Love Wins Analysis: Chapter 3: Hell (Part II)
[This is part V 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. You can find Part I on this chapter here.]
Bell retells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus because it the most vivid description of hell we get from Jesus. Bell points out that the rich man is able to communicate from hell to Abraham in heaven. After ignoring the poor man Lazarus in his earthly life, the rich man in death wants Lazarus to serve him. He tells Abraham that he wants Lazarus to fetch him water then says that he wants Lazarus to warn his family of what’s in store for them in the afterlife. Bell’s perspective of this is insightful:
“The rich man wants Lazarus to serve him.
In their previous life, the rich man saw himself as better than Lazarus, and now, in hell, the rich man still sees himself as above Lazarus. It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart! It hasn’t changed, even in death and torment and agony. He’s still clinging to the old hierarchy. He still thinks he’s better.”
Bell expounds on this some more:
“Jesus teaches again and again that the gospel is about a death that leads to life. It’s a pattern, a truth, a reality that comes from losing your life and then finding it. This rich man Jesus tells us about hasn’t yet figured that out. He’s still clinging to his ego, his status, his pride—he’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on the top and Lazarus on the bottom, the world in which Lazarus is serving him.
He’s dead, but he hasn’t died.
He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life.
He’s alive in death, but in profound torment, because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living.”
I don’t disagree with Bell at all. A few pages later, Bell says brilliantly:
“There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”
With this statement, Bell does not deny the existence of hell “in this age or the age to come.” However, I do take issue with a few statements prior to this, mainly because they start to muddy the waters, making his belief in hell seem unclear.
When Bell talks about the rich man, he says that the rich man “hasn’t yet figured out… that the gospel is about a death that leads to life.”
Yet is an important word. Its implication is that even though something hasn’t happened, there’s a chance it will. I believe Bell is a man who chooses his words carefully so when he says that the rich man hasn’t yet figured things out, it’s because if he does (in due time), only then he’ll be able to live “the only kind of life that’s worth living.” Bell doesn’t give any indication that the rich man is forever shut out and utterly without hope. In fact, through Bell’s recounting of this parable, the dead rich man has more hope of life than I’ve ever heard before.
From pages 75-79, I infer that Bell thinks people can get a second chance after death if their heart changes. When Bell says that the “chasm… can’t be crossed [because] the chasm is the rich man’s heart,” I get the impression that if the rich man’s heart changes, then the chasm can be crossed.
So far, I’ve concluded that Bell believes hell exists (on earth and in the afterlife) and that people really do go there. It also seems that Bell says people can choose hell because they cling to an “old hierarchy” of belief but if that belief changes, they can move from death unto life even in the afterlife. Statements later on in the chapter give me the impression that Bell believes judgment for hell isn’t final, isn’t forever, and that God is a god of second and third and multiple chances until we get it right.)
“What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.”
Is your head swimming yet? Because mine is.
Bell goes on to reference Ezekiel 16 in showing that Sodom and Gomorrah’s fortunes will eventually be restored and quotes Jesus in Matthew 10 in which he says, “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you.”
Bell overall concludes that if there’s still hope for a place like Sodom and Gomorrah (widely thought of as being condemned forever) that no longer exists, then there’s hope for everyone outside of these towns.
“Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final,
judgment has a point,
and consequences are for correction.”
I don’t know how Bell lines up this thinking with Hebrews 9:27 which says “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Hence, the book raises a question for me that the author never addresses.
Bell begins to wrap Chapter 3 up by speaking of restoration and quotes how God over and over in the Old Testament, especially among the minor prophets, speaks of the restoration of His people. (Note: there is no wider context given among the 10 verses on restoration that Bell lists.)
Bell ends Chapter 3 with this summed-up definition:
“To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word 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 heats all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
And for that,
the word ‘hell’ works quite well.
Let’s keep it.”
