In the last chapter Bell’s main accomplishment was to show that heaven is something that starts now.
As for heaven, Bell argues, so also for hell.
First, though, Bell rightly begins with the several biblical words (in both Greek and Hebrew) which get translated or interpreted as “hell.”
He starts out with the Old Testament, and rightly points out that one won’t find much support for the “traditional” understanding of hell in the Old Testament, where, despite the common use of the word sheol (which means “the grave,” though admittedly in a more imaginative sense than we modern people are used to), “what happens after a person dies isn’t very well defined.”
Now, before we turn to the New Testament, it is important to be reminded that the New Testament is every bit as “Hebrew” or “Jewish” as the Old Testament is. Thus, if the OT is not really interested in the state of the human soul after death, then we probably should not expect the NT to be, either.
I want to develop this point a bit. It is called “reading Scripture with Scripture,” and it allows us to illuminate obscure passages of Scripture with other passages which are more clear. That is, if we are confused or unsure about the meaning of various passages in the NT which seem to talk about hell, then what should we do? We should turn to the OT. We should let the obvious “Jewishness” of the OT shed light upon the (equally, but for us less obviously “Jewish”) NT.
This is what we would ordinarily do if we were reading in the NT about something obscure such as angels, or how to think about one’s enemies, or the relationship between suffering and obedience. In every case, it is tremendously helpful to turn to the OT and seek context and clarity.
However, when we do this with respect to the NT’s portrayal of “hell,” we find nothing in the OT but a reinforcement of the very Jewish understanding of sheol as a highly imaginative version of “the grave.”
What do we find when we turn to the NT? Two main words: Gehenna and Hades (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Sheol). (The exception to this is 2 Peter’s use of Tartarus, a term referring to a mythological abyss.)
Gehenna was the name of the city dump out side Jerusalem. Jesus speaks of it only while rebuking the religious leaders of his day, and never to folks we would ordinarily think of as “sinners.”
When Jesus speaks of Hades, it is in contexts such as Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Some notes Bell makes about this parable:
1. The rich man is a stand-in for Jesus’ hearers, the religious types.
2. The “hell” which the rich man created was the result of not loving his neighbor, and even in “hell” refusing to serve his neighbor.
3. Jesus’ mention of “resurrection” (pointing to the resurrection he himself was about to undergo) shows that the meaning of Jesus’ story was “directly related to what he was doing right there in their midst.”
4. When we interpret hades in this parable in light of the OT (and its use of sheol) one thing we notice is that the rich man is alive in the midst of death. He is dead, but he is also alive. “He is in Hades … but he hasn’t died the kind of death that brings life.” (page 76-77)
The upshot of all this, for Bell, is that Jesus is talking about hell later (that is in the next life), but also about hell now, and that we should “take both seriously.”
Bell goes on (rightly, in my view) to interpret other passages (such as Matt 26 – “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”) as actually referring to the “hell” which would ensue if Israel continued to fight the Roman Empire with the weapons of the latter’s warfare: a hell which did ensue in 70 AD when Rome destroyed Jerusalem (as Bell rightly points out). (page 79ff)
Bell similarly (and rightly) dismisses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as having anything directly to do with Hell.
Then, in his last major point of the chapter, Bell argues the point that, so often in Scripture, the portrayals of God’s judgment so often include offers of restoration. This includes Jer 32; Jer 5; Lam 3; Hos 14; Zeph 2,3,9,10; Isa 47; Hos 6; Joel 3; Amos 9; Nahum 2; Micah 7.
In Isa 19, the prophet announces (in a passage resonant with Ps 87) that “in that day there will be an altar in the heart of Egypt” (Israel’s arch-enemy). “Things won’t be what they seem,” Bell writes. “The people who are opposed to God will worship God. The one who were far away will be brought near. The ones facing condemnation will be restored.”
Bell brilliantly then turns to the NT, reading Scripture with Scripture. He shows how this same dynamic of judgment leading to restoration is seen over and over in Paul, including in the passages in which he talks about people (such as Hymenaus and Alexander in 1 Timothy) “being handed over to Satan” in order that they might be restored.
Paul makes this explicit in 1 Cor 5 where he tells his friends to hand over a certain man to Satan “for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” (page 90)
This “day of the Lord” imagery meshes perfectly, Bell suggests, with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 (known as “The Great Assize”) when Jesus says that the “goats” will be sent into the aion of kalazo, translated by many English versions of the Bible as “eternal punishment,” but which can more accurately be understood as a period of pruning or trimming.
I want to point out two things at this point:
1. Bell is not (at least not at this point) denying the existence of “hell-in-the-afterlife.”
2. What he is denying here is that people “go to hell” against their will. That is actually the main point of the chapter, and this is absolutely consistent, for example, with the view of hell that CS Lewis imaginatively portrays in his book The Great Divorce. (And I don’t see an avalanche of controversy raging in the evangelical world about CS Lewis.)