Rob Bell on Hell, Part 1
I am now in Sweden for the day. I get to read as we are in the car on my Kindle. Technology is really something.
The chapter today is Rob Bell's initial take on Hell. He works through terminology mostly on Gehenna, Hades, and Sheol. There are numerous points he wishes to make. Key is again the experience of rejection and the intensity of that experience, as well as claims tied to restoration, including hope for places like Sodom. Again as well the pattern is he is good in many things he notes and says, but what is poor is what is ignored.
He does recognize there is an evil worth judging and having hell for. This place and punishment is for serious sin. So technically he is not a universalist. That charge is not fair to his work. Not everyone makes it. But he is an inclusivist. This means hope exists for many people who do not consciously embrace Christ, even if that is not everyone, since some commit serious and disqualifying sin or consciously refuse Christ.
When it comes to what Bell ignores, let's take Gehenna as an example. Bell notes it was the garbage dump. So Hell is like a garbage dump. So far so good. However what he ignores is important as well. It is a place where things are burned up. That was part of the point of the image, There is rejection here. Not just being tossed out, as he points out, but actually being left with no usefulness, no role or place with God.
Luke 16 also is another example of ignoring context within the narrative Bell likes to work with and missing a key point in the process. He discusses the ethics of Luke 16 with the Rich Man and Lazarus. Yes, a key point here is the ethics of not caring about Lazarus that the rich man displayed as well as wanting Lazarus to serve him. But he goes on to argue that key point of the parable is that the Rich Man's heart was wrong and that the chasm is only about his heart condition. This completely ignores the "chasm" image as a point not about only the heart but also about the resultant fate of the Rich Man. The Rich Man cannot go back from the dead and reverse what has happened to him! He cannot escape the isolation and rejection he is experiencing. Lazarus is unable to come to him. Even as the Rich Man regrets his failure (please note in light of the rest of the book), there is no new way for him. His fate is sealed. So this parable teaches precisely what Bell wishes to challenge. It is ironic that a key text he wishes to argues opens the door actually shuts it with the remark of an uncrossable chasm that comes with judgment. The "chasm" is not only about the heart, but what its failure results in, being placed in a location that one cannot come out of and where the blessed cannot reach down to touch those whom experience the judgment.
What about restoration? Yes, there are many Scriptures that promise restoration to the previously rejected such as Sodom and Egypt. Bell notes these. However, he never asks what brings this restoration. Not merely Jesus and his work performing in the background unseen or not appreciated like a computer program. Rather the call is to embrace his work with a conscious choice.
Bell's chapter struggles in part because it stays with words and does not work with concepts. So there is no mention of Luke 13, where Jesus warns that without repentance, the only option is to perish (as those asked about in vv 1-5 did). Luke 12 speaks about fearing the one who can toss someone into Hell. Here Jesus refers to God. These remarks are not only made to those who commit severe sin, but as Bell correctly noted to those of covenant promise who thought they were in. Now Bell uses this point about the audience to argue that if Jesus warns those who see themselves as "in" and religious, he is not addressing those outside. But consider what this ignores. (Remember the issue with this book is what it leaves unaddressed). If those close to God cannot get in, if those closest and on the "inside" do not get in, then maybe the issue is that no one gets in on their own. Maybe that is precisely why they need what Jesus can or does provide-- and why they need to ask for it. In other words, if the religious and covenant related cannot get in then who can and on what basis? This is why the call to repent extends to all, not just outsiders. This is why the New Testament as a whole looks for a conscious embrace of the message.
Bell also argues Jesus does not use hell to compel one to consider God, but what are we to make of Jesus' warning in Luke 12:1-12, especially in the early verses?
This chapter, as the previous one on Heaven, is selective in what it discusses. Often what is raised is correct, but the implications drawn from it struggle to match what undiscussed elements actually show. This is why this survey is important. I am trying to argue that using the very method Bell does, concentrating on the gospels, Jesus, and narrative does not result in where Bell wishes to take us, at least in the chapters on Heaven and Hell. I am not appealing to "theology" here that Bell seems to shy away from. Nor am I angry he has raised such questions in making his reading. Rather, I am arguing using the very kinds of texts and types of reading he wishes us to engage in need to be pursued with more comprehensiveness and care, being sure the key bases are really covered. So far, His reading does not take us where he thinks it does. Why? It is because key elements of the readings on these topics are not addressed or noted. Even a defense like that McLaren raises, that these texts are hard and can be read in a variety of ways will not work when certain parts of the topic are ignored or are underdeveloped.
I am not sure when I will resume this review with the next chapter. But as soon as I read it I will blog about it.