Hell Loses? Rob Loses? (Judgement 1)

This post is taken from a response to a question a Facebook friend asked.  Now that the furor has settled somewhat in the Love Wins war dance, I feel like maybe I can post this without being run up the flagpole and dropped on top of it.

The question was:my pastor friend is very outspoken about Rob Bell. Very anti-Rob. Commenting about Rob’s comment “there is no literal hell”  …  My pastor friend says “he said it” – [I say] there’s no proof.   My pastor friend appears to want to “get” Rob.  “Call out the brother”.   Do you think that is judging? I mean, who says the pastor friend has all of his facts straight?

This is the kind of stuff available for those that desire to judge Rob Bell (Note the red and black theme and scary-ass picture that looks like a wolf tearing the head off a sheep):

My response:

It’s a tough call. I think that your pastor friend is probably acting out of good conscience, if a bit of hubris. Rob is slippery. He’s a master wordsmith that speaks and writes at a level we should all aspire to. We just don’t tend to notice because he does it so naturally. People get suspicious of him on those grounds, though, and read carefully between the lines, hence the “no proof”.

Please keep in mind that I haven’t read the book, but it really comes down to how you define a “literal hell”. “Literally,” hell just means “covered up,” referring to the unknowable afterdeath (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hell#Etymology_and_Germanic_mythology). Any other meaning has been read into it connotatively.

To say that Rob doesn’t believe in a “literal” hell is wrong. The excerpts I’ve seen from the book clearly point to a physical/spiritual place that the soul enters after death. He is even clear that within that place, there is the possibility of separation from God, or being gathered into his presence. Up to there, we’re completely orthodox.

The separation starts to come on three fronts, the first being the nature of the separation from God, the second being criteria for admission into his presence, the third being the nature of eternity. The biggest thing people seem to be bent out of shape on is the criteria for admission, as Rob seems to be willing to lower the bar more than most evangelical Christians.

It’s the first and third point, though, that get him in trouble in the “literal” debate. First, most evangelicals equate “hell” with “Ghenna” or “Tartarus”. Rob rightly questions whether when Jesus said “Ghenna” he was referring to a state of punishment after death, and in what I believe is a hermenutically sound way. Other people disagree. Ghenna was a proper, physical place, with spiritual connotations of national judgement, refuse, and destruction. There is a very real possibility that Jesus’ audience would have understood it in those tones, and we get our understanding through reading alternate mythology back into it. In the Greek mythological system, Hades (the underworld) was a divided one. Tartarus was the only section that carried punishment for the deeds of life. In the Greek NT, there is a definite distinction, since Hades is used most of the time (and does not connote punishment although we tend to read it that way), and only ONCE is Tartarus used (in connection with the devil, not humanity). I like to keep original intent and understanding in mind as much as possible. Rob seems to land on the side that there is no place of eternal torture of unbelievers after death, but a self-chosen refusal to enter into God’s grace. That’s not the “literal” hell that most people understand (fire and pitchforks and lava and bad goatees).

On the third point, Rob suggests that separation from God or the choice to dwell in his presence is a modern reality – that eternity isn’t as separate from now as we like to make it. People alive are “literally” in hell while they are broken from relationship with their creator God. Once again, this isn’t the “literal” hellfire and brimstone Hell that has become accepted tradition.

All that is a long winded answer to a question you didn’t ask though…

Is he judging? Yes. He’s judging on the criteria and “facts” that he understands and was taught. Who says that all his “facts” are straight… realistically, they’re judged the same way the Christian church has decided theological “facts” for the past 2000 years: debate, consensus, and politics. The biggest problem is that they’re arguing semantics without agreeing on definitions. Your pastor friend is right, Rob does say that “there is no literal hell” (or at least “there might not be a literal hell”) as your pastor friend would define “literal hell”.

People who have a problem with what Rob is saying now seem to have always had a problem with Rob, mostly because the Grace he preaches is wider than they like. Now they feel like they have something they can pin him down on; a line of orthodoxy that they can place him on the other side of that would discredit all he’s said up to that point (because if he’s wrong on one point, he’s clearly unreliable, heretical, and wrong on the rest of the things they disagree with).

The judging began long before the “literal hell” debate. Is he in a place to judge? I can’t judge that without judging his heart. Is the judgement coming from a place of anger or bitterness at having his beliefs challenged? Is it coming from arrogance, or the desire to maintain the comfort of his own position? That’s bad judgement. Is it coming from an honest desire to correct a brother on an error in theology? Is he open to discourse on the issue? Is he saying it because he cares about Rob Bell? That’s the kind of judgement we’re called to.

I apparently have too much time on my hands :D😀


About Aaron Mark Reimer

Aaron Mark Reimer was born in 1980 on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and his parents promptly moved him west to Ontario. He is a pastor, a writer, a speaker, a musician, and a bit of a geek. Published works include The Art of Being Broken, Worshipping Through John: A Devotional For Praise Teams, and a short story about going to Jupiter with his dad that he wrote when he was seven. He has one wife (Vanessa), two sons (Dúnadan and Taliesin), and many cats. Follow him on Twitter as @IAmAnErrorMaker

Posted on April 18, 2011, in Ramblings, Theological Reflections. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I have read the book. Although i did graduate from Bible College, I am very far from considering myself a confident theologian. But my thoughts are this.

    His chapter on heaven is as far as I can tell, theologically accurate yet still challenges our normal idea of heaven. But it is an inspiring way that he challenges our norms which is why I think no one argues his views on heaven. Whether you read what he says on heaven and agree or disagree on the theological merit of what he has to say, his outcome is inspiring and would be a good read for anyone.

    He moves on to hell and in that chapter he makes a lot of good points. He refers to our definition of certain words based on their original intent. I’m not a greek scholar and I have no idea if his arguments are just or not, many have said his history in this book is not accurate, so I’m not sure if this is the case in this chapter or not. But nonetheless he presents some interesting points to ponder.

    My overall opinion on the book though, is that it feels like he diminishes the need of the cross. Easter season is coming up and is a HUGE time in the Christian calendar, bigger than Christmas really (although if Jesus hadn’t been born, Good Friday and Easter couldn’t have happened .. but … whatever). We depend on Jesus’ death on the cross as our basis for our belief that Jesus has indeed saved us. It feels to me from Rob’s book that the cross is no longer as important as we Christians have always believed it to be. I have a friend though who feels opposite of me and that Rob actually places MORE emphasis on the importance of the cross. His view is that Jesus’ death was for ALL not for SOME and therefore that death has even more meaning in Rob’s book since Rob suggests even MORE people wil spend eternity in heaven because Jesus died for ALL.

    I struggle with some of the things ROb suggests in his book. At the very least though, his book is inspiring. As I said, his chapter on heaven really gave me the desire to make our current world more like heaven.

    I suggest reading the book. And whether you agree or not, I think if you look at it openly and honestly you will agree that ROb asks some really interesting questions and gives some really interesting answers. Which is what ROb Bell does, asks questions, and tries to answer some of the questions.

  2. I have not read the book by Bell. I do know that Scripture, while God-breathed, does not impart perfect understanding to the human mind. The Protestant church fought for the right to read and interpret the Bible, but even so, when people interpret differently, claws do come out. I personally do not think about Heaven and hell very much. I believe in Jesus, and in what He did, and have been learning The Way while I walk on the earthly side of the curtain. I do not need more reasons to argue, especially about something that no one can possibly fully understand. I want to go to Heaven, but right now, I am here.

  1. Pingback: Judging 2 (aka I’ma tell ya how ta live) « the art of being Broken

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