Chapter 3 proved to be a rather challenging chapter on a variety of levels. It forced me to read critically and question nearly everything Bell said, especially since many things weren’t referenced. I’ve already challenged some of Bell’s statements in order to, perhaps, paint a fuller view of the issue, but really, I really just touched the tip of the iceberg.
On page 80, Bell uses Jesus’ statement from Matthew 26 in which he says those who “draw the sword will die by the sword” is used to depict Jesus a strictly non-violent, pacifist leader.
“To respond to violence with more violence, according to Jesus, is not the way of God.”
But in Luke 22, Jesus encourages his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords. When the disciples said they had two swords, Jesus replied, “It is enough.” (v. 38) If Jesus was extremely non-violent, he would’ve discouraged the disciples from even arming themselves. Even though Jesus worked through non-violent means, it doesn’t mean that his entire philosophy is non-violent. I think Jesus really embodies Ecclesiastes 3, but on this issue, his philosophy was probably more along the lines of verse 8’s “a time for war and a time for peace.” To paint Jesus as a total pacifist would be misleading.
Or perhaps let’s also tackle page 89 in which Bell says:
“‘Satan,’ according to Paul, is actually used by God for God’s transforming purposes. Whoever and whatever he means by that word ‘Satan,’ there is something redemptive and renewing that will occur when Hymenaeus and Alexander are ‘handed over.'”
Whoever and whatever? Of a lot of the things in this book, I have a serious problem with Bell flippantly referring to Satan as “whoever” and “whatever.” And it makes me extremely uncomfortable that a pastor of a Christian church (emergent, it may be) puts Satan’s name in quotes as if he’s not real, doesn’t exist, or is a figure of speech for something humans are not sure about. Having read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, this kind of talk gets dangerously close to how McLaren refers to evil.
Toward the end of the chapter, Bell pulls out the Greek dictionary again to translate words better, and I’m frustrated and annoyed. It’s not just Bell who does this though; many pastors do this. It’s as if they’re saying “the English translations we have aren’t good enough so let me translate this a little bit better for you.” Really, of the 25+ English translations out there, you couldn’t find one suitable to reference so you had to retranslate it for us yourself? Do people who don’t have access to the Greek worse off because they’re reading something that hasn’t been translated to its best extent in the English language? (Oh, this kind of stuff gets my rankles up.)
On the flip side, Bell sometimes says things that challenge my conceptions of how I traditionally view Christian teaching. If I can’t find anything scripturally that contradicts Bell, I pause to consider the truth in what he says. (Mind you, I will not take an opposing view against Bell simply to be belligerent.) I quote pages 82-83 because I think his view his striking:
“Many people in our world have only ever heard hell talked about as the place reserved for those who are ‘out,’ who don’t believe, who haven’t ‘joined the church.’ Christians talking about people who aren’t Christians going to hell when they die because they aren’t . . . Christians. People who don’t believe the right things.
But in reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word ‘hell,’ what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point. He’s often not talking about ‘beliefs’ as we think of them—he’s talking about anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of his listeners’ hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world.
Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.
This is not to say that hell is not a pointed, urgent warning or that it isn’t intimately connected with what we actually do believe, but simply to point out that Jesus talked about hell to the people who considered themselves ‘in,’ warning them that their hard hearts were putting their ‘in-ness’ at risk, reminding them that whatever ‘chosen-ness’ or ‘election’ meant, whatever special standing they believed they had with God was always, only, ever about their being the kind of transformed, generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood.”
Overall, Chapter 3 was a challenging read. There was no way to walk away from it without thinking one of three things:
- My beliefs and preconceptions on hell have been reinforced as a result of reading this chapter.
- My beliefs and preconceptions on hell have changed as a result of reading this chapter. (Even if it’s ever so slightly.)
- My beliefs and preconceptions on hell have not changed as a result of reading this chapter but have given me a different perspective that I had never considered before.
I fall into category 3. I certainly don’t agree with Bell on a lot of things, but he makes many good points about not overlooking the hell here and now in favor of the hell later. Christians would do well to heed some of his warnings.