Is Rob Bell right about Hell?

I have read the book, “Love Wins”, and found it quite a mess of conflicting views about what scripture says and doesn’t say. Bell is understandably rejecting the idea of unmitigated punishment for lost souls. Bell has apparently embraced Universalism as the answer to this problem and this is where he has erred. Jesus certainly did not say, “

    Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few”

…unless it was true.

When I was very young, I was raised under preaching that talked about God’s wrath, eternal torment, forever free-falling in the Bottomless Pit (no indication that anyone will be thrown into this in scripture!), and being tortured by demons (no scriptural reference to that either!). I spent much of my childhood in abject fear of Judgment Day because the emphasis was on perfection…or else!

I believe that the traditional view of Hell as a place of unending torment is the root cause of Bell’s dismissal of such an end for a person who never hears the gospel. God is a fair, just, and blameless Sovereign. So, what is “just” about throwing Satan, the False Prophet, and all who did not obey the gospel into the same Lake of Fire? To eliminate them from the New Earth and New Heaven, where only righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13, Rev 21:1-5) with an emphasis on God saying “Behold I am making ALL things new.”.

It is absolutely incomprehensible that Satan and Joe Nobody, who never heard the gospel or rejected it because of a bad experience with a false professor of religion, should share the exact same punishment.

This is what causes many to stumble: the idea that God will torment Grandma forever, just like John Wayne Gacy, because she couldn’t wrap her head around a particular theology, even though she was a good neighbor and was a very moral person. Yes, she will be damned to eternal destruction

    because of her unbelief

, but I believe, in God’s fairness, she will suffer much, much less and for a shorter time than Mr. Gacy, or Hitler, for that matter. That’s my opinion, of course, but it’s based on the overall picture God paints us of Himself.

I reject the idea of eternal torment, not because it doesn’t suit me, but because the emphasis on punishment in the Bible is destruction, not never-ending pain and torture. This is the only reasonable interpretation of Jesus’ statement in Luke 12:48 and the emphasis of the “dead bodies” in Isaiah 66:24, which is what Jesus references when He speaks of “their worm” not dying and the fire not being quenched. Jesus states it plainly, when He says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Can anyone argue that God does not know how to destroy both?

Part of the issue is the false notion, propagated by tie-ins to Socrates’ and Plato’s teaching of an eternal soul.

Scripture informs us that only “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” to (Romans 2:6-8). Some erroneously refer to Paul’s writing, “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Paul is explicitly speaking to believers here. How can an unbeliever be able to lay hold of this declaration, “”O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)

The emphasis is on eternal (no recourse) destruction, or punishment for unbelievers. The only thing Jesus says never dies is “their worm”, which simply emphasizes that there will be no halfway consumption or elimination. Eternal death, or the Second Death mean the same thing: absolute annihilation. When something dies, without any hope of resurrection, it ceases to be. I realize that some will say, “Then I don’t care if I go to Hell. I’ll just cease to exist.” While that may be true, there is not a word in scripture about how long it will take for the Lake of Fire to consume YOU! It may be a very, very long time, depending on your level of rejection and sin. Rejecting God’s free offer of forgiveness is not something God takes lightly. “For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)

It’s not a pretty picture for those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” It will not be a place where you will be partying with all your friends (Matthew 13:49-50).

Notice, too, that only at the end of the age (not at the Rapture) will the evil ones be separated from the righteous. This conforms with the order of things in Jesus’ parables concerning the Last Day, when Christ appears and is seen by ALL (Read Matthew 13, again).

The Resurrection of the dead to eternal life in a perfect new world is the Great Hope of the Christian. Period!


4 responses to this post.

  1. I stumbled across your article, while googling for a picture of hell. It was refreshing to read! I’ve recently had a discussion with another Christian, regarding God’s justice and the lake of fire, and you raised some of the same points we talked about.

    In particular, you noted that the teaching of an “immortal soul” is bound up with the common understanding of hell, and that it is an idea especially taught by the Greek philosophers (who thought they had such great minds that they couldn’t possibly be anything but immortal!). These two ideas (immortal soul and eternally burning hell) seem bound together. Take away one, and the other must go also.

    Some of my reasons for rejecting an “immortal soul” are:

    1. It is not mentioned in the Bible (the word “immortal” only ever applies to God, or to the resurrection body);
    2. The wages of sin is death, and death is the opposite of life;
    3. In the Bible, fallen humanity is described with such words as: mortal, corruptible,sick, dead, weak, diseased (Isa. 1:5,6)…but never immortal.
    3. Christ came to give us eternal life (Rom. 6:24)…why would He do this if we already had it? Here is the dividing line between those who are Christ’s and those who are not: one group has eternal life in them, through Christ; the other group “abides in death” (1 John 3:14,15; John 3:36; 1 John 5:11; John 10:10)

    A final reason for rejecting the “immortality of the soul” doctrine is that it is the foundation of almost every Catholic heresy: purgatory, prayers to the saints, masses for the dead, worship of Mary, worshipping images, deifying the Pope, etc., in one way or another, they all depend on this doctrine and flow from it. And, of course, the traditional view of hell, carried over from Catholicism, also depends upon it.

