Bell’s Hell (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 3)

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.)

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Now is the new Then (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 2)

In this chapter, Bell continues with his (quite right) insistence that our popular understandings of heaven are far removed from the thought-world of the Bible, of first-century Judaism (of which Jesus and his first followers were a part).

Again, in doing this he is popularizing a similar line of work as that of NT Wright, massively prominent biblical scholar and Anglican bishop. (See here, and here.)

Again, I will list & briefly comment on the points Bell makes.

1.     There is something wrong with the idea that the Christian life is about going to heaven when we die. Basically, this would imply that this world, my life, my family, my body, my work, simply does not matter, and that the “main point” is to “get the heck out of Dodge.” Even before we turn to the Bible, we can sense in our bones that this picture of bailing out, leaving the world behind, is just wrong.

2.     Bell points out that Jesus, like all other first century Jews, had no concept of “eternity” as in “eternal life.” Bell does a good job of showing that this is not what the rich man meant in Matt 19 (see verse 16 and following) when he asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rather, this man and Jesus both would have been thinking of “the age to come” (Hebrew olam habah; Greek zoe aionion). That is, to the Hebrew mind (including in the Second Temple period) “eternal life” the way we think of it was not a big deal. “The age to come,” however, was a big deal. History is going somewhere. God is up to something. He is going to fix this broken world. He is going to do this, they would have thought, “in the age to come.” This is what the following Old Testament passages are about: Isa 2, Isa 11, Isa 25, Ezek 36, Amos 9.

3.     These passages point to three realities w.r.t. this “age to come.” First, the age to come will include all nations; it will be inclusive and universal in scope. Second, the picture we get is very earthy: it consists of grain, crops, wine, people, feasts, homes, and buildings (p34). Third, we can see that this vision is something deeply rooted in the creation narratives of Gen 1 & 2. That is, this vision for the way creation is supposed to be was not new. God has always been looking for partners who will work with him (think of Tolien’s “subcreation” and “subcreators”) to extend the garden, and to cultivate the whole earth. I like this paragraph (35 – 36):

For there to be new wine, someone has to crush the grapes. For the city to be built, someone has to chop down the trees to make the beams to construct the houses. For there to be no more wars, someone has to take the sword and get it hot enough to melt it down into the shape of a plow.

That is, bringing about God’s creative purposes takes work.

4.     When things don’t work the way God intended, he gets angry and he becomes full of hate. When modern western people say that they can’t believe in a god of hate or anger, remember this (37):

Yes, they can. Often, we can think of little else. Every oil spill; every report of another woman sexually assaulted; every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture, imprisonment, and execution; every we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people every time we stumble upon one more instance of the human heart gone wrong, we shake our fist and cry out, “Will someone please do something about this?”

5.     What did Jesus mean by “heaven?” First, he meant “God.” Bell is correct here: Matthew’s “Kingdom of Heaven” is tantamount to Luke’s “Kingdom of God.”

6.     Second, “Heaven” is where God’s will is being done, in real time and in real space. Again, Bell is correct here. The Kingdom of God “happens” wherever Jesus is worshipped and made Lord.

7.     Third, Since our time & place is so often not where God’s will is done, what this means is that, right now, heaven and earth are not one. To gloss this in NT Wright language, “God’s dimension” and “man’s dimension” are not presently overlapping, but (as Bell points out on pp 43 ff) the whole story of the Bible (Old & New Testaments together) is the story of God’s dimension & man’s dimension beginning to overlap & to become one. (My note: this most fully happens in Jesus Christ & his body, the Church, but one day it – the union between God & world – will be “all in all.”)

8.     If this is true, then “right now counts forever,” and digging wells for clean water now matters since in “heaven” there will be clean water for all. This is the future breaking into the present, getting dragged into the present. (Fancy word for this: eschatology.)

9.     What Jesus’ encounter with the rich man in Matthew 19 shows us is that not only does heaven comfort, but it also confronts. That is, heaven

“has teeth, flames, edges, sharp points” and that “certain things simply will not survive in the age to come. Like greed. And coveting. The one thing people won’t be wanting in the perfect peace and presence of God is someone else’s life. The man is clearly attached to his wealth and possessions, so much so that when Jesus invites him to leave them behind, he can’t do it.” (p 49).

