Hell and Theology

If so be that it is righteous thing with God to recompense affliction to them that afflict you, and to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all them that believed (because our testimony unto you was believed) in that day (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).

In the past year there has been a significant controversy within many parts of “Christendom” in regards to hell, its existence and nature, discussed in terms of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Yes, I know that I am late coming into the game, so to speak; nevertheless, I have had an opportunity to read Love Wins along with Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell and some other resources in regards to this issue.

Many of the pertinent issues have been addressed well in other places; I especially recommend Erasing Hell toward that end. What has interested me is just how much we learn about our theology based upon our understanding of hell.

The very word “hell” and our reactions to it tell a lot about our theological inclinations. Some shudder at the concept are convinced that it is the bloodthirsty concept of some less developed society. Others prove very comfortable with the idea, and most often are quite sure that it is for all sorts of other people and not themselves. These are the extremes, and most everyone else falls somewhere in the middle.

These theological inclinations come out when arguments about hell are presented. On the one side, God’s love (or, perhaps better, human conceptions regarding what God’s love must be) is maximized, suggesting that His love for mankind demands that hell either cannot exist or cannot exist permanently for whatever reason. On the other side, God’s wrath is maximized, leaving many to wonder how anyone could ever be rescued from it.

Therefore one’s view of hell says a lot about one’s theology, and understandably so. Hell is one of the most challenging and contentious aspects of Scripture, not only about the place itself and its function, but what it says about God in terms of His love and wrath, justice and mercy. Since the Bible speaks of God’s love, God’s wrath, God’s justice, and God’s mercy, it becomes very easy to get distorted and overemphasize some of these to the detriment of others. This exacerbates the problem, for very often believers are tempted to react to the distortion of others and themselves distort in the opposite way. Finding balance is hard enough on most issues; finding balance when it comes to how we understand who God is and the presence of hell is that much harder!

This is my greatest criticism of Rob Bell’s presentation of hell: it demonstrates a distorted theology. Much can be read about God’s love in Love Wins, but there are few, if any, references to God’s wrath or God’s justice. Although I am quire sure that Bell is aware of the passages in the Bible speaking about God’s exhortation for Israel to commit ethnic cleansing (1 Samuel 15), the swift execution of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-13), and even discussion of God’s wrath as poured out in the Judgment (Romans 2:4-11, 12:19-21), but there’s no hint of wrestling with or grappling with these realities in Love Wins.

I will grant that there is plenty of bad theology and bad eschatology out there, and there are plenty of people whose view of hell and what goes on there is more influenced by popular cultural theories than what is in Scripture. There are people who seem to revel in God’s wrath; one has to wonder if such people have soberly considered Amos 5:18-20!

But if theology is going to be a useful practice, it must be based not in what I think or whatever “groupthink” comes up with but what God has revealed about Himself. Rob Bell knows this and speaks frequently about his opponents and “what kind of god” it is they believe in. But the same criticism can and must be leveled at him as well (as well it should be for all of us, and a good corrective for all of us): is the “god” presented in Love Wins (or in my theology, your theology, etc.) the Creator God who revealed Himself to Israel and through Jesus, or is it an idol that may have some resemblance to the God revealed in the Bible but full of distortions based upon culture, society, and other factors?

It would probably be good to attempt to explain what Bell is trying to say about hell. This is not easy to do since he never comes out and provides a full explanation. From my attempt to understand the book, it seems that he understands hell mostly in terms of all of the pain, misery, and injustice experienced on earth. He seems to think it honorable of himself that he says that there is a perfectly good word to describe all of the evil in the world, and that word is “hell.” It does seem that Bell believes that there will be a place in the next world that is separated from God; he suggests that most people in that place will then realize how terrible it was and is to be separated from God and that most, if not all, will desire to be reconciled back to God. He asks whether God will say “no” to such a person in that condition (and we’re supposed to believe that God will not tell such a person “no”), and thus believes that everyone will get another chance in the afterlife to be reconciled back to God. This, in his estimation, is how “love wins.”

There are a lot of evils on earth; there’s a reason why people speak of “hell on earth.” Nevertheless, the better word to describe such things is hellish, not hell. Jesus is perfectly aware of the problems of pain and evil in life, but when He speaks of the condemned, he speaks of their fate as one where the worm does not die and the fire is unquenched (Mark 9:47-48), a fiery furnace or the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:41-42, 49-50, 25:30; it is worth noting that when Bell describes what Jesus says about hell, he focuses on Jesus’ use of gehenna but entirely ignores the other images Jesus uses to describe the same place). To speak of earthly evils as “hell” is not to use the term properly; it is to dangerously minimize the power and the import of the term. What happens on earth is bad, but it is only hellish. From everything we gain in Scripture, the actual hell is far, far worse!

I found Bell’s question about whether God would say “no” to people who would want to reconcile with Him yet find themselves in hell to be a desperate plea; in fact, the minute I read it, I thought of the following passage:

“Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us.’
But he answered and said, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not.”
Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:11-13).

Here we have an instance of people who wish to get that “second chance,” but they come to a shut door.

One can only wonder how Bell would reconcile such a question with Paul’s:

And reckonest thou this, O man, who judgest them that practise such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:3-4).

Why would Paul be worried about anyone despising God’s forbearance and longsuffering unless he envisioned a time when such foebearance and longsuffering would cease?

And, of course, there remains Hebrews 9:27:

And inasmuch as it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment.

