The evangelical blog world seems all atwitter over a forthcoming book by Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. The book’s title, “Love Wins,” is apparently regarded by many American evangelicals as an astonishingly heretical and controversial claim. Love wins? How dare anyone suggest such a thing?
Even more controversial is the book’s subtitle: “Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived.” Bear in mind that the book hasn’t hit shelves yet, so nobody’s actually read it yet, but that subtitle and this promotional video from Bell were more than enough to prompt Team Hell to spring into action.
I’ll say this for Team Hell, they’re not afraid of repeating themselves.
Maybe they’re not very good at supporting their arguments and not very interested in doing much more than sputtering reflexive condemnations, but they sputter with great enthusiasm and they’re never shy about getting loud. For a taste of the loudness and the repetitive sputtering, browse about in the Google Blog search results for “Rob Bell,” or check out the summary from Christianity Today’s liveblog: “Rob Bell’s Upcoming Book on Heaven & Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism.”
We’ve seen Team Hell in action before, illustrating their power by bankrupting the ministry of Carlton Pearson and his Higher Dimensions Family Church of Tulsa, Okla.
Once Pearson questioned the idea of Hell and the supposed biblical basis for that idea, Team Hell’s response was swift, fierce and merciless. “Heretic,” they said. “Bible-denier.”
But what they never said then in their attacks on Pearson, and what they haven’t said now about Bell’s book, is why anyone, anywhere who has ever actually read the Bible would accept that their fiercely defended doctrine of Hell had anything to do with that book. Because, to be clear, this doctrine of Hell is not biblical.
This is why Team Hell’s strategy is always the same:
Step1: Loudly attack opponents of Hell as heretics and Bible-deniers.
Step 2: Loudly assert that the doctrine of Hell is biblical.
Step 3: Even more loudly re-assert that the doctrine of Hell is biblical.
Step 4: Repeat Step 3 until you’re the only one left talking.
That’s not a very compelling construction for an argument, since it doesn’t involve logic or evidence. But if loud, angry repetition of unsupported assertions isn’t an effective way of winning an argument, it can still be an effective way of ending one or avoiding having to engage one. And since Team Hell doesn’t have access to either logic or evidence as support for their position, they figure that will have to do.
By Team Hell I mean those real, true Christians who adamantly argue for a non-negotiable belief in Hell as a physical place that the Bible says is the destiny of all non-RTCs who will go there to receive eternal torment. This belief, they insist, is central to Christianity and anyone who says otherwise, they claim, is abandoning or attacking the Bible.
But again, this idea cannot be found in the Bible. So what the heck is going on? Why do so many devout “authorities” on the Bible get so very upset at the possibility that someone may have written a book challenging an extra-biblical invention? And why do they all shout so loudly and so enthusiastically that any criticism of this cruel invention constitutes an attack on the Bible itself?
Team Hell, of course, disagrees that the idea cannot be found in the Bible. Check out that CT post or any of the posts linked to it and you’ll find dozens of members of Team Hell loudly insisting that the Bible is all about Hell — that Hell is such a basic and central part of the Bible’s message that to reject the idea of Hell is to reject scripture altogether.
But what you won’t find is any of these members of Team Hell actually discussing where the Bible says this, or what the Bible says, or how what the Bible says could possibly be taken to mean this. Because this supposed “biblical Hell” does not exist. The Bible doesn’t teach this.
Dante teaches this. Jack Chick teaches this. Iron Maiden and countless B movies teach this. But the Bible does not. The doctrine of Hell can be, with only partial success, taken from Dante and Chick and Iron Maiden and grafted onto the Bible. But it cannot be derived from the Bible.
I would invite anyone who says otherwise to try to make their case. All these teachers, authorities, theologians and self-appointed bishops of evangelicalism’s market-driven hierarchy are invited, in other words, to go to Hell.
By that I mean, of course, only that they should open their Bibles and go to the passages they claim teach this invention of Hell and attempt to show how those passages support their endlessly repeated assertion that this idea is “biblical.”
Most of Team Hell doesn’t even bother to try doing this. They’re too busy attacking the infidels — Rob Bell or Carlton Pearson or me — and accusing them of abandoning the Bible. That would be the same Bible I have open right here in front of me — the same Bible that absolutely and unambiguously does not say and cannot be made to say what they are saying it says.
The Bible simply is not part of Team Hell.
The Hebrew scriptures offer no support for Team Hell. None. The pages of the Old Testament mention “sheol,” or “the grave,” but not Hell. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and Amos are not a part of Team Hell.
Nor is the apostle Paul. Paul had much to say about “Heaven,” or at least about the heavenly meaning of resurrection, but nothing at all to say about Hell.
Team Hell loves to quote Paul despite this. They’re particularly fond of Paul’s frequent statements about accepting “this gospel” and no other gospel. Team Hell loves to apply such statements to Rob Bell or to anyone else they think might be deviating from their extrabiblical dogma. “There be some that trouble you and would pervert the gospel of Christ,” Team Hell says, as though this verse from Galatians were speaking of anyone who believes that Love Wins. And they warn that if anyone “preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”
But the thing is that this gospel Paul spoke of to the Galatians, the Corinthians and Thessalonians — the gospel that Paul laid out in an extended argument in his letter to the Romans — that gospel makes no mention of Hell. The gospel as Paul preached it, as he described it in his epistles, does not include the doctrine of Hell.
