Jim DeYoung Reviews Love Wins (Pt. 5)
By Jim DeYoung
Chapter 3: Hell
Much of the territory that Bell traversed in the previous chapter to prove that heaven is not a far-off place that lasts forever, Bell will retrace to prove that hell is not beyond death and does not last forever—at least this is the logical conclusion anyone who reads this chapter will find.
Bell begins by bringing into question whether the person who refuses or fails to confess Christ will experience “eternal torment,” will be punished by God “forever.” He makes it quite clear that two issues are at stake: whether hell is eternal or forever; and what God’s nature is if he punishes people there. For he implies that a loving God could not punish forever, that God ceases to be loving if he punishes, and that this violates the “Christian story” (64).
Bell first examines the Old Testament texts that mention “hell”—words that refer to death and the grave, and finds but five or six texts (Psalm 6; 16; 18; 103; 1 Samuel 2; Deuteronomy 32). But there are other texts that affirm the existence of Old Testament saints after they die, and Bell acknowledges this (as in Exodus 3). But Bell claims that God’s challenge to Israel to choose between life or death (as in Deut. 30:11-20) is not a choice about being alive or being dead but about “two ways of being alive” in prosperity or being in a state of despair and destruction (loss of crops, etc.) (66).
What Bell writes is basically true. But it isn’t the whole truth. For just the context of Deuteronomy shows that physical death is also involved in the curses to come on Israel for disobedience (28:26—“carcasses”; 28:27, 35, 59, 60—incurable diseases; 28:48, 51, 61-63; 31:29; 32:35—personal destruction and ruin; 28:66—uncertainty about life; and Moses mentions “death” in 32:22, 24, 33, 39, 42, 43).
Yet even spiritual life and death must also be involved. For Deuteronomy 30:20 speaks to spiritual life, not physical, when Moses says: “For the LORD is your life . . .” The opposite of spiritual life is spiritual death, not physical death. Also, 30:6 suggests spiritual life since the promise of life comes to those who have spiritually circumcised their hearts, not just having circumcised their physical bodies.
Finally, the Apostle Paul takes the words of Deuteronomy 30:11-15 as referring not [alone] to physical life but [also] to spiritual life, found by confessing Christ, when he quotes them as presenting the word of salvation—spiritual salvation, in Romans 10:6-10. He claims that Moses’ words constitute the “word of faith” which he preaches about finding salvation in Christ (v. 8). The manner in which Paul uses this Old Testament text urges us to realize that the promise of God given to Moses was really ultimately about a deeper, spiritual, life, not physical life.
Another thing needs to be said. Scripture says that most of the kings of Judah—David, Solomon, and that line of kings, upon their deaths, “rested with his fathers.” This suggests a future state of repose rather than judgment. And David wrote of going to his dead son someday.
Bell reads his biblical texts much more like an unbeliever would than a believing Jew or Gentile.
So while Bell writes that the Hebrew writers were not “terribly concerned with” what happens after a person dies there is some evidence that they knew that there was a spiritual state of existence following physical death that could be good or bad. The mention that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still existing when Moses met God at the burning bush (Exodus 3) attests to a spiritual life after death.
But truly our fullest information about Jewish understanding of the “afterworld” comes from Jesus in the New Testament (as Bell acknowledges, at least as far as the mention of “hell” is concerned) (67). Bell makes much of the fact that the Greek word gehenna refers to the garbage pit found in the valley outside of Jerusalem and means the Valley (ge) of Hinnom (henna). The word occurs also in James 3. In addition, 2 Peter 2 uses the word “tartarus,” borrowed from the Greeks, to refer to the underworld. Finally, “hades” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “sheol,” and is used by Jesus (Matthew 11; 16; Luke 10; 16), Peter (Acts 2 quoting Psalm 16), and by John in Revelation 1, 6, and 20.
Bell identifies with the belief that the teaching about hell is a holdover from “mythic, primitive religion that uses fear and punishment to control people” (69-70); and he pokes fun at the idea of the devil seen in red tights with a pitchfork lurking below the earth (70).
Yet he claims to “believe in a literal hell” (71). But what he means is the terrible suffering and pain that come in this world, that people make their own hell or come to experience hell as inflicted by other people on them. He interprets Jesus’ teaching about hell by his using hyperbole, as using “intense, loaded, complex, and offensive” words (72) to reflect the “realities they describe”—the “experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity” (73). But Bell would limit these consequences to what people experience in this world, not in an afterworld.
Bell interprets the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) as Jesus’ showing that the roles embraced in life (the rich man being served) continue on after death, or so it seems. There is “torment and agony” because the “chasm” of the man’s heart hasn’t changed (74-75). Bell notes that the story occurs in Luke and that one of Luke’s themes is that Jesus brings a “social revolution” (75). So the “new social order was to reject Jesus” (76).
The fault of the rich man is that “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” (76-77; italics his). In other words the rich man hasn’t come to the end of himself to serve others, to love his neighbor. Bell finds in this story individual sin and societal sins, individual hells and society-wide hells—“all kinds of hells” (79). So there is a “hell now and there is a hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79).
Whether Bell takes the future one seriously we find out in the next chapter.
Again Bell repeats his indictment of those who are “most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now” (78-79).
