Shortly before Love Wins came out, I started reading the New Testament for Lent. Since Rob Bell had recently blown up the Interwebs with his provocative promo video, I decided to make note of every passage mentioning judgment, either directly or indirectly.
I finished just before Good Friday. I wound up with 75 some-odd pages of notes. For me, the experience affirmed much of what Rob says in Love Wins. But it clarified some areas where I have a different understanding of hell and judgment, too.
In general, I’m more convinced than ever that Rob has started an important conversation. We need to wrestle with the questions he raises Love Wins, not dismiss or distort them. Above all, we need to explore these questions without the vitriol that’s characterized much of the discussion to date. (This is, after all, the week of the Rally to Restore Unity.)
Here are some general observations…
1. Judgment is part of the New Testament story… a BIG part.
Like I said, 75 pages of notes.
It’s hard to read the New Testament and NOT get the impression that a day will come when God separates good from evil, darkness from light — banishing one from his presence. Maybe forever.
There’s hardly a book in the New Testament that doesn’t address judgment head-on. (Possible exceptions include Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John — all of which share one thing in common: they’re tiny.)
Speaking of tiny…
2. Hell is a tiny part of what the Bible has to say about judgment.
If you’re trying to craft a New Testament theology of judgment, you won’t get far by doing a word search on “hell.” In most translations, “hell” occurs just 23 times. And it may not even be the best translation, since “hell” is used for three different terms — each of which had a distinct meaning and origin.
I’ve said it before; and after reading the New Testament, I’ll say it again: our picture of hell owes more to a medieval caricature than it does the Bible. The fiery torture chamber that many of us imagine has little to do with the biblical picture of judgment.
3. Not all judgment is restorative.
This is one of the really big questions that Rob raises in Love Wins: do people get a second chance after death?
C.S. Lewis explored the idea of postmortem salvation in vivid detail. Martin Luther accepted the possibility, but cautioned it’s purely speculative. It can’t be proven from Scripture, he argued.
And that’s pretty much the sense that I get.
In the New Testament, there’s a strong hint of finality to judgment — or at least one aspect of judgment. Maybe those in hell can repent (as Lewis suggested) between now and some future, final judgment (i.e. the judgment depicted near the end of Revelation). But there’s a strong indication that at some point the curtain will drop. And whichever side you’re on, that’s it.
It’s one thing to suggest that “everlasting” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it does, as Rob argues in Love Wins. But even if that’s so, there’s still the matter of words like “destruction” and “death,” which have an unmistakable ring of finality.
4. Annihilationism and conditional immortality are at least as plausible as eternal conscious torment — if not more so.
The fact that the Bible talks about “everlasting destruction” and “second death” is a big part of why I believe in an irreversible judgment.
It’s also why I think we should take annihilationism and conditional immortality more seriously. (They’re two related but different theories of what happens to those who reject God.)
In my journey through the New Testament, I found two passages that I think could be read to support the notion of eternal conscious torment. There were a heck of lot more that talk about destruction, death, etc. Not exactly happy stuff. But as John Stott and others have noted, it’s hard to reconcile these images with the evangelical notion of eternal conscious torment.
5. Judgment is focused on those who knowingly, persistently reject God and work at cross-purposes with him.
The Bible has a lot to say about judgment. The question is: judgment for whom?
Judgment, as depicted in the New Testament, seems focused on a rather narrow set of people.
In the gospels, Jesus mostly directs his judgment diatribes at religious insiders — i.e. those who should’ve known better and rejected him anyway. In his letters, Paul refers to the judgment awaiting those who knowingly, consciously reject God. Revelation depicts judgment as vindication for the persecuted faithful.
I didn’t find a single passage where judgment is directed at those who’ve never heard about Christ or those who heard a toxic distortion of the gospel. These are questions the New Testament doesn’t address directly, but there is reason to believe that people aren’t judged for their ignorance.
6. Simplistic, dismissive answers will not do.
When you ask about the fate of those who never heard the gospel, there’s a tendency in some circles to quote Acts 4:12.
As if that somehow settles the matter.
As if this passage is somehow talking about those who never heard.(It’s actually a warning to the Jewish religious leaders that if they reject the Messiah sent by God, no one else is going to come and save them.)
It’s one thing to say Christ is the only way to God. It’s another matter to presume to say how God can and can’t use Christ to bring people to himself.
Quoting a single line of Scripture — out of context, no less — doesn’t do justice to the immensity or complexity of the questions at hand.
We have to do better than that.