This meshes perfectly with what Paul says in I Cor 3:10ff: that certain deeds, practices, words and attitudes will on “the Day” (the prophets spoke of, see above) will be burned away, but that “the builder” (ie, the one with these attitudes) will be saved.

10. As CS Lewis points out, heaven is a place so real, solid, and good that it will take a lot to get used to. In a paragraph in which Bell (knowingly or not) is pretty much arguing for something like Purgatory, he points out that things like habits and character take time, so it is an unrealistic (if widespread) assumption that in “heaven” people will be changed in an instant. What this means is that a single mom who struggles to pay bills and squeeze child support out of her ex-husband who use to beat her and to keep her kids in school, and who does all this without giving up or despairing is likely “the first who will be last,” is likely the kind of person about (or to) whom God will say “You are the kind of person with whom I can partner to build my new world.”

Heaven is more real, not less, than this world, and so it is full of surprises.

Summary. For Rob Bell, heaven

a.     is coterminous with “God.”

b.     Wherever, in this world agreed with and served.

c.      Aion, that is to say: the intensification of reality beyond our present, normal awareness of things (ie, “three dimensions”) which is charged with God and the reality of his new world, which begins here and now, and continues into the world to come.

Again, in my opinion, all of this is utterly biblical, and utterly orthodox, and utterly exciting!

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Which God? Which Jesus? (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 1)

In chapter 1 of Love Wins Bell makes several points, all of which are spot on, and all of which many intelligent pastors and teachers have been making for a very long time. I’m going to list the points / questions and elaborate briefly on them.

1.     There is a widespread phenomenon in the modern, western church (what this really means is the evangelical church, which no doubt has analogues in contemporary Roman Catholicism) and it is driving many people away from the community of Jesus-followers. It is the phenomenon of confusing and polluting the Jesus story with our corrupted stories. A prominent version of this is to adopt a mode of threat in our telling of the story, and then to assume that, of course, my community is on the “inside” of those who are favored by God.

2.     Often, our sub-stories totally lack hope for the world and for people, and this is light years away from the tone and direction of the Jesus story.

3.   To make matters worse, we bandy around the idea of salvation with no real understanding of what that idea means, much less how the Bible actually uses that word. Examples: is salvation a conversion experience? Is it having correct ideas in your head about God? Is it being zapped in your heart? Is it having a emotional feeling? Is there an “age of accountability?” If so, what is it, and how do we know? Is salvation something that happens to me as an individual or something that happens to a community (such as Israel in Rom 11)? Bell suggests the sobering truth that, again, more often than not the way we speak of salvation is light years away from the biblical story of Jesus.

4.     Which God? Which Jesus? Bell rightly points out that, when people say they reject Jesus (or God), we need to ask, “Which Jesus (or God) do you reject?” Frequently, the Jesus being rejected is a Jesus who ought to be rejected. Maybe the Jesus being rejected is an unbiblical Jesus. Maybe the Jesus being rejected is a Jesus who was associated in a five-year-old’s imagination with a man who was molesting her. Bell gives the example (p 7) of a woman whose father raped her while saying the Lord’s Prayer, from Renee Alston’s Stumbling Toward Faith:

I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual. When I say spiritual I don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-Wiccan, hippie parents…. I mean that my father raped me while saying the Lord’s Prayer. I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns.

Surely, to reject this “Jesus” can be seen as a step in the right direction (as CS Lewis would firmly agree).

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Bell, Wright, MacIntyre (Love Wins, intro)

In his introduction to Love Wins Bell clearly says that he does not take himself to have all the answers. Rather, he is asking some questions, rooting his thought in the categories the Bible itself gives us. In this he is doing the very same thing that NT Wright has been doing, and in fact, a great many (even most?) of the “bombshells” he is dropping, particularly in chapter 1 (dealing with “heaven”), are nothing more that what NT Wright has been teaching for years. Thus, Bell is traveling nowhere that Bp. Wright has not travelled before.

