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Bell’s Hell: A Review by Michael Horton, Part 4

March 24, 2011

Michael S. Horton

Part 1 appears here, Part 2 appears here, Part 3 appears here.

Chapter 3 Hell

Like heaven, hell is described in Scripture with vivid metaphors and analogies drawn from everyday experience. Whatever is meant by such images and expressions as “lake of fire,” where “the smoke goes up forever” and “the worm doesn’t die,” the referent is clearly a place and not just a state of mind. Every evangelical expositor I’ve come across points out the term for hell as Gehenna, referring to the city dump near Jerusalem. However, for Bell, once again it’s subjectivized: “So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, ‘Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere…’” (68). “Gehenna, the town garbage pile. And that’s it. Those are all the mentions of ‘hell’ in the Bible” (69). Also Hades (69). Hell is Rwanda and rape (70-1).

"So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word ‘sin,’ my first response is to ask, ‘Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?…And that’s what we find in Jesus’s 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. He uses hyperbole often….Other times he sounds just plain violent. But when you’ve sat with a wife who has found out that her husband has been cheating on her for years,…and you see the concentric rings of pain that are going to emanate from this one man’s choices—in that moment Jesus’s warnings don’t seem that over-the-top or drastic; they seem perfectly spot-on…Some agony needs agonizing language. Some destruction does make you think of fire. Some betrayal actually feels like you’ve been burned. Some injustices do cause things to heat up" (73).

Jesus didn’t come to drive out the Romans. “He was trying to bring Israel back to its roots, to its divine calling to be a light to the world, showing the nations just what the redeeming love of God looks like” (80). Although he’s right about the Romans, Bell repeats his assumption that we’ve just fallen off the glory road and can get back on track with the right program. Is this really what Jesus was trying to do: to show “just what the redeeming love of God looks like”? Or was he actually achieving redemption through his obedient life, death, and resurrection? He points out that Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24-25. The Romans did crush Jerusalem and destroy the temple. However, he adds, “Because of this history, it’s important that we don’t take Jesus’s very real and prescient warnings about judgment then out of context, making them about someday, somewhere else. That wasn’t what he was talking about” (81). 

This is a good place to see where Bell collapses the future events of Christ’s return into the present tense. In that Olivet discourse (Mat 24-25), Jesus does indeed predict the temple’s destruction within the lifetime of some of his hearers. Nevertheless, he also speaks clearly of an apparently lengthy period marked simultaneously by suffering and the proclamation of the gospel—after which, he will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. In Bell’s telling, however, all of this has already happened and is already happening. Furthermore, Jesus speaks clearly in that discourse concerning the pattern of events at his coming. First, with his angels he “will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Mat 24:31). “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Just as “they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (vv 37-39). In that day, the master will come to the faithless servant “and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v 51), cast “into the outer darkness” (v 30). The Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats, welcoming the sheep. However, the goats will be condemned. “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Mat 25:31-46). 

Of course, Jesus speaks of judgment, Bell allows. “But in reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word ‘hell,’ what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point. He’s often not talking about ‘beliefs’ as we think of them—he’s talking about anger and lust and indifferent…about the kind of effect they have on the world” (82). In other words, deeds, not creeds. Yet not even a mention is made of the many references to faith in Christ, believing in his name, and similar phrases as the way of receiving forgiveness and entrance into his kingdom. Jesus presses Martha to make this confession in John 11:24-27: not only assent to the doctrine of the resurrection, but faith in him as “the Resurrection and the Life.” Similarly, he presses his disciples on just this point (Mk 8:29). Bell simply does not deal with some of the most obvious texts on this question.

Bell’s interpretation of Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 10 concerning the judgment of the people in Capernaum being worst than the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah is especially creative. Of course, in Genesis 19 there is a historical narrative of an actual historical event in which these cities were destroyed by fire. But in Ezekiel 16, it’s promised that people will return and God will restore the fortunes of the cities. Therefore, Bell draws this conclusion: “What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny…wasn’t? What appeared to be over, isn’t.” Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration.” Then in Mat 10 Jesus “warns the people living in the village of Capernaum, ‘It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you.’ More bearable for Sodom and Gomorah? He tells highly committed, pious, religious people that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than them on judgment day? There’s still hope? And if there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, what does that say about all of the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs?” (84-5). 

There is no wrestling here with the difference between the temporal judgments of temporal nations, pointing typologically to Christ’s final judgment and everlasting reign. Instead, Sodom and Gomorrah become allegorized as examples of a purgatory that leads to refinement and hope. Taking aion in Matthew 25 to mean “age” or “period of time” and kolozo as “prunning or trimming,” Bell concludes that the everlasting judgment to which Jesus refers is actually “‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction” (91). Similarly, the Hebrew word “olam” is also “a versatile, pliable word, in most occurrences referring to a particular period of time” (92). This is simply poor exegesis. What about aion in John 3:16? In Bell’s view, Jesus brings not everlasting life but “life for a period of time.” And although olam is often used in the Old Testament to refer to God as eternal, it too must mean that God’s existence is similarly “for a period of time.” In John 3:18 Jesus says of himself, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” There is no reason take “condemnation” here to be any less everlasting than the salvation that he promises.

Part 5 appears here.