It’s no big secret that one of Rob Bell’s theological heroes is the former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright.
It’s not hard to see why, given how much they have in common. They share similar perspectives on the kingdom of God.
And both Rob Bell and N.T. Wright have written several books themselves (though apparently one believes in paragraphs and the other doesn’t).
Also, Wright is British. Deep down, I think Rob secretly wishes he was British. (I remember once introducing a friend of mine from the UK… Rob was beside himself with delight the minute he heard my friend’s accent.)
I’m making my way through N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (stop reading and buy it NOW) and just came to a section called “Beyond Hope, Beyond Pity,” in which he explores the biblical notion of hell.
There are a couple of noteworthy points of comparison with Rob Bell’s Love Wins — and one or two points of departure.
First, the points of comparison…
Both writers reject what Wright refers to as “childish depictions of hell” — i.e. hell as a literal “lake of fire” (which is a rhetorically powerful oxymoron if there ever was one) or as a medieval torture chamber in heaven’s basement. However, by pointing out that such caricatures are what drive some Christians to universalism, Wright hints early on that he’s not about to embrace universalism himself.
Both writers agree that much of what the New Testament says about hell, particularly in the Gospels, has to be interpreted in light of its immediate context. In other words, “hell” in the Gospels is not so much about what happens after you die as what happens in the here and now. Or as Rob says in Love Wins, “Here is the new there.”
Also, Wright lends scholarly credibility to Rob’s understanding of Gehenna, the most common New Testament term for “hell,” as a trash heap and/or ancient pagan site outside Jerusalem. Here’s how Wright interprets Gehenna:
When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.
His message to his contemporaries was… unless they tuned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries… Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap.
When Jesus said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish,” this is the primary meaning he had in mind…
Jesus didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming “on earth as in heaven.”
Both writers also seem to agree that hell is not a central theme in the Bible. Rob quickly surveys every mention of hell in the New Testament (or, more precisely, every occurrence of one of three terms commonly translated as “hell”). Wright notes that hell “is not a major topic in [Paul’s] letters” and “is not mentioned at all in Acts.”
Which leads me to ask some questions I’ve raised before: What was it that first drew people to the Christian faith? Was it the threat of judgment? Or something else? In the book of Acts, how many times did the apostles use hell in their proclamation to outsiders? Well, N.T. Wright has answered the last one, and it was zero.
Next up, some points of departure between N.T. Wright and Rob Bell…