The second big claim Bell rightly makes in the introduction is that, to the extent that he has a “position” on this “issue,” this position of his is nothing new, and is well included within the mainstream of the “ongoing discussion” (p xi) that the church has been having for centuries. In this he is utterly correct. In fact, he is essentially espousing a view of Christian tradition which has been articulated by Alisdair MacIntyre:

The traditions through which particular practices are transmitted and reshaped never exist in isolation for larger social traditions. What constitutes such traditions? We are apt to be misled here by the ideological uses to which the concept of a tradition has been put by conservative political theorists. Characteristically such theorists have followed Burke in contrasting tradition with reason and the stability of tradition with conflict. Both contrasts obfuscate. For all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought, transcending through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition; this is as true of modern physics as of medieval logic. Moreover when a tradition is in good order it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose.

So when an institution–a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital–is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict. Indeed when a tradition becomes Burkean, it is always dying or dead.

– Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 221

In this sense tradition is an ongoing dialogue that takes place over large periods of time within particular communities.

In conclusion, Love Wins (in the introduction at least) is in the very good company of NT Wright and Alisdair MacIntyre, and, thus, is a welcome and much needed articulation of theology especially since it is written at a much more popular level.

A final critique, however. Bell clearly has a “catholic” way of understanding tradition. It is too bad, therefore, that he does not have (or has not expressed, or has not acted on) a catholic ecclesiology.

That is, what is the church? Would that Bell were in a communion of churches, an actually embodied tradition (note what MacIntyre says above about communities: these are concrete communities of bodies & souls. Indeed, they are eucharistic communities (at least for scripture & tradition).

Here again, the emergent church slouches toward catholicity, but still lacking the actual ability to embrace the catholic church of history.

Here again (as has been the case for about a decade) “eccleiology!” is my mantra.

Oh how I wish Rob Bell would read John Milbank & Radical Orthodoxy.

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Does the Bible tell us to worship this way?

This is part 6 of a 10-part series.

I have spent the last five installments in this series discussing our liturgical worship which we as Anglicans perform. My next question is rather simple, but profound: “Does the Bible tell us to worship this way?”

Well, yes and no. One the one hand there are passages such as the following:

In Isaiah 6 we behold scene in God’s throne room / temple in which we see that confession and absolution precede sending out into the world.

Nehemiah 8 gives us an example of the public reading of Holy Scripture in which God’s people stand in unison to hear the Word proclaimed.

In the Words of Institution (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; 1 Cor 11) in which Christ instructs us in the particular actions to perform in the Service of the Table, or Holy Communion.

The Book of Acts gives us snapshot after snapshot of first-century worship in which we see the preaching of the Word and the breaking of the bread, going hand-in-hand.

Revelation 4-6, in which we are shown a worship scene in Heaven which gives us many images and precedents for us to implement in our worship of God.

As you can see, the Bible is full of useful instruction on how we are to order our lives of worship. And yet, nowhere in Holy Writ do we find something like a manual or a “how-to” guide for worship. Why is this?

I can think of several reasons.

First, God does not tell us explicitly how to worship him because we are free in the Spirit to figure it out for ourselves. After all, God wants us to be mature and discerning in our decision making, not like little children who must be given direct instructions all the time (Eph 4:13).

Second, the liturgy of the Church predates most or all of the New Testament texts. One of the oldest liturgies of the Church we have, The Didache, is dated by contemporary scholarship to around the year 100 AD, which means that Christians were worshiping in the way it prescribes at least as early as 60 years after the birth of Christ. (The Didache is the same in basic shape as most liturgies used in the East and Western churches of “The Great Tradition” to this day.) That is, the liturgy is older than much of our New Testament Scriptures, a realization which makes sense when one remembers that the first Christians were mainly of Jewish descent.

Third, and related to the second reason above, “faith comes by hearing” (Rom 10:17), which indicates that the Holy Scriptures are primarily something to be heard, not something to be read from a book. That is, the Holy Scriptures are first and foremost a liturgical thing. They are not an instruction manual worship; rather, they are intended to be used in the worship, as worship (which is why something like 80% of the BCP is composed of Scriptural texts)!

Fourth, Scripture itself presents us with multiple examples of what can only be called “oral tradition:” Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30; John 21:25; 2 Tim 2:2; 2 Thes 2:15. The Church has always held that it is from this “source” that much of our worship is derived and passed down, and not simply from the Bible alone.

