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):
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 😀