Love Wins by Rob Bell (Chapter 3)

[This review is a review in parts.  If you are just joining this review, start with "Love Wins by Rob Bell (Prolegomena)."] 

Rob Bell explores his thoughts about hell in the third chapter of his book, Love Wins.  With a part of this chapter he challenges the traditional Christian view of a place of punishment, sorrow, and anguish, and it also seems that he is laying the ground work for a future argument about the everlasting aspects of the biblical hell.  But Bell also uses this chapter to present an idea of hell on earth, maybe something like his ideas of heaven on earth. However, this twisted idea of hell that Bell shares speaks against the Gospel of Christ and against the biblical idea of hell; it is a heretical argument and a tragic concept with the potential for epic devastation, a message which no Christian preacher should ever suggest, preach, or teach.

Bell argues that hell on earth is for victims. 

How can this be good news?

(At this point, I realize that readers who love and support Bell and his book will be tempted to stop reading this review, and that's okay.  But it is my hope that those readers remember arguments that they themselves might have made.  "Don't pass judgment," they might have argued, "and don't form an opinion until you've read the book."  Some also argued that I would have to get to the end of the book to see the entire picture.  So if this is you, I hope you continue reading this review.  I hope you are willing to see it through to the end. I invite comments and questions via e-mail or in person.  Please feel free to contact me. And I realize I have just leveled some serious claims about Bell's ideas; so Mr. Bell, I invite you to contact me to discuss your ideas so I can better understand. Come out to Salt Lake so we can discuss this over a cup of coffee.)

In this chapter, Bell shares some of his observations and experiences he has had as a pastor--a trip to Rwanda, a time sitting with a rape victim, a question from a boy about his father who had just committed suicide, the look of a cocaine addict, the ripples of a marital affair, and a cruel dead man.

When Bell was in Rwanda, he witnessed many teenagers missing hands and legs.  They were victims of brutal treatment, forced upon them by no fault of their own. Bell says this was a tactic of a person's enemy.  Cutting off your enemy's hand or leg leaves a brutal reminder of what you did to him.  He is reminded of you every time he looks at his child.  To this, Bells says, "Do I believe in a literal hell?  Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs" (71).

Bell also asks if his readers have ever sat with a woman as she described what it was like when she was raped.  In another question he asks, "How does a person describe what it's like to hear a five-year-old boy whose father has just committed suicide ask, 'When is daddy coming home?'" (71).   

But here's the problem with these examples.  In the common vernacular, one might suggest that a hot stone massage is "heavenly" or maybe it's a piece of chocolate cake the warrants such a high description.  I even remember once buying a honey-baked ham from a company called Heavenly Ham, but I really don't think I bought a ham from heaven, not even heaven on earth.  This is metaphorical hyperbole.  Heaven is the greatest thing one can think of so we use it to describe great things, as if to say there is nothing better.  But in reality, the biblical heaven is not a hot stone massage or a piece of cake or a ham or even the commercial building where I bought the ham.  That's not what these kinds of statements are attempting to say.  We use the word and idea of hell in much the same way.  Hell is the worst thing we can think of so we make statements like, "War is hell."  We want to dramatically declare that it just doesn't get any worse than this.  So in that usage, armless, legless boys and rape victims and mothers who hear very difficult questions could easily say, "This is hell;" but that would not be the hell described in the bible.

What these horrific examples demonstrate is sin, or rather, the effects of sin.  See, the teens in Rwanda and the raped woman are the victims of sinful acts thrust upon them.  These are examples of sin in motion, the sin of humans; it's sin in the fallen world in which we live.  However, in the model Bell gives us, Abel would have been in hell during the few moments while Cain was murdering him (Genesis 4).  Stephen would have been in hell as he was being stoned to death, despite that the Bible says that he saw the heavens opened, and the Son of Man was standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7).  In this model, it seems that the early Saints were passing into a hell on earth while Saul was ravishing the Church (Acts 8).

And let us take a look at a parable Jesus shared about a rich man who died and was in Hades. (Bell also examines this parable, but for a much different reason.)  Luke 16:19-31 tells us a parable of this unnamed rich man and a poor begger named Lazarus.  Lazarus sat out side the rich man's gates starving.  Dogs licked Lazurus' sores, while the rich man did nothing for him.  In the parable, Lazarus ends up in heaven while the rich man ends up in hell.  There is a chasm between the two that does not allow anyone to pass from one place to the other (Luke 16:26).  But looking through the paradigm Rob Bell is giving us, it seems that before the two died, Lazarus was in hell, not the rich man.

