Quite honestly, all the hype about Rob Bell is quite annoying to me for various reasons. For one, there are a lot of people out there who have been wanting to hang Rob Bell for quite some time. So in a weird way, I think they are pretty excited to see Rob tie his own noose in his latest book, Love Wins. But all of this Pop Christianeze drama is very unattractive to me, and so I’ve resisted entering into the whole discussion about Rob’s book. I’m not a witch hunter and have never aspired to be one, so if someone writes a book that I may disagree with here and there, I don’t normally jump at the chance to take ’em out.
In any case, there’s somewhat of a glaring issue in Rob’s book that I just can’t stop thinking about, one which I’ve yet to see the blogosphere address. That is, the Jewish context of the doctrine of heaven and hell.
One thing I’ve actually appreciated about Rob’s teaching is that he tries hard to situate the message of the NT in first century Judaism. Amen, and Amen! Jesus and his followers emerged from Judaism, more specifically, a type of Judaism that could be called apocalyptic Judaism. And so Rob, in his book, consistently points to this context to vindicate his view of heaven and hell (see for instance, pp. 55, 57, 89, and others). For instance, Rob bemoans the fact that:
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (p. viii)
He goes on to call this view “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy” (p. viii). So Rob does not think that the “traditional” doctrine of hell as a place of torment for those who don’t believe in Jesus is biblical.
Now, Rob is correct (for the most part) about his understanding of “heaven.” Neither the NT nor first century Judaism focused on a disembodied eternal state up in the clouds, but an eternal existence in a new creation (see Rom 8:19-23; Rev 21-22; cf. Isa 65-66), and most NT scholars agree. But is Rob right about his view of Hell? Or more specifically: does Rob consistently follow his own bent towards situating the NT in its Jewish context in his defense of the doctrine of Hell?
No. No he doesn’t. He’s actually being very inconsistent to his own love for Judaism. Early Jewish literature around the time of the NT unashamedly spoke of an eternal hell, where there would be on-going punishment for the damned (those who rejected the God of Israel). And let me tell you, their descriptions of hell would make your toes curl!
Just a few passages will suffice. A book called 1 Enoch (about 100 B.C.), a book that Jude quotes, speaks extensively about this place of torment for the damned (25:4-5; 27:3-4; 54:6; 90:24-27). Those who reject God will go to “the place of condemnation…into an abyss, full of fire and flame” (90:24).
Another book called Pseudo-Philo, written in Palestine right around the time of Jesus and Paul, speaks explicitly about a hell (16:3; 23:6; 31:7; 38:4). It’s a place where the “fiery worm will go up into the tongue” of the unbeliever and “rot him away” in the “dwelling place…in the inextinguishable fire forever” (63:4).
Two other books, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, written near the end of the first-century (right around the time of Revelation) also describe an eternal place of torment for the damned (2 Bar 30:4-5; 44:15; 51:6; 54:14, 21-22; 4 Ezra 7:35-36, 45-51). And for 4 Ezra, most of humanity will be here! “I see that the world to come will bring delight to few, but torments to many” (7:47).
I could go on and on and on.
So here’s my quick, and quite narrow, point: Rob must rip the NT out of its Jewish context in order to defend his doctrine of hell. But Rob doesn’t want to do this. He very much wants to be that guy who, unlike most other Christians according to himself, reads the NT with the grain of first-century Judaism. But Rob—while I appreciate much about your ministry and affirm many (or some) things in your book—you can’t have your cake and eat it too! The traditional doctrine of hell correlates perfectly with its Jewish (not 20th century Christian fundamentalist!) context.