I have been asked recently about Rob Bells new book “Love Wins” and so I thought I would post some of my notes on it. They are only from a first read through, so are mainly my immediate “live” thoughts on it. I think Rob Bell is a great communicator and has many helpful insights into biblical truth which he delivers in a very provocative way.
However, I am finding this book a little troubling. It is digging around the roots of what I understand to be biblical truth, but so far has not put much good compost down on them. To my mind at least, he has inferred that saying God will eternally punish people for wrong doing is toxic, that a personal relationship with God is not central to the gospel, that repentance and belief are incompatible with grace, that God cannot judge us because he created us, that salvation in this life seems unfairly based on the luck of where you were born, and in fact, that any criteria underlying God’s choice of some and rejection of others is questionable.
There have been many good points too though and I am very keen not simply to notice the negative or be nit-picky, though I fear I may already have done so! Positives I remember are: that questions can be really good and helpful, we experience (I would say “aspects of”) God’s wrath and the new creation in the here and now, and that wealth can be dangerous. Anyway, moving on to the next chapter:
“For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with” P67
Here he is talking about the Old Testament. Although the NT does major on these things [Jesus reassures the thief on the cross that today he will be with him in paradise. Paul is torn between going to be with the Lord and staying on earth to build the church. People will be separated to eternal life and eternal destruction (Mat 25:46). Paul says that if it is just for this life that we have hope, we are to be pitied. Jesus tells a parable about what happens to two people after they die and the vastly contrasting places they go to (Luke 16:19-31, see also Luke 12:20).] I guess it’s true that the OT doesn’t really say a lot about them. Perhaps one of the reasons for that is that the OT is drawing pictures in the here and now (or then and there) that point to a future reality. The OT stories are shadows of things. So the reality of eternal life and death is played out in the visible realm of physical life and death. In the OT if you live right, and obey God it will go well with you. You will prosper and have money and health etc. In contrast in the New Testament, living right is likely to get your possessions taken away from you, and maybe even your head.
In Chapter 3 Rob gives a helpful word study on hell.
“in the NT the Greek word that gets translated as hell in English is the word Gehenna. The “ge” bit means “valley” and “henna” bit means “Hinnom”. Gehenna, the valley of Hinnon, was an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem. Gehenna, in Jesus’s day was the city dump.
People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gahenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out” p67-68
James mentions hell in connection with the tongue (James 3:6) but otherwise Jesus is the only one to use this word.
And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (ESV) James 3:6
Peter uses the word “Tartarus” (2 Peter 2:4 )“a word borrowed from Greek mythology referring to the underworld, the place where the Greek demi Gods were judged in the “abyss”
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; (ESV) 2 Peter 2:4
“Hades” is used in Rev 1, 6, 20, and Acts 2.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption. Acts 2:27
I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (ESV) Rev 1:18
Another great Rob Bell quote:
“we are terrifyingly free to do as we please…God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.” page 72
I so like the way he puts stuff sometimes (although I see an irony in the word “free” here). He uses language so well. He is also a pastor, not an ivory tower theologian.
“When you’ve sat with a wife who has just found out that her husband has been cheating on her for years, and you realise what it is going to do to their marriage and children and finances and friendships and future, and you see the concentric rings of pain that are going to emanate from this one man’s choices – in that moment Jesus’ warnings don’t seem that over-the top or dramatic; they seem spot on. Gouging out his eye may actually have been a better choice” P 73
On the story that Jesus tells in Luke 16 Rob says that the “rich man” still sees himself as better than Lazarus because he tells him to get him some water. “the chasm is the rich man’s heart”.
“hell is now and hell is later and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” p79
“When [Jesus] warns of the coming wrath, then this is a very practical, political, heartfelt warning to his people to not go the way they are intent on going. The Romans, he keeps insisting, will crush them…The tragedy in all of this is that his warnings came true. In the great revolt that began in 66 CE, the Jews took up arms against the Romans – who eventually crushed them, grinding the stones of their temple into dust.”. p 81
It is true that God’s wrath is being revealed now, and is not simply all stored up till later, but my reading of the New Testament is that the emphasis is on the latter. ie endure injustice now for the sake of Jesus, knowing that God will be vindicated on the last day.
He says Jesus talked about hell to religious leaders who considered themselves “in”, not to pagans who were thought of as “out”, but wasn’t the sermon on the mount addressed to a crowd, including his disciples?
He says “The story is not over for Sodom and Gomorra (Ezekiel 16). They will be restored. There is still hope.” True. Jeremiah 32 says “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger …I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety”. He lists lots more bible verses about restoration and sees wrath and punishment in a restorative light. However, from what I have just been reading in Revelation 15 and 16, God’s wrath does not change people’s mind’s, it hardens them in their rebellion. It’s grace that changes people.
He suggests that the goats go to “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction”. He can say that and blur the finality of Jesus’ judgment, because for him:
“Forever is not really a category the biblical writers used” p 92
Does the NT talk about “forever”? The simple answer is the parallel between “eternal life” and “eternal destruction” in Mat 25:46. Is eternal life a “forever” life or simply a “long time” of life? It is forever, as there is no more death (Rev 21:4). (this reminds me of related discussions on annihilationism. http://www.the-highway.com/annihilationism_Packer.html).
‘Hell’ for Rob is:
“the real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us… the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts 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.”
That is true, but it is not simply the natural, unfortunate outcome of rejecting God, it is the active punishment of a God who hates sin and evil. We see glimpses of it now even in this “year of favour” but there will be a “day of vengeance” (Is 61:2). This “day of the Lord” (Isa 13:6, 9, 12 Cor 5:5, 1 Thes 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10) is a massive theme in the bible and we should not be too quick draw it into the here and now.
[do] not be quickly shaken in mind, or alarmed either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. (ESV) 2 Thes 2:2