Rob Bell on Hell, Part 1

Darrell L. Bock's picture

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.

Comments

I have not read Rob Bell's book and I probably won't, but I have appreciated the spirit of generosity you are extending to him in the review of this book. I equally appreciate the you have not compromised the hard truth about Hell. Thank you for this review. I look forward to reading the coming installments.

I recently read Tim Challies review. He also handled the review in a similar manner.

As I read your review this passage came to mind. I wonder how Rob Bell responds to it. Or is this one of the passages he chooses to ignore. Maybe I will find out as you continue your review.

Thanks again, Ernie 

2 Thessalonians 1:5-18

1:5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy 7  of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 1:6 For it is right 8  for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 1:7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed 9  from heaven with his mighty angels. 10  1:8 With flaming fire he will mete out 11  punishment on those who do not know God 12  and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 1:9 They 13  will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, 14  1:10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired 15  on that day among all who have believed – and you did in fact believe our testimony. 16  1:11 And in this regard we pray for you always, that our God will make you worthy of his calling 17  and fulfill by his power your every desire for goodness and every work of faith, 1:12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to 18  the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Enjoyed reading this critique. It comes from a different angle than most others that I've read but is equally convincing, if not more so.

Dr. Bock,

I wonder why you were quick to make the note that he is not a universalist, but rather an inclusivist when you haven't finished reading the book? I just would have supposed that you would have waited. Bell does a lot of "double talk" and redefining of words which would lead me wait to see what he holds to (if you can even determine!) by the end of the book. To be very fair I haven't read the book but I have heard him explain his view and read others who have read his book.

When I've heard him speak and explain, he denies he is a universalist, but he uses a different definition of universalism than what is traditionally held to.

Also please explain what you mean that you are not angry that he has raised such questions? As a pastor, I am never angry when an unbeliever (seeker, whatever you want to call him) raises such questions. They are completely valid! But when a "Pastor" raises these questions for the purpose of giving faulty answers and thus leading many many astray, I cannot think that it is helpful or harmless for a supposed leader with influence to raise such questions. I am just curious what you meant.

 

Respectfully,

Michael

Darrell L. Bock's picture

Michael:

Yes, there is a lot of to and fro in Bell's book. I just want to be clear about terminology and charges against Bell as we proceed. To the extent he holds out for a place for some to be judged, then that is not universalism in the broadest sense. There is debate about whether there is a more narrow type of universalism, that just simply says there may be hope for the lost- we can't say for sure. I have called that inclusivism. I went ahead and noted this before finishing the book because that charge has flown around about the book and terminology is important in this discussion.

 

As for the remark about not being angry: Too many people have charged those critical of Bell to have shown too much anger (and in some cases that might be true). My point is simply that the ideas are being engaged, because the questions he is pursuing are ones many do ask (believer and unbeliever) . No need to be angry, just address the issue biblically. Sometimes the tone of the response can kill the value of the answer or its being appreciated.

I know the bible references hell many times. But I never saw a definition of hell in scripture.  I wouldn't torture unbelievers for all eternity, and I'm pretty sure God is a lot nicer than I am. The book of Ecclesiates says that the dead are concious of nothing.The bible talks about a second death from which there is no resurrection unto life. It says that the soul that sinneth shall die. It seems that most people believe that hell is eternal life instead of eternal death, albeit a life of eternity being lived while on fire. That doesn't sound like unconsciousness or death to me. What purpose would that serve? When things are thrown into a fire, they die. The second death is eternal death. That is the punishment, or, the eternal punishment. It is final, not ongoing.  Where in the bible does it say that hell is a place where people receive eternal life to be spent in excruciating pain, while on fire?  I don't think that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man does that. A parable is like fable. It is a made up story used to explain truth. The truth that this parable explains is that while there is life there is hope. Afterwards, it's too late. If hell was what we always assumed it was, the rich man would have been screaming and  asking for more than a drop of water on his tongue. I'm certainly no expert, or biblical scholar. I sure don't belive in universalism.  I just think of death as death, and not life.

Darrell L. Bock's picture

If I may be brief. I think the point here is that the separation from God is permanent. That lasts forever. That is a clear, eternal punishment when one knows there is a God as all will one day. Fire is a figure, but the punishment abides.

 

I wrote this because of several responses to your post.

Is there a definition of hell in the bible? The fact is that, every time hell, eternal punishment, or other such words are used a piece of the definition is being forged. So in order for you to get the whole picture you would have to do more than pick just certain verses and come to a conclusion. For instance, in one place we read about the dead not being conscious and in another place Jesus talks about the place where "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the worm does not die."

How are these seemingly opposing statements to be reconciled? Here are a few idea:

Dead people do not gnash with there teeth! I am not sure exactly what "the worm" is but isn't it interesting that it does not die, in a place reserved for judgment?

Another place, in 2 Thessalonians talks about "suffering the punishment of eternal destruction". Eternal destruction? Destruction that never ends? And all this is going to take place "away from the presence of the Lord". The word fire may just be a symbol, a metaphor. I would ask what is it a metaphor of?

The bible speaks of those who will "die" and go to heaven eternally. Are they really alive? And the splendors of heaven, do you think that the description in that bible (God's Holy Word) even comes close to the full glory of it? If that is true of Heaven then it is equally true of Hell. The bottom line is the full reality of both Heaven and Hell is far more than our finite minds and limited words can express. How much more glorious Heaven will be! By the same token, how much more terrifying Hell will be!

Another thought, concerning fire, whether literal or not God knows, however isn't it interesting that Moses saw a burning bush whose leaves and branches were not consumed?

Add all these verses with the ones that mention that the dead are not conscious and they will take on a different meaning. How can we reconcile that the dead are not conscious in light of the above verses? I believe that the dead are not conscious of the pleasures of the life of the living, of the joys of being in the presence of the Lord. But they do understand the presence of the Lord, not for joy, but for terror.

If anyone thinks this makes God sound harsh and unloving, consider this - "there is none righteous, no not one" Do you think you are better than say, Adolph Hitler? Why? What did you do that wooed the attention of God? The fact is that if God the Holy Spirit had not been at work in you, you would end up in the same place as Hitler. But thanks be to God that He did not leave us in our sin, that is, if Jesus is your Lord and Savior.

This is hardly exhaustive and far too simple, but my hope is that it will stir up our God given minds. 

FIRST I am NOT a JW! ~~~Jesus IS eternal God!

HoweverJWs seem to have this one thing right (although I have not studied their doctrine fully).  The fact is that there is no "hell" in the traditional sense.  But Bell is still a heretic for suggesting that there is no eternal damnation.  There IS eternal damnation  but it is annihilation not eternal punishment.  All through the old testament the same word the translators chose to say "hell" is in just as many instances translated "grave" which is the correct word.  The verses that speak of torturous punishment typically refer to what is coming May 21!  Up to 5 months of it for those that choose to balk at the warning!  I think all of the horrible things that happen to people in this world can be attributed to man's rebellion but they are just tiny glimpses at what is to come!  It should not be amazing at all that God is providing (mercifully in a way) more glimpses than are typical in these last months.  God is far too merciful to torture people endlessly!  Too many passages from God's Holy Word make it an impossible doctrine to defend actually, for instance the fact that it says when the unsaved die ALL thoughts cease and that the exact thing that becomes dying animals becomes dying unsaved people.  The bottom line is that right now we better heed the warning for May 21!  BEG God for mercy!  Read the Bible and do not stop doing either!  Who knows if God might turn from His wrath for an individual that does this!  After all He says He condemns the proud but has grace for the humble!

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