I’ve never seen a response to a book, or a person, like the response to Rob Bell’s book. People seem either to hate it or love it. For this reason I am beginning these discussions of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, with a prayer. I am asking that you pause quietly and slow down enough to pray this prayer as the way to approach this entire series:
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:
Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift,
which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue,
without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.
Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.†
Today we will examine what Rob Bell says about hell. Chapter 3 in his book is surely one of the most controversial chapters and that means I will have to sketch what he says before I offer my own critique and raise some questions for conversation. Up to this point Bell’s book has been at best mildly controversial; from this point on his controversial points come to the surface.
What is your view of hell?
Bell makes five points about hell, organized by how the Bible talks about hell. First, the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) where we find the term Sheol [pit, underworld, etc]. “The Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined … a bit vague and ‘underworldly’” (67).
Second, Gehenna. He opts for the flippant hell = garbage dump, yes I believe in hell, I believe my garbage goes somewhere. Gehenna is the “town garbage pile.” [Rob's just wrong here and I'll get to that below. Also, rule #1 about hell: never be flippant.] Tartarus and Hades. Both are Greek words for the underworld, more or less Jewish substitutes for Sheol.
“And that’s it.”
At this point Rob explores “hell” as existential realities in the world today — missing arms and legs, raped, children of those who have committed suicide, cocaine addict, cruelty … all powerful horrible existential realities, none of which having anything to do with any text he’s seen in the Bible or what hell means in the Bible. He concludes that hell is this: “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it” (72). He emphasizes the rhetorical potency of hell language, and he says we need this language to express what happens to those who reject goodness and God’s life and it is good for those who propagate evil.
Third, Luke 16:19-31′s parable of the rich man and the poor beggar. I assume you know the parable. Rich man goes to Hades, the poor man to be with Abraham (=heaven in the traditional sense). Rich man wants mercy, and water to cool his tongue, “for I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham says to him, You had your chance. And, Abraham says: between us there “a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and one can can cross from there to us.” He begs Abraham to send message to his family. Abraham says they’ve got Moses and the prophets, they can listen to them; and he says even if someone was raised from the dead and spoke to them they would not be convinced. Bell sees the problem in the rich man’s wanting the poor man to remain his servant and get him water. And he says the “great chasm” is “the rich man’s heart… it hasn’t changed … he’s still clinging to the old hierarchy.” The parable is about equality. [More below.]
Bell then says there’s hell now and there’s hell later. We are to take both seriously.
Fourth, other passages in the Bible that don’t mention hell. Some of this language is about the war with Rome in 66-73AD; he’s right. Some of it is. And he says much of the rhetoric about hell is addressed to those who thought they were “in” and he’s right about that. He makes a statement that sounds more potent than it is: “Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die” (82). Yes, that’s right, but I can count on less than one hand how many Gentiles Jesus engaged in the pages of the Gospels. And the Gentiles who show up in the Gospels are good examples — like the centurion in Matthew 8 or the Gentiles of John 12. And John sure does in the Book of Revelation, and Paul’s rhetoric works that way in Romans 1.
Fifth, Rob enters in this chp into the judgment leads to restoration theme; consequences are for correction. I haven’t decided how to respond to this part yet and will do so in a later post. This is a major point in his book. In this context he brings up the Greek word kolazo (it should be kolasis since the noun is used in Matthew 25), and Rob says something that must be flagged as unfair. He says kolazo “refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish” (91), and the noun is combined with aionion (he uses aion) and says this is an “aion of kolazo” or a “period of pruning.” Again, check BDAG [infliction of chastisement, punishment, transcendent retribution, punishment; under kolazo, the verb, penalize, punish ... finishing with "Aristotle's limitation of the term... to disciplinary action ... is not reflected in gener. usage"]. My point: it is simply disingenuous to say without qualification that it means pruning, and it is unfair to readers not to say that most — if not almost all — instances refer to a kind of retributive punishment and chastisement — there is very little emphasis in this word’s usage that suggests punish to improve and much more punish full stop. Here’s the big point: this is about Life and Kolasis/Punishment in The Age to Come. The Age to Come is everlasting.