Bell is convinced that all the passages that speak regarding God “reconciling all things to Himself” means that all people at some point will be fully reconciled to Him, and yet without that premise, the entire concept of a post-judgment chance at reconciliation falls flat. There is no Scripture that speaks about it; all the Scriptures speaking about the Judgment have an air of finality about them.

The implications are worse. People are carnal; we have numerous examples of well-intentioned doctrines being distorted by people to justify their immorality. In Bell’s doctrine, it would not matter if one lived completely sinfully on earth without repentance; they could receive reconciliation after the Judgment. Bell would not advocate for this, but it won’t take too long for people to draw that conclusion from what he has said. And, if it is possible to be reconciled back to God after the Judgment, is it also possible to fall away from Him after the Judgment? Where do we hear of these matters? Why are they being introduced?

We have no reason to believe that God’s reconciling all things to Himself will involve the reformation of all persons and entities who are in rebellion against Him; in fact, we know as much, based upon Matthew 25:41 and 2 Peter 2:4: Satan and his angels will experience eternal fire and we have no indication that they will be reconciled back to God. Therefore we have no reason to believe that those cast into that fire with Satan and his angels will be reconciled back to God, either.

All of this has been well-covered by others in more effective ways. I do find it interesting, however, that the one thing Bell does not seem to analyze or question much is this “love” which wins.

And this is the trap: it’s our assumptions that often get the better of us. In the entire book there is a tone that says that God’s love is incompatible with the “standard views” on hell.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

Bell understands that coercion and compulsion are incompatible with love; in that sense, he is not fully “universalist.” He understands that God will not coerce or compel anyone into believing in Him.

Nevertheless, Bell has seemingly ignored or missed the aspects of love that are not charitable to his case: love does not rejoice in unrighteousness (and Greek adikia refers to injustice as much as to unrighteousness). Love rejoices in the truth. Therefore, that which is unrighteous and/or unjust and against truth is against love. Love cannot embrace both truth and unrighteousness/injustice. Yes, it is true that love does not “take account of evil,: but that means that love is not resentful, and God is not resentful: He does not act out of personal animosity.

If love does not rejoice in unrighteousness/injustice, justice and righteousness must maintain a prominent place in love. This is made perfectly evident throughout the Prophets and their insistence on Israel following the ways of righteousness and justice. In Malachi 2:17, the Jews cry out, wanting to know where the God of justice has gone.

God is love, yes, but God also upholds justice and righteousness (Psalm 33:5). This is a necessary aspect of theology because it is a necessary aspect of God. Yes, it is difficult to define justice clearly, but there is agreement that whenever evil is perpetrated without consequence, injustice has taken place.

This is why so much emphasis is placed on the day of Judgment in Scripture. It is a warning, yes, but also a promise: there will be a day of reckoning. This was already expected by the Jews (cf. the Day of the LORD, also Daniel 12:1-2); it should not pass without notice how often it is emphasized in the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles (e.g. Acts 10:42, 17:30-31). With the Judgment comes the consequences for lifestyle, as Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10, etc. make clear.

Granted, too much emphasis on justice would mean all of us are going to hell; there is a place for God’s mercy and grace as expressed through Jesus (Romans 5:6-11). This also renders rejection of some concept of Jesus as paying the penalty for sinners untenable: after all, if there is no concept of justice in God’s saving act through Jesus, how can the Judgment have any pretense of justice? If there was no penalty paid for some sinners to be justified, how is it just to force other sinners to pay the penalty for their sin? If there is no concept of justice in the atonement, how can anyone argue against what Bell is suggesting?

In all of these things, balance is essential. God’s love demands that injustice be addressed; repentance and change is ideal, but condemnation is a very real and just sentence as well. The Scriptures are quite clear that Judgment involves what we have done in the flesh: our chance for repentance and finding life in Jesus come in this world, and once we die, we’ve exhausted our chances. That does not mean that God is now somehow unjust or unloving; He gave us plenty of chances, did He not? At some point, God will say “enough.” Who are we to argue with Him?

And that’s the issue in the end. God is who God is. We either accept that or reject it. There’s every temptation in the world to accept the aspects of God we like and try to refashion all of God’s more “negative” attributes into something more socially acceptable. Israel did the same thing: it was great that YHWH rescued them from slavery, but who could serve a god without an image? And so they made a golden calf and called it YHWH and felt better about themselves. But the calf was not YHWH. YHWH cannot be so easily fashioned into a god of our own liking.

He lets us do it because He loves us; He does not coerce or compel us to accept Him as He is. We must seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6), and He desires to be found, being quite nearby (Acts 17:26-28).

There are some aspects to God and Scripture that are difficult. What the Scripture says about the fate of the unbelievers and the wicked is difficult to swallow and hard. Understanding how God could command Israel to commit ethnic cleansing is hard. There are a lot of things we will find out about God which we may not agree with and perhaps we might strongly dislike.

We don’t have to like it. But we have to confess that it is true.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and know that thou art the Holy One of God (John 6:68-69).

It is very easy to make an idol out of knowledge, understanding, and preference. We will never know everything, understand everything, or even like everything about God in Christ, but that does not mean that we reject whatever we do not know, understand, or prefer. This is not a call for us to presume that we know the answer even when we do not know the question, or to get so lost in the challenges of many of the questions that we lose heart. Instead, we are called upon to trust. To have faith. To accept what God has revealed about Himself, us, and the fate of everyone. We may not always know everything, understand it all, or even like it, but we can know that Jesus has the words of eternal life, and He is the Holy One of God. Let us be rooted in that faith, and allow Jesus’ message to inform our understanding of God.

Ethan R. Longhenry

Hell and Theology

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