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What Do We Know about Hell? Bell and His Critics

Tuesday, 3 May 2011  | David Powys

There are reports of clashes in cyberspace somewhere over North America between senior pastors of some of that country’s largest mega-churches. 

Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Fellowship Michigan, known in Australia for the Nooma video series, has raised widespread ire by asking “would a loving God send people to eternal torment for ever?”  He did so in a small book published in the US late last month, but still not available in Australia - Love Wins

Such was the sensitivity and tension that the controversy raged even before the book’s publication.  Bell was quickly condemned as a universalist, not least by Mark Driscoll of a Mars Hill in another part of America - Seattle!  Bell’s orthodoxy was disputed.  His fall as an Evangelical star was proclaimed by John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in a three word tweet, "Farewell Rob Bell.” 

The tone of many of the early responses was not sadness, but vindication, as though the true colours of a dangerous young rival had been exposed.  Subsequent responses have been more measured, recognizing strengths as well as vulnerabilities in Bell’s publication.  The best have come from Evangelicals in the United Kingdom who have done much more careful work in this area, not least under the influence of the late Dr John Wenham.

Certainty and a need to maintain certainty about things that are not certain seems to be at the core of this furore.  Bell is certain that hell exists, but he is not certain that it will be populated for ever.  The responses have come from people also certain that hell exists, but adamant that it will be populated for ever, because, they argue, of God’s holiness and justice, or to put this another way, because of the gravity of the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

The debate is between people who claim to be thoroughly biblical, and who are conversant with the few biblical texts about hell, but who have not managed to penetrate deeper than proof texts.  There has been little recognition of the role and audience of the ‘hell texts’ in the New Testament.  Both sides treat as certainties things that are in fact uncertain or are but faint themes in Scripture.  In their certainty they have been governed by their starting presuppositions rather than by anything consistently or positively affirmed in the Bible. 

One of these certainties is the ‘child’ of the other certainty.  The ‘parent’ certainty is that every human is naturally immortal, does not and indeed cannot really die, and thus has to be unendingly accommodated by God after their bodies fail. 

Mark Driscoll, in To Hell with Hell (http://theresurgence.com/2011/03/14/to-hell-with-hell), responding to this latest denial of “the classic Christian belief of a literal hell with eternal conscious suffering”, sets out to “simply be honest and say what the Bible says …”.  He embarks on this by responding to this own question ‘What happens when we die?’, to which he answers “God created humans as thinking, feeling, moral persons made up of spirit and body tightly joined together. … Death is the tearing apart of these two intertwined parts …  The body goes to the grave and the spirit goes into an afterlife to face judgment.  The Bible is clear that there will one day be a bodily resurrection for everyone to either eternal life with God or eternal condemnation apart from him in hell.”

I have made a life-long study of these very matters and can vouch that the Bible, read with eyes not clouded by the unhebraic notion of innate immortality, does not ‘say’ many of these things at all.  It does not ‘say’ that we are “persons made up of spirit and body tightly joined together”, nor that “Death is the tearing apart of these two intertwined parts”, nor that at death “The body goes to the grave and the spirit goes into an afterlife to face judgment.”

There are biblical texts, all dealing with topics quite different to ‘What happens when we die’, which can be enlisted through uncertain inference to support this view.  But the texts which directly address this question (ie John 6:35-51; John 11:17-27; Romans 8:18-25; 1 Cor 15:17-26, 35-57; 2 Cor 4:13 - 5:10; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 2 Thess 1:6-10; Rev 20:11 – 21:6) support no such view.  These passages speak of death as real not illusory, of the resurrection of all at the return of Christ, of the subsequent judgment of all, and of this having two possible outcomes – fullness of life in a restored creation or destruction.  None of these texts would reflect the so-called “classic Christian belief of a literal hell with eternal conscious suffering”.

But when the Bible is put to one side, and the starting point is the ‘parent certainty’ of natural human immortality, to the degree that it is evident that many humans end their lives not reconciled to God, ‘hell’ becomes the logical corollary, the ‘child certainty’.   Both sides of the furore are agreed on these two certainties: innate immortality and hell.  But they then divide. 

What Bell has dared to do is question the certainty, not of innate immortality or of the existence of hell, but that hell will be eternally occupied.  He has asked the question, asked quite often down the years of Christian history by those who share his certainties about natural human immortality and hell, whether people may not repent after death.  It is a natural question for those who regard death as illusory not real.  It is not a natural question for those who understand death as real, and so understand death to preclude post-mortem repentance.

