…by the Bell, Chapter 3: Rob Bell's Hell

Read part 1 – Preliminary Discussion.
Read part 2 – Chapter 1 & Introduction.
Read part 3 – Chapter 2

Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.

Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss Chapter 3: Hell.

Ben Bartlett: “Why does Rob Bell get to be the independent arbiter of truth?”

Kiel,
I am excited about Rob Bell’s chapter on Hell. More than any other time, he seems to be making clear arguments about his perspective. That’s helpful, because it gives me the opportunity to do what every Christian should do with theological teaching: test it in every way they know how to determine whether it conforms to God’s revealed will in Scripture. The opportunity to test a teaching is key in Christianity, because we trust that God’s revealed will is true, and as such is the standard for right vs. wrong. Testability is necessary in the pursuit of faithfulness.

Now, Rob makes four fascinating arguments.

1. When Jesus talked about hell, the words he used show us that he was mostly talking about physical suffering within this life.

2. Jesus was strongly interested in people’s hearts in the here and now.

3. When Jesus talked about hell, he alluded to the idea that there is still hope for those already destroyed.

4. Themes of God’s redemption and the versatility of certain Greek words show us that it is perfectly reasonable to believe God always redeems, while he doesn’t really discuss the idea of punishment that is eternal.

Would you say that’s pretty fair?

Let me run through these briefly and I think you’ll see why Rob’s arguments present a problem, at least to me personally.

1. In my last post I linked to what I think is a helpful criticism; Rob seems to have massaged meanings a bit. He uses obscure meanings of words or “original” meanings without considering context (think about the way we use the word “cool,” which has pretty much nothing to do with the original meaning). My larger issue here is this: Rob doesn’t seem open to being corrected on this by Biblical scholars. If it could be proven that his analysis of the Greek is incorrect, wouldn’t that be a pretty big blow to his argument?

2. Of course I agree with this point as written. But I think it’s clear that Christ taught about hearts in the here and now because he wanted people to be submitted to God in their hearts. George Eldon Ladd is great on this point in his book, “The Gospel of the Kingdom.” Rob seems to have taken a very bold leap by saying “What Christ meant by what he said was…” in a way that very, very few Biblical scholars agree with. Doesn’t it strike you as problematic for him to be on a somewhat lonely limb on this?

3. Early in the chapter, Rob makes the argument that Jesus was constantly using vivid metaphors to describe things, and says those metaphors don’t necessarily teach us about, say, Hell. But later, Rob says that a vivid metaphor, “it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you…” is indicative of hope for salvation for Sodom and Gomorrah. Doesn’t this strike you as inconsistent? And doesn’t the passage he refers to (Matthew 10) talk about the severity of rejecting Christ’s apostles rather than hope of salvation for a long-gone town?

4. Is it really so difficult to believe that God is both a redeeming God and a God whose holiness demands justice of those that do not respond to the gospel despite dire warnings? As a father, I can love, offer redemption to, and enact punishment on my son at the same time. And someday, it is possible that I could love him and yet kick him out of the house with no hope of returning unless change happens. Why can’t God hold these emotions, virtues, or qualities simultaneously?

I do believe Rob really thinks he is trying to understand Christ. But why is he so insistent on not listening to, responding to, and being changed by dialogue with theologians and historians who know more than he does? Why can’t he accept challenges? Why does he get to be the independent arbiter of truth?

Kiel Hauck: “the argument should not be made that since Bell is one of a few to question something so many people hold, he must be wrong.”

Ben,
I guess I’ll dive right in by addressing your comments on the four points you brought up.  I’ll start by combining your first two points and addressing them together.

1. and 2. I suppose if his analysis of the Greek could be “proven incorrect” it would be a pretty big blow.  But haven’t people been arguing over the meanings of this dead language for centuries?  Isn’t this why we have so many different Bible translations?  Aren’t they constantly discovering new meanings and usages of Greek words that we didn’t know and understand before?  I’m not a Greek scholar and I haven’t studied the language.  I do know that Rob Bell has, therefore, I’m inclined to at least hear out his explanations on it.  I’m sure there are scholars out there who would argue in the opposite direction.

I’m more concerned with the heart of the points being made.  I truly believe that God isn’t wringing his hands in worry that we won’t be able to translate ancient texts correctly and will thus lose all of the precious knowledge that we are supposed to know.  I think the Holy Spirit transcends that and teaches each of us as God sees fit.  Here’s what I can tell you about hell though:

In “Sex God”, Rob Bell opens the book with imagery of concentration camps in Germany.  This was hell on earth and I don’t think anyone would argue against that.  Fortunately, not everyone has had to experience a concentration camp, but we all experience our own personal hells.  I can tell you first hand that I’ve never felt closer to hell than during the finalization of my divorce papers.  I can also tell you that as awful as that was, I know God cared about my heart in that moment, deeply.

