Sunday, April 24, 2011

Love Wins 5

I continue my interaction with Rob Bell’s book. Today we come to the third chapter and the topic of hell.

The central point of this chapter is to argue that hell is a real place. But, and most importantly, the reality of hell is not only or even primarily a future place. Hell is present in the world today. Hell is the outcome of people’s choices when they reject “the good and true and beautiful life” God has for them.

Here’s a statement of summary:
And that’s what we find in Jesus’ teaching about hell—a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone (73).
Before reading my bullet point comments, think about the idea:

Aside from the Bible’s teaching on the subject, do you think this idea of hell is a sufficient answer to humanity’s universal longing for justice?

Now for my quick hits.

1. Hell is not for the victims; what a victim of a hate crime or a rape or genocide has had to endure can be absolutely called “hellish”, but hell is not for them. Hell’s purpose is the final judgment of evil in any form: human and non-human—angels and people.

2. Jewish people at the time of Jesus, and Jesus himself, had no problem believing in eternal punishment. I suspect that most oppressed people don’t.

3. There is plenty of ancient Jewish evidence about hell that would make the most graphic images of hell in the New Testament look like watercolor paintings. I could give references if you want them.

4. Gehenna, to the best of our knowledge, was not a “trash dump”. There’s not one shred of evidence to support this idea that has become self-evident.

5. In the Bible, restorative punishment, punishment whose purpose is to restore, is generally corporate and only for Israel in the OT. What I mean here is that individuals are not the objects of restorative punishment in the OT. Much is made of Ezekiel’s vision of the restoration of Sodom (Ezek 16:44-58) in the chapter. Rob overreaches to make his point. A careful reading of the passage reveals that Ezekiel is speaking of Sodom corporately. The city will be restored with Samaria and with Jerusalem. In the NT, members of the church are chastised in order that they might be restored. There’s no scenario presented that gives even the hint that the unrighteous suffer divine judgment in order to bring them to faith and salvation. See Romans 1:18-32.

6. As the presence of heaven has broken in to the present the present age in the coming of Jesus, so too has the presence of hell. God’s wrath, indeed, is presently being poured out in the present (Rom 1:18-32). But this is not hell.

7. The warnings of judgment on the lips of Jesus transcend the Jewish War of 68-70 and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. I am in no way suggesting that these were not within the scope of the judgment, but they do not exhaust the reality of the judgment Jesus predicted.

8. The interpretation of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus told in Luke 16 is formative for the teaching on hell espoused in the chapter. Rob's reading just doesn't stand up under scrutiny. You can look it over for yourself. In the parable Jesus is teaching that deeds of mercy or lack there of in this life are determinative for the life to come. What one does in this life determines where one will spend the life to come and that final state is unalterable.

In addition, a brief word is required on the interpretation of the phrase “aion kolazo” (“eternal punishment”) in Matthew 25:46. First, the word “kolazo”. The term in Matt 25:46 is the noun not the verb, but both are only used twice in the NT (verb Acts 4:21; 2 Pet 2:9; noun 1 Jn 4:18; Matt 25:46). In none of its uses either in the verb or noun form does it speak of “pruning” or does it refer to a restorative punishment. Second, Rob again, as in the chapter on heaven, insists that Jews didn’t have a category for the idea of forever. This is just wrong. Let me show you a passage where the concept of forever is meant in a context of divine punishment: Revelation 20:10 and 14-15.
Rev. 20:10
And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Rev. 20:14-15
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 All whose names were not found written in the book of life were thrown into the lake of fire.
These two texts are related and express a vision of the final fate of God’s enemies. In the first text were told that the devil, the beast and the false prophet will be “thrown” into the “lake of burning sulfur” to be “tormented day and night. This torment according to John will be “for ever and ever”. This phrase is created by repeating the word aion twice. It means something like “for ages upon ages”. In this way John is expressing the idea behind our term “forever”. While the term aion may mean a distinct period of time with a beginning and an end, it can be and is used by biblical authors to express an unending period or set of periods.

