That's my initial summary of the third chapter in Love Wins. For Rob Bell, as he works his way through the whole Scriptures, hell is real for Jesus.
Not only is hell real, it is a real experience that begins now, in this lifetime, for far too many people. It can be an individual experience, or it can be the torment of a whole society. For Jesus, hell is a future destination for those that refuse to repent from their sins - for those individuals who stubbornly live according to the evil in their hearts - for those societies that fuel chaos and corruption. It's a future destination as soon as tomorrow - and as far away as the day of your death.
Hell, for Rob, is a consequence for our sins. Jesus makes that really clear. But it also seems to be clear in Scripture that God intends consequences to be corrective. God brings judgment and punishment to us for the consequences of our sins so that their might be repentance and restoration. And Rob deduces that God purposes the same for the experience of hell - in this lifetime and in the one to come.
The chapter gets broken down into two main sections: an exploration of the Scriptures that explicitly refer to the place of hell. The second section refers to those Scriptures that are clearly about judgment and punishment, but don't mention hell. In his summary of this Scriptures, Rob is searching for what is the revealed purpose of hell, who goes there, and where is it.
In the first section he briefly examines the Hebrew word Sheol and then the Greek words Gehenna, Tartarus, and Hades. These are often translated as hell in the KJV and most modern translations. Rob comments that Sheol and Hades carry similar connotations - a murky underworld, a dark abode of spirits of some sort. The Hebrews are very imprecise about the nature of Sheol, mostly using words like grave and pit to describe it. The Greeks have a vivid and rich mythology surrounding Hades and Tartarus, but at the end of the day, it is netherworld of sorts for all people like Sheol.
Then there is Gehenna - the real place known as the Valley of Hinnom on the south and west side of Jerusalem. Rob focuses on the legend that Gehenna is the city dump. This is an unproven theory. What is known specifically is that it was the place of child-sacrifice by Jewish kings where they burned up in the fires a son or daughter to idols. Their practices were an abomination to God and the cause for threats of impending judgment and punishment. Rob would have been better off citing the Scriptures own reference to the Valley of Hinnom as a valley of graves, a place of slaughter, a place of curses with a legacy of abominations and wickedness.
Those are the references to hell - only one of them points to a real place, the others point to ideas that get loosely translated as the grave. A far cry from the vivid imagery we've come to believe about the terrible flames of hell that are the dancefloor for a prancing devil with his pointy tail and jabbing pitchfork.
Rob asks: How should we think, or not think, about hell? (70)
He is not about to waver from a belief in hell. He challenges those who say they don't believe in hell or that are uncomfortable with the idea of sin. "My first response is to ask, 'Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?' Some words are strong for a reason. We need those words to be that intense, loaded, complex, and offensive because they need to reflect the realities they describe." (72)
This is an important point for Rob: the repulsiveness of hell is intended to reflect the repulsiveness of our own personal and collective sins. We are repulsed by a notion of hell as punishment - but Jesus intends for us to see how repulsive is our individual sins and the chaos of cultures in decay. We need detestable visions of hell to help us see the detestable nature of our unconfessed and stubborn sins. They wound and hurt others - and hell helps us imagine the consequences for us, for how our sins ruin others.
Sure Jesus uses hyperbole. Cutting off limbs will not prevent more lusting. But it makes the point. And so do the Lord's hyperbolic descriptions of hell. Rob uses the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as an example of this. The point of the parable isn't to describe the literal physical features of hell, but to point out the consequences of not loving one's neighbor. God will judge and punish those who don't love their neighbor. The rich, though they consider themselves blessed, will be punished for their refusal to love their poor neighbors. And Jesus reminds them of this old prophetic theme by using imagery of Hades.
There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.
There is hell now, and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. (79)
This is really the point of the chapter - pointing to ethical behavior that reflects the heart of Jesus' teachings to the disciples and Pharisees and anyone else who would listen.
The second part of the chapter focuses on those passages about judgment and punishment. Before he gets into specific Scriptures, he makes two observations that will help keep this whole conversation in context. He discusses the political context of Jesus' teachings, as well as the religious audience to whom most of his words about hell and judgment and punishment were directed.
Judgment and punishment for not loving one's neighbor, for Israel rejecting the Messiah, for individuals not embracing God's way of peace and insisting on resistance to Rome - this all came to pass in 70AD. Jesus' warnings had "now" implications. To reject him, to not repent of their sins, to continue in their rebellion to God's ways would lead them to a confrontation with Rome which result in their destruction. Slaughter in the Valley of Hinnom could have been avoided had the religious leaders and others followed the ways of Jesus.
Teachings of hell and judgement and punishment were most often made to the religious people - to those who thought they were "in" and part of the covenant people, the believers. God didn't refer to coming destruction as incentive for pagans to convert, but to religious people who failed to obey God's word to them in Jesus.
In this political and religious context, Rob points out Jesus' use of Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of judgment and punishment. He'll go on to refer to Scriptures from the Prophets. The point he will be making is that God's judgment and punishment is corrective and redemptive in purpose and effect. His example with Sodom and Gomorrah is a bit weak and unconvincing. Rob effectively makes the point that Israel will be judged more harshly than Sodom. I suppose one can then deduce that since the harsher punishments that Israel will receive are still corrective in nature, so it is for Sodom. Sodom's sins of inhospitality and injustice to the poor are similar to the evils of Israel - except that Israel had God incarnate come and instruct them, and still they hardened their hearts.
For people are not cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to any human being. [Lamentations 3v31-33, TNIV]
Return, Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
and return to the LORD.
Say to him:
“Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
Assyria cannot save us;
we will not mount warhorses.
We will never again say ‘Our gods’
to what our own hands have made,
for in you the fatherless find compassion.”
“I will heal their waywardness
and love them freely,
for my anger has turned away from them. [Hosea 14v1-5, TNIV]
The LORD has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.” [Zephaniah 3v15-17, TNIV]
Judgments have a purpose, punishment is for the sake of correction, for inducing repentance.
In the New Testament Rob points out the Apostle Paul handing Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan [1Timothy 1v20], a punishment intended to bring about correction. Another similar example is given in 1Corinthians 5v5.
This punishment is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention. (90)
Finally, Rob deals with Matthew 25 and the idea of eternal punishment. Interesting that those that get eternal punishment are those that do not give a cup of cold water to Jesus. One would think that it would be for not confessing Jesus as Lord, or believing in him, or praying to receive forgiveness of sins. Rob points out that the Greek word used for punishment carries with it the meaning of pruning or correcting. And as for the idea of eternal, he goes back to his insistence that it doesn't mean unending, but rather something like a period of time. Aside from the unconvincing ideas on eternal, the point remains that the punishment will go on as long as there is stubborn refusal to repent. Resisting correction requires the punishment to go on and on and on.
For Rob, hell is real.
It is both a present experience and a future one.
Hell is the consequences for our individual and society-wide sins.
Jesus gave us hyperbolic descriptions of hell to catch our attentions - to reveal the true nature of the effects of evil within us and around us.
Our repulsiveness to hell should result in a repulsiveness towards the effect of our sins upon our neighbor - and thus prompt repentance and restoration.
The consequences of hell are to be corrective. Judgment and punishment are from God, as an act of justice, to stop the horrific sinning, and to provoke repentance and restoration.