I have indicated a few problems with Rob Bell’s contentions about hell. I want to draw attention to two notable absences (the first two points below) in this chapter.
The first one is fatal for his argument because he said “And that’s it.” He does not discuss the Lake of Fire, and it appears to me that it cuts across his central arguments. Bell’s book is driven by a New Heavens and New Earth eschatology, and I agree with making sure our view of “heaven” leads to the New Heavens and New Earth. That theology derives from Revelation 20-21. There we find a bottomless pit into which the dragon — the Devil and Satan — is thrown for 1000 years as the saints reign with Christ in what many call the millennium, then Satan is released for a little while to do more deceiving and start a war and then fire comes from heaven and consumes them … and the devil was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur … with the beast and the false prophet … “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Then the judgment, death and hades are tossed into the lake of fire. And “anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (20:15; see 21:8 where a list of the sort of people is given). Here we find an endless fire — and the most one can argue here against the traditional view of eternal consciousness is to see it as a fire that extinguishes (annihilation) but there’s no indication of anyone coming back from that lake of fire. Then the New Creation in the The Age to Come. Then the heavenly Jerusalem … beautiful shalom and justice and love and worship of God endlessly, the glorification of the Lamb/Lion Christ.
How important is the Lake of Fire scene in Revelation 20 to our view of hell?
2. Rob rather innovatively makes hell a part of his inaugurated eschatology, which means this: hell begins to do its damage in the now as we turn from God. I find this suggestion attractive but he clearly emphasizes the present-ness of hell and doesn’t do much with the future hell. But I don’t want to press that one now. This present hell-ishness in life now is outside NT language for hell is always future and never present, but it means Rob could have considered Romans 1:18-32 as the way hell begins to do its judging and destructive work in the here and now. In other words, the wrath of God, which is a part of how the Bible describes God as Judge and which is part of the dreadful Day (e.g., Rev 19:15) is already at work in judgment in this world. But this leads to another problem.
What do you think of calling experiences now “hell”?
3. Rob distances God from hell. Hell is the consequences of our injustices and our refusal to walk in the ways of God. That is, hell is what happens to sinners for their sin. But in the Bible hell is what happens as a result of judgment by God. The texts he quotes about hell include such things as “the One who can destroy both body and soul in hell” and they mention being “thrown” into hell (and that evokes the act of God in Rev 20). His view of hell is too human-driven and not connected enough to the judging act of God.
Do you think Love Wins distances God from hell?
4. He misreads the Parable of Luke 16: Yes, this parable is about how the wealthy treat the poor. So the theme of “equality” emerges, but it’s less about equality and much more about how those with money treat those without it. They must use their funds for the good of others. But, this parable is also about the dreadful (the rich man is suffering and wants some water just to touch his tongue because he’s so hot) and irreversible consequences (the great chasm is uncrossable from both sides) for mistreatment of the poor. That “chasm” is not the rich man’s heart. The man’s sin is not that he clings to the old ways but that he didn’t respond when he had the chance — that’s the whole point about his wanting someone to tell his loved ones.
What do you think of his reading of the Parable in Luke 16?
5. Finally, and we’ve perhaps all made this mistake. Gehenna was not a dump outside Jerusalem. No matter how many times people say this — and it has become street truth — there is no evidence that there was a town dump outside Jerusalem in the first century. As Dale Allison puts it, “without ancient support.” That place, the Valley of Hinnom where there was an idolatrous high place called Topheth, was the notorious place of death and idolatry and fire and judgment, but it was not the town dump of Jerusalem. To use Gehenna for Jesus was to use a metaphor for divine judgment and destruction. See the OT uses in Jer 7:31-32; 19:2-9; 32:35; Isa 30:33. It is not only flippant but inaccurate to say Gehenna is the town dump — it is a metaphor for divine judgment.
For other posts, see Tony Jones, Greg Boyd.
Jeff Cook compares Rob Bell with C.S. Lewis.
Early Rob Bell reviews.