Another observation about these passages is the assumption that the lake of fire is not only for God’s explicit enemies. Anyone whose name is not written in the “book of life” will suffer the same fate with the devil, the beast and the false prophet. A so-called neutral position (even giving someone the benefit of the doubt) for John is implicit support for God’s enemies. As someone said once, “You’re either with us, or with them”.

Finally, it appears that Hades, hell that is, is not the same thing as the “lake of fire”. If we harmonize Jesus’ parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 with the teaching of Revelation here, we would have to say that the Rich man who died and was in Hades in his first death, will be thrown into the lake of fire in the “second death”.

For earlier posts for Love Wins see: Post When your wife . . ., 1, 2, 3, 4.

If you find this post helpful, please share it with others.

21 comments:

John Thomson said...

Very helpful.

Jeremy said...

6. As the presence of heaven has broken in to the present age in the coming of Jesus, so too has the presence of hell. God’s wrath, indeed, is presently being poured out in the present (Rom 1:18-32). But this is not hell.

If God's wrath is being poured out in the present - but this is not hell - then what is the hell that is breaking into the present?

Joel Willitts said...

Good question. According to Paul's argument in Romans 1, the revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ (1:16-17) also represents God's "giving over" (paradidomi) humanity to the ultimate outcomes of their choice not to honor God as God.

Jeremy said...

But why is that considered hell? I'm just not convinced that self-punishment is hell yet.

Stephen said...

Thanks for your posts Joel. I have a question

"4. Gehenna, to the best of our knowledge, was not a “trash dump”. There’s not one shred of evidence to support this idea that has become self-evident."

I was one that had come to understand Gehenna to mean the rubbish dump outside Jerusalem that kept on burning etc. A few questions.

- Why isn't this the case?

- And if it is not the case, where does this idea originally come from and why has it caught on?

- Finally, what does it refer to then?

Thanks
STEVE

Joel Willitts said...

Jeremy:
I don't think it is hell either. But I do think it is the inauguration of God's end-time judgment. In that sense I don't think we're experiencing heaven, but the presence of heaven is present albeit inaugurated.

Steve:
There is no ancient evidence that refers to the Himmon Valley as a trash heap. In the OT and in ancient Jewish literature the place was associated with idolatry. It came to be associated with the place where the wicked dead suffer fiery torments, but why this association was made is uncertain. I don't know where the myth arose that the valley was a trash dump. It may be true, but there's no ancient evidence to support the assertion. Given the complete lack of evidence one should not build a theology of hell on this connection.

John Smuts said...

Wow - breathtakingly clear and direct.

Can you cite some references for points 3 and 4.

Thanks - very helpful.

Poe said...

HOLY smokes! This is quite a decisive, determined approach, Hank Hanegraaff style (The Bible Answer Man!)

Though, I do wonder if laying out a laundry list of what you think constitutes as fitting the criterion of an eternal hell is sadly missing the point of biblical justice depicted overall in the NT. The NT primarily devotes much of its ink to the cosmic redemption of things, where sin and death are reversed, "where death itself shall die," as Donne once said. In other words, death and sin have no real power over us anymore now that Christ is our Lord and King, for nothing escapes his jurisdiction (every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess should be taken literally, I think anyway).

Concerning point two, "easily" envisioning an eternal hell where 'round the clock stoked flames feed on the unconsumed sinner is not exactly beneficial to the oppressed; they don't get closure from that (as many victims of heinous crimes will themselves tell you). Actually, this is precisely the problem of evil itself, where victims turn around and victimize the tyrant -- and the circle goes round and round. Oppositional identity theory has shown that widespread systemic evils come about because of this "easy" belief in a place where people ought to be forever tortured for their crimes.

-- Indeed, why wait for the Last Days, why not just take it into your own hands, like Scott Roeder did Dr. George Tiller? The slope gets dicey here..

Joel Willitts said...

Poe: I'm thinking that the reference to Hank is not a compliment! I suppose others will have to decide if such a comparison fits.