    We also discussed how the word “eternal” (aionos in the Greek) does not always indicate a time period equal to “as long as God exists”. Sodom and Gomorrah suffered the vengeance of “eternal” fire (Jude 7); the Passover was to be kept “forever” (Ex. 12:24); Jonah described his experience as “the earth and her bars was about me forever” (Jonah 2:6). All of these “eternal” or “forever” time periods were much less than the time of God’s existence. But they lasted as long as the subjects they were concerned with: ie. Sodom and Gomorrah burned until there was nothing left…nothing could stop or put out the fire.

    The book of Revelation places the lake of fire at the end of this old earth’s history, just after the great white throne judgement and before the creation of the new earth. Peter refers to the same event (2 Pet. 3) as the burning up or dissolving of the earth, followed by a new earth. This does not fit with the traditional view that hell is a burning place that exists right now, in which the wicked dead go into immediately at death. As well, if the lake of fire were hell, then how strange it would be for God to build His new earth right on top of a pile of constantly burning rubble…?!

    These are a few of the more technical points. It gets more interesting when you start to think about what is the role of this “lake of fire” in the whole battle between sin and righteousness…what is the purpose of it, and how does it reveal God’s character? But I leave that for another post, lest I have overstayed my visit!

  2. Thank you Frank, for your comments.

    I find them to be quite affirming, because what I believe about death and hell and immortality synch up with what you’ve written here and what I see the word of God as saying. I know there are many within my own fellowship who would consider me (and you) heretics, but I feel too many cling to the traditions of men and put far too much confidence in the views of imperfect humans such as Augustine, Eusebius, and others.

    I think, based on your comments, that you would agree that we could very well be wrong in our views, but I think we have much more scriptural support against some of the more fanciful ideas about Hell, everlasting punishment, and eternal doom.

    Regardless of what turns out to be fact, it is our faith in the foundations that we cannot depart from: that Jesus is the Son of God, the only Way and the only Truth, and that through Him we have life everlasting and forgiveness of sins.

  3. PK,

    Let me assure you that I certainly believe in the divinity of Christ, His atonement, and His power to put a new life in place of the old in our spiritual nature.

    Perhaps you are curious about my background: I was raised a Catholic, attended Protestant Summer Bible Camps in my childhood, became more-or-less an atheist in my teens, dabbled in New Age, and finally turned back to Christianity in my early 20’s. At that time I was attending a Seventh-day Adventist church, which lasted for 2 years, in which time I was seeking for an experience of victory over sin, which I later understood to be a proper new birth. (ie. I thought I was a Christian, but I had only been emotionally and intellectually converted…I thought I “gave my heart to Christ” but didn’t really understand what that involved.).

    Seeking for this experience led me into a small church (Sabbath Rest Advent Church) that came out of the SDA denomination (the cause of the separation was over the proper understanding and experience of righteousness by faith). So I’ve been a member of that small church for about 25 years now, and yes, did find the righteousness that I was hungering and thirsting for! The gospel we teach would be very close to that of the early Methodists. Perhaps that little bio will help you understand my background a bit.

    So, while we would still be in the heretic class with you, over this doctrine of non-immortality of the soul, I have the advantage in that I belong to a whole church (of heretics) that believe the same thing! So I understand the joy of Psalm 133:1 in this area.

    I like to think this doctrine as part of the foundation, since as you mentioned we have “life everlasting” through Him. That means we don’t have it naturally. So the idea of non-immortality outside of Christ fits right into the gospel. Christ came to give life, we didn’t have it, therefore we need what He has. I wouldn’t say that a person couldn’t be saved without understanding this distinction, but every erroneous idea makes it harder to find the right way. That’s the problem with error…it makes understanding God more difficult.

    As regards the non-immortal nature of hell-fire, in our church it is not just a small doctrinal point of difference sitting off in the corner. It forms part of a much larger theme of truth which we call “the character of God.” This theme would take hundreds of pages to just explore the basics, but I’ll try to summarize it in a few paragraphs, and hopefully, you will give me the benefit of the doubt if all the questions aren’t answered right away.

    The foundation of this theme is that God’s character is expressed in the word love, and love is defined in the principles of His law. The two great commandments are love to God and love to man. It is essentially, selfless service, irrespective of the cost to myself.

    God’s kingdom is one in which the subjects (us) are to be like Him in character. He asks us to keep His law, because that is His very own character. Unlike earthly kings, who make laws to keep their subjects in order, and which they are not bound to keep, God keeps His own law. Jesus said (in Ps. 40), “I delight to do your will, O my God, for your law is within my heart.”