In this parable, the dead rich man calls out to Abraham (who is with Lazarus) for mercy, but Abraham reminds the suffering man, "Child, remember that you in your lifetime received the good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish" (Luke 16:25, ESV).  And even later, the rich man begs that his brothers be warned so that they may repent (Luke 16:30) and avoid this . . . this what?  The rich man says "agony." Agony for what?  Could it be punishment?  But punishment for what?  His sin.  Maybe for neglecting the poor; maybe neglecting Jesus as Jesus discussed in Matthew 25 (another passage Bell examines for entirely different purposes in the previous chapter about heaven).  Doesn't this make sense in light of Romans 6:23 which states that the wages of sin is death?  Doesn't this make the gospel, that is, that Christ created a bridge across this chasm, seem like amazing news!  The painting that was so frightful to Bell is the bridge, and the reason it is a cross is because that is how Jesus made the bridge.

As I thought about those Rwandan teens, I couldn't help but think about the people inflicting "hell" upon these children.  They may have actually lived rather well, like the rich man.  And what about the rapist? And what about the religious people who stoned Stephen to death?  What about Saul?  It doesn't seem that there was a punishment or agonizing hell on earth for them.  Bell's hell on earth seems only to be agony and suffering for the victims.  Does the Bible really teach that the victims suffer hell on earth, a biblical hell, for the sins committed against them?  Or as with the rich man, does it seem that this judgment and punishment comes in the afterlife?

And what about the feelings and experiences of a cocaine addict or how the suffering a man might feel after he has sinned by having a marital affair?  Has God cast any of these living people in to hell, or at least a hell on earth? (And again, we can't say Mahatma Gandhi is in hell but it's okay to declare that these living people could be in hell?)  The answer is no, God has not cast these living people into hell on earth.  For the victims, we might think of this suffering in light of 2 Corinthians 1:1-11 and Romans 8:28.  These victims are not cast away from God.  And for the perpetrators who are suffering as a result of their own sin, we might call this conviction in some cases, or it may be that the law is acting like a schoolmaster (Galatians 3), all for the benefit of their salvation.  God may feel distant to them, but only because they have pushed him away, done as an act of their own self punishment.  But God has not cast them to the burning trash heap of hell, not yet anyway.  God is not neglecting them; he loves them and desires good things for them.

It may seem that the Bible only talks of hell as a garbage dump as Bell tries to present it.  (He says that the only mention of hell is the Greek word gehenna. But even staying on the surface of semantics, this argument neglects 2 Peter 2:4's use of the word tartaroō.)  And of course it would seem that there are very little mentions of hell or any kind of punishment if we only look for the word gehenna.  And if we neglect Jesus' parables and much of the symbolic hints of punishment and reward, and even much of the direct statements about a punishment for sin after death, we might think that hell is not that big of a deal.  We could falsely draw the conclusion that Jesus wasn't that concerned about hell.  But that would be a mistake.  Before you incorrectly draw that conclusion, read some passages in the Bible again, without anybody's commentary.  Here are just a few examples; there are many more: Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Numbers 16:30, 33; Deuteronomy 32:22; 1 Samuel 2:6; 2 Samuel 22:6; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Psalms 6:5; 9:17; Matthew 3:12; 5:22, 29–30; 7:23; 10:28; 11:23; 13:24-30, 42-43, 47-50; 16:18; 18:9; 23:15, 33; 25:32-33; Mark 9:43–47; Luke 3:17; 10:15; 12:5; 16:23; John 15:6; Acts 2:27, 31; James 3:6; 2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 9:2; 14:9-11; 18:8; 19:20; and 20:13–15

And I propose that if we are to look for any example of hell on earth we must look to the specific moment while Christ was on the cross as a propitiation for our sins; that is, taking on the sins of the world which were laid upon him (Isaiah 53:4-6; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10).  In that moment, when it appeared that Jesus was isolated from the Father, he cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34).  In that moment, Jesus was making a way for us.  And if anything were going to make an argument for hell on earth, it must be this moment.

Next up, "Love Wins by Rob Bell (Chapter 4)."

* I have no material connection to Rob Bell or his book, Love Wins.
** Photo of "The Poor Lazarus at the Rich Man's Door" by James Joseph Jacques Tissot is used with permission from the Brooklyn Museum.

Tithing: It's About Heart

Introduction.  In First Corinthians, Paul writes (in part) to the church in Corinth about a collection that is being taken up (16:1-4).  The money will support and care for the believers in Jerusalem who were likely in hiding during a time of persecution.  Malachi 3:10a says “Bring the full tithe to the storehouse.”  Twice Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, that “you shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading the grain” (ESV), and in his first letter to Timothy he says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (ESV), making an argument that ministers of the gospel should be paid.  While all of these passages are used in support of giving or tithing to God through the Church, the means of ministry funds is not what God is after.  God, as the Bible teaches, is after the believer’s affection.   Giving the first fruits, be it money or otherwise, is more a work happening within the believer than anything else.

