Rob Bell, Love Wins 7: hell

Posted on March 28, 2011


Chapter 3 of Bell’s book turns to hell. I have read this chapter several times, and I confess that I am struggling to see how it fits together. I think Bell is aiming at two, widely separated, targets, and so is in danger of missing both. On the one hand, he wants to take on (what he regards as) a traditional doctrine of hell by suggesting that it is not there in the Scriptures; on the other hand he wants to construct an apologetic aimed at those who have already dismissed any account of hell as unpleasantly medieval. The problem is, those who are wedded to their traditionalism might have gone with him on the Biblical exploration, but will find his apologetic to be far too tentative and allusive, whereas those who are in need of hearing the apologetic are unlikely to be excited by wading through an extended Bible study on images of hell in the Scriptures before they get to anything they regard as interesting or relevant.

(It may be that the logic runs something like this: ‘you’ve rejected an account of hell that is all about fiery caves inhabited by men in red tights shoving pitchforks into our behinds; that’s OK – I can show you that that was never there in the Bible anyway. Now, let’s think about our experience and see if we can come up with a doctrine of hell that makes some sort of sense…’ If so, there needed to be more signposting of this logic, for this reader at least.)

Bell starts with Biblical references to hell. Nothing in the OT except Sheol, the shadowy realm of the dead. OK, we knew that. In the NT we have ‘Gehenna,’ identified with the Valley of Hinnom, which Bell identifies with the Jerusalem garbage dump. That’s true, but rather incomplete, as I assume Bell knows. Intertestamental Jewish apocalyptic, picking up the hint from Jer. 7:32 & 19:6, began to use Gehenna as a name for the final fiery judgement that would come. 1 Enoch (Ethiopian Enoch) is full of it; it’s there in 2 Esdras, the Syrian Apocalypse of Baruch – and even in the Christian interpolations to the Sibylline oracles (see 1:127-9). The rabbis of Jesus’ day probably saw Gehenna (and Hades, which was taken to be a synonym) as a place of fiery purgation where evil souls resided until the final judgement (this idea was certainly common by the second century AD. (There may be a hint of this in Rev. 20, where ‘Hades’ is thrown into the lake of fire.)

So to read ‘Gehenna’ in the NT as nothing more than a reference to the town rubbish dump is either to be remarkably ill-informed, or to be rather disingenuous. Bell moves on to ‘Hades,’ which he equates with Sheol, a shadowy post-mortem existence. This was certainly the classical Greek usage, and in the LXX αδης is used to translate ‘Sheol’. Again, however, to read the NT usage in the light of only this evidence is to ignore the extensive testimony to the development of ideas in the intertestamental period, where Hades became first the place – the shared place – of reward and punishment after death (so 1 Enoch and 2 Maccabees; Josephus claims that this is the position of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day – Ant. 18:14), and then the place of punishment alone, with reward delivered in heaven (this position is obvious in the Psalms of Solomon, for instance). This development probably makes less difference to understanding the NT usage of ‘Hades,’ but it probably deserves a mention…

Having surveyed Gehenna and Hades, Bell claims ‘And that’s it. Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word “hell” in the Bible they got from those verses you just read.’ (69). Well, maybe. There’s a lake of fire kicking around the back end of the book of Revelation which might have some relevance, and some other bits and pieces. Pictures of hell in popular Christian imagination do tend to be rather mythological, and even comical, owing far more to literally interpreted half-memories of Dante’s brilliant symbolism than anything Biblical, and if Bell is attempting a deconstruction of such pictures, I’m with him in intention. For personal preference, I’d rather do it without selectively ignoring the evidence, however; honest arguments just work better in my experience.

The next section of the chapter is another quite brilliant piece of apologetic. How do you sell the idea of hell to (post)modern Western liberals? You tell them about seeing the after-effects of genocide in Rwanda (pp. 70-1); you talk about other stories of ‘what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane’ (71); after stories of casual brutality, of the pain of betrayal, of the sexual abuse of children, you say this:

Some words are strong for a reason. We need those words to be that intense, loaded,     complex, and offensive, because they need to reflect the realities they describe.

Some agony needs agonizing language.
Some destruction does make you think of fire.
Some betrayal actually feels like you’ve been burned.
Some injustices do cause things to heat up. (72-3)

Thus far, of course, Bell is only talking about ‘hell on earth,’ but in the face of a casual and facile liberal optimism, he is recapturing the use of strong language to describe the effects of horrendous evil. That is already a serious apologetic gain.

To take it forward he turns to a lengthy reading of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. As is appropriate in a popular book, Bell conceals his exegetical decisions. I’d love to know why he rejected the proposed Egyptian background, and Jewish parallels, to this parable (although I think that I’m with him in the rejection…). His reading of the parable stretches over five pages, and emphasises the narrative constructs at play. It is insightful and helpful; his particular point, echoing a theme we’ve already heard elsewhere in the book, is that the parable links a concern for social justice with eschatological destiny. The lesson?

Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less     concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with     the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.

There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. (78-9)

In this curiously disjointed chapter, Bell then moves to consider Biblical texts that speak about judgement. He makes a couple of initial points, the first a (silent) echo of Andrew Perriman’s argument about ‘the coming wrath’ being about the destruction of Jerusalem, the second pointing out that the warnings about hell are given to religious people who are being challenged about their behaviour, not their faith. Both points are fair enough at some level, but they don’t really seem to take the argument anywhere. He turns to specific texts: what of Sodom and Gomorrah, icons of divine judgement? Well, God through Ezekiel promises to ‘restore the fortunes’ of Sodom (Ez. 16:53-58), on the basis that Jerusalem is promised return from exile, and her sins are far worse than Sodom’s were. Bell links this with Jesus prophesying over Capernaum that ‘it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for you’. He comments ‘There’s still hope [for Sodom]?’ Finding any hope of restoration in Jesus’ words seems rather forced to me, but the Ezekiel passage is fair enough, and is in fact all about Bell’s next illustration, Israel’s return from exile. He is trying to argue for a general biblical theme of judgement leading to restoration, and to apply this to the reality of eschatological judgement also, citing the parable of the sheep and the goats and doing some fancy footwork around Greek words for ‘eternity’. This point leads helpfully into the next chapter.

What then to say? Bell speaks hipster wonderfully well. He makes a convincing apologetic case for hell as that which happens when people turn their back on God and God’s ways, in this life and in the next. Thus far, I’m with him. And certainly there is a Biblical theme of judgement leading to restoration, but there is also a Biblical theme of eschatological closure, or so it seems to me.

Now it may be that Bell doesn’t disagree with this (although I would have the point when the Son of Man returns and all his holy angels with him to separate the sheep from the goats as the furthest reach of my possible positions for final closure) – he doesn’t say one way or the other in this chapter. Hell is real in this age and in the age to come; but at least some of these hells are not the final word in a human life. We need to read further before we can come to definitive judgement.

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