Thoughts on Divine Judgment and The Tendency to Say “To Hell with Hell”

For me, Hell has always been a tough (if not the toughest!) Christian concept; more so than predestination and free will, more so than the doctrine of the trinity, more so than God’s eternal existence, hell has been a Christian doctrine that I have been forced to grapple with again and again.
 
And it’s not just me. I’ve never met a rational or even-keeled individual who actually likes talking about it. (Now, there’s plenty of people who seem to enjoy talking about it; but notice the clarification, “even-keeled!”)  Let’s face it, eternal damnation and punishment is not a pleasant thought, it isn’t easy to thoroughly understand biblically; and the idea seems so far-fetched to many people.  And, for these matters, many Christians either steer clear of the doctrine, because of embarrassment or discomfort, or distort it by lessoning the validity of the doctrine. 
 
One of my personal heroes, Charles Spurgeon, felt this tension and saw the tendencies to 4060082530_8e59424527advert or distort divine punishment in his own day, “The doctrine of no punishment for any man is popular at this day, and threatens to have even greater sway in the future."
 
Rob Bell’s Love Wins
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. 
Bell deals heavily with the perception of Hell, as well as the perception of the Christian message as a whole, and he try’s to bring some awareness to the biblical ambiguity of divine judgment.  So he gives more questions then answers and this appears to be intentional.  He wants Christians to rethink some of their assumptions and I like all his questioning.  It made me reexamine what I believe on this (personally) difficult subject and for that I grateful.  However, in an array of Rob Bells books and teachings, I think Love Wins his poorest biblical scholarship to date.  Bell provides little, if any, exegesis in the book.  With such an enormously huge topic as Hell and divine judgment I was surprised with such little serious engagement with the pertinent biblical texts.  I also surprised by so many Scripture references taken out of context and misapplied as well as a number of partial quotes which actually lead to a significant misrepresentation (e.g., Martin Luther quote on pg. 108).

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 soBut 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.

Hell – An Allusive Reality
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).
 
Those are just some of the New Testament references on the doctrine of Hell.  Due to the imagery and various ways of communicating the concept, though they saw it as mysterious and allusive, Jesus and the NewTestament writers clearly saw it as a reality and a final destination for those who rejected God.  As Christians desiring to remain faithful the Scriptures, we must learn to represent the doctrine in the same manner – Hell, though difficult to definitively define, is an allusive reality. Our lives and decisions in this life matter!
 
May we learn to be graciously and boldly clear on what God makes clear; and may we learn to be content with matters that remain allusive, not feeling that we have fill in all the gaps and conclusively speak where God does not. 

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 HellIn 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?

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1. Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. (1992). Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels
2. Ibid.
3. Keller, Timothy. The Importance of Hell