Hell is a serious issue. Make no mistake about it, there’s no room for theological mistakes when it comes to what you believe about hell.
On the subject of hell, it’s Rob Bell’s questioning of the biblical teaching on hell in his book Love Wins that earned him the notoriety of being on the cover of Time magazine.
In his introduction to the subject of hell, Bell breaks down traditional Christianity into one simple formula: If you sin, refuse to repent, harden your heart, reject Jesus, and when you die, it’s over (pg. 64). You’re going to hell.
A Loving God Would Not Send Anyone to Hell
The writer then sets up the reader by reminding us that God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy, and then hints it would be out of character for God to send anyone to hell. What a classic set-up! Here’s another more creative way of saying the same thing: “Why would a good God send anyone to hell? After all, people are good and no one deserves to be assigned to hell by a loving God.”
Does Bell even consider the fact God sent His Son to the cross to due for our sins to keep us from going to hell? I hope so.
In Matthew 25:41 Jesus says “hell was created for the devil and his angels.” Hell was not created as an eternal abode for humans. The merciful God sacrificed His Son to die for us so the devil would not have any company in hell. That is what a loving God has done to keep us from hell. However, such a clear cut teaching on what God has done to save people from hell is strangely missing from Bell’s theology. All Pastor Bell can focus on is that God consigns a portion of the human race to hell.
Hell As A Place of Torment Is Not in the Bible
Next Bell shows us “every single verse in the Bible in which we actually find the word ‘hell.'” (pg. 64). Starting with the Old Testament, Bell instructs the reader to consider the word “hell” is not found in the Old Testament. Yet Bell leaves out the fact that the fear of ending up in the grave without redemption was utmost in the heart of the Old Testament believer (Psalm 18:5; 103:4). As in Psalm 16:10 the writer is concerned about being abandoned to the realm of the dead.
While the concept of hell may not be as cleat in the Jewish scriptures, it is very clear the Old Testament teaches God is sovereign and involved over whatever happens to a person when they die (Deuteronomy 32:39).
Unfortunately, Bell does not cover all that the Old Testament says about the afterlife. In Psalm 49:15 the sons of Korah write, “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.”
While resisting the temptation to read New Testament theology into the Old Testament Hebrew word “Sheol”, we can conclude the person living in the Old Testament economy did not have a positive view of “Sheol.” In fact, the Old Testament believer understood the power of death to keep a person in a underworld void of God’s presence and separated from God’s closeness. The greatest joy for the Jewish believer is to live on forever and never see death (Psalm 49:9). In other words, the believer feared that both their material self- – the body – and their immaterial part – the soul – could end up distanced from God’s blessed presence. If that is not “hell” then what other description will satisfy Bell?
In the New Testament Pastor Bell surveys the occurences of the word “hell” or “Gehenna” and “Hades”. The author traces the root of “hell” to the Greek word “Gehenna” which was a word used to describe a valley on the south and west side of Jerusalem where the town’s garbage was tossed and burned. Gehenna is “the town garbage pile.” Pastor Bell even jokes around saying if someone asks if you believe in hell, the Christian can say, “Yes, I do beleive that my garbage goes somewhere.” Not a laughing matter.
Sorry to inform Bell . . . but Hell or Gehenna and Hades refer not to the scraps in our kitchen garbage but to human souls. Matthew 10:28 tells us not to fear someone who can destroy your body but not your soul. Rather, “fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” That doesn’t sound like a garbage dump to me. You cannot throw your soul onto a burning heap of garbage. This is a very important theological fumble on Bell’s part in his disregard for the eternal destiny of the human soul.
Is A Metaphorical Hell as Hot as a Literal Hell?
Of course, Bell is vague whether or not there is a literal hell. Hell is “volatile mixture of images, pictures and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness” (pg. 73).
Bell tries to diffuse the seriousness and intensity of eternal fire by comparing the “hell” as described by Jesus to the hell we experience on earth through our personal pain. A broken marriage. A molested child. Betrayal. Injustices. Certainly, all of these experiences are a kind of hell. In conclusion Bell says, “there is a hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”
We are never sure what hell is the way Bell skirts around it. From the negative results of “rejecting all that is good and true and beautiful in this life now in this life, we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (pg. 79).
Pastor Bell cannot help but mention “the idea of hell is a holdover from primitive, mythic religion that uses fear and punishment to control people for all sorts of devious reasons” (pg. 70). Somehow Bell’s statement is supposed to defuse the fact hell is a real place. If a scholar is cornered by biblical truth, all he needs to do is assign traditional Christian beliefs to pagan myth and he is “free.”
Bell admits he has a hard time believing in a literal hell where individuals experience eternal conscious torment. However, the issue is not whether we have a problem with the doctrine of hell. I don’t like the realty of hell either. However, I have to ask if the Bible teaches it whether I have a problem with the reality of hell or not.
Bell thinks by turning the literal torment of hell as found in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man into a metaphorical experience, he has helped the reader. Actually, the only thing Bell has accomplished is to appease his own problem with the literal eternal punishment connected with hell as taught in the Scriptures. Lest I forget, Bell is guilty of teaching his Christian readers a new way of interpreting the Bible – when you disagree with a biblical doctrine just turn it into a allegory, a figure of speech or a metaphor – a theological massage.
An example of Bell’s shoddy scholarship is his failure to mention Daniel 12:1-2, “But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
Don’t miss the fact that Bell’s theology about hell does not come from his study of the word of God, but more from the study of his own soul that dislikes the concept of hell. How convenient, yet how unscholarly.
A biblical scholar does not come to conclusions based on his likes and dislikes, but his honest adherence to the truths of the biblical text. Bell is sadly deficient in this area, though he’s probably making many people quite happy by diluting Jesus’ teaching on hell.