Well, our own day is no different! It’s still a hot topic issue full of various perspectives – proven by all the hype and scrutiny circling Rob Bell’s controversial book and video intro. Honestly, I think Love Wins is worth the read. (And may I endorse actually reading Love Wins, instead of just talking about and interacting with the 128 word paragraph from the publisher and a three minute video introducing the book -thank you Ben!). But if your looking for some clear explanation on what Hell or divine judgment actually is then Love Wins is not the book you’re looking for.
Time and time again, I have been blessed by Rob Bell’s insights, his ability to communicate, his passion for the advancement of Kingdom, etc.; I appreciate his ministry and I will continue to do so. But I can’t go with him on this one – his conclusions are too allusive and I see the Scriptures being much more definitive on the reality of divine judgment then Love Wins conveys.
One of the reasons why the doctrine is so difficult to understand is because we want to understand everything exhaustively. One resource puts it this way, ”References to hell in the Gospels draw on a rich and varied background, the historical development of which is complicated and elusive…[and] the Gospel presentation is neither uniform nor tidy. Rather, the reader is left with more general notions of the concept.”1 Though Jesus speaks of Hell often, even he was not exhaustively clear when referring to it. Jesus speaks of "eternal fire and punishment" as the final destination of the fallen angels and rebellious people (Matt. 25:41,46). He also says that those who yield their lives to unrighteousness are in danger of the "fire of hell" (Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9). Gehenna (γέεννα), is the word Jesus uses for Hell. It refers “to a valley located on the south slope of Jerusalem (Josh 15:8; 18:16), literally, the “Valley of (the son of) Hinnom.” It gained its infamous notoriety during the reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh, both of whom burned sacrifices there to Molech, even to the point of sacrificing their own sons in the fire (cf. 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; 2 Kings 16:3). This elicited prophetic condemnations on the valley, identifying it as the scene of future carnage and desolation resulting from God’s judgment (Jer. 7:30–33; 19:1–13; 32:34–35; cf. also Is. 31:9; 66:24; 2 Kings 23:10; Lev. 18:21).”2 Tim Keller describes Gehenna as “the valley in which piles of garbage were daily burned as well as the corpses of those without families who could bury them.”3 Gehenna was a horrible place where the stench of death remained. Gehenna was the opposite of shalom and true life. In Mark 9:43, Jesus speaks of the longevity of hell in saying, "Gehenna, where the ‘worm does not die and the fire is not quenched'” referring to the eternal (or final) aspect of this state. And in Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Jesus also depicted hell as painful fire and "outer darkness" (Matt. 25:30) and Jude described it similarly (“utter darkness”) in Jude 13 (also see Jude 6-7).
Resources on Hell and Divine Punishment:
Many people have helped grapple with me this difficult topic. Here are several resources…
- A while ago, Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC) wrote a great article in which he gives 4 reasons/points for the importance of hell. You can read the article here – Keller on The Importance of Hell. In it, he makes some insightful arguments for the necessity, rationality, and validity of a very difficult doctrine, while also leaving plenty of room for the many mysterious aspects of eternal punishment. It’s short and to the point.
- May I also recommend Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell. I really appreciate Crockett’s and Pinnock’s contributions and interactions in this book.
- NT Wright has answered many questions about Hell and the nature of divine punishment. He has an interesting, but helpful, view on Hell being an eternal “dehumanization” – “What Is Hell Like? Does It Even Exist?” Also see “Where Is Hell Located?“ For more on NT Wright’s view on Hell and all things about the after life, see his fantastic book, Surprised by Hope. Recently, NT Wright discussed the recent book by Rob Bell, Love Wins in a funny (unintentional – what the heck is he drinking!) video – “Wright on Hell & Bell.”
- One of my heroes, JI Packer, also chimed in on the topic a few years ago. He has some very helpful words to help us better understand the nature of Hell and he rightfully stops explaining the doctrine where the Scriptures stop. Seems to me he sees Hell as an “elusive reality” too – What is Hell?
- Francis Chan is chiming on the issue too. His forth coming book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity and The Things We’ve Made Up, on this very subject matter, is being released in June. I’m looking forward to what he has to say. Also, here’s a recent interview from Relevant – Francis Chan Takes on Hell. Check out the video short to help intro Chan’s new book…
1. Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. (1992). Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels