I have been reviewing Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, with a particular eye towards evaluating not only his arguments, when they are made, but also the way he makes those arguments. I have not read the book before, so each review is fresh: I am writing these having just completed the chapter the post is on. Here, I’ll go over Chapter 3: Hell. First, I will outline the chapter, then I will analyze its content. Be sure to check the end of the posts to links for the other posts in this series, as well as a few other links.
Chapter 3: Hell
Rob Bell begins his discussion of hell by framing it around this issue: “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? Is that what Jesus taught?” (64). In order to answer this question, Bell says, he will show “every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word, ‘hell'” (ibid).
In order to do this, he first turns to the Hebrew Scriptures. As he explores these passages, Bell concludes that God has power over life and death and that God is present and involved in life after death. However, the words “life” and “death” have different meaning for the Hebrew Scriptures than we give them, argues Bell. Instead of some kind of fixed point of either being alive or dead, Bell notes that they view life and death as “two ways of being alive” (66). To conclude with his discussion of the Old Testament, Bell sums up: “simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined” (67).
Then, Bell turns to the New Testament. Here, he notes that the word for hell was often “Gehenna,” which in Jesus’ day was a fiery garbage dump (68). Bell skims through a few passages here, simply quoting individual sentences without context. Then he evaluates a few verses related to “Hades,” which Bell argues is “essentially the Greek version of… “Sheol” (69).
Then, Bell turns to a number of stories about using strong language to describe human suffering, with examples from Rwanda, as well as rape, divorce, adultery, etc. Next, he turns to an analysis of Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and the rich man. He makes much of the notion that the rich man is still alive in the fire, and that he still expects Lazarus to serve him (74ff). His analysis of this story ends with his conclusion: “He [the rich man] fails to love his neighbor… It’s a story about individual sin, but that individual sin leads directly to very real suffering at a societal level. If enough rich men treated enough Lazaruses outside their gates like that, that could conceivably lead to a widening gap between the rich and the poor” (78).
Because of this analysis, Bell argues that “What we see in Jesus’ story… is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells… There are individual hells… There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79).
After an aside on Jesus’ eschatological warnings as very real and immediate, Bell turns to what seems to be the core of his argument for the chapter. Here I’ll quote at length:
Many people… have only ever heard hell talked about as the place reserved for those who… don’t believe… People who don’t believe the right things…
[I]n reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word ‘hell,’ what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point… he’s talking about… how [listeners] conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors. (82)
Analyzing texts which don’t explicitly discuss hell, but which are taken as teaching on the topic, is the next task Bell turns to. He notes Jesus’ discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Jesus said “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you.” Bell states, “More bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah? …There’s still hope? And if there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, what does that say about all of the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs?” (84-85). He then explores the theme of restoration throughout the Bible.
Then, he explores Matthew 25’s passage about the sheep and the goats. He makes much of the Greek word, kolazo. He argues that it could have the meaning of “pruning” rather than punishment, and so “the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning'” in contrast to “eternal punishment” (91). He puts the possibility forward that this could be “an intense experience of correction” (ibid).
In the next chapter, Bell says he will turn to what happens after we die.
Bell shows a great concern for the need to avoid views which ignore hell or desire to cut it out of the picture. There is a tendency towards avoiding a “literal” hell or even pretending the teaching isn’t part of Christianity at all. Bell rightly notes that this cannot be reconciled with Scriptural teaching, and that we need to think on the topic.
Bell’s discussion of “life” and “death” as having implications beyond merely physical death is correct. However, the place he draws it from (the Deuteronomic Code) is a bit strange. The blessings and curses, as well as the choice between “life” and “death” are based on the corporate promises given to the nation of Israel. That’s not to say it doesn’t have individual application, but the way Bell discussed it may cause some confusion.
Properly speaking, Bell’s statement that “there is hell now” seems simply mistaken. The reason is because he makes this as an application to our present lives being hell. No, he doesn’t make this as an analogy, as in our lives are hellish or like hell on earth. Instead, his point seems to be that people, when they are making life-destroying decisions, are currently experiencing the realities of hell. It seems that this may be an unfortunate tie-in to the apparent works righteousness explored in chapter 2.
However, Bell does seem correct at least in part when he asserts that Jesus’ teachings had much to say about the ills of society and how we must work to avoid bringing in even greater suffering through class warfare, independent choices, and the like.
Yet even in this, Bell’s primary points seems to be a kind of works-based righteousness yet again. In contrast to the notion that salvation is based around beliefs [faith?], Bell bases Jesus’ teaching in this area upon the love of neighbor. While this is clearly part of Jesus’ teachings, Bell’s position on this seems to be wrong again. Christ did explicitly teach that right belief [faith] is a criterion for salvation: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. But whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). No, this is not in the context of the verses on “hell,” which was the focus of Bell’s quote above, but the way Bell states his argument makes it sound as though what he has stated is the teaching of Christ on the topic.
This leads us to another overarching problem with Bell’s argument so far: namely, his tendency to atomize the texts he disagrees with in order to filter their teachings through specific texts he uses as control verses. He seems to create a canon-within-the-canon, utilizing certain proof texts as the filter through which he views all other texts. Even worse is the fact that he simply ignores texts which explicitly teach the opposite of what he states.
Bell demonstrates a truly confusing view of Jesus’ statement about Sodom and Gomorrah. Note that Jesus says that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah; Jesus does not say there is still hope. The text is pretty clear: Sodom and Gomorrah have already been condemned, but those who are rejecting Christ now will be under even worse judgment. I have very serious difficulties seeing any possible way that Bell could realistically conclude that this passage is teaching there is still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead, Jesus is using those cities as the paradigm example of evil. They are already condemned, and if those who are listening to Jesus at that point do not repent, their condemnation will be worse.
Finally, Bell’s interpretation of kolazo is also problematic. The reason is because he uses a translation from classical Greek as opposed to the Greek used in the New Testament (Koine Greek). He fails to acknowledge that although words can have meanings at one time, that doesn’t seal their possible range of meanings for all time. We can see this in some modern words, like “brave,” which used to mean “cowardly.” The point is that simply having a meaning at some point in time doesn’t make that meaning of a word useful at all other points in time. Furthermore, the meaning for kolazo as “punishment” is attested throughout early Christian literature as well as late classical literature. I tried to find the meaning Bell suggests for the word in a few New Testament lexicons I have sitting on the shelf and failed to find it. They unanimously give “punish” as the only or the primary meaning, and nothing related to pruning or horticulture, as Bell suggests, is even hinted at. I conclude that Bell is mistaken.
Bell gives some important points related to the need to reflect on Jesus’ teaching as well as a right emphasis on the reality of hell. Unfortunately, there are some pretty major exegetical errors found in chapter 3. My study of kolazo suggests that Bell is simply wrong on this topic. His interpretation of the passage related to “Sodom and Gomorrah” is odd, to say the least. Finally, although he doesn’t explicitly state his position, Bell seems to continue to imply that it is our actions, rather than faith, which determine the reality of heaven or hell for our life on earth and in the hereafter.
Next week, we’ll evaluate chapter 4, which is entitled “Does God get what God wants?”
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Preface and Chapter 1– I discuss the preface and chapter 1 of Love Wins.
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 2– I review chapter 2.
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 4– I look at Chapter 4: Does God Get what God Wants?
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 5– I analyze chapter 5.
Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
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