    Satan’s rebellion in heaven and on earth, attacks both of these points: God’s character, and His law. You can see this very simply at the fall, when the serpent implied that God was holding back something good from man (hence the idea that the law is a restriction, imposed to keep us down), and that God was lying to them (hence the attack on His character…He can’t be trusted, He’s selfish). Satan was proposing to improve God’s government.

    How could God answer these charges? If he terminated Satan’s life, then everyone would think that maybe God was trying to hide the truth. Therefore, it could not be a contest of mere physical strength. What God did was to allow Satan time to prove whether he had a better way or not. And this earth is the testing ground. God would demonstrate His ways through His people, and prove His promise that the way of the Lord was the only way of life and blessing; while Satan would try to establish the opposite claim: that he had a better way. We get glimpses into this behind-the-scenes struggle in books such as Job.

    From Satan’s side, he can use certain weapons that the Lord will never use: lies, error, deceit, murder, etc. And he can also win the argument by wiping out God’s people, because if there’s no godly people left, then the promises of God have failed.
    This he tried to do by wiping out the kingly line in Israel. But he failed. He also tried to destroy the saints in the persecutions of the middle ages and reformation. But this also failed.

    From God’s side, the weapons are truth and love, or simply stated: righteousness. God does not use compulsion to force people to love and obey Him (you can’t force people to love you). It is the demonstration of God’s character, in contrast to Satan’s, that unveils the deception and causes people to leave Satan’s kingdom and join with God. Christ said, “if I be lifted up I will draw all men to myself.” That is how the Lord wins the battle. “Overcome evil with good.” That is also why the cross was the greatest victory in the battle, because Satan was exposed as a murderer and liar (at least to heaven and to those men who had spiritual eyesight), while God was revealed as completely unselfish and loving.

    In winning this battle with Satan, Christ fought strictly by the principles of God’s law: He never lied, killed, stole, cheated, coveted, followed idols, etc. Whereas Abraham tried to gain the promised son by an adulterous relationship, and Jacob tried to get the birthright by lying, and Moses tried to free the people by killing, Christ never did that. He was ever faithful to the principles of God’s law. While it seemed at times that His cause was hopeless and that He would be wiped out, in the end, He won everything.

    This was the “bruising of the serpent’s head” that was foretold in the first prophecy of the Bible. Satan bruised the heel (humanity) of Christ, but Christ bruised his head (the mind or false accusations of Satan). However, Paul at the end of Romans speaks of another “bruising”, this time to be done through the church. This, I believe, is a key to understanding the book of Revelation. The church must give a similar demonstration of God’s character to that which Christ gave, in contrast to Satan’s full development of his character through his supporters. Hence the final struggle in the last half of the book of Revelation.

    Now, if “the wages of sin is death”, and “as you sow, so shall you reap” then it must be clearly demonstrated that the punishment comes as a result of following the way of sin. If God were to personally administer the punishment, by the direct use of His almighty power, then it would not be clear that it was caused by sin. Hence the “lake of fire” or “hell-fire” must be the natural consequence of departing from the Lord and not just a divinely appointed auto-da-fe designed to strike fear into the watchers. It will be the final proof that all those who hate the Lord “love death”. It will finally prove that only “in Christ” do all things “consist” (or hold together). Without Him there to constantly uphold all things, the very elements break apart and dissolve.

    This final destruction takes place just after the final judgement, when the books are opened (Rev. 20:12-15): they see where God has only and ever tried to save them; they see that their end is what they themselves have chosen…a consequence of their own rejection of His love. And all bow down and confess that Christ is Lord (Is. 45:23, Rev. 5:13, Rom 14:11, Phil. 2:10)…that the way of Christ, which was faith and obedience to God’s eternal laws and character, is the only way of life. This will be the final evidence in the battle between Satan and Christ. All will admit that Christ is the victor…not because they are frightened or compelled to, but because they see the evidence, and can only admit that it is so.

    This is, of course, an entirely different view of hell than the traditional one. But I think it makes a lot of sense, and it increases my admiration of God.

    As I said, the full treatment of this subject would take a large book, for there are many questions to be answered concerning God’s apparent behaviour especially in the Old Testament, where it appears that He did use force to overcome or punish the wicked. But there are some very impressive answers to these difficulties which shed much light on God’s character. I will not give them now! Suffice it to say that when Christ came as a man, He came to represent the Father, and very few recognized that revelation, even though they were students of the Old Testament. It is very easy to misread God’s actions. Christ did not, so we do not have to either.

  4. My, Frank!

    That is quite an exposition of why you believe what you do and I wholeheartedly affirm that it makes a whole lot of sense. Of course, I worry that what makes sense to our human minds isn’t necessarily a proof of it being true, either!

    I particualry like the reasoning behind why Satan is not destroyed at the outset. As good an explanation as I have ever heard. You should write the book!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: