Posted on: March 30th, 2011 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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3 Responses to “Bell’s Hell (Rob Bell, Love Wins, ch. 3)”

  1. Jonathan Says:
    April 5th, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I think that the controversy comes from Bell’s argument that hell is not for eternity. Whereas C.S. Lewis was never outright stating that hell was a temporal punishment, Bell argues that it is. (Or at least he dances around it with arguments in favor of a temporal punishment) Though the eternality and finality of hell is not straight forward in the New Testament, most of the early Church Fathers believed that it was eternal and final (some notable exceptions Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa). Likewise many denominations (including many protestant sects, Orthodox Church, and Catechism of the Catholic Church ) have very explicit beliefs that are opposed to this belief.

  2. matt Says:
    April 13th, 2011 at 5:30 pm


    I see Bell as sticking close to the Biblical text. One of the main things he does in the book to work with the assumption that the New Testament is a Jewish text (though he could have done a better job of arguing for that, I think), and also that “eternity” is not a Jewish idea.

    And I agree with him on both points.

    of course, if one were to apply this kind of reasoning to, say, the doctrine of the Trinity, then …. Well, suffice to say that I would have to fall back on my ecclesiology to defend that doctrinal development, in addition to Scripture alone.

    The difference between Trinity and Hell, it seems to me, is that the Trinity was hammered out much earlier, by the undivided church, and (unlike “the traditional understanding of Hell”) before some nasty developments in the medieval period connected to the rise of the nation-state and the concomitant grasping after power on the part of the church.

    Down through the centuries Christians have had differing perspectives on Hell, all included within the tradition (here again, Bell writes much about that ongoing dialogue in the church called tradition, I think, but never calling it that) which cannot be said about Hell.

  3. Jonathan Says:
    April 13th, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    You are correct that many Christians have different views on hell, but I disagree with you that the doctrine of the Trinity predates the doctrine of the eternality of hell. Most of the early church Fathers affirmed this view. There was a much greater disonance in the Church over the doctrine of the Trinity and the Orthodox Church and the Western Church have slightly different ideas of Trinity (That the spirit precedes from the Father and the Son vs. the spirit precedes from the Father)
    Also non- trinitarian beliefs were common ( Adoptionists, Arians, Ebionites, Gnostics, Marcionites) and that led to the “hammering out” an understanding of the Trinity. Down through the history of the church there have been different ideas of the doctrine of the Trinity (those who weren’t executed for heresy ) while others like Isaac Newton held nontrinitarian views in secret.

    I do agree with alot of what he says especially how the gates of hell are locked from the inside, but to say that hell is not final and eternal is hard to swallow for most denominations, and I must say for me as well.

    Now having said that I believe there are going to be a lot of people on the margins of society that will be in heaven that most “christians” would send to hell. I am reminded of The Catcher in the Rye when Holden Caulfield argued that he was kind of an atheist because he thought that Jesus didnt send Judas to hell and that if it was up to the rest of the disciples he would be in hell but he couldnt see Jesus sending him to hell. Holden liked the demon possessed cutter better than the disciples.
    I love that book

    “Why does your Master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When he heard this he replied, ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice. And indeed I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10- 13)


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