I know that moments like that are not the way the world was meant to be, and if God doesn’t care in moments like that then I have little hope that he cares at all.  This leads me to believe that there will come a day when those moments will be no more and things will be made into the way that they were meant to be and the suffering that we endure will be gone forever.  Perhaps I’m being too bold, but I can tell you that right now – today – I don’t see where a loving God gets gratification from the torment of hells – either here or elsewhere.  And if that’s the case, I have to believe that a day will come when those moments will exist no more.

3.  I was also not convinced by his interpretation of that particular Sodom and Gomorrah text.  I don’t know what to make of it, but I agree – it didn’t make me feel more hopeful.  However, we find in Ezekiel, as pointed out by Bell, that God will “restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters” and they will “return to what they were before.”  Reconcile that.  I know I can’t, and reasons like this are why I love this dialogue so much.

Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I might as well be honest and say I don’t know how to make conflicting texts like these make sense.  I do know though, that the texts he presented as being hopeful were pretty convincing (with the exception of the last one, mentioned above).  I don’t know what happens to the Sodom and Gomorrah’s of the world and maybe none of us ever will.  What I do know is that I feel a lot better about being hopeful of God’s redemption than I do about being certain of when, where, and how God’s judgment works – mainly because I don’t think those things are of our concern.

4.  I don’t have children, so it’s hard for me to relate to your illustrations, although I find it difficult to perceive of a circumstance in which you would lovingly kick your son out of the house with no hope of return unless change happens.  Maybe if I’m blessed to be a father someday, I’ll better understand.  But even that isn’t eternal conscious torment, it’s just a break in a relationship.

If we say that a break in a relationship with God results in eternal conscious torment (and I feel like now is as good of a time as any to ask this), how do you feel about that?  I’m not going to lie – it makes me uncomfortable.  It always has.  And this is coming from someone who has VERY close family members and friends in my life who don’t claim Christ.  It’s a very real situation for me and a scary one at that.  It’s even scarier to me to claim some kind of certain decision on the subject, beyond the shadow of a doubt.  Maybe that makes me weak, but I just can’t get there.  Please realize that I’m not trying to be a bother, I’m simply laying myself bare here.

Finally, on the subject of Bell going against the grain of traditional history and thought – here’s something to chew on.  There was a time in Christian history that to claim that all men, regardless of skin color, were created equal by God would have been very much going against the grain of common acceptance of scriptural teachings.  This is one example of hundreds over the course in history where we have been way off and I’m sure that those who spoke against such things were considered heretics and crazy.  I’m not implying that Bell is that guy and this is one of those subjects.  But I am willing to say that the argument should not be made that since Bell is one of a few to question something so many people hold, he must be wrong.  I think history has taught us better than that.  He may be wrong for other reasons, but that shouldn’t be one of them.

Ben Bartlett: I fear Rob’s version is far too strongly influenced by what he wants the world to be like, rather than responding to whatever God says it is.

There are a lot of things about God we can’t be perfectly certain of. But I do think it is a mistake to excuse ourselves from trying to carefully understand God’s words, and to then turn and allow ourselves to base the way we live on guesses we have about what God feels or what he may or may not do. If Rob Bell wants to take that stance, that’s fine, but it isn’t the right approach for a person who trusts God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. Christian faith based on the gospel and revealed in the Bible no longer exists the moment we say that what Scripture means by what it says is less important than how we think God feels about something in our own minds. Now, maybe Rob Bell doesn’t believe in that approach, and again that’s fine. I just wish he would say that more clearly.

Certainly there is a lot of suffering in the world, and I hate it too. You and I have had opportunities to talk about many of those elements of suffering in our own lives, and we both hate how the other person has had to suffer. And we’ve both struggled with anger toward God because of it.

I can’t tell you perfectly how God will make all things new, nor can I tell you exactly how his plan will work. But I can say with confidence that at the end of the day, when you compare whatever plan Rob Bell (or anyone else) can conceive for the world to whatever God REALLY has in store, God’s plan will be the better plan. I want my life to be full of the clearest, most honest thinking possible so that I can come as close as possible to understanding the world as God sees it. I fear Rob’s version is far too strongly influenced by what he wants the world to be like, rather than responding to whatever God says it is.

