Rob Bell and the Question of Hell

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, May 15, 2011

Luke 16:19-31 NRSV

There is a classic Seinfeld episode where Elaine’s boyfriend, David (Puddy), gets religion.  Puddy implies that because Elaine is not religious as he is that she is going to hell.  He finally convinces her that he might be right.  And Elaine exclaims, “David, I’m going to hell!  The worst place in the world!  With devils and those caves and the ragged clothing!  And the heat!  My god, the heat!”  But what upsets Elaine most is the fact that Puddy doesn’t seem to be concerned about her and is not trying to save her.  So they decide to go to a priest for counseling.  However, once they tell the priest that they are “having a good time”out of wedlock, the priest says, “You’re both going to hell.”  The episode just goes to show that pop culture and people in show business are just as interested in the subject of hell as the rest of us are.

According to a 2007 AARP survey, most Americans appear to have very strong opinions on the subject of hell.  In a survey of over 1,000 people age 50 and over, AARP MAGAZINE “sought to learn just what Americans in the second half of life think about life after death.”  They found that “70 percent believe in hell.”  Of those surveyed who say they believe in hell, 42 percent say it’s an actual place.1  The survey results are in line with other surveys I have seen.  Most surveys reveal that from 60 to 70 percent of Americans say they believe in the concept of hell.  And so, I am guessing that “inquiring minds want to know” a little more about the subject.

What led me to delve into the subject of hell today is the current New York Times bestseller by megachurch pastor Rob Bell titled Love Wins and subtitled A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  Rob Bell is the founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the poster child churches for the emerging church movement, a church that draws 7,000 – 10,000 worshippers every weekend.  The curious thing is Rob’s book has proved to be quite controversial in certain segments of the American church.  And there has been a lot of personal fallout for Bell that he didn’t expect.  He has been criticized and ostracized because many in the Evangelical world think he has strayed from the truth and gone off the deep end because of what he has to say about hell and universalism.  He stated that he was not prepared for the fallout the book would generate.  What Rob Bell attempts to do is look at all of the scripture references on universal salvation and hell in the Bible and then interpret them in light of his view of God which is, as I understand him, all-powerful love.

Is hell a literal place of unending fire somewhere below the earth’s crust where the unrighteous/unbelievers are thrown for all eternity?

Have billions of people been created to spend an eternity in a place of endless torment, a place called hell?

Or, is hell a symbol or metaphor for something else that was never intended to be taken literally?

Such are the types of questions that Rob Bell raises in his book, and the answers he arrives at are not what many American Christians wanted to hear.

As a little bit of background, most major world religions have had some belief in the concept of hell.  According to many religious beliefs, hell is an afterlife of great suffering where the wicked or unrighteous dead are punished for their evil actions.  It is almost always depicted as being underground, and it is traditionally depicted as a place of fiery pits.  Sometimes hell is believed to be a place of endless torment, while at other times it is thought to be temporary, purging people for something better. 

But when we actually look at what the Bible has to say, we find some interesting facts.  Curiously, most modern, graphic ideas of hell come not from the Bible but from classic and sensational writings on the subject.  Dante’s The Divine Comedy is perhaps responsible more than any other work for inspiring popular ideas of hell.  Virgil’s Aeneid and John Milton’s Paradise Lost are two others.2   Curiously, Judaism (which would take into account the 39 books of our Old Testament) does not have a clear or specific doctrine about the afterlife.  There is no conception or description of popular ideas of hell as a fiery place of endless torment to be found in Judaism or the Old Testament.  In the Old Testament the word that is often translated “hell” is actually “sheol,” a place of darkness to which the dead depart, a distant place in the underworld that represents disconnection from the blessings of God.3   The idea of hell developed in the period between the Old and New Testaments, and may have actually originated in Persia, present day Iran.    

