Rob Bell on "Hell": Review and Reflections (Part 2)

Bell begins his discussion by noting that there is no “hell” in the Old Testament. There is a sheol—“a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die” (p. 65)—but nothing equivalent to hell. Beliefs about the afterlife in Hebrew culture were not “very articulated or defined” (p. 67).

Bell notes that the word translated “hell” in the New Testament is actually gehenna, referring originally to an actual valley on the west side of Jerusalem used as a garbage dumb; a place where the fire was burning constantly to consume the trash.

Bell emphasizes the metaphorical use of this word in the sayings of Jesus. The “volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors” that Jesus uses “describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity” (p.73).

I agree with Bell that Jesus employed the term in hyperbole and symbol. What Bell does not tell the reader, however, is that one metaphorical meaning of “hell” during the time of Jesus was that of an actual place of fiery judgment. This belief in a fiery judgment where the wicked would be consumed emerged in the intertestamental period as an apocalyptic worldview began to develop. Oppressed Israel started dreaming of vindication and some of them imagined a place where the wicked would be destroyed by fire. A smaller number imagined it as a place of eternal torment. As the ABD notes: “By at least the 1st century C.E. there emerged a metaphorical understanding of Gehenna as the place of judgment by fire for all the wicked everywhere.”

It’s also interesting that most of the references to gehenna are found in Matthew’s Gospel and Matthew tends to embellish the judgment texts with a severity, harshness, and vindictiveness not found in Mark or Luke. Theologian and Bible scholar Walter Wink, in his book, The Human Being, expresses it this way: “Matthew’s use of the judgment theme is particularly vindictive . . . The unconditional loving Abba of the Sermon of the Mount (5:45) now wants to settle some scores. Matthew’s heart will not be happy until ‘all evildoers’ have been thrown ‘into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (p. 177). Apparently, Matthew or some in his community had an ax to grind. This also better explains the phrase, “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:30 as a Matthean embellishment. Bell’s attempt to make that phrase say something else is a real stretch (see pp. 91-93).

Bell does a good job with the story in Luke 16 about Lazarus and the rich man. It is a “brilliant, surreal, poignant, subversive, loaded story” proclaiming “the social revolution” that is part of the kingdom of God. The reversal theme that is so prevalent in Luke shows up here “calling all people to human solidarity” (p. 75). Bell contends that the story was particularly aimed at the religious leaders as a warning that “there would be serious consequences for ignoring the Lazaruses outside their gates” (p. 76). Bell points out that even in his agony the rich man wants Lazarus to serve him and go warn his brothers, treating him as his servant. In an insightful application Bell points out that the gospel of Jesus is about a death that leads to life; a pattern of dying to the ego, status, and pride, so one can live in God’s kingdom. Bell notes, “He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life” (p. 77).

Bell’s interpretation is perceptive and transformative, though the story needed more introduction and context. It would probably be improper to call this story a parable. Most parables have a true-to-life sense about them; this is pure allegorical fiction. A similar story appears in other literature and cultures, probably originating in Egypt. There were several versions of it in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Jesus is adapting a common story line to proclaim God’s eschatological reversal and in the Lukan context, he is critiquing the Pharisees misuse of the law, particularly the way they interpreted the law to justify their love of money. The word for “hell” does not appear in the text; instead, the word hades is employed, referring to the abode of the dead. Literalizing the details of the story robs it of its power and reduces it to the ridiculous. (For a more complete discussion of this see my book, The Good News According to Jesus, pp. 185-198).

Bell acknowledges that there are a number of passages in the Bible that speak about judgment and punishment that says nothing about “hell.” With regard to Jesus’ announcements of judgment Bell says two things. First, sometimes Jesus is referring to the coming wrath of the Romans against Israel (though he doesn’t cite any passages here). Second, Jesus is addressing very religious people who thought they were the “in” group, warning them “about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love” (p. 82). (Again, it is unusual that he does not cite any specific passages here either.)

Bell makes a very important point about the criterion of judgment, pointing out that in all the passages of Jesus’ sayings on “hell” Jesus is not talking about beliefs. Rather, he is talking about “anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of the listeners’ hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world” (p. 82). This is true, by the way, of all the judgment texts in Scripture. Even in the Gospel of John, where belief is so prominent, the eschatological judgment is determined on the basis of conduct and actions, namely, on the grounds of “those who have done good” and “those who have done evil” (John 5:29).

