Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 3 of 6)

Chapter 3—Hell
You begin the chapter portraying the promise of hell for unbelievers in a very poor light. Your statement, “God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy—unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever. That’s the Christian story, right?” (64) caused me to wonder: Should God punish sin at all? Do you think God should punish?

Your sketch of the OT presentation of Sheol as the place of the dead was basically straightforward. You portrayed the vagueness of the OT discussion of the afterlife quite well. With regard to the word death, you state that “the Hebrews often used the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ in a different sense than we do. We’re used to people speaking of life and death as fixed states or destinations, as in you’re either alive or you’re dead” (66). I note the word “often,” so you would acknowledge that the OT writers can speak with the same categories we do? Your illustration with Moses in Deut. 30 may in fact be an exception, but I take your point. Ultimately, death is portrayed as separation/alienation from God, which is what happens when people die also. One massively important text I would have been interested in reading your take on was Dan. 12:2.

Now, I think your discussion of hell as Gehenna in the NT is missing some important pieces of information about the first century Jewish thinking about Gehenna. Jews of Jesus’ day would not have simply viewed this as the local trash dump. Rather, Jer. 7:32 and 19:6-7 seem to suggest that this valley would be the location of the final judgment. This is where God would take final vengeance on his enemies. Moreover, child sacrifices used to be offered in this location, so the Jews of Jesus’ day had theological ideas meshed into this valley where trash was indeed dumped. To characterize Gehenna as simply the local dump is to whitewash the genuine seriousness with which Jesus utilized this imagery in his teaching and preaching.

You turn then to a story of your visit to Rwanda where you saw children missing arms and legs that had been cut off with machetes. You then write, “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs” (71). Am I to infer that you’re claiming that hell is the experience of these children/families in Rwanda? You add later, “I tell these stories because it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected. From the most subtle rolling of the eyes to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please” (72). But do you believe that all people reject love, grace, and humanity from birth by nature? This would be one aspect of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith” that understands we are free to do as we please and that we always, by nature, choose to reject love, grace, and humanity, until and unless God transforms us.

Your statement, “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” (72) brought Ezekiel 16 to mind, among other passages where God himself uses offensive language. It also brought to mind the intensity of many of the critiques of your book. If readers conclude that your book is dangerous, would you not expect them to use intense language to critique and challenge your book in order to protect their flocks?

Your next statement, however, caused me to shrink back a bit. You write, “And that’s what we find in Jesus’s teaching about hell—a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone” (73). What God-given goodness and humanity? Has the image of God not been fractured since the fall of Adam and Eve?

Reflecting on Jesus’ command to gouge out one’s eye to prevent being thrown into hell, you comment, “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” (73). You seem to be couching this in consequential language, as though a person going to hell is merely a result of his sins. What about the language of “being thrown into hell”? This probably would have been understood by his hearers as a reference to God as the one who does the throwing. He doesn’t seem to envision people stumbling into Gehenna or finding themselves in Gehenna or Gehenna as a simplistic result of their actions. The language of being “condemned” to Gehenna is also used—with the understanding of God as the one who condemns.

Next, you take a look at Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus from Lk. 16. You say that the gospel Jesus preaches in Luke indicates that “everybody is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favoritism” (75-6). Can you actually show that from Luke? Next, you indicate that the religious leaders were listening to this story. Where do you get that from? They may have been, since they are mentioned in Lk. 16:14, but I’m not sure the point of the story was for them to be sure they didn’t ignore “the Lazaruses outside their gates.” It seems to me ultimately to warn them of the danger of ignoring Moses and the Prophets.

You also speak of the gospel being about “a death that leads to life. It’s a pattern, a truth, a reality that comes from losing your life and then finding it” (76). Isn’t the gospel about a particular death (Jesus’) that leads to a particular life (Jesus’ resurrection, which those who are united to him by faith my share), rather than an abstract pattern? From this, you point back to the rich man in Hades in Jesus’ story, and state “He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life” (77). Are you implying that he has a chance in Hades to die the right kind of death? Is there an expectation that this is possible from Jesus’ story? You go on to reiterate a point you made earlier with these terms: “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” (78-9). I think this generalization is ultimately unhelpful and denies/ignores much of what God is doing in the world through Christians who maintain a serious concern that people not go to hell when they die, while also doing much to alleviate their temporal suffering in this life. In fact, Jesus’ story about Lazarus in the rich man seems to teach that these concerns should be combined. Moses and the Prophets would have changed the rich man so that he would have treated Lazarus differently and avoided a torment-filled afterlife, if he would have listened, that is, responded rightly. Thus, if the Pharisees were listening, they may actually be intended to connect with the rich man’s brothers in order to get the force of Jesus’ warning. Thus, perhaps, you write, “There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” Should we consider which is worse?