If you want to add Hell to Paul’s gospel, then you’re preaching a gospel other than that which he preached. Paul is no help for Team Hell. Paul is, in fact, a major obstacle and contradiction to the claims of Team Hell.
The case for Team Hell, ultimately, comes down to three passages.These aren’t the only passages that mention Hell, but the others that do so do only that — mention it without any explanation of what the Hell they are mentioning means. The question of what “Hell” means in all those other passages is answered, for Team Hell, in just those three main passages — two from the Gospels and one from John’s apocalypse. They provide the entire foundation on which Team Hell has constructed the gigantic edifice of its doctrine.
And they are not sufficient to bear its weight.
We’ve gone over these three passages before, but let us do again here what Team Hell almost never does and actually read the three passages on which every claim of a “biblical” Hell depends.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
That’s the whole ball of wax — the whole ball of fire and brimstone — right there. That’s the “biblical” case that Team Hell is always on about.
Did you notice anything else those three passages have in common? They all explicitly lay out a soteriological framework that directly contradicts what nearly every member of Team Hell claims he believes.
In our earlier discussion of these passages, we looked at why these passages’ references to a “lake of fire” or “eternal fire” or torment in “Hades” cannot easily be read as teaching that this is the proper understanding of the cartography and logistics of the afterlife. That’s not what these passages are about. The author in each case is utterly disinterested in the cartography and logistics of the afterlife and each author is so consumed with the primary focus and meaning of what is really being said here that it’s hard not to imagine them being extremely angry to learn that their words would one day be conscripted by people mainly interested in arguing for the “literal” existence of Dante’s Inferno.
But the really strange thing about Team Hell invoking any of these passages is that none of them supports anything like what Team Hell has to say about who belongs in Hell or why they should wind up there.
What one finds in all three of these passages, instead, is a seeming Pelagianism. All that matters in any of these scriptures is deeds and actions. Not a word anywhere here about grace or faith or the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Deeds and actions and those alone are what determines the eternal fate of everyone in each of these passages. They couldn’t be any clearer on that point — the main point of each passage above. What determines if someone is to be cast into Revelation’s “lake of fire”? The dead will be judged, Revelation says, “… according to their works, as recorded in the books. … according to what they had done.” Who are the accursed “goats” on Jesus’ left hand who will be consigned to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? Those who did not feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked or comfort the lonely. And why was the rich man in Luke’s gospel sent to Hades? Jesus never quite says, but he seems to suggest that the rich man went to Hades because he was rich just as the poor beggar Lazarus goes to Heaven just because he was a poor beggar.
Insurmountably awkward, I think, for those members of Team Hell who want to insist that these passages must be interpreted “literally” in support of a sadistic notion of eternity. Because if we read these passages in the “literal” manner that would allow us to regard them as teaching the existence of Dante’s Hell then we must also “literally” accept what they say about who that Hell is for. (And it clearly isn’t for Gandhi.)
Now as it happens I don’t think these passages are about soteriology any more than they are about charting out the details of Heaven or Hell. I think anyone turning to these passages for such things is reading them wrong — that a “literal” reading that turns out to be about something other than what the passage is actually about isn’t really “literal” and isn’t really “reading.” Reading shouldn’t be about missing the point.
The point of these passages, clearly, is ethical instruction and I don’t think they can really be made to accommodate any other reading. Luke 16:19-31 is not about Hell and it’s not about how to avoid being sent to Hell. It’s about how you and I ought to respond to the beggars at our gates. Matthew 25:41-46 is not about Hell and it’s not about how to avoid being sent to Hell. It’s about how you and I ought to respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned. Emphasize anything else and you’ve missed the point. You might as well not have read them at all.
The strongest case for Team Hell, in other words, involves a perverse reading of passages that excludes the very reason those passages were written. And that’s the strongest case.
Underlying this pretense about the supposed “biblical” basis for altering Paul’s gospel to include eternal torment in Hell is something even stranger. The odder, larger question is why the members of Team Hell so very much want this imagined eternal torment to be true. It can’t simply be that they believe this because “the Bible tells me so,” because, as we have just seen, the biblical case for this belief is terribly, terribly thin. So, again, what’s really going on here? And why?
It’s tempting to speculate that this belief has less to do with a desire to uphold biblical truth than it does with a desire for control. The doctrine of Hell, after all, may be biblically indefensible, but it’s a terribly useful thing for keeping one’s followers in line. But such speculation would of course be irresponsible. I can’t know the contents of anyone else’s thoughts any more than they can know the contents of Rob Bell’s book before they’ve read it.
Just because I can’t think of a decent or commendable reason someone would plausibly get angry over the thought of love winning doesn’t mean that their motives are necessarily bad.