Following Up on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Yesterday, I posted an entry about Rob Bell and his latest book, Love Wins. in it, I noted that I think Rob’s theology is a bit loopy and that his definition of hell is different from my own. Today, I want to take my thoughts a bit further and point out where Rob misses the point of many of the Scriptures he uses in his book.

Let me say this about Rob, in defense of my review of his book. I think Rob has confused the eternal destiny of the unrighteous with what I call the hints of hell in our present life. His book describes quite accurately the hints – or perhaps echoes – of hell in our lives. He sees the suffering and misery and violence and injustice of our world and cries, “Isn’t that proof of a hell?”

And I would agree. The hints of hell in our world are proof that unrighteousness exists, and I think they are signs that hell is real. What happens with Rob is that he is trying so hard to connect with people on a relevant level that he focuses on the hints but misses the reality. At moments he glimpses it, crying out, “Hell is MORE REAL!” than the hints we see, but then he backs away.

I think Rob is in earnest, and I’m not one to throw him to the wolves and that is why I wrote what I wrote yesterday. I won’t back away from my thoughts because they were my honest impressions.

I do believe that Rob addresses some Scriptures in the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel primarily) that most evangelical or even broader forms of Christianity fail to address. These passages which discuss a restoration on a global scale are often ignored in most Christian theologies of the end times (called eschatology) because they are complicated and difficult. We like the idea of a nice simply, “I go to heaven when I die” theology, but that is not what the Bible teaches.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today, I want to start with a brief statement about eternal destinies in general, and clear up some mistakes I think Rob made. Then, I want to deal specifically with the eternal destiny of the unrighteous. I will address the destiny of the righteous in a later post.

Why Heaven and Hell are Inaccurate Descriptions of Eternal Destiny

In our congregation’s statement of faith, we have the following statement on the end of all things:

We believe that Jesus will keep his promise to return to earth as our Lord, King and Judge. We believe in the bodily resurrection of the saved and the lost, and the final judgment of all people to either eternal joy in the presence of God or to eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire.

Notice anything missing?

There is no mention of heaven or hell. Do you know why? Because the Scriptures make it plain that heaven and hell are not the eternal destiny of the righteous and unrighteous, respectively. Rather, the righteous will enjoy fellowship with God in the New Jerusalem, a mountain set in the new heaven and new earth, while the unrighteous will be cast into the Lake of Fire with death, hell, the false prophet and all that is Antichrist. (Revelation 20-21)

The Hebrew Scriptures and sheol

So, where do the dead go in the meantime? Let’s look first at the Hebrew Scriptures and what they say.

There are various terms used in Scripture for the intermediate states – where people go when they die until the events described in Revelation 20-21.

  • In the Torah, when a patriarch died, he was said to be “gathered to his people”. (Genesis 25:18, 35:29, 49:33, Numbers 20:24, Deuteronomy 32:50)
  • Likewise, in the Former Prophets, we read of the kings of both Israel and Judah dying, and the motif is “and he slept with his fathers”. (1 Kings 2:10, 11:43, 14:20, 2 Kings 8:24, 14:22, 20:21, 2 Chronicles 9:31, 12:16, 14:1, 21:1. It is used 36 times.)
  • The Hebrew authors use the term sheol, which means simply “the place where the dead go” with a certain ubiquity that can be frustrating because we really don’t know much about what the word is supposed to evoke. As a result, it gets translated a lot of different ways. All together, the word appears thirty some times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here are just a couple examples:

“For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase,
and set on fire the foundations of the mountains. (Deuteronomy 32:22)

“When the waves of death compassed me, The floods of ungodly men made me afraid; The sorrows of hell compassed me about; The snares of death prevented me; In my distress I called upon the LORD, And cried to my God:” (2 Samuel 22:5-7)

Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do?
Deeper than hell; what canst thou know?  The measure thereof is longer than the earth, And broader than the sea. (Job 11:7-9)

What is interesting is that the Hebrews did not seem to distinguish a place of the dead for the righteous and for the unrighteous. Sheol is described as a place of torture though, and it doesn’t make sense that the righteous went to a place of torture. There are also these references to joining those who died before you, which further complicates things.

In Christian traditions, this is usually explained using Jesus’ narrative of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:14-31). Many traditions say that before Christ died on the cross, the dead all went to sheol but the righteous were in a place called “Abraham’s Bosom” and there was a divide between them. Then, when Jesus died, he went to hell and “led captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:18) and then hell (Sheol) filled up that space.

For me, this is not a completely satisfactory answer. I think there is a lot to be learned yet about the way the Hebrews viewed the afterlife and used the word sheol. It does seem to signify a single idea, and it has tangible meaning to it, but I don’t think we know enough about what was intended by the word and its varied uses to make a judgment as to what the Hebrews believed or didn’t believe. What they definitely did believe was that people die and there is more afterward, that physical death was not all there was to life.They also did seem to believe that whether you were righteous or unrighteous had some bearing on what happened afterward.

There are huge passages of the Hebrew Scriptures dealing with the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth (like I said before, in the Latter Prophets, which most Christians refer to as the Major Prophets) and those have direct bearing on the righteous dead. I’ll deal with that in the next post.

On to the Christian story.

Gospel Terminology Used by Jesus

The New Testament is not anywhere near as vague. In fact, it is quite clear from the teachings of Jesus that there is a difference in how the righteous and unrighteous fair in the afterlife. In the Christian testament, the gospel writers use two words for the afterlife.

