New Testament concept of hell:
Bell starts this discussion with the word “Gehenna” that is translated “hell” in the New Testament. He points out that this valley was used as a garbage dump in Jesus’ day. That is a point that is apparently in dispute (see Bob’s link from the previous post comments). But the way he presents The valley of Hinnom ignores the history of this place and all the bad vibes it had in Jesus’ day. Bell, “The next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, ‘Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere.'” (p.68). Even if it was just a dump, it had more meaning than that in their day. If it wasn’t that at all, as the link above tries to prove, then much of what he has to say here is shot right out of the water. It had a history that was chocked full of meaning and that I would assume Jesus’ listeners were familiar enough with to get the connection with Jesus’ teachings on judgment and punishment. Ahaz and Manasseh sacrificed their children in that valley by burning them in an idolatrous/pagan worship practice (2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6). Jeremiah saw the place as a very dubious and heinous place. God told him to renamed it “the valley of slaughter” because the Babylonians had massacred Jews there and threw their bodies in the valley (Read about this place and the judgment God will bring to it in Jeremiah 19…it is graphic and terrible). They knew that history. So the next time someone asks if you believe in an “actual hell” you can tell them you do believe in a dark place where evil is practiced and punished…yes, you believe in the place of slaughter and judgment. I am not trying to sound harsh when I say that. I am trying to be biblical and mirror his example with one that is actually biblical.
The Jewish writers just prior to the first century had formulated their own thoughts about that valley and what it symbolized. As mentioned in the previous post, writings near the time of Jesus’ ministry started developing the idea of a fiery judgment of the wicked. Those writings (Sirach, Enoch, Baruch, and others) located the place of that judgment in this valley. They didn’t make this up out of thin air but had some scriptures in the OT to back them up (like Isaiah mentioned previously).
What does Bell teach about Gehenna?
- It was a valley outside Jerusalem that served as the city dump (p. 68-69)
- It was often on fire as people burned their trash
- Of the dozen uses in the NT all but one are from Jesus, the other is in James 3
He summarizes the passages where Jesus uses those words…nothing real specific and then concludes the Gehenna section with, “Gehenna, the town garbage pile. And that’s it.” (p.69)
Well, that’s not exactly it because his summaries didn’t really teach us what Jesus was teaching in those instances. Here is what Jesus taught about Gehenna:
- It is preexistent (Mtt 25:41)
- It is present for the destruction of the wicked (Mtt 5:22, 13:42, 50; 18:9/Mark 9:43)
- The punishment is eternal (Matt 25:41, 46)
- Its fire will not be quenched (Mark 9:43, 48)
Next he deals with the word Tartarus but there really isn’t a lot to deal with on that one. Then comes his discussion of Hades. He is right that it is the Greek equivalent of Sheol. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word Sheol into Hades so there is a lot of overlap in the concept. His point is the verses are few. That is true but just because the verses are few does not lead to his conclusion that, “anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word “hell” in the bible they got from those verses you just read.” His point is because there are so few verses we might have assumed many things that aren’t true. The problem is, like with his handling of the OT, he doesn’t include any verses where the concept of hell and eternal punishment are VERY clear in the New Testament. He avoids them by just sticking with the verses that contain either: Gehenna, Tartarus, or Hades and leaves out the multitude of verses that give us a clearer picture of the concept of hell in scripture.
Which verses might that be (this list is found in Watson’s “Gehenna” article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary)?
- Heb 10:26-31 – “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
- 2 Peter 2
- Jude 7 – “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”
- Rev 19:20 – “But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.”
- Rev 20:10 – “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”
- Rev 20:14 – “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” (He mentions Rev 20 as a place the word “Hades” is in the text but doesn’t tell you what it says).
So what is Bell’s view of Hell?
- He believes we need strong words like hell for the strong emotions we feel in the face of anger. They are useful in our grief (p.72)
- He points to the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to say that even in torment the rich man hadn’t figured out that he still needed to die to himself and that he hadn’t got it because he was still requesting Lazarus to serve him. Somehow he missed the point that he really wanted water because he was in torment.
- Hell doesn’t begin after we die (p.78ff). I agree. We can be so evil or so selfish that we create our own hell right here and now. That doesn’t negate the fact that, like heaven, hell is pre-existent someplace else simultaneously. He doesn’t mind that point being made about heaven both here and now and its continuity into eternity. He does say, “There is hell now and there is hell later and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (p.79). He says it but somehow it doesn’t jive with the rest of what he is saying.
To be fair, he does say on p.79 that he is going to deal with those passages that deal with hell but don’t use the word. What he does there is to point to a bunch of passages that seem to say God judged people but still offered them hope. But those passages are exilic verses about the return and restoration of God’s chosen people. He is trying to show that while it appeared bleak and God had judged them and punished them that God still had room for them. The problem is, these aren’t verses about eternal punishment. These are verses about temporal, here and now punishments. So while they make the point he is making if you strip them from their context, a careful exegesis of them doesn’t support Bell’s thesis in this chapter.
He says, “failure isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.” (p.88). That is true if you are lucky enough to have survived the exile long enough to make it home and see the restoration take place. It is not so true if you were one of the guys who died back in Babylon angry at God for sending you away from home to be tortured and brutalized. So I agree that in one sense failure isn’t final otherwise none of us would have a chance. But there can come a point in time when our failures are final. A second way he tries to make this point is through Paul’s handing people over to Satan for correction in Paul’s letters to Timothy and in 1 Corinthians (p.89-90),
“It’s as if Paul is saying, ‘We’ve tried everything to get his attention, and it isn’t working so turn him loose to experience the full consequences of his actions….’ The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention.” (p.90)
I think that is exactly what Paul is saying there. But Bell assumes that handing people over to Satan always results in something good because the intention behind it was good. I don’t think that is the case. It is possible to hand someone over to Satan and them never come back because that person still has a choice of which way they will choose to go…closer to God or closer to Satan. While we hope the discipline works there is no guarantee. So seeing even handing someone over to Satan as a positive thing doesn’t really work out, in my opinion. That is not a hopeful place to be with someone.
He concludes the chapter with this,
“We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
And for that,
the word “hell” works quite well.
Let’s keep it. (p.93)
There is his definition of hell in a nutshell. Is that scriptural? Does that tell the whole story?
I want to conclude this post by saying I think Bell has the best of intentions. I think he is passionate about God and God’s love for people. If you read this book he makes that obvious. So don’t doubt his intentions and motives. I think they are pure. I don’t agree with where they seem to be headed in all instances in this book but I have been reminded of a few things I needed to hear and many of us will be struck with the strong connection he makes between eternity and right now and the implications that has on our morality and ethics. Many, many people need to be reminded of that. The burden is really on each one of us to figure out what we believe and why. This book has helped me shore up my own thinking on this subject so I am grateful for that at least.