The chapter on Hell (Chapter 3) did not impact me the way the chapter on Heaven did. Or, more accurately, it left me much cooler toward Bell’s message. And what, exactly, is this message? To the best of my ability to tell thus far, Bell is wanting to widen the stream of interpretation. Like many of the new generation of preachers who are generally lumped under the “emergent” category, Rob Bell is hoping to open new discussion on a theological concept that has seemed closed for so long. But I can’t help but wonder, why he spends so much time criticizing and, indeed, ridiculing the old paradigm and showing how new interpretations can be valid, while ignoring why the old paradigm exists in the first place. Throughout Chapter 3, Bell re-examines verses that specifically mention hell (or in this case, Gehenna and Hades) and that imply hell. But in a typically post-modern way, he doesn’t draw concrete conclusions, only inferences. The closest the reader can come to finding a direct thesis is that the concept of hell is to give a term 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 and God’s way.” (Love Wins, 93) Bell insists that this word is “Hell”, but didn’t it already exist in the word “sin”? Isn’t the concept of fallen creation big enough to encompass this? Perhaps we could revisit the concept of “bent” in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, or examine the creation of the Orcs as a perversion of the Elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythologies for Middle Earth. The concepts of sin and fallen humanity already exist. And while Hell does give a visceral reaction to the day to day atrocities committed from humanity’s insistence on going its own way rather than following God, I’m not convinced this is the extent of the term. And while, yes, many of the verses quoted by Bell that show punishment do have the idea of restoration or “pruning” of the flesh so that one can be redeemed, there are also verses that imply on-going torment or complete annihilation. The Book of Revelation, while ending with creation restored, does involve punishment for the humans whose names are not found in The Book of Life. These humans are cast into the same Lake of Fire as Satan, and are either tormented or destroyed, depending on how you read it. Truthfully, I see more evidence in The Bible for annihilation, but not so much for universal restoration of humanity. But Chapters 19 and 20 from Revelation are curiously missing from Bell’s chapter on Hell. I would initially chalk that up to wanting to avoid the book, which it totally understandable. I’d be hesitant to get behind any concepts or arguments that draws almost exclusively from Revelation, but Bell does refer to chapter 21. I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt here.
But back to Hell as sin. I totally understand why Bell would redefine Hell in this way. We live in a society which does not have a true understanding of sin. We view it primarily as not doing the right thing, but “the right thing” is a somewhat vague and nebulous term, especially when some would throw murder, adultery, watching R-rated movies, and playing cards into the same pile. Sin has become a type of legalistic morality rather than any action or thought that separates us from God. Yes, there are distinct things that God wishes for us to do and not to do, but there are many more things that are somewhat neutral and depend on the attitudes and motivations of our hearts. These tend to flow from self-centeredness. But the average American probably doesn’t see this in the word sin, they would merely think it means doing the wrong thing, being. Thus, Bell is using the word hell and all the baggage it implies to bring a new understanding of what happens when we focus so much on our selves that we ignore the good in others or their needs. He uses the imagery of hell to show what happens to a world when people refuse to live as God would have them to live. He has brought a new understanding to sin by characterizing the results of sin. And while this is a worthy task, I feel that he is somewhat incomplete in his picture. By combining hell and sin in this way, it limits the consequences of sin to this life. Hell is what we do here and now to one another. But what of the next life? If there is complete reconciliation, then hell in the next life is nonexistent. But if there is not reconciliation, then the actions we take and the motivations that drive us will have consequences. These consequences are endlessly speculated upon, but if there is no reconciliation, then not only has sin been misunderstood, but so has hell. Both terms are then inadequate. Communicating the gospel to post-modern America is much like the mission field, where we must find ways to communicate old ideas so that they have more meaning to the audience. Unfortunately, I fear that this is not what Bell is doing. I fear he is merely trying to make the gospel more palatable for people who don’t like it. In doing so, he makes certain aspects of Christianity (social justice, love) a primary focus, while minimizing concepts such as the spiritual consequences of sin and the death and resurrection of Christ himself. If we are all reconciled, then the cross was important, but we need not accept it. We merely need to accept the good teaching of Jesus, while rejecting his person and claims to divinity. If we are not reconciled, then the whole package of Jesus is of utmost importance. Is this a tenant of Christianity that we can really afford to lose?
That said, it is possible Bell is merely building on an idea. As of chapter three, my primary concern with the book is that I don’t entirely like how Bell is choosing to communicate his message. I grant that this is personal, not theological in nature. I’m not a scholar of the Greek language, so I can’t really comment on his translation of aionion. I do think he occasionally reads too much into certain verses, specifically the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as well as Jesus’ words on Sodom and Gomorrah’s judgement, attempting to get meaning out of the verses which isn’t quite there. But so far, I don’t believe he has done anything horribly wrong, so long as he is using each chapter to build toward a conclusion. He may later address the concerns I mention above. So, onward.