Interestingly I don’t think that there is a single place in the New Testament where Jesus or Paul or James or John speaks about hell as already present, in this life; they uniformly present it as something future. At least in this regard Bell has already begun distorting the Bible’s teaching about hell. There is suffering now, in this life. But the Bible never calls this hell. And the Bible always associates hell with what happens after death, after one dies. So hell is future and linked to death or judgment (Matt. 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; Rev. 1:18; 6:8; 20:13).
In the rest of this chapter, Bell takes up the other texts that speak of judgment and punishment but do not use the word “hell.” He first shows that there are texts (such as Matt. 26; I would add Luke 21) that speak of political judgment, that the Jews will suffer under Roman conquest (so it was fulfilled in A.D. 70). Then there are texts that speak of judgment coming on the religious leaders (whatever their “chosen-ness” or “election” meant (82)) who are indicted, not for wrong beliefs, but for failing to show people God’s love (82).
In the next section Bell cites several texts that seem to refer to hell but don’t use the word. He takes on the “poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok,” Sodom and Gomorrah (83). After citing their fall (as recorded in Gen. 18), Bell turns to Ezekiel 16 to argue that these cities will be restored from their destruction.
But Bell is wrong here. Ezekiel the Prophet is metaphorically using the names of the cities for Israel and Judah; he is not referring to the historical cities of Genesis 18.
Then Bell cites Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18 that it will be more bearable in the judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Capernaum and other cities of Galilee. Bell uses this text to hold out hope for these cities. Yet he again misses the point. The point is that there is a day of future judgment coming; and those who have been given much light about who Christ is will be held more accountable than those who never knew him. But there is judgment coming for both. The point in both Genesis and from Jesus is that God is just and various ones will be judged according to how much light, how much truth, they have rejected. Thus there are degrees of judgment in hell.
Bell appeals to the texts of Jeremiah 5 and 32 to show that God intended the judgment of Israel, including its exile, to “correct” the nation so that it would come back to him. Bell uses this to discover the principle that judgment, punishment, is for the purpose of correction, for love; it is not punitive or judicial. Judgment won’t be “forever” (86-88). He cites in support several texts (Lam. 3; Hos. 14; Zeph. 2, 3; Isa. 57; Hos. 6; Joel 3; Amos 9; Nahum 2; Micah 7; and Zechariah 9-10) that promise restoration for Israel and texts that promise blessing for Gentile nations (Isa. 19: Egypt). He then moves to the New Testament and applies this principle to several texts. Paul refers to a turning people over to Satan so that people learn not to blaspheme (1 Timothy) and to be corrected from sin (1 Cor. 5).
It is here that Bell takes up the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) and makes remarkable discoveries. The “eternal punishment” (so the NIV of 25:41) to come on the goats is only a period of time (one of the definitions for aion Bell advocated in the previous chapter) and the word “punishment” means only a time of pruning, trimming, an “intense experience of correction” (91). Bell acknowledges that a good number of translations render it as the NIV does but he contends that “forever” is not “really a category the biblical writers used” (92). Strangely he gives no proof for this.
Even more strangely he appeals for his defense to the Hebrew word olam and argues that most of the uses of this word in the Old Testament refer only to a particular period of time (92). But what does this use of a Hebrew word have to do with the Greek word of Matthew 25:41? Furthermore, there are other uses of the Hebrew word that clearly do mean “forever,” especially when describing God, as in Psalm 90:2. Bell acknowledges this but rejects the meaning of “forever” in other texts.
The point I wish to make is not that we add up the occurrences and go with the most frequent meaning; but that we examine every text in light of its context to discover meaning at every single place.
Again the hermeneutics of Bell come under deep suspicion as special pleading and subterfuge. But this is exactly what all universalists, including Young and McLaren, do with these same words and texts. And note how Bell discovered the principle, “punishment is meant to be corrective,” in places concerning Israel and believers; and then applies it universally elsewhere, for all punishment for the wicked after they die. This is a giant leap.
So Bell concludes this chapter by saying that Jesus’ pronouncement about eternal punishment in Matthew 25:41 “may be talking about something else, which has all sorts of implications for our understandings of what happens after we die” (92-93), which he’ll take up in the next chapter. So all of a sudden we go from some occurrences of a Hebrew word in the Old Testament to the principle of punishment for correction and then to what hell is like after death. It is a standard procedure for universalists.
Bell concludes that “hell” is a word worth keeping, but not for the usual reasons. It is useful to describe both the “terrible evil” arising in the human heart and the “society-wide collapse and chaos” that comes from failure “to live in God’s world God’s way” (93).
The problem is that the Bible never uses the word “hell” in this way. Only modern man does.
We will see from the next chapter just how far Bell wants to take his dubious conclusions developed in this chapter.
But I must point out one more thing regarding two destinies. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus himself said that there are two destinies for all people—a broad way on which the majority are going which leads to destruction; and a narrow way on which few are going, but this leads to life (Matthew 7:13-14). And the Apostle Paul says that it is just with God to pay back those who persecute Christians at the return of Jesus Christ when “he will take vengeance on those who know not God and do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus”; they will “pay the penalty” of “eternal vengeance” or destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
These are passages that warn of destinies of eternal suffering; but Bell ignores them.