And so we’ve arrived at the chapter in this book that has everyone wants to know about: Hell. I find some humor in that while I was in Wal-Mart last Friday, I came across a book called, 23 Minutes in Hell, by a guy named Bill Wiese; a man who claims to have been given a visitation to Hell for twenty three minutes. I browsed the pages of the book while waiting for Radene to finish her quest in the clearance aisle. Clearly, Bill Wiese and Rob Bell are not golf buddies.
In all fairness, to the best of my ability to understand, Rob Bell is mostly correct in saying that the Old Testament writers are a bit “vague and underworldly” (p. 67) when speaking to the topic of Hell. The Old Testament uses the word Sheol when it speaks of Hell, and roughly translated, it means grave. However, Bell neglected to read Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:2, which contain two of the most direct and supportive ideas of the New Testament concept of Hell.
“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Isaiah 66:24, ESV
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2, ESV
Both of these verses, in their contexts, speak of what will happen when God finally brings an end to all things and judges the quick and the dead. Keep these verses in mind as I try to unpack Rob Bell’s ideas about Hell.
Bell spends a great deal of verbiage at the beginning of the chapter dealing with the Hebrew word, Sheol, and the Greek words, Gehenna, Tartarus, and Hades. As mentioned before, Sheol means grave. It is used sixty four times in the English Standard Version of the Old Testament, and many of those references are found in the Psalms and Proverbs. Tartarus is only used once in 2 Peter 2:4 and is mentioned as the place where God has imprisoned the fallen angels. Strangely, Tartarus, is borrowed from Greek mythology, in which it is a place where the Titans were cast once they were defeated by the Olympian gods. Hades is the Greek word that means the same as Sheol, which is grave. And finally, Gehenna. Gehenna has the distinction of being the only word used by Jesus for Hell that had no Hebrew antecedent. The literal translation of Gehenna means, “The Valley of Hinnon.” Bell accurately notes that this place was the essentially the city dump for Jerusalem where there was a constant fire to consume the refuse that was dumped there.
Once Bell completes his Hebrew and Greek lessons for us, it begins to get interesting. Implicit in his treatment of these words is that they are not to be taken as literal places. He follows all of the Hebrew and Greek discussion up with the following paragraph:
“I understand that aversion [that a literal hell is an outdated belief], and I as well have a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages.” (p. 70)
This is an obvious pot shot at a caricature of the stereotypical notion of what Hell is like, of which I do not believe either. However, in the context of the chapter, Bell’s sarcasm betrays his true feelings. It does not take long for the sarcasm to be shed, and the boldness of Bell’s unapologetic point of view to be revealed:
“From the most subtle rolling of the eyes to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please. God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.” (p. 72)
The undercurrent is that Hell is a state of being. It is a condition that is created from a series of poor choices. And if we want to experience Hell, we have the freedom to do so via our choices. Hell is not necessarily a place that is somewhere else, Hell is a reality that is present for those who choose it. In other words, Hell is on earth, experienced intentionally by indulging in sinful choices.
From here Bell begins to deal with specific passages of New Testament Scripture which speak about Hell. Suffice it to say, Rob Bell’s interpretations of these passages are, shall I say, different. He interprets Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man as an affirmation that the Hell, which the rich man was enduring, was a Hell of his own making (p. 79), and that the chasm between he and Lazarus was not a physical chasm, but that the chasm was actually the unrepentant nature of the rich man’s heart (p. 75). He ends this section by saying:
“There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (p. 79).
He then moves on to make a claim that when Jesus speaks of impending judgment and punishment, that these are both a political judgment that will come from the Romans (p. 81) and warning to the religious about their false sense of security that was founded in their chosen status as Jews (p. 82).
Finally, he addresses some Old Testament prophecies and seriously takes them completely from their context. For instance, he cites Ezekiel 16:53-55 where God speaks of restoring Sodom to her “former state.” (p. 84) In Rob Bell’s interpretation of this (and other Old Testament prophecies) when God speaks of restoration after punishment, it ultimately is speaking to those who have consigned themselves to Hell.
“No more anger, no more punishment, rebuke or refining – at some point, healing, and reconciling, and return.” (p. 86).
Finally in the most blatant twist of the entire chapter, Bell looks to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Remember aion? He comes back to that word and introduces the Greek word kolazo, which means “pruning or trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.” (p.91). In the Greek, the goats are sent to an aion of kolazo. Here is what he says:
“Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming’ or an intense experience of correction.” (p. 91)
So not only is Bell suggesting that Hell is a condition of existence on earth, and not only is he suggesting that the experience of Hell after death consist primarily of being separated from Heaven by a “chasm of the heart,” but he is also suggesting that the after-death experience of Hell will not be an eternal experience.
Let me begin wrapping things up. From my point of view, this entire chapter is so wrapped up in heresy and false teaching that nothing from it can be extracted and redeemed. I’ve read over it a few times, and even though there are a few statements that could be plucked away, they do not amount to anything that he has not already said in prior chapters. Sorry, Rob, this chapter is a complete bust.
The most dangerous thing about this chapter is everything that gets said. The notion that Hell is not a real, actual, physical, eternal place and experience is completely contrary to the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. The fact is that Hell must be eternal for one simple reason. The payment for sin must be the same cost it was to God the Father. It cost Him the life of his Son, Jesus Christ. How many fathers would not value the life of their son or daughters as infinite? I cannot put a price tag on the value of my daughters’ lives; it is beyond measure. An infinite cost, demands an infinite payment. Any gospel that preaches less than that is no gospel at all, and its teachers are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Whether or not Mr. Wiese actually was given an escorted visit to Hell or not is not my call. But his incredible story, as much as it strains credibility, is more believable and Biblically sound than Rob Bell’s version of Hell on any given day.