The most important point Bell makes in this chapter is about the nature of judgment. Bell, like myself and a growing number of progressive Christians, sees judgment as restorative and redemptive. The movement of judgment is a movement “from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life” (p. 85). Though his attempt to find this movement in Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment in Matthew 10 is the result of eisegesis, not exegesis; it’s simply not there. But it is in the prophets, and Bell cites a bunch of them. He writes, “According to the prophets, God crushes, refines, tests, corrects, chastens, and rebukes—but always with a purpose” (pp. 85-86). That purpose is restoration: “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction” (p. 88). Bell appeals to the judgment renderings of Paul in First Timothy and 1 Corinthians 5 to support this movement. (Note: It is not likely that Paul was the author of First Timothy).

This is the point about judgment that I develop in The Good News According to Jesus and A Faith Worth Living. In the latter book I begin the discussion by putting it this way: “Rather than perpetuate the duality of “us” and “them” (the saved and unsaved, the righteous and wicked), each group being assigned separate destinies as is common in apocalyptic and dualistic versions of Christianity, it is more reasonable and true to the God of Jesus of Nazareth to bring judgment and salvation together as part of the total providential, redemptive, restorative, transformative work of God to reconcile all things to God’s self” (p. 100).

Later in the discussion: “An inclusive gospel inverts our images of judgment and invests them with new meaning. The “furnace of fire” becomes a furnace that burns off all the dross, leaving the precious metal; it consumes all the selfishness and sin, so that the one who has been through the flames comes forth purged and pure. Perhaps the journey through “outer darkness” is necessary to dispel the inner darkness and illumine our minds and hearts to the mystery, wonder, and power of God’s goodness and grace. Maybe the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a necessary prelude to the joy and celebration that results from the experience of grace and real gratitude” (p. 107).

This is the theological grounding for a rethinking of traditional ideas and beliefs about hell, namely: God’s judgment (however we may conceive of this) is for the purpose of ultimate transformation. This theological construct is a key component in an inclusive gospel.

I think judgment in the form of consequences is good as far as it can go, but in my estimation it simply can’t go far enough. For one thing, there are some people who seem to be able to elude the natural consequences of their evil actions and conduct. And for another, simply facing the consequences of our evil actions may not be adequate to turn us around. I believe it will take more direct engagement from God. How God can or might do this, I am not imaginative enough to guess. How might God get the attention of and bring about the repentance of sadists, torturers, “natural born killers”?—I don’t know. I feel rather strongly that their judgment will be more severe, intense, painful, and prolonged. The refining fire may need to burn hotter and longer, especially with those whose conscience has been completely numbed.

This view of judgment allows me to pray the psalms, at least the ones that go beyond the little self (the false, ego self). I can love my enemies while simultaneously praying for their judgment, knowing that the judgment rendered will ultimately be for the good of all. But I have to be careful that my prayers do not express repressed or underlying currents of anger that come out in thoughts of vengeance and retribution.

If judgment begins in my own household (the whole earth is God’s household and all are God’s offspring—see Acts 17) then I can pray for my own judgment, knowing that the fire is a purifying, refining, purging fire designed to bring out my true self, my true humanity.

I agree with Bell that we need the language of “hell,” that we need “a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences [for me that includes God’s part in the process] we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us” (p. 93). We may have to endure many “hells” before we reach “heaven,” whatever heaven may mean in terms of personal, communal, and global transformation.

I have one Absolute that orients my belief system, my spirituality, and my daily life. I believe that at the heart and core of all Reality, that which is Really Real, the Mystery that holds it all together, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” the One taking the universe or universes somewhere is pure, undefiled, unconditional Love. Of course, I am a Christian with Christian beliefs, but if all my Christian beliefs prove to be false and yet, the one Absolute holds true, then “all will be well.”


  1. I surfed here from a search link given from this Google search: (aion OR "rob bell") AND ("refiner's fire" OR "refining fire") AND hell.

    I am thankful to find other people who emphasize that God is love. That is not an attribute, but His very DNA. Grace versus legalism. I would like to recommend Steve McVey to you too.


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