The Biblical evidence is pretty clear – we have no warrant to expect post-mortem opportunities for repentance.  Such a notion is completely inconsonant with what was arguably the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching ministry – the call to enter his kingdom before the opportunity was passed.  It would be deeply problematic to suggest that somehow Jesus had not taken into account a possibility of repentance after death!

This has been a disturbing furore, not least because it reveals deep fears, fragilities and inadequacy amongst some world-revered Evangelical leaders. 

Bell has no warrant for answering his question about the numbers eventually in hell with any certainty, but he is right to entertain the question.  He and all others must then leave the answer to the one who knows the numbers and will be judge of all (Luke 13: 22-30), and in the meantime do all possible to boost the numbers to be welcomed because their names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

David Powys has a Doctor of Theology Degree from the Australian College of Theology for a dissertation ‘The Hermeneutics of Hell’ The Fate of the Unrighteous in New Testament Thought.  He is the author of ‘Hell’:  A Hard Look at a Hard Question, Paternoster, 1997.  He is an Anglican Minister who has been in parish ministry in Melbourne for 30 years.


Lindsey Gale
May 4, 2011, 6:36AM
Death is real, all are resurrected and judged and then comes life or destruction. Is there then no hell?
Ron Krumpos
May 4, 2011, 8:49AM
Which Afterlife?

In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

(46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

(59) True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

(80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."
Graydon Colville
May 4, 2011, 8:57AM
Several years ago, a book written by Edwin Fudge (from US) called "Two views of Hell" provided a good introduction to both sides of this topic. Fudge favoured the possibility of extermination rather than repentance after a time of punishment in Hell.

To the best of my understanding, the BIble teaches resurection of the dead rather than the immortality of the soul.

I don't know the answer to the questions but I have a degree of sympathy with Fudge's position as opposed to the eternal torment option.

The knee jerk reaction of many senior evangelicals is rather sad.
Jim Reiher
May 4, 2011, 9:44AM
I have just finished reading "Love Wins" (got it from bookdepository.co.uk) and am glad to have read it.

It was not systematic theology and it was not even academic writing. There is not a footnote or reference in it, and when scripture is quoted (rather, referred to) it does not give chapter and verse. Clearly it was written for a devotional reflection to provoke us to think. It did ask a lot of very good questions that I am glad to think and ponder on.

To be frightened to discuss this topic by truimphant throw-away-lines ("Goodbye Mr Bell", or whatever) is really quite tragic. To repeat doctine as if a mantra where there is a very shakey scriptural base for it (as this article so accurately highlights) is also a mistake. ("that's what I was taught so it must be true!") Utterly inadequate as a response.

Bell raises important questions that wont go away in the modern world. We need to talk and think and pray and read more on these things. For many non-Christians our insistence on an eternity of conscious pain inflicted on the sinner for a finite number of years sin, is a rather horrid thought. it seems like a somewhat monsterous God, to be that intense in punishment. It does not sound like justice. Now, I know that the response by anti-Bell-ites is that the infinite God's holiness is offended by sin and it must be punished infinitely... but you know what? That is not all that convincing an argument. We need to do better than that. God is soverign and all powerful. He can declare what he wants. He could declare that sin has been satisfied by the death of Christ, and he will not require an eternity of pain as its ongoing punishment. God can, in the end, do as he pleases. I am sure some serious theologican for the "anti-Bell" camp will offer better suggestions along the lines of God not being inconsistent with his own character and so being 'locked in' to eternal punishment for sin... or whatever... (I am sure others will unpack that better than I have done here) - and we need to listen to them too.

But really: "Love Wins" is a good book to read and think about. I felt that it was kind of a Protestant version of purgatory being offered to us, almost, but then Bell's many other reflections offer different shades of thought and they are not all the same.

It is definitely worth the read, and if it ruffles us a bit... well... that is probably a good thing. What is the worst thing that can happen? That we stop believeing in a literal eternal hell of pain? At the end of the day, that belief is not a "salvation issue" - it does not stop someone being a follower of Jesus. It does not stop us believing that Jesus' death on the cross paid the price for the sins of the world. And Bell still believes that - he was adament about stressing that in fact. (He just raised other questions about whether people have to consciously call on Jesus by name, to receive that forgiveness ... another good discussion to have, another time!)

Well worth the read.
Neil Bull
May 4, 2011, 9:59AM
David. Congrats on a well thought out and presented article. The body of Christ has for too long taken dogmatic and pragmatic approaches to matters of faith. Faith in its essence contains thing we do not know. Bell is a master story teller, and uses his creative mind (and now his profile) to challenge perception. Suggesting an alternative to an established matter of faith is certainly not in any way heretical.