Overall the picture that the Bible (including the New Testament) gives about hell is somewhat vague.  In the King James Bible, for instance, the term Sheol as a place of the dead is actually translated “hell” 31 times. In the New Testament the Greek words “Hades” and “Gehenna” are often translated as hell.  Both have somewhat ambiguous meanings.  Hades means “unseen” and refers to the unseen state of death and may refer to the conscious waiting for some type of judgment.  It is more or less the New Testament Greek equivalent of the Old Testament Sheol. 

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar in Luke 16 is a probably one of the primary passages that is used as a basis for belief in a literal hell.  But it also is a good example of the ambiguity that surrounds the concept.  A number of questions arise as we seriously think about this text.  Such as, did Jesus intend to give a literal description of the afterlife in this parable, or did he have something else in mind?  Rob Bell is of the opinion that when the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus speaks of hell, Jesus, in using the Greek word Gehenna, was actually making reference to the Valley of Hinnom, the city dump outside of Jerusalem where everyone took their trash.  It was always burning to consume the trash that everyone brought there.  Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the fire heap.  When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound.  So Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth where the fire never went out.  It was an actual place that Jesus’ listeners would have been very familiar with.  So it appears in that passage Jesus was trying to use a well-known image in order to tell a story and stress a point he wanted to stress, rather than describe an actual, literal place somewhere below the crust of the earth.

Curiously enough, Rob Bell, in his book, doesn’t’ really say anything new.  Some of the first in America to move away from the idea of a literal fiery hell were the Universalists over 200 years ago who evolved in reaction to hyper Calvinism with its emphasis upon a literal hell and the idea that some were predestined for hell before they were born.  John Murray, who is known as the “Father of American Univeralism,” exhorted the early Universalists, “Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.  Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”  Eventually progressive Christians in other mainline denominations, most notably Congregationalists, would grow to base their beliefs upon reason and the belief in an all-loving God and would move away from the idea of hell as a literal place of unending torment.  Henry Ward Beecher (of the famous Beecher Family), one of the most influential of the 19th century Congregationalists, wrote, “the nature of God is to suffer for others rather than to make others suffer. . . To tell me that back of Christ is a God who for unnumbered centuries has gone on creating men and sweeping them like dead flies . . . into hell, is to ask me to worship a being much worse than the conception of any medieval devil as can be imagined.  But . . . I will worship Love—that sacrifices itself for the good of those who err, and that is as patient with them as a mother is with a sick child.”

Modern biblical scholarship and theology have seen a move toward the idea of hell being separation—separation from others and separation from the presence and comforts of God.   A number of world religions have moved away from the idea of hell being a place of endless, fiery torment to the concept of hell as a state of being.  Ultimately hell is the spiritual condition of being separated from God’s love.  Much of mainstream Christianity has moved in this direction as well.  Rob Bell tends to agree.  If I read him correctly, he is saying that each of us can make our own personal hell by the choices we make and the way we separate ourselves from God, the good and others.  Bell writes, “What we see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful . . . There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”  He summarizes by saying, “we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. . . .  And for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well.”

And so, where does this leave us?  Each of you, no doubt, has your own idea of the nature of hell and I may not have changed that in the least.  But as noted earlier, it seems to me that what makes for hell—in this life and in the life to come—is separation.  Separating ourselves from others, separating ourselves from the good, and being separated from the presence, comfort and love of God.  Separation is one of the primary points in the parable we read.  The rich man separated himself from the poor who laid at his gate and was then separated after he died.

But the good news is we don’t have to be separated.  Jesus taught that heaven is love, and compassion, and blessed community with God and with our fellowmen and women.  And the good news is we have the freedom to choose—not hell, but heaven.  Amen.

1AARP Magazine, Sept&Oct 2007, pp. 68-70, 107.

2Some of the background information presented here is taken from Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia.

3New Interpreter’s Study Bible, pp. 835-836.

4Rob Bell, Love Wins, 79.              5RobBell, Love Wins, 93.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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