Love Wins Analysis: Chapter 3: Hell (Part I)
[This is part IV of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Note: Chapter 3 on Hell has been broken up into two parts due to excessive length.]
Rob Bell reiterates the typical conceptions of hell to start with:
“Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
So he goes on to show his readers every instance of the word “hell” in the Bible. He tackles the Hebrew scriptures which make references to Sheol, “a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die” (p. 65) and “a few references to the realm of the dead.” Bell concludes that “affirmations of the power of God over all of life and death” and “God’s presence and involvement in whatever it is that happens after a person dies” are consistently found in the Old Testament scriptures “yet very little is given in the way of actual details regarding individual destinies.” He wraps up this section by saying the Old Testament “isn’t very articulated or defined on what happens after a person dies” (p. 67).
“Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a bit vague and ‘underwordly.’ For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with.”
I still have no arguments with Bell so far. But then, he tackles the New Testament and things start to get interesting.
“The actual word ‘hell’ is used roughly twelve times in the New Testament, almost exclusively by Jesus himself. The Greek word that gets translated as ‘hell’ in English is the word ‘Gehenna.’ Ge means ‘valley,’ and henna means ‘Hinnom.’ Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem.
Gehenna, in Jesus’s day, was the city dump.
People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out.”
I had never heard of Gehenna translated in this way. (Again, my frustration with the lack of references.) So I had to put the book down and go searching to verify everything on my own. And what I discovered surprised me.
Bell is correct that Gehenna means as Valley of Hinnom. What’s interesting is that Bell leaves out the Valley of Hinnom’s original purpose, and I’m not sure why.
According to Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary (and a whole host of Biblical sources), Gehenna started out as the place where idolatrous Jews and followers of Ba’al, Moloch, and other Caananite gods would sacrifice their children by fire. Gehenna was eventually turned into a garbage dump to discourage this practice. (source: Encylopedia Britannica, 2008)
The bodies of animals and criminals (along with other trash) were consumed by a fire that constantly burned day and night. Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with the history of Gehenna and its never-ending fire: first, for idolatrous child sacrifices; then, for burning refuse. The purpose of this place is not good.
Bell lists all mentions of Gehenna aka hell in the New Testament: Matthew 5, Matthew 10, Matthew 18, Matthew 23, Mark 9, Luke 12, James 3. Bell even generously throws in Greek words: “Tartarus” from 2 Peter chapter 2 and Hades in Matthew 11, 16; Luke 10, 16; Acts 2; Revelation 1, 6, and 20.
“And that’s it.
Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word ‘hell’ in the Bible they got from those verses you just read.”
It seems simple, doesn’t it? But there are verses upon verses in the New Testament in which the word “fire” is used in what would appear to be references to hell/Gehenna. And Bell doesn’t address what the “lake of fire” is in Revelation 20:14 and how it’s possible for “Death and Hades” to be thrown into it. A cursory search of the word “fire” in the ESV of the New Testament yields 72 results. Not all of them are a reference to hell, but they’re probably enough to make Bell’s argument about hell being mentioned a few times look a little weaker.
But Bell does not address this and appears satisfied that hell isn’t explicitly mentioned by Jesus in more than 10 chapters of the Bible. He continues on:
“So how should we think,
or not think,
Bell gives various anecdotes about suffering in the world: Rwanda, a raped woman, suicide, people who are intent on being cruel.
“I tell these stories because it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected. … We are terrifyingly free to do as we please.
God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.
We can have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.”
Christians who subscribe to Reformed theology will have a hard time digesting what Bell says in the book from this point on. Not because he supposedly denies the existence of a literal hell but because he stresses the freedom to choose God. Bell appears to be a major proponent of free will, a doctrine that is opposed to the Reformed theologian’s view of God’s sovereignty over all things.