Is he right? I don't know... but I am not afraid to be challenged. Jesus seemed to spend a lot of his time doing exactly what Bell is doing, that is challenging accepted propositions, and consequently getting religious leaders off side. Maybe there are a few more Pharisees (willing to cast the first stone) than we would like to believe. We live by faith, not by a packaged truth.
David Powys
May 5, 2011, 3:57PM
Anglicans (and others) may be interested to read an article in the May issue of The Melboune Anglican where Dr Behan McCullagh runs a similar line to Bell's, though with more strength. Both writers illustrate the problem with the assumption of innate human mortality.

I look forward to watching the discussion over the coming weeks, and hope that some with fixed views might be prepared to enter the arena. Labelling people is not a helpful way to go.
Andrew Brown
May 6, 2011, 11:59AM
I worry that the popular-level Christian belief in an eternal existence in a fiery hell for the dying non-believer constitutes the ultimate example of "cruel and unusual punishment," an example so extreme that it is ludicrous as well as ghastly (a sentence reduction to a trillion years of burning alive would be a relief). Most importantly, it silences us ethically, if we're consistent, because it proclaims that any amount of cruelty against an enemy is okay as long as you're in the right. It is an ethical absurdity and a theological contradiction. Can we still question the rightness of the 'good guys' producing something like the Dresden firestorm or Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or are we theologically committed to something similar but infinitely bigger?
john yates
May 6, 2011, 9:23PM
Hi David, it must be nearly 30 years since we students together at Ridley. Here are a few little comments.

Whilst I am not particularly engaged by this topic, I do think that you and some of the other correspondents are rather unfair to the traditional position, which would in fact be mine.
Christians are not Platonists, so cannot believe in your "parent" of certainty. Human beings could only be created/preserved as immortal by the sovereign action of God. This is essentially different from some hellenised interpretation of the soul. Your next section on Mark Driscoll repeats his language of body and spirit being intertwined, which is far too easy game for a criticism of it being "unhebraic". We both know there are New Testament texts that speak in a way that radically distinguishes soul/spirit from body e.g. Luke 23.46 "Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.", combine this with Luke 23.43 “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” and I think that Jesus adhered to some form of anthropological duality (not dualism) which makes Driscoll's rather non-technical comments not quite as ludicrous as you make them to be. Some other texts within this general field of thought (a matter which I consider defies analysis) include 2 Cor 12:2-3; James 2:26; Rev 6:9.

To address Andrew Brown's point, " it proclaims that any amount of cruelty against an enemy is okay as long as you're in the right." Andrew would be correct only if we were convinced we had the authority of (not just 'from') God; which of course is idolatry.

Personally, I believe that my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit (and did from the time I first read the Bible as a non-believer) that God would be perfectly within his rights to condemn me to everlasting punishment (which I take to be a moral rather than a physical state by the way).

We could porobably debate this in more detail, considering, for example, the creation of humans in terms of a teleological eschatology (or eschatological ontology) whereby to be human is to be essentially (made by God) oriented to eternal existence, this is an irreducible part of what it means to be in the image of God and is a gift once given he will never withdraw. A sort of grace-of-creation/original blessing postion. What the final (eternal) state will be then decided by whether or not we are "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4), or not, which is death....(by which I mean the sort of death - as - derelction Jesus experienced on the cross Mark 15:34)

If in the end either annihilationism or universalism proves true, so be it! I am not saved by correct doctrine but by grace. In the meantime, both my conscience and the reading of scripture means I hold to the classical eschatology of the church.
Alasdair Livingston
May 9, 2011, 10:40PM
I have not tread Bell's book; nor do I write with any authority except that of one who has read and studied the Bible for 66 years. I had not heard of "innate immortality" until I read of it in these comments. Does it have any Biblical authority? If so, where? It sounds to me more Buddhist than Christian. Under another name, eternal life, Jesus claims to confer it on those whom the Father gives to him (John 6;40, 12;50, etc.)

It is true that the sternest words about hell also come from Jesus' lips: the subject gets scant attention in the epistles, and is taken for granted in the Revelation. But I find the doctrine of predestination to everlasting punishment utterly repugnant: if someone proves it from Scripture, of course, I must submit to it, but such proof would not help my worship of the Father of Jesus Christ. And if in heaven (and I have it on God's promise that I will get there, whether I am right or wrong on this subject) it turns out to be true, the justice of it will be clear to me, for I will be singing "true and just are his judgements" (Rev. 16;5, 19;2). Until then, I am prepared to reject it, or at least put in a "wait and see" box. In short, I have no warrant to consign anyone, or any group of people (especially those who have had no chance known to us to repent and believe the gospel) to hell. Surely, it is God's prerogative to decide whom he will have in his heaven and whom he will not.