I hope I'm not perceived as being unthinkingly dogmatic. I certainly don't position myself as having all the answers. The post is a "decisive and determined" response to the views of Love Wins. My points, generally speaking, were related to the Jewish milieu in which Jesus and the early believers in Jesus existed. I think they all can be substantiated by evidence.

These posts are a response to the ideas that Love Wins puts forward. To the degree that I engage with these ideas I shall posit my own.

On the substantial points you raised:
1. I don't see how your appeal to the NT's teaching on cosmic redemption and reconciliation, in a very wave of the hand sorta way, accounts for the equal clear teaching of justice. The concepts of redemption and reconciliation have teeth. Also, I said nothing directly about stoked flames etc.

2. As for the sophisticated reference to "oppositional identity theory", I too find that true. However, the point is not that humans take justice into their own hands (clearly the Torah forbade this), but that God's people patiently wait for God's justice in the vein of Jesus' righteous suffering.

Poe said...

Hi Joel. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

I would maintain that the easy, conclusive predisposition of "having no problem in believing in eternal punishment" is indeed symptomatic of a balkanization and/or demonization of the other, as it totalizes evil into one small section of people (innocent people are just hapless collateral). Also, this predisposition is to assume that punishment for an eternity equates a sort of dual biblical justice; clearly this is hard to reconcile with a statement like, via Christ God is "to reconcile to himself ALL THINGS" (Col. 1:20). This isn't just broken humans but all of the created order being redone, recreated, patched up (ta panta).

Yes, redemption does have teeth, I wholeheartedly agree with you on that score, but does that mean it must foam at at the mouth as well? What I mean is simply this, if there is a partitioned off section where the bad sinners must go and stay at all times, then does not sin, or the effects of sin, have the last word? Further, what of Revelation's opened gates -- which are explicitly prohibited from being closed, ever, in John's New Jerusalem -- is this just so we can pick up our stones and cast them at those wandering outside (hence the "foaming" hyperbole)?

I hope that I have clarified my points about cosmic redemption in a more biblical, coherent fashion. What are your thoughts? I'll let you have the last word..

Hank is the man, btw. I hear that he knows everything there is about the Bible... crazy insane.

Jack Wellman said...

The fact that Jesus mentioned hell more often than anything else next to treasures/money makes me know that indeed it is real. Rob Bell aside, I believe he only wants to attract a following and sell books, but I pray this man doesn't find out its real for himself. I pray this is not so.

If there is no hell, then God's justice is lacking. The glory of God is revealed on the cross of Christ who Himself endured hell. Hell for the unrepentant is an eternal separation from God for all eternity with no light, since He IS light. Great article my friend. My compliments.

Poe said...

Was there not justice in the beginning prior to sin? When the lamps of sun and moon were told to "rule over" day and night, was that not justice? When God exhorted humans to "rule" over the earth (rada), was there no justice there either? Nay, my friend, there was indeed justice.

Thus, there does not need to be a lack/absence via hell in order to have justice, not biblically anyway. That is precisely the kind of thing Babylon's creation texts assumed (see Enuma Elish).

-- about Bell, though, I think you hit the nail on the head ;)

Poe said...

awww maan -- no comeback?

Jack Wellman said...

I can see what you mean by justice...but the main thing about Bell is that he does not, in my opinion, have his followers/consumers best interests in mind.

Joel Willitts said...

Poe:
You write: "the easy, conclusive predisposition of having no problem in believing in eternal punishment" is indeed symptomatic of a balkanization and/or demonization of the other, as it totalizes evil into one small section of people (innocent people are just hapless collateral)". I would simply contend that whatever modern problems we might have with this, those were foreign to a first century Jew. Demonization, of course--not sure about balkanization; that's exactly the stuff of sectarianism and that is what the early Christian movement was. Anyone who knows the Jewish literature would agree with this. The "foam" element is imagery in my view, to be read poetically not literally. Sorry for the very quick response. Tuesdays are my heavy days with academia and church work.

Poe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Poe said...

Hmmm, Paul militating against pagans and Jesus brandishing not peace but, well, a non-metaphorical sword -- what translation are you using again??

CrazyLoverWannabe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CrazyLoverWannabe said...

