Hell. That’s not a place or subject we really like to talk about. To be honest it is not a subject I really want to talk about either. But when you’re discussing issues out of a book that deals with heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived, well some things are inevitable. I admitted that thinking about heaven gives me a headache, but hell gives me a mental migraine. I mean heaven at least has positive connotations, hell on the other hand does not. However, my approach is going to be similar to how I handled heaven. Putting out some questions that have arisen from Bell’s book and some of my wrestling with it.
Where do we get our picture of Hell from?
Here is perhaps the most significant question I got from Bell’s book. At the beginning of his chapter on hell he talks about how much the Bible focuses on hell or even has a word that we could really translate into hell. The result is not many. The Old Testament doesn’t have a word that can be translated well into hell. We get words like Sheol (a somewhat mysterious shadowy place); death, grave, the pit, realm of the dead type of stuff. Not too much we would liken to our view of hell. Bell goes on to wrap-up the Hebrew view of “hell,” like so: “But, simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined… 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.”
Even in the New Testament there is all of a whopping 13-15 words translated “hell” depending on your translation, with the exception of the KJV version that has 23 occurrences of hell. That’s 13-15 in the whole New Testament. Does that surprise you? I know it somewhat surprised me. Even further is that only three of these usages directly connect hell with fire. Now admittedly there are places where not following God is illustrated as being placed in a fiery furnace or burned up in fire. Like Matthew 13:42, 50 and Revelation’s lake of fire, but it is not the only way to depict hell.
All this is to say, where do we get our pictures of hell from? Is there enough mentions of what hell is really like in the Bible to piece together a cohesive view of what hell is like? Honestly I don’t think that there is. It’s there and we can’t deny it, but we can’t elaborate all that much either. We can’t take the works of Dante or Milton or the view of a fiery place ran by the little red devil with a pitchfork as being the Biblical portrait of hell. We love to speculate and there is a certain need to do that, to speculate and imagine is okay. What we do have to be careful of is when that speculation becomes hard fact in our mind. That is where we get into trouble and start moving down a road that is neither healthy nor Biblical.
What is our attitude about hell?
Now this question cuts about every way you can imagine. One of the biggest complaints I had with how Bell’s book was received was how many people seemed to thoughtlessly smash Bell and present their doctrine of hell and the need to ascribe to it. Is hell just a doctrine? If we believe it is a real place, are we to be happy about it? It certainly seemed that some leaders in the church were acting that way. I don’t know about them, but it makes me very sad that a place like hell would exist. Can we say like Paul in Romans 9:3 that we would rather be cut off from Christ and cursed if that would save those around us? Often times that isn’t the picture portrayed. We sometimes defend hell a little too strongly and a little too heartlessly.
Now the reverse can be said too, and is perhaps the side that Bell leans towards a little more and truthfully the side I have to fight against as well. We can sometimes say this doesn’t seem fair and interpret things in such a way that makes us more comfortable or makes the people of the day more comfortable. While the popular view of hell may not be the Biblical view of hell, hell is there regardless. I believe we have to have humility and be honest about that. We can’t risk trying to re-imagine it too much into something just as equally wrong but palatable for today.
I think these two questions are really part of what is at the heart of Bell’s book. Bell doesn’t deny that there is a hell. He may be pointing out that we may not know as much about it as we think we do, but he says that its there. Also like he did with heaven, he says that hell is sometimes brought into this world and isn’t simply some place that we go. This is not to say that Bell may not have wrong or incomplete ideas himself. However, if we potentially have wrong ideas of what hell is like and Bell does too, do we have much of a right to criticize? I don’t think so, but we should enter the discussion.
Perhaps more important than laying out the existence of heaven and hell are Bell’s chapters on how people come to God and what hell entails for the people who go there. Honestly I think this is where most of the rub comes between Bell and his detractors, however it is some interesting stuff to think about… and what I’ll be attempting to think about next.