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Invitation to a Holy Lent

Rarely do I post my sermons onto my blog. However, I am doing so in this case, partly due to several conversations I have had over the last couple of days.

I preached this at the 6PM Ash Wednesday service at Christ Church. The epistle was 2 Cor 5:20b – 6:10 and the Gospel was Matt 6:1-6, 16-21.

A couple of nights ago something happened that seems to happen to me about, oh, once a month on average.

An that is, I had an intense bout with insomnia. It was me against insomnia, and I lost. 1AM, 2AM, 3AM … the clock keeps ticking until … until the sun comes up and with it my 3 year old daughter.

Now, I’m not saying that a night without sleep is the worst thing in the world. Certainly compaired with shipwrecks, beatings, imprisonments, riots, and hunger … an occasional night of insomnia is not that bad.

St. Paul was no stranger to these things and more. Why does he mention them in today’s epistle reading from 2 Corinthians? What’s more, why does he speak of these things as if they are somehow something which comes from the hand of God?

Is St. Paul some kind of massocist? What’s going on?

We get a hint near the end of today’s reading, where he begins to throw out several different paradoxes of the Christian life:

  • how, somehow in the midst of his sorrow, he finds deep and profound joy
  • how his life is shot through with death, and yet in the midst of the death he is more alive than he ever thought possible.
  • how he is poor & dispossessed, but somehow in the midst of this poverty he is is rich;

See, these are the paradoxes of the Gospel: riches in the midst of poverty; joy in the midst of sadness; life in the midst of death.

How can these things be? Is this just crazy talk?

One of my favorite films of all time is The Neverending Story….

You see, brothers & sisters, Jesus Christ is not just some guy that we read about. The life of Jesus is not some narrative that we hear about every Sunday or even read about in a dusty old book.

Rather, the narrative of Jesus – his life, his suffering, his death, his resurrection – these are things that we inhabit. His story is a something that we get sucked into.

His life becomes are life; his suffering becomes our suffering; his death becomes our death; his resurrection becomes our resurrection.

Henry Nouwen puts in this way in his book The Selfless Way of Christ. [Quote Nouwen.]

And don’t you see? This is the first reason why we do Lent. It is a way of learning, little by little, to die. The church fathers spoke of the Christian life as preparing for a good death.

Because, you see, apart from death, there is no such thing as resurrection. This is why we give things up during Lent. This is why we intentionally make our lives a bit more difficult, a bit more inconvenient. It is a way of entering into the sufferings of Christ. It’s a way of sharing in his sufferings & death, that we might share, also, in his indestructible life.

But there is a second reason why we do Lent. And you heard it a moment ago from Deacon Stine’s mouth, and it is this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

The question of Lent is this: what is your treasure? Is it your career? Is it your body image? Is it having healthy children? Is it food & drink?

What is your treasure, really? What is your pearl of great price, the thing that if you lose it, you can’t be happy. When you lose it, all of the sudden it gets kind of hard to breath. When you lose it, you begin to act like Gollum in the LOTR, or like an alcoholic who can’t find an open liquor store.

What is your treasure?

The wisdom of Lent is that the Church (beginning about 1100 years ago) is making a way for us to wean ourselves off of all earthly treasure. It is a way of ridding our lives of the stuff that does not really satisfy.

You see, we’re talking about desire. I’m reminded of CS Lewis who said that our problem is not that our desires are too strong (though this is the charicature of Christianity that the world dispenses to people). Our problem is that our desires are too weak. We are far too easily pleased.

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, we are like ignorant children who want to continue making mud pies in a slum because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

What are we doing in Lent? If you think about it, it’s the opposite of massocism. It’s really the cultivation of desire. True desire. Strong desire. Rightly ordered desire.

In Lent, we are weaning ourselves off of the stuff that doesn’t satisfy. We are learning to depend on God. We are learning to rest in him, to lean on him. To make him our one thing needful.

Only then can his power come into our lives. Only then can we gain the strength to resist temptation and live like THE FREE WOMEN & MEN WE WERE CREATED TO BE.

Only then, as we participate in his suffering & death, we will rise with him, entering into his indestructible life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the HS, Amen.

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