5. In the Bible, restorative punishment, punishment whose purpose is to restore, is generally corporate and only for Israel in the OT. What I mean here is that individuals are not the objects of restorative punishment in the OT. Much is made of Ezekiel’s vision of the restoration of Sodom (Ezek 16:44-58) in the chapter. Rob overreaches to make his point. A careful reading of the passage reveals that Ezekiel is speaking of Sodom corporately. The city will be restored with Samaria and with Jerusalem."

You say "generally corporate and only for Israel" but your proof is a specific instance that supports "generally for Israel and only corporate"?

I think your friend, Robin Parry, would add a few more instances of restorative punishment from the OT that specifically named nations other than Israel.

Providing the counter-example of "forever" in Revelation is a bit non-sequitir, isn't it? It means "forever" because you say it does? It can't really mean "a really long time that is less than eternity"? Isn't much of the language in Revelation poetic and figurative rather than strictly literal in any case?

Making a case for the rich man to then end up in the lake of fire is a bit of a stretch. If Jesus was using the story to make that point, then why didn't he make it, instead of relying on John to make it for him later?

CrazyLoverWannabe said...

Another point: why is it that the distinction between "corporate" and "individuals" seems to always be made in terms of mutual exclusivity. Doesn't "corporate" Sodom contain "individuals". In what sense is Sodom restored such that no individual is impacted by the restoration?

Joel Willitts said...

Scott thanks for your rebuttals. I really appreciate that you are reading the post. So thanks very much. I want to briefly respond to the points you made, at least in part:

You say "generally corporate and only for Israel" but your proof is a specific instance that supports "generally for Israel and only corporate"?

I think your friend, Robin Parry, would add a few more instances of restorative punishment from the OT that specifically named nations other than Israel.

Another point: why is it that the distinction between "corporate" and "individuals" seems to always be made in terms of mutual exclusivity. Doesn't "corporate" Sodom contain "individuals". In what sense is Sodom restored such that no individual is impacted by the restoration?

I'm not sure what you are asking in the first quote. Here's my point, I think that the OT evidence when discussing restorative justice is focused mostly on Israel. There was nothing restorative in God's dealings with the Canaanites for example; his judgment on them is retributive. However when God comes hundreds of years later and does the same to Israel the purpose of that judgment is restorative. However, there's an important element. Its NOT restorative for every Israelite. The restorative nature of the judgment is corporate: Israel and Judah will be restored and reunited (Ezek 34) after judgment. There are entities (like Sodom) that are spoken of in restorative terms, but still it is corporate not individual--not all the Sodomites will be restored. Those judged in Gen remain judged (apparently--unless of course you want to argue otherwise). I don't mean to suggest a mutually exclusive category as you seem to paint my comments as, but I do think there is a difference here as I've suggested.

Scott again you say:
Providing the counter-example of "forever" in Revelation is a bit non-sequitir, isn't it? It means "forever" because you say it does? It can't really mean "a really long time that is less than eternity"? Isn't much of the language in Revelation poetic and figurative rather than strictly literal in any case?

I'm not trying to do anything unusual here. NO lexicon will support Rob's position. As I say, it is true that ancient Jews didn't likely conceive of forever in the way we do, they did think in terms of ages, upon ages, upon ages with no hint of a end. Even the one word aion could imply this ongoing series of ages. So it is utilized to represent something similar to what we mean by "forever" although not exactly equivalent perhaps. And I might add, this is of course a figure of speech no matter who uses it because talking about time as ages is not a literal idea. This was not just for John in Rev however.

And finally you say:
Making a case for the rich man to then end up in the lake of fire is a bit of a stretch. If Jesus was using the story to make that point, then why didn't he make it, instead of relying on John to make it for him later?

Look, I wasn't trying to say that the rich man definitely in the lake of fire. I was noting that hell and the lake of fire are distinguishable locations in the Bible. I was proposing a harmonizing the ideas in the vein of Revelation. I can't say, nor was I trying to by the way, that Jesus was teaching this or making this point. I'm sorry if I led you to believe this is what I was trying to say.