Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
Is that how we should think of Hell? A place of conscious eternal torment. Is that really the response of a God of love to those who do not worship him in this life? Is that what Jesus taught? Bell is not so sure.
I have a hard time believing in hell not least because most of my family and friends don’t follow Jesus. There is a part of me that so much wants Bell to be right on Hell.
What does the Bible mean by hell?
Bell argues, perhaps rightly, that the Old Testament picture of what happens after death isn’t very clear. ‘Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a but vague and ‘unworldly’.
In the New Testament the word ‘hell’ is used almost exclusively by Jesus. He takes the word Gehenna which was literally the city dump outside of Jerusalem. The place where rubbish was thrown and a fire continuously burned. The other word used occasionally in the New Testament being ‘Hades’ the greek equivalent of ‘Sheol’ which we find for example in Revelation 1,6, and 20. But actually there isn’t much in the Bible.
‘And that’s it’ says Bell.
So is the concept of hell outdated?
Bell says a resounding ‘No’. At least in that sense Bell is clearly not a universalist.
‘Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.’
There is too much evil in the world. Think Rwanda. Think rape and murder.
‘I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.’
So Jesus teaches ‘hell’ and Rob Bell believes in ‘hell’. What then are the big theological ideas in Bell’s understanding of Hell.
The two big ideas in Bell’s Hell.
1. Hell is what we do to ourselves
Hell is less the place that God in his judgement consigns those who reject him and more a place that we send ourselves. It is a self-imposed exile from God and all that is good.
‘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.’
Hell in Bell’s language is ‘a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity.’
So far is Bell ready to take this idea that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16 that when Abraham says ‘between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, not can anyone cross over from there to you’ Bell argues ‘the chasm is the rich man’s heart!’
So hell is what I do to myself. It is a subjective experience rather than an objective place of punishment. It is where I experience the torment of my own sin and that means it looks different for all sorts of people.
‘There are all kinds of hells’ says Bell.
‘There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’
‘There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously’
2. Hell might not be forever
Secondly Bell wants to show that there is still hope for people in hell.
Failure we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.
So he takes us through a most unlikely interpretation of Jesus teaching on Sodom and Gomorrah along with some selected words from the prophets of Israel that promise an end to the judgemtn on hte nation and concludes
‘I list them to simply show how dominant a theme restoration is in the Hebrew Sciptures’.
So what should we conclude about Bell’s hell?
One of the things that make this book a difficult one to weigh up is that Bell is very selective in his use of the Bible. To assess Bell’s book we need to spend as much time considering what he leaves out as we do what he puts it. The sin of omission is as important as the sin of commission.
When a doctrine of hell is formulated without any mention of crucial bible texts that speak directly on the subject we have to be concerned and that is what we find here.
God has given us the whole Bible for a reason, that we might know his mind. We need all of scripture to know God’s will.
A number of years ago Jim Packer said in words that seem so apt to describe our concerns about Bell’s book ‘part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.’
And that is what we find with Bell on hell.
So where in Bell’s chapter do we find , for example, the book of Romans?
Where in his book is there mention of Romans 2:5-11?
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.
Where in the book does he mention 2 Thess 1:8-9?
8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.
Where does he deal with the most sobering text on hell in the New Testament, Revelation 14:9-12
9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
These texts are conspicuous by their absence and yet they change everything.
Hell is a place of punishment. It is the final expression of the holy and righteous anger of God against all godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1:18).
Hell is forever. Not because I like that fact but because the texts that Bell omits teach that fact.
Hell is the place of conscious eternal torment. There is no rest day or night. (Rev. 14:10-11).
In this chapter Bell sets the tone for the remained of the book and builds the platform on which his hopeful-universalism will be built.
Bell wants us to think of hell as where I put myself rather than where God sends me. He wants me to think that if I change (repent) in hell then because it is a self-imposed exile there may be a way back. If the chasm that separates heaven and hell is not the one fixed by God (objective) for all eternity but exists in my heart (subjective) then hell can reform me and maybe all will be free.
The problem for us all is that Bell’s view of hell falls so far short of what the Bible teaches.
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