God does not NEED your money It is a mistake to think the work of God’s desire will not happen if we, the Church, do not raise the money for his will.  While reflecting on God and his own life, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21, ESV).  Job understood that he came into the world with nothing.  All that he had and all that he lost was a blessing from God, but he did not have a greater claim than God to any of it because it was all God’s to give and take.  Leviticus 27:30 teaches that every tithe, whether it is willfully given to God or not belongs to God, and the rest of Malachi 3:10 says that withholding this tithe is actually stealing from God.  Psalm 50:8-12 reads, "I have not complaint about your sacrifices or the burnt offerings you constantly offer.  But I do not the bulls from your barns or the goats from your pens.  For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine.  If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it" (NLT).
When the King Ahasuerus’ edict demanded to have all the Jews killed, Mordecai asked Esther to appeal to her husband, the king, in order to save the Jews from genocide.  In verses 4:13-14, Mordecai says to Ester, "Do not think to yourself that in the king's palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish.  And who knows whether your have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  (Esther 4:13-14, ESV, emphasis added)  Mordecai understood that God will have it his way whether it works through Esther or through some other avenue or person, but Esther had the opportunity in that moment to be faithful and obedient to God.  Giving to the Church is much the same way—we can be obedient to the Bible and give or not, but our disobedience will not keep our Sovereign from accomplishing his will.  However, this is not a reason not to give our tithes and offering to God as he as instructed. 
It is about the heart.  In the 18th chapter of Luke (also Matthew 19 and Mark 10), a rich man asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life.  Jesus asked him if was he had kept the last five Commandments.  The man had since his youth.  But then Jesus went after the real issue—the man's idol, that is, the love of his great wealth.  The rich man had placed his love of money above his love of God, thus violating the First Commandment.  Every sin we commit can generally be tied back to placing something above God, worshiping an idol rather than the living God.  One of the most prevalent idols in the West today is money. 
Money itself is not bad; but both Hebrews 13:5 and First Timothy 6:10 say that the love of it is.  Like the rich man, the believer must strip away the idolatry and the love of money if he is going to follow Christ.  This, at times, comes with resistance.  Criswell writes, “The true gospel preacher is confronted today by a new-time antinomian. . . . Where stewardship of money is concerned they are antinomians; elsewhere they are satisfied to preach the moral code of Jehovah” (Criswell 1980, 148-149).  However, the gospel preacher must continue to call men and woman to give cheerfully, not because God needs the money, because God wants the heart. 

Criswell, W.A. Criswell's Guidebook for Pastors. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman Press, 1980.

*Photo is licensed under a creative commons license.  This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.

When Bad Things Happen, Job 2:11-13

Never fail, shortly after a serious tragedy, the question of God and evil surfaces.  How can God be all-loving and all-powerful and still we see bad things happen?  One answer suggests that that God does not exist.  There are serious flaws in the structure of this answer, but at the same time, hurting people suffering in the shadow of sorrow and heartbreak have every reason to ask such a question. And we can see how they might easily lean on the “no god” solution, as sad as that may be.  
There are all kinds of philosophy and apologetics books that work to answer this question, but I’d like to offer a different look at this problem.  When we sit with a grieving, questioning person, our first thought is to try to “fix” the person.  Many times, before they even ask tough questions about bad things, we’re already feeding them the argument, the preemptive strike.  We’re locating scriptures at the end of the book of Job to show what God says to Job about tragedy.  While those passages are beautiful, and do indeed show a wonderful picture of God and facing life’s devastating moments, I’d like to look at a passage toward the front of the story.

A righteous man (Job 1:1) named Job has just suffered a series of major blows.  Within a matter of minutes he learns that all of his livestock were stolen and some were slaughtered, his employees were murdered, and the house where his ten children were having a party collapsed, killing them all.  His wealth, business, and most significantly all of his children were taken from him on the same day.  Then, to make matters worse, Job is plagued with painful sores from head to toe.  His wife—looking at Job’s situation—tells Job to “Curse God and Die” (Job 2:9).  Then Job’s three friends arrive. 
(11) Now when Job's three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. (12) And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. (13) And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (Job 2:11-13, ESV. Bold added for emphasis.)
Notice first that this passage does not say that Job’s three friends came to argue with Job about the goodness of God (although eventually they all offer lengthy, but incorrect arguments about why this must have happened to Job).  It does not say that at this point they wanted to "fix" Job.  No, it says they wanted to sympathize with Job and offer him comfort.  And how did they go about sympathizing and offering comfort?  They sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights, not saying a single word.

I can imagine they started at the fire.  Occasionally one of them poked at a dusty black log and sparks went high up into the night sky to compete with the stars.  It was uncomfortable and quite.  Seven days of this.  Seven of the longest days.  Likely, they were fasting.  If so, they were hungry.  Sounds might have been grumbling from their stomachs.  But still, they just sat, nothing being said.  They grieved with Job.  When we go to grieve with a person that has just suffered a tragedy, we don’t even remain quiet for seven minutes. The quiet is awkward so we fill it with meaningless noise.  It could be that the deeper healing is through the grieving.  And while it might be quiet on the surface, the Holy Spirit might be working deep on the person’s heart.

So the next time you are offering support to someone who has just faced a tragedy, be it an individual, a community, or even an entire nation, remember Job and his friends.  Close your mouth and grieve; grieve for as long as it takes.