hope you will please clarify.

    Blessings, Craig

  • rDA

    John 3:17 — For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

    Because He loves us, Jesus’ “mission” is to save the world — that is, everyone, 100%. However, most Christians would probably say that the majority of humanity is destined for hell (“Narrow is the path”). It would seem, then, that the Hate of Satan is much more powerful than the Love of Jesus when it comes to convincing people where they want to spend eternity. So, looking at the number of souls saved vs lost, it would appear that Jesus loses and Satan wins.

    Mission failed?

  • JR Fraser

    I wonder about the idea of the chasm between Hades and heaven being impassable. Is it impassable even for Christ? What is Peter talking about when Christ went and preached to the spirits in prison from the days of Noah (1Pt. 3:19)? Whatever else this verse means, doesn’t it mean that Christ passed over the impassable?

    I was also struck recently while reading Romans 14:9: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

    Hasn’t Christ passed from heaven to Hades and back again? Is it possible that Christ himself had bridged the unbridgeable? If that’s the case, then is it also possible that he made a way for those on the other side to pass over? I’m not sure that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus excludes that possibility.

  • Accelerated

    Ben, your Chapter 3 critique again put words in Bells mouth about individual freedom and the nature of sin, which is not connected with anything Bell actually says. Then you actually affirm several things Bell says.

    As to the Parable of the Goats: the clue to the meaning is Jesus’ “brethren:” those who do the will of the Father, his disciples, who have an evangelical destiny to the nations of the world. The destiny of those in the world will be how they treat Jesus’ representatives. Those who respond to these representatives, receive Christ. Those who reject and judge them, reject Christ, and judgment awaits them. This is not an eschatological statement, but a “practical parable of human destiny.” from Theology of the New Testament by George Eldon Ladd. Hence the reference to aionion here is to this age, rather than As to the Parable of the Goats: the clue to the meaning is Jesus’ “brethren:” those who do the will of the Father, his disciples, who have an evangelical destiny to the nations of the world. The destiny of those in the world will be how they treat Jesus’ representatives. Those who respond to these representatives, receive Christ. Those who reject and judge them, reject Christ, and judgment awaits them. This is not an eschatological statement, but a “practical parable of human destiny.” — Theology of the New Testament by George Eldon Ladd. This interpretation thus is to this age rather than being an “incorrect exegesis of aionion.”

  • Jackson Baer

    What part of a parable makes it so difficult for many to understand Jesus wasn’t speaking literally? Yes, there is a real punishment but no it’s not eternal torture.