What the “Hell” is Going on with All of the Latest Hell Talk?

March 15, 2011 | By | 1 Comment

It seems like everyone is talking about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. In the past couple weeks, I’ve had more discussions on the subject of hell than ever in my life. It seems like a lot of people are interested about the subject, though I suspect a lot of the interest is more related to the current controversy surrounding Bell, Justin Taylor, and John Piper’s tweet.  In fact, The Gospel Coalition, an organization that I really find a lot of common ground with, has announced that their 2011 national conference will include a discussion on the subject of hell (“God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty”).

Furthermore, Christianity Today’s Mark Galli weighed in and then quickly reviewed Love Wins (Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far). We’ve also had the likes of Albert Mohler, Scot McKnight, and even Brian McLaren sharing their thoughts too. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Many, many other people have posted their thoughts too. In fact, The New York Times and CNN both added to the conversation with their respective pieces. All of this before the book was even released!

So the book finally came out on Monday. I haven’t read it. I don’t plan on reading it, though I’m sure I’ll end up owning a copy. It’s not that I don’t think the subject is important (I do) and it’s not that I don’t enjoy lively theological discussion (I do). It’s just that I thought everyone knew that Bell was (and would continue to be) less than “traditional” on issues related to hell (or judgment, etc.) and with most evangelical positions. I mean, is this that big of a surprise? As Trevin Wax reminds us, Timothy Stoner clearly let the “cat out the bag” when he wrote,

“Okay,” I said, “I get that it is important to listen to other ‘stories.’ I get it that other points of view need to be given dignity. And I agree. But” – and here I took a breath for dramatic effect – “at the end of the day, is Rob saying that there are other stories that can lead to God? Is he just creatively repeating that old line from the 1900?s that led to the split between liberals and fundamentalists? Does he believe, down deep, that those who sincerely follow other roads, who pursue justice and compassion, even though they reject Jesus, will be saved?”

There was the moment of silence that inevitably follows explosive verbal gambits. What I didn’t expect was the fervor of the response.

In our small coterie, there was a young man who knew Rob personally. He had been a founding member of his church, had served in leadership roles, and so was on a first-name basis with him. After that split-second of quiet, he blurted out, “Of course that’s what he believes!”

The statement was not to be derogatory. It was an affirmation…” – The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditation on Faith

Maybe I’m just detached from the emotional roller coasters that have been running every night. I hold to the “traditional” view of hell because I believe it is biblical. And I also think having these conversations can be helpful and that they need to take place.

Anyway, Tim Challies reviewed Bell’s book, and so has Kevin DeYoung. Both reviews confirm the very suspicions that Taylor, Piper and a host of other people had. All the people suggesting that we need not “jump to conclusions” were, in fact, wrong about Bell’s message. The message of the video (posted here) is most certainly the message of the book. But are we really that surprised? Bell is a brilliant communicator (how many times have you read that?) and a genius when it comes to provoking theological discussion and questions… but a conservative evangelical who holds especially to the party lines of Reformed Theology? No. Not at all. I guess I can really relate a lot to what Hank has written at Think Wink – there hasn’t been a lot of grace involved in this conversation.

Now, I want to make clear here several things. I write these things as one who is both a very convinced Protestant Evangelical and one who is essentially Reformed (i.e., I’m a “five point” Calvinist). But those labels don’t equate, in my mind, with being quick to become angry, quick to speak, and slow to listen. They imply the exact opposite (James 1:19) because I hold to the doctrinal position of Sola Scriptura. I can’t comment on whether Taylor or Piper or Mohler or any of the other guys who came out strongly opposed to Bell… I can’t comment on their intentions or their emotional makeup. I can simply say that on one hand I agree 100% with what they have said or written, just not 100% with the way that it has come across.

I have friends and family members who would agree 100% with Bell’s view. I hardly doubt that they would be persuaded by some of the initial warnings though. They could, however, be persuaded a lot by DeYoung’s review. Maybe, maybe not. But it seems far wiser to wait and read a book before issuing a review or statement about it. Thankfully, Taylor’s original post was not a review of the book, it was a review of the video promoting the book (see DeYoung’s response in support of Taylor here).

Wow. That’s a lot of writing about writing about hell.

Hopefully you can wade through some of this and be better informed when you have some of these discussions with your friends and family. I really encourage you to read DeYoung’s review. Towards the end he gives some pastoral reflections that are worth the read.

One final word must be said about Brian McLaren. When he commented on the Bell situation, he wrote:

“It was fascinating to see people throw the “h” word around at that point in my writing career (“h”eretic) … without actually grappling with the issues and questions the books raised (such as the fact that the concept of hell never exists in the Old Testament – an obvious fact, but one that is surprisingly little known in the average pew).” (emphasis mine)

Now, I need to say something here because this is classic McLaren theological “reflection.” He clearly states that the concept of hell never exists in the Old Testament. Thousands of his readers will take that statement and say, “Amen.” In fact, they become just as ignorant as the “average pew” person that McLaren addresses.

But hell isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament? Really? It never is found?

Again, McLaren says the concept of hell is absent from the OT. How does that square with the biblical data? It doesn’t. It’s ridiculous.

Regardless of the fact that there is debate concerning how some of the OT texts are interpreted (and applied), there is plenty of material that should caution such a ridiculous statement. No concept of hell in the OT? Tell that to Daniel I. Block, who wrote an entire chapter on hell in the OT in Hell Under Fire. What about texts such as the following:

“For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.” (Deut. 32:22)

“A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:10)

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Dan. 12:2-3)

Is the concept of hell really completely absent from the Old Testament? These are just a few passages that would indicate otherwise. There are more. So perhaps the person in the pew isn’t all that ignorant, Mr. McLaren. Plus, we need to consider all the implications of the Hebrew word sheol, not just the ones that fit into our nice box.

Finally, I don’t want anyone to go to hell. I’m a Calvinist who doesn’t want anyone to go to hell and yet I also believe that there is a hell and that people will go to it. So those who say that all Calvinists are “hell-happy” need to slow their wide brush strokes!

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About the Author (Author Profile)

Luke Geraty has been married to Dawn for 12 years and they have four children, plus one on the way! For the past seven and a half years, he has served as the lead pastor of Trinity Christian Fellowship, a Vineyard Church. In his spare time, he prays, reads, blogs, writes, disciples, plays video games, drinks coffee, and eats sushi... but not simultaneously. Actually, that's not true. Luke is a multi-tasking extraordinaire who likes to juggle. Aside from leading in a local church, he is regularly involved in coaching and training leaders and providing support for local churches from a variety of traditions. He has earned a B.Th., M.Div. and is working on an MA through the University of Birmingham (UK) with the hopes of eventually completing a Ph.D. in some esoteric theological field... like ecclesiology in the rural church. Learn more about Luke here.
  • http://www.thinktheology.org Paul Poppe

    It surprises me too that Bell’s position on hell has surprised people. What surprises me more is how many people in the church actually believe that his questions and answers fall within the realm of theological orthodoxy. We need a new reformation because we don’t know our Bibles.

    When it comes to how we respond to Bell it seems to me that we are too sensitive to what people think of our warnings. We don’t want to be thought of as harsh or reactionary. However, in a situation that puts people’s souls in danger I think we need to cry out and stop worrying about whether or not people think we are mean. If your child is about to run into a busy street do you worry about what your neighbor thinks before you call out to them to come back into the yard?