Later, you indicate that Jesus warns of the coming wrath in order to challenge the people “to not go the way they’re intent on going,” which will ultimately draw the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (81). Don’t you think his Jewish hearers would have understood him to be referring to God’s wrath in light of OT teaching? You add, “Because of this history, it’s important that we don’t take Jesus’s very real and prescient warnings about judgment then out of context, making them about someday, somewhere else. That wasn’t what he was talking about” (81). Are you generalizing? He never spoke of judgment in another time and another place? What about other NT writers? You comment again on Jesus’ audience as Jewish people, God’s chosen people. But isn’t Jesus coming to say a) you’re wrong; you’ve broken your covenant with God; and b) you must align yourselves with me, if you want to enjoy the (new) covenant relationship with God and avoid judgment?

As you begin to look at passages more generally that refer to judgment but don’t mention the word hell, you discuss Sodom and Gomorrah. You take Jesus’ words in Matt. 11 (though you cite Matthew 10) that it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Capernaum to indicate that there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah (84). Really? If his point is to hold out hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, then his statement to Capernaum is not very powerful. Isn’t he rather saying something like this: “You know how bad it will be on Judgment Day for Sodom and Gomorrah? Well, it’s going to be even worse for you.”

Over the next few pages, you select some key passages from the prophets that promise restoration for God’s people after they’ve endured the punishment of exile for a time. Are you turning this into a general principle that God always punishes in order to restore? This actually sounds similar, at first, to the idea that God brings salvation through judgment, but you’ve universalized it. You bring in Egypt as an example of prophetic hope held out even for a nation that was the enemy of God’s people, which you seem to marshal as evidence that God will do this for all nations. Even if this were the case, do you assume that these promises would apply to every single inhabitant of these nations? Moreover, why do you not spend any time looking at the balance of the prophetic texts which points toward judgment without any apparent hope for restoration?

Next, you turn to Paul’s handing folks over to Satan, indicating that his purpose was redemptive and restorative (89). I agree. But, though this was Paul’s purpose in excommunicating these folks, couldn’t the actual results be different? Isn’t it possible that these people did not respond to Paul’s actions appropriately and thus were never actually restored to the fellowship with God’s people? You then bring the idea of being “hell-bent” on something as having a bearing on this discussion. You write, “The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention” (90). But these passive terms are not used to describe what’s going on in these biblical texts. Rather, God exiles Israel; Paul hands over these folks to Satan; God condemns people to hell.

You return to Greek issues in Matt. 25, in Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats. The Greek word in question is not kolazo, but the noun form kolasis, and we do not have aion here but rather the adjective aionios, so that the phrase Jesus uses is not “an aion of kolazo,” but rather a kolasin aionion. Now, the claim that kolasis comes from horticulture is basically acceptable, but in the first century no one appears to be using the term that way. It has become, in ordinary conversation, a way of speaking of an experience of punishment. It does not in any way imply the goal of the punishment. I’m afraid you’ve committed the etymological fallacy here and thus misunderstood what Jesus is saying. The verb kolazo is used in the NT in Acts 4:21 and 2 Pet. 2:9; I’d be interested to see if you can find your meaning of kolazo working in these verses. Taking your definition of kolasis, then, would you be able to apply this to the devil and his angels? If not, why not? At the end of this section, you repeat your assertion, “But ‘forever’ is not really a category the biblical writers used” (92). I still don’t think you’ve demonstrated this at all. You bring in the story of Jonah at this point to show that the Hebrew word olam can refer to a period of only three days. But, Jonah is poetically referring to the belly of the fish as Sheol, so that olam could mean forever in connection with their understanding that death is typically final and permanent. Also, do you mean to imply that olam = aion?

Your final summary is clear but leaves much to be desired: “To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us” (93). So, are we to understand hell as the automatic result of this rejection?

Here are a final series of questions that I think need to be answered that did not get addressed in this chapter at all. How is God related to these consequences? What do you do with Jesus’ language about God sending, throwing, consigning, condemning people to this experience? Do you envision God passively watching as people “reap what they sow,” while he simply pleads with them to respond differently, but ultimately remains uninvolved? What about the millions of folks who reject “God’s best” by victimizing other people but never actually suffer any hellish consequences? What about those who have accepted God’s love and are living accordingly but are then victims of the previously mentioned group?

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