Photo by jurvetson
I’m not one to apologize for not being a “true theologian,” or to shy away from writing about my views on God and the Bible, even though I never went to seminary. I do, however, love to soak up the knowledge and insights of those who have gone to seminary—who know Greek and have spent countless hours studying the Bible in hopes to understand what it really says.
The senior pastor at my church, Ron Simkins, is one of those extremely knowledgeable people who always leaves me with much to chew on and reconsider. When the Rob Bell controversy hit a couple weeks ago, I began asking him what the Bible really says about hell. The beginnings of that conversation have become this (via-email) interview. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do. (Note: Ron provided me with biblical references for all of this. If you are interested in where to find particular images/instances mentioned below, just let me know!)
What do you think about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book?
I have not read the book [just released March 15], so I have no interest in pretending I know exactly what he says. What I do want to respond to is the claim being made by several prominent Christian teachers: that eternal torment in “hell” is a key tenet of genuine Christian faith. If it is, the writers of the New Testament didn’t know it.
But there’s a lot about God’s judgment in the Bible.
Yes, “judgment” and “justice” are key biblical issues. A key part of the Judeo-Christian hope is that God will bring a final judgment—a re-ordering of society so that the relationships between people are what they ought to be in the broadest and most wholesome sense of that hope.
So how does the idea of hell fit into that?
“Hell,” as a word describing separation from God, is a very small part of the imagery the biblical writers use to describe the future of those who reject God’s re-ordering of human society.
The word “hell” appears 16 times in the NIV. Three are a mistranslation of the word “Hades,” which means “the place of the dead.” In the other 13 instances, “hell” is probably a terrible translation of the word “Gehenna,” an actual place just outside the walls of Jerusalem. The books of Kings and Chronicles tell us that a wealthy family named Hinnom owned a garden near Jerusalem which first King Ahaz and then King Manasseh turned into a place for burning children as a sacrifice to the god Molech. When King Josiah came to the throne, he was so distraught by this practice of his forefathers that he destroyed the altars and turned the garden into a garbage dump—the beautiful garden did in reality become a place where the flames never went out and the worms never died out.
When does Jesus talk about Gehenna or hell?
Of the 13 uses of “Gehenna” in New Testament writings, 11 were spoken by Jesus, who would have walked by this location periodically when he was in Jerusalem. In every case, when Jesus uses this reference he is warning church/religious leaders not to abuse their influence—it is church leaders, not the lost and outcast of Jesus’ day, who are consistently warned of the danger of harming others in a manner that turns their own lives into the garbage of history. Never once does Jesus threaten the tax collectors, the prostitutes, or the wounded and oppressed with “hell.”
So why are we so stuck on the idea of this physical, fiery place we call hell?
To hear many preachers and Christians talk, one would think that “hell” as a fiery pit was the primary biblical image of separation from God. But Gehenna is not the only—or even the primary—image used. A look at some of the other images makes it clear that the biblical writers were not attempting to uniformly describe a place, but rather to warn us that separation from God was a choice we can make, and that it isn’t a good choice.
What are some examples of other images?
There’s the bottomless pit or the abyss—an image of falling into nowhere; a wandering alone in the blackness of outerspace; wandering in a desert or empty wasteland; the image of being in prison. Some biblical references that conjure up less concrete “places” include being left with unfulfilled desires, uncontrolled anger and bitterness, disintegration, and having no hope in the future. We should obviously stop thinking about separation from God as a literal fiery pit and instead think about the many very real consequences of rejecting God and his perfect vision of what this world should look like.
So where does that leave us with the Rob Bell debate?
It’s interesting that Jesus references hell when he’s warning church leaders. Rob Bell is a church leader. So are all his prominent critics. So, am I. I wonder what would happen if Church leaders started teaching “hell” the way Jesus did? What if current church leaders did what the writers of the gospels did and made it clear that the warnings were for them and leaders like them? Wouldn’t all the words take on a different inflection if we who teach, preach, and do biblical scholarship saw the fingers pointing first of all at ourselves, and never at those who seem to be “outcasts” from our “inner circle?”