This chapter is split into two parts (hell in the Old Testament and in the New Testament) and I am going to handle each part in a separate post. I am not out to get Rob Bell or attack him or be antagonistic. I am really trying to read this book as fairly as I possibly can. There are a few places in the coming posts where I am going to really compliment him and applaud some of his thinking.
I say all that nice stuff so that I don’t feel so guilty saying his approach in this chapter is flawed from the very start. Bell starts this chapter by stating a few common conceptions of hell as a place of torment and God’s wrath that is in store for the wicked. He says we believe that to be the case because God is so loving?…loving unless you cross him then it is eternal torment for you! Is that what the Bible teaches? He doesn’t think so. His purpose in this chapter is to “show you every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word ‘hell'” (p.64). His purpose is to say maybe there is more, or less, to hell than what we thought.
The overarching flaw in this chapter is this – you cannot tackle a concept in scripture by doing a key word search. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you wanted to do a study of Jesus as a servant. Would it be very complete if you limited that study to only the specific times Jesus said the word “serve” or “servant”? If you did you wouldn’t catch any of his miracles. You wouldn’t study him washing the feet of his disciples. You wouldn’t even study his act of service in his incarnation or his crucifixion and yet those are the most important ways Jesus served humanity. The flaw in Bell’s approach is that the concept of what happens after we die is not summed up very well by a few key verses that use this term or that.
Old Testament concept of hell (pp. 63-67):
His statement that the OT is pretty vague on hell is accurate. He is also right that their conception for what took place after death was Sheol. That was believed to be a place all of the dead would go, not just the good or the bad. He is also right that the OT affirms the belief that God has power over life and death and is involved in what happens to people after they die. But then you get to this sentence on p. 67 that concludes his thoughts on the OT concept of the afterlife, “The precise details of who goes where, when, how with what and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with.” The bone I have to pick with that is that the Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead. They believed there would come a time when judgment would come and God’s people would be bodily raised to new life (1 Sam 2:6). They also believed in the judgment of the dead and the punishment of the wicked (more on that in a bit). So yes, Sheol is a general place they believed the dead went after they died but that doesn’t mean they believed everyone had a common fate. He is correct to say that what happens isn’t articulate with total precision but that doesn’t mean they had no concept of the judgment of the dead and its connection with reward and punishment. They had OT scriptures to back them up:
- Isaiah 33:14 – everlasting burning for the wicked
- Isaiah 66:22-24 – a very vivid depiction of God’s creating a new heaven and a new earth for those he rewards but eternal punishment for those who rebel against him
- Isaiah 50:11 – fiery torment
- Daniel 12:2 – “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt”
- Malachi 4:1-3 – ““Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. 3 Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the LORD Almighty.”
If it is judgment this side of the grave then how can it be everlasting? How can it be everlasting burning if there is no burning and it isn’t everlasting? If new heavens and new earth come when creation and humanity are redeemed, as Rob points out in the book, then isn’t the context of Isa 66:22ff eschatological? And if it is then shouldn’t we take seriously the picture he paints of judgment and punishment on those who rebel against God? So you can deconstruct the OT concept of hell and judgment to some degree if you just stick to where Sheol is used. But if you are more interested in the overall concept of eternal judgment in the Old Testament, rather than just proof texting a single term, a much bigger picture emerges that isn’t even hinted at in this book.
To bring this full circle, let me quote one of his questions in the beginning of the chapter and then answer it,
“Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
That’s all part of the story, right?” (p.64)
And I don’t say that arrogantly or smugly. It is tragic that God loved us enough to grant us freedom of choice and in spite of all of that people choose someone or something else. The tragedy is not a lack of love or power on God’s part. The tragedy is our own pride and arrogance and selfishness that results in rebellion and devestation to self and others. Love allows it because love allows choice. That doesn’t make God any less loving or any less powerful if people are punished for their rebellion because we are the ones who brought evil and rebellion and wickedness to the table, not God.
[referenced Bauckham in the Anchor Bible Dictionary entry “Hades, Hell” to help wrap my mind around this and make sure I was coming at this appropriately/informed.]