FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS…… CHAPTER THREE, BELL’S HELL

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.

Paul and his Recent Interpreters by N.T. Wright--- Part One
CKB--- August 26th 2011: A Hommage
Ellis Peters and the George Felse Mysteries--- Part One
On Growing Old Gracefully-- Part Two

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