Rob Bell, you can’t have your cake and eat it too

Preston Sprinkle —  April 7, 2011 — 8 Comments

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.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • stevezahm

    Whoa there! Is it your proposal that in order to understand 2nd Temple Judaism’s 1st century understanding of the concept of hell you study a few extra-biblical texts? What about the rabbinic literature; the Midrash, the Talmud, the writings of Shammai and Hillel, etc. Jewish teaching was largely oral and certainly not monolithic during the first half of the the 1st century and it was only after the destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.) that the oral law was begun to systematically be written down. Excluding the above mentioned, and other primary sources, is disingenuous and shoddy (bad, horrible, dishonest) scholarship. I am not necessarily supporting Bell’s views on hell but if the examples you cite here (referring to Mr. Sprinkle and the reviewer), then I’ll reserve judgement and any serious scholar would not accept that Sprinkle refuted anyone including Rob Bell. This is fast-food scholarship.

    • Preston

      Thanks for your kind response to my blog, Steve. I hate to do this in a public forum, but I need to correct a couple things you said.

      First, there are no such things as “the writings of Shammai and Hillel.” They didn’t write anything that’s been preserved. Their oral teachings were codified in the Mishnah, etc. 200 years later, but these don’t constitute “their writings.”

      Second, you are correct that there are many other Jewish writings to draw from, but these were written way after the first century. The Mishnah was c.a. A.D. 200; the Talmud c.a. A.D. 500. Yes, they reflect the oral traditions of the first century, but those traditions have been filtered through the lens of rabbinic (or Pharisaic) Judaism and therefore need to be read back into the actual first century context with much caution. The actual writings of the 2nd Temple period must have priority to the actual beliefs and practices of 1st century Jews.

      Third, I did my “fast food” Ph.D. from MacAberdeen University in first-century Judaism and the very first rule of thumb was: don’t read rabbinic literature back into the first century. Some scholars, such as W. Horbury and his student D. Instone Brewer, are much more confident (though still cautious) about doing this, but most Jewish scholars argue (rightly) that first century writings, rather than rabbinic writings, are the best (though not only) guide for first century Jewish thought. Ironically, scholars warn against the monolithic tone of rabbinic literature and therefore advocate for reading the much more diverse 2nd temple Jewish texts. Very ironic in light of your comment.

      Thanks again for your pushback. And though no one will probably read these comments, since the post is 2 years old and I’ve since written a book on the topic, I hope that our readers (both of them?) will glean from our interchange.

      Amazing enough, my Ph.D. adviser, along with my examiners and the publishers of my disseration, weren’t able to catch my “shoddy (bad, horrible, dishonest) scholarship.” They should be fired.

  • Paul

    Great points!

    I just have a few clarification questions…

    What would you consider a 20th century fundamentalist view of Hell? Your last statement puzzled me. Are you saying that early Jewish thought and fundamentalist thought would both agree? Or are you arguing 20th century fundamentalism has a different view?

    I grew up in a charasmatic Arminian church that taught enternal torment. I attend a reformed Calvinist church that teaches the same. In fact, I would believe that many TBN “health and wealth” types believe the same. Some of the seeker friendly churches don’t preach on it a lot, if ever. I have never heard Schuller or Osteen talk about hell. Maybe you could quickly clarify the major doctrines on hell?

    Thanks for the articles!

    • preston

      Ya, good question Paul. My only point is this: in much of Rob’s book, you get the sense that he’s pitting his view of hell up against those in more traditional or fundamentalistic circles, yet he also wants to read the NT in light of its Jewish background. So my point is that if he wants to hold his view of hell, then he’s actually disagreeing with early Judaism. He’s not just disagreeing with fundamentalist.

      A fundamentalist view of hell would typically be one of eternal torment. Another position of hell that would be compatible with evangelical belief is that of annihilationism–that those who reject Christ would be annihilated upon death but wouldn’t suffer eternal torment.

      Some early Jewish texts actually reflect more of an annihlationist view while others lean more towards eternal punishment. In any case, Bell argues for salvation after judgment for those who reject Christ, so he’s embracing something altogether different.

      • Paul

        Thank you…

        That helps a lot. The annihilation view is an interesting view. I do see how it would fit into the character of God, but I also see how eternal punishment fits as well. But salvation after judgment for those who reject Christ doesn’t seem to line up with scripture. Isn’t that what Mormons believe to a degree?

        Dennis Prager, a religious reformed Jew, Torah teacher, and popular writer and radio show host who Frank Pastore and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken side by side with, when asked about a Jewish perspective on Hell says that Judaism believes a “just God” must punish and reward in the next life. His understanding is that God will justly punish, and that he, as a Jew, does not worry if it will be for a few minutes or eternity, physical or mental. God will be in charge of those issues. That has been the only Jewish perspective I’ve come across.

        • preston

          Interesting thoughts about Prager. He seems to echo Gen 18, where it says: “will not the judge of the world do what is right?” (or something like that). The point being, whatever the details, we know that God will do what is right, according to his standard.

  • This is great perspective, Preston!

  • Preston

    Great post, really appreciate it!
    I definitely have not read anyone address the Jewish context of the doctrine of heaven and hell.

    Now..
    I’m reblogging this on my Tumblr (Blog!)
    for everyone else to read! =]