The texts on the fate of those who reject Christ are clear: they go to hell. But the texts that speak of their fate there suggest banishment or destruction rather than everlasting torment. Indeed, the commonest word translated eternal does not mean everlasting: it means age-long, and ages (some, not necessarily all) have ends: Matt. 28;20. There are other words or phrases which really do mean unending or perpetual, but they are only applied to divine actions or attributes (Heb. 10;1,12,14. Rom. 1;21. Eph. 3;21. Jude 6). And the poetic description of hell uttered by Jesus in Mark 9, "where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" is borrowed from Isaiah 66;24, where those who worship God gaze upon carcases, not tormented souls. And it is a picture of Gehenna, the rubbish tip in the valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem where in old times children were slain by fire, and where, later, refuse of all kinds was burnt. There, indeed, the worms did not die and the fire was not quenched. And is there not a second death in which death itself, with Hades, is extinguished (Rev. 20;14)? (The relations among Sheol, Gehenna, Paradise and Hades are, to me at least, unclear. Are there not matters we should leave undecided until we are granted perfect understanding?)

A man whose axehead flies off and kills a neighbour is not to be hunted down as a murderer (Deut. 19;5,6), and a woman raped in a field is not held guilty of adultery because if she screamed her screams would not be heard (while the same exemption is not applied to a woman raped within earshot of neighbours. Deut. 22; 23-27). Accidental manslaughter or forced adultery is not worthy of death; can it be, then, that unwitting failure to respond to the gospel (because it has not been heard) is worthy of perpetual torment? Can it be that a code of judgement applies to God which, in human vision at least, is inferior to that which applies to humans?

Three things about hell remain crystal clear: first, it is not the place to be; second, deliberate rejection of God's mercy is a one-way ticket there; and third, we have a cast-iron promise that acceptance of his mercy is our escape. And we could add a fourth: we have an inescapable duty to proclaim that mercy to keep as many people out as, under God, we can.
David Powys
May 19, 2011, 7:21AM
I appreciate numbers of Adasdair Livingston's comments and note that some of them have to do with the doctrine of double predestination. Personally I think that is a 'blind alley'.

Adasdair is right in suggesting that 'innate immortality' is not a biblical term. It is nevertheless, quite wrongly, I submit, adopted as a key and unassailable presupposition by many Christians. In his own sophisticated way I believe that my old friend John Gates illustrates this in his comments (on which see below).

Returning to 'innate immortality' it is important to note that it is quite different from the promise and hope of 'eternal life'. To equate them renders a person a universalist. Further, innate immortality is probably not helpfully compared with Buddhist teachings, though there are some points of commonality between the two.

Thanks John (Yates) for your comments, though as you will have anticipated, I do not agree with them.

I am unconvinced about the helpfulness of introducing terms such as 'Platonist' into the debate. This can distract from the key issues.

You said that "We both know there are New Testament texts that speak in a way that radically distinguishes soul/spirit from body". Friend, you may know that, but I do not, and cannot for the life of me see this in any of the five texts you cite. I submit that you have read these passages constrained by you own anthropological dualism. Jesus' words "into you hands I commit my spirit" means 'into your hands I commit my life'. James' assertion can be read as 'the body without life is dead, just as faith without works is dead'. This is the normal usage of 'spirit' from OT times. Regarding Rev 6:9 you may have a bit of a point - John may have seen real 'souls' if, as the previous seal was opened, he also saw a real 'pale green horse'! We need to remember that 'soul' throughout the bible normally means 'person' or 'living (human) being', and read and interpret vision as vision.

You comment regarding 'everlasting punishment' that you take this to be "moral rather than physical state". On what basis or authority do you do this?

I am unsure about the helpfulness of introducing concepts such as 'teleological eschatology (or eschatological ontology)'. They make our comments inaccessible and sometimes give the impression that our arguments are more robust that they acutally are.

Like you I have no doubt that everything is about grace. Anyway, to cut to the chase, the critical phrase in your second last paragraph is "once given will he will never withdraw" which you take to refer to our being made in God's image and hence 'orientated to' (but you take it to be 'possessing') immortality. I am not sure how you can ague this in light of Genesis 3:22-24, where the first people were put out of the garden lest they take from the tree of life and eat and live for ever.

I find your treatment of 2 Pet 1:4 unconvincing. It is a strange thing to interpret this in terms of 'spiritual death' appealing to Mark 15:34 (see above) rather than noting Peter's own 'interpretation' in terms of 'corruption'.

I regret being a bit forceful, but much is at stake here John - not least how objective the business of interpreting scripture is. If we do not all control our presuppositions we will only bring discredit to our work, to Scripture and ultimately to the Gospel.
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