I don’t deny the church has been wrong, many times. But what brought the church BACK from being wrong was a renewed commitment to studying, understanding, and responding to Scripture in faith. The problem with Rob’s approach is that unlike, say, Luther, he is not using Scripture to show people that they have drifted away from a Biblical faith. Instead, he’s using poor arguments, muddled language, and borderline emotional manipulation to cast a vision for the Way We Wish God Was.

Once, my wife and I talked some friends into visiting Michigan with us. On the way home, my friend was driving and I completely forgot to tell him where to turn… instead of heading from Cincinnati to Louisville, we ended up near Frankfort. When we realized our mistake, we were all frustrated (mostly with me, and rightly so). But it didn’t change that fact that though we WANTED to be home, had INVESTED in being home, had TRIED to get home, love the IDEA of being home… we weren’t home. Our desires and reality didn’t match up, and to get to the right place we had to let reality win. For me, the witness of Scripture is the reality of the world, and that has to win out over whatever I wish the world was.

Kiel Hauck: “If you can look at the scriptures concerning hell and be fully convinced that the way you understand hell is completely accurate, I admire you for your convictions.  I look and I see a very blurry picture at best.”

Ben,
I’m not talking about guesses and emotional gushings about what I think is right.  I do believe that God gave us emotions and feelings for a reason, and that they do in fact play into how we view God and understand him.  But let’s not forget this fact that hasn’t yet been stated: Rob Bell used this chapter to address every single use of the word “hell” in the Bible.  And there’s not that many.

To me, it absolutely, positively, has to be addressed that there’s no use of the word in the Hebrew scriptures and only 12 uses of it in the New Testament – mostly by Jesus.  And mostly directed towards the pharisees.  The idea of hell engulfs such a large portion of what so many people understand about God and the afterlife, yet it is mentioned so sparingly in the scriptures and in ways and contexts that don’t seem to match up with how we talk about it.  This goes far beyond guesses and feelings.  To me, it makes clear that the emphasis is NOT on hell and that our understanding of hell very well could be skewed at best, and it’s quite possibly worse than that.

I’m sure that we’ll continue to disagree on that point, but I want to make clear that this is a lot more than just how I feel about it.  Yes, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of hell.  But I also feel like I need more convincing than what we currently have at our disposal.  Perhaps I’m being shortsighted or blinded somehow from the truth of the matter and there’s way more to hell in the scriptures than how I’m currently understanding it.  I strive to know, truly know, the truth in this because I think it matters and I believe it to be important.  If you can look at the scriptures concerning hell and be fully convinced that the way you understand hell is completely accurate, I admire you for your convictions.  I look and I see a very blurry picture at best.  But most of all, I see a message of love and redemption that exists throughout the scriptures far more than a message of condemnation and torment.  But if I’m wrong, I desperately want to be made right.

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  • Alan Noble

    Great discussion, guys. Thanks for your frankness.

  • Matt

    Kiel wrote:

    “I suppose if his analysis of the Greek could be “proven incorrect” it would be a pretty big blow. But haven’t people been arguing over the meanings of this dead language for centuries? Isn’t this why we have so many different Bible translations? Aren’t they constantly discovering new meanings and usages of Greek words that we didn’t know and understand before?”

    While there is some debate over some controversial passages, there are not multiple translations because we aren’t convinced what the text says. Instead, there are multiple translations because of the difficulties of translating one language into another with very big differences in syntax and verb structure. Frankly, it can be difficult to translate Koine Greek verb tenses into English and retain all of their intended meaning.

    That being said, it is pretty clear what the text says throughout the vast majority of the New Testament scripture. The difficulty lies in translating this into accurate, yet readable English.

  • Ben Pitseleh

    I agree with Matt above. This is exactly what I was thinking when I read these sentences.

    To clarify, Koine Greek is pretty clear. Yes, there are some areas that can be debated but those really are few and far between. What it ends up being is that translation is a tricky concept, even if not talking about it being something holy and inspired.
    Would it be better to translate a word as precisely as possible or would it be better to translate the concept of the sentence as precisely as possible? Both actually. And this is only two facets of the thought process. Then how do you deal with the multiple manuscripts that have subtle changes? (and for those who have not studied textural criticism I am in no way saying the Bible we have today is flawed or not what the ancient ones had)
    Not to mention that Bible making is a pretty lucrative business. Don’t forget money as a motivator as well. Yet another reason to always have a new and “better” translation.

    I am curious though, since I haven’t read this book and honestly probably won’t ever, does Rob Bell address the various words and concepts of “Hell”? There are plenty of uses, Gehenna, Hades, the relation across a void from Abraham’s Bosom, the lake of fire. I am not even arguing a doctrine here, but there are clear reference differences and context differences. I would expect Rob Bell to differentiate them, but how does he do it?


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