  1. Hades, which is a Greek word borrowed from the Greek god of the dead.
  2. Gehenna, a borrowing from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, which appears in the Hebrew Scriptures from the latter kingdom of Judah as a place of idol worship (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31-32, et al)

(There is a third word that only appears once, Tartarus. It is a Greek place of darkness and torment for the wicked, but it only appears in 2 Peter 2:14 and in a verb form.)

I don’t think it is a mistake that the former Jews who wrote the Gospels used terms tied with Greek mythology and Canaanite religions when referring to the place of the unrighteous dead. It is a very intentional move on their part. The Gospel writers are turning the Gentile terminology back on the Gentiles. When Jesus spoke in Aramaic and used whatever word he used, the Gospel writers were there. When they sat to pen their gospels in Greek, they intentionally chose these words.

This is where Rob makes a bad interpretation of Jesus’ words. He doesn’t think about the words. He doesn’t give the Gospel writers (and the Holy Spirit) enough credit in their word choice. The Greek speakers who received these gospels knew what Jesus was trying to say. This was an intentional association.

Think about it.

Let’s look back at Luke 16:19-31. Go ahead. Read it.

In Jesus’ narrative, the rich man is “clothed in purple and fine linen.” Who wore purple in Jesus’ day?

The Romans.

Again – an association with the pagans, but why? Because they were pagans? No, because they were oppressors and rapists, because they were captors and destroyers, because their culture was focused on the satisfaction of human desires and the pursuit of success at the cost of others.

In short, the Romans represented everything that Jesus was teaching against.

Hades is for the unrighteous. Not for those who do not assent to a creed or say a sinner’s prayer. It is for those who do not follow the way of Jesus – which is the way of GOD.

What about Gehenna? The word is self-explanatory, isn’t it?

Read Jeremiah and you find that this is the valley where the devotees of Canaanite gods burned their own children. It was the place of fire long before the time when it became the garbage pit that most commentators use to interpret the word. Jesus probably did use this term directly, and he uses it to again turn things on their heads. The place where once kings burned children now becomes the place where their spiritual successors will burn, the people who would sacrifice children to get ahead, who are of their father the devil – both ideas Jesus uses and condemns.

Gehenna is the fires of pagan sacrifice consuming the worshipers of pagan gods, any god who is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – even if that god is yourself.

Gehenna is for the unrighteous.

The Lake of Fire

And in Revelation 20, John writes that death and hell have an end that is not an end. This is what appears there:

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13-15)

Previously, John had already pointed out that the lake of fire was a place of torment “day and night for ever and ever.” Despite Rob’s efforts to show that eternity does not mean never-ending, there is no denying the Greek that underlies this. The Greek phrase, just like the English, is a doubling. It literally means “age upon age.” In Greek, this form is used to indicate infinite or unmeasurable scales. This is not purgativepruning away your wickedness. This is everlasting and unending.

Can I be honest? I’m with Rob on wishing that this condemnation was not eternal. That’s why I understand him as being in earnest. I would love for this passage to not be in the Bible, but it is. End of discussion on that one.

Who goes?

Of course, the biggest criticism of Rob’s book was that people said he advocated universalism – that everyone ultimately gets to be in ‘heaven’ (this is a misuse of the word heaven, for one thing – but that’s for another day).

I actually don’t think Rob’s point was that clear. He uses the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) to illustrate that God confronts us with “his story” of our lives.

In the parable, one son goes off and squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father believing he is worthless. His father receives him and says, “NO! You’re my son, returned from the dead!” and throws him a party.

The other son has remained with his father and gets mad that his father is celebrating his brother’s return. He believes he is worthy, and the father says, “Hey, you’re not worthy. You’re no better than my other son. You can’t earn my love. I was with you the whole time.” This other son completely misses the point – that this whole story is about the father, not about him.

I think, and I could be wrong, that Rob’s point in using this parable was that it is not about the good we do or the sin we commit. Ultimately, ‘getting into heaven’ is about whether we will accept God’s truth or not. In other words, when I come to God with my own version of my story – either being worthy or being unworthy – God says, “No, your story is found in my Son Jesus and I accept you as resurrected in Him. Come into the party.” Maybe I am reading my own feelings into Rob’s writing, but I thought that was what he was saying.

But I digress.

My Final Thoughts

Let’s be clear.

This is where I have no doubt that Rob is struggling with the wrong questions.

Who goes to hell?

I think Rob has it right, even if I misunderstood what he was trying to say. The people who go to hell are those who refuse to listen to God, who refuse to hear their story as he wants it told.

But here is where Rob goes wrong. The story is not my story but Jesus’ story.

Who goes to hell?

Those who refuse to be united with Jesus in the resurrection (Romans 6:4-7). What Rob missed about the prodigal son is what I mentioned above. The father says, “My son was DEAD, and is alive again!” (Luke 15:24)

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:17-18)

Everyone wants to talk about the question, “Why would a loving God send people to hell?” And that’s the wrong question. Jesus says we are condemned ALREADY. And the condemnation doesn’t come from him. It comes from me. It comes from you. It comes part and parcel with being sinners.

Who goes to hell?

The dead. That is who death and hell give up to be judged in the passage I started this whole thing with in Revelation 20. The dead are those who have not partaken in the resurrection.

The dead are those who are not in Christ.

The dead are those who want to believe their own story and come to God with their own version of righteousness.

They are eternally condemned.

Rob is right in that hell is present in people. It is inescapable.

Except in Christ.

Rob did stop short of spelling that out directly. I wish he had. It would have made this whole controversy much simpler.

Because it isn’t about the hell we create or the heaven we hope for.

It is about the living Jesus Christ, who once was dead and calls the dead to rise with him.