Much hell has broken loose in the blogosphere about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. I’ve read parts of it and I’m not impressed. So instead of a response (which Joel Willitts has ably done) I’ll offer my own ruminations on the topic of hell from an evangelical point of view:
Reflecting on “hell” is not a very nice thought for your morning devotionals. However, hell, the place of God’s eternal judgment, will be the final fate for the wicked and the unbelieving. But what is the actual nature of hell, what is its essence, and what at its most basic level so bad about hell? The biblical witness suggests that “hell” is both reality and metaphor. The visibly confronting images for hell in the New Testament are imaginative descriptions of the full brunt of divine justice. Hell is not literally a place of fire, sulfur, and brimstone. If it was, how could Jesus say also that people will be thrown into the outer darkness? You can’t have roaring fires and total blackness at the same time. If hell is not literally a fiery abyss, then how do we conceive of it?
Christopher Marlowe wrote in his Doctor Faustus: “When all the world dissolves, And every creature shall be purified, All places shall be hell that are not heaven.” Is that what hell is, simply the absence of heaven? It sounds a bit vague if you ask me. That’s almost like saying that boredom is defined by the absence of Euro Disney. Now one could say that hell is the absence of God, or at least the absence of his goodness. It could also be said that hell consists in an acute awareness of the failure to attain the bliss and happiness that was offered humanity through Jesus Christ. Those are true I think, but probably not the essence of hell. Hell is a punishment as all impositions of justice are in some way penalties. Do not be confused by the word “punishment”. I do not mean that hell is something like God’s own little Siberian Gulag or Guantanamo Bay located in the basement of the new heavens where criminals are tortured for the amusement of their captors who look down at them through glass flooring. Hell is more like a heavenly Hague where the inhumanity of humanity is laid before a tribunal and fitting recompense are carried out towards those who sinned against an infinitely Holy God and who sinned against other human beings who bear God’s image. Hell is about justice not torture. Perhaps we could say that hell will be that dimension of the future reality that quarantines evil much like the last traces of small pox being locked in a secured laboratory so it can never escape. I suspect that those in hell will mourn their bitter state, but they will still rage against the one that put him there. What is more, some might prefer in the end to languish in hell than to serve in heaven, for in hell they still may be able to savor and enjoy their defiance against God.
Hell is the place for creatures that have rejected God’s revelation of himself in nature and gospel, who refuse to bow the knee to the one true Lord, and would rather live in darkness than in the light that exposes them. I surmise, following Tom Wright, that such persons have entered into a post-human state, they became what they worship – greed, lust, power – and they cease to reflect the divine image in any meaningful sense. They arrive at a state beyond hope and beyond pity (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 182-3). Hell, then, is the eternal and punitive quarantining of a humanity that has ceased to be human.