So this is where it gets complicated.
Rob Bell begins his chapter on hell by surveying every mention of it in the Bible. Which, frankly, doesn’t take long, because the Bible hardly ever mentions hell by name.
Semi-related side note: Some of hell’s most ardent defenders (now there’s a cause to get behind) are quick to say Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. What they fail to mention is that Jesus wins the “let’s talk about hell” contest by default, given the relative lack of competition.
So what does Rob say about hell? He begins by arguing that humans can reject God’s love — that we are “terrifyingly free to do as we please” (p. 72). And when we do so, we bring hell on earth. Because if we’re not bringing heaven on earth… well, there’s only one other option.
Now, to conclude from this that Rob doesn’t believe in a place called hell (as some have charged) is to ignore pretty much everything he says on pages 78-79 of Love Wins, including the quote I started this post with.
Nor is it fair to say that Rob goes soft on evil. No one who has witnessed the lingering effects of genocide in Rwanda (as Rob has) could possibly deny the presence of evil in our world.
And no, Rob doesn’t just go after the so-called “social sins,” a.k.a. the pet causes of the evangelical left, as some have suggested. It’s more accurate to say that Rob doesn’t make a big distinction between “social” and “personal” sins. There is, in essence, no such thing as purely personal sin.
But like I said, things get complicated in chapter three of Love Wins.
Because Rob seems to argue, starting on page 83, that (a) hell isn’t necessarily forever and (b) all judgment, including hell, is restorative.
Now, as I wrote in an earlier post, if you denounce everyone who entertains the prospect of a second chance in hell, then you’d better be ready to burn any C.S. Lewis books you have lying around.
Still… there’s the question of how Rob makes his case.
For example, he notes that God promised to “restore the fortunes of Sodom” in Ezekiel 16. Which leads Rob to suggest the story might not be over for Sodom (p. 83-84).
I think Rob is reading way too much into one line at the expense of the larger context. In Ezekiel 16, the prophet accuses Jerusalem of outdoing Sodom in the sin department. He writes:
Your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.
So what about this promised restoration? Well, for starters, there’s no reason to believe this passage has anything to do with matters of eternal destiny. As Rob himself notes on page 67:
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.
Ezekiel declares that Sodom’s fortunes will be restored for the purpose of shaming the people of Jerusalem. God is saying, in effect, “Look, I’m going to bring Sodom back from the ash heap of history just to show you (Jerusalem) how much worse you are by comparison.” Which isn’t exactly the same as saying there’s hope for Sodom, because it’s not really about Sodom.
Then Rob looks at Matthew 10 (see page 84), where Jesus said it would be “more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment” than for any town that refused to welcome his disciples. Does this mean there’s hope for Sodom, as Rob suggests? Or is Jesus simply saying that however bad it may be for Sodom, it’s going to be even worse for those who hear the good news (a chance Sodom never had) and reject it — and worse, humiliate those who bring the good news?
Unfortunately, Rob doesn’t take into consideration what Peter and Jude have to say about Sodom—that its destruction serves as an example of what awaits all who persistently, defiantly reject God.
Then, starting on page 86, Rob cites more than a dozen Old Testament passages to support his belief that judgment is always restorative. He writes:
No matter how painful, brutal, oppressive, no matter how far people find themselves from home because of their sin, indifference, and rejection, there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever.
But there’s a problem. These texts refer to judgment and restoration in this life. It’s not insignificant that they all come from Old Testament prophets, for whom judgment and blessing were primarily, if not exclusively, “here and now” issues. (Remember, the Old Testament lacks a well-defined concept of the afterlife.)
Later, Rob cites a New Testament passage where Paul talks about handing two of his opponents “over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.” Whatever this means — and yes, it is an example of restorative judgment — the thing to notice is that these people are still alive when they are being judged.
In the end, none of these texts seem to address the question of judgment after death. It’s one thing to hope that because God’s judgment in this life is (almost) always restorative, there might be a chance at restoration after death. But it’s an entirely different matter to say this is definitely what the Bible teaches — especially when you base your argument on passages that seem to address judgment in this life only.
That being said, Rob raises another important question in this chapter. When the biblical writers talked about judgment (and they did — a LOT), who exactly did they have in mind? More to the point, who did Jesus have in mind when he talked about judgment?
On page 81, Rob alludes to the fact that Jesus never used hell to try and convert pagans, outsiders, or the non-religious.
This is an important nuance, particularly in light of Mark Driscoll’s recent post (in which he wildly oversimplifies the “traditional” doctrine of hell and common objections to it). Mark claims, “More than half of [Jesus’] parables relate to the judgment of sinners.”
Maybe so. But who exactly do you mean by “sinners”? Because if you look at the context of these parables, judgment is almost always (if not always) targeted to those on the inside. The religious. And especially the religious leaders. The “sinners,” meanwhile, are the ones who end up dining with the Messiah.
In Jesus’ day, religious Jews (again, especially the religious leaders) often assumed that because they were circumcised, or because they could trace their bloodline to Abraham, they were automatically “in.” People began to think of themselves as “predestined” (and everyone else as, well… not predestined). And they forgot that when God predestines someone, it’s always, ALWAYS so they can share the blessing with others — with the un-elect.
That’s what it meant for Abraham to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12). That’s what it means to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). After all, what is a priest but a conduit to God?
The point is, yes… Jesus talked a lot about judgment. Sometimes he mentioned hell, sometimes he didn’t. But pay close attention to who was on the receiving end of his judgment diatribes — and who wasn’t.
And in case I haven’t babbled on long enough, check out Ben Witherington’s excellent post on hell, who’s going there (and who isn’t), and how long they might be there.
Next up, chapter 4.