Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Hell of an analysis

Image from here
I am only half way into Rob Bell's book Love Wins. I thought I might read it due to the controversy around it. Like I said, I am only half way into this book, and already I am a bit concerned. I wonder if he has read the whole Bible which he is trying to base his book on. To limit this post on this book I am only going to focus on his chapter on Hell, so all quotes come from there. And just to be snarky, I might try and mimic his writing style in some places.

Bell seeks to look at what the Old Testament and the New Testament says on Hell. So far that is a good start, its best to see what you are working with. He seeks to:
show you every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word "hell."
First, the Hebrew scriptures. There isn’t an exact word or concept in the Hebrew scriptures for hell other than a few words that refer to death and the grave.
There is no exact word in Hebrew,
we can all go home now. Lets move on to the New Testament....

It is worrying that this is Bell's first premise in his chapter on Hell.
It makes we wonder if he has even read the Old Testament,
or if he did he must have stopped before he got to any major prophets
or a minor prophet for that matter.

The word "hell" may not have been used in the Old Testament, but "the Day of the Lord" seems to fit the concept of hell and judgement quite well (Isaiah 13:9-13; 24:21-23, Ezekiel 30:1-4, Joel 2:1-2, 31-32, Amos 5:18-20, Zephaniah 1:7-18, Malachi 4:5-6 ... to mention just a few references). Besides, since when was the Old Testament given such a positive wrap? Isn't it all about judgement and doom? Fire and brimstone? Bell on the other hand suggests that is not the case because he looked up the specific words "death" and "grave". Later in this chapter he would go on to say that there is "a theme [of] restoration ... in the Hebrew scriptures", which is true, but most of the time that restoration happens after judgement.

Bell cites:
In Zephaniah 2: “The LORD their God will care for them; he will restore their fortunes.”
In Zephaniah 3: “I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes.”
But to get to Zephaniah 2 you have to first go through Zephaniah 1.
One comes before two.
The bit before this bit gives it context.
Zephaniah 1 has the Lord bringing judgement and punishment on "those who have turned back from following the LORD, who do not seek the LORD or inquire of him.”
and on those "who are complacent, those who say in their hearts,‘The LORD will not do good, nor will he do ill.’
Perhaps we should say that the Lord will do people some ill...
Even Zephaniah 2 has the Lord destroying Canaan "until no inhabitant is left" two verses before the Lord is caring for "them".
The "them" is important.
Does it mean "everyone"? Or does it mean "some people in a select (elect?) group"?
Zephaniah one and two seems to suggest that God is going to judge some people and remove them before the restoration of some other group of people.

Back to the hell word search.
Bell only touches on the word "Sheol" and the a place known as "the pit" in this single paragraph:
One of them is the Hebrew word “Sheol,” a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die, as in Psalm 18: “The cords of Sheol entangled me” (NRSV). There’s also mention of “the depths,” as in Psalm 30: “I will exalt you, LORD, for you lifted me out of the depths”; the “pit,” as in Psalm 103: “The LORD . . . who redeems your life from the pit”; and the grave, as in Psalm 6: “Who praises you from the grave?”
How is that for a word search?
Sheol is actually mentioned in the Old Testament 64 times
"the pit" in the context of death and hell is mention just in Job, Psalm and Isaiah about 23 times (Job 33:18; 33:22; 33:24;33:28; 33:30; Psalm 28:1; 30:3; 30:9; 40:2; 49:9; 55:23; 69:15; 88:4; 88:6; 103:4; 143:7; Isaiah 14:15; 14:19; 24:17; 24:18; 38:17; 38:18; 51:14)
Bell mentions "Sheol" in his book 4 times (twice in the paragraph above).
Bell mentions "the pit" just once in that paragraph above.
So much for seeing every single verse in the Bible about Hell...
I think we need: "A pause, to recover from that last sentence."

When turning to the New Testament Bell admits that Jesus mentions hell (gehenna) about 12 times, but we must remember that:
Gehenna was an actual place that Jesus’s listeners would have been familiar with. 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 . . .”
See that?
Jesus wasn't using imagery when talking about hell.
He was talking about where your garbage goes.
Jesus also said some other things that we get wrong about hell and wrath:
When he [Jesus] warns of the “coming wrath,” then, this is a very practical, political, heartfelt warning to his people to not go the way they’re intent on going.
The Romans, he keeps insisting, will crush you.
The tragedy in all of this is that his warnings came true. In the great revolt that began in 66 CE, the Jews took up arms against the Romans—who eventually crushed them, grinding the stones of their temple into dust.
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.
Bell is right. We do not want to take Jesus' words out of context, or twist his words..
But Jesus didn't seem to be very political.
Let see what he says:

John 18:36: Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
So much for practical politics.
When Jesus was talking about death and wrath, he seems to suggest that you should not be too worried about the Romans, or anyone else who could kill you.
Matt 10:28: "do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." - Jesus
Be afraid of the person that can throw you in hell,
not the one who can kill you.
So much for practical politics and the revolt in 66 AD...
That wasn't what Jesus was talking about.
Another "pause, to recover from that last sentence."

And here is where I died a little in this chapter:
In a good number of English translations of the Bible, the phrase “aion of kolazo” gets translated as “eternal punishment,” which many read to mean “punishment forever,” as in never going to end.
But “forever” is not really a category the biblical writers used.
The closest the Hebrew writers come to a word for “forever” is the word olam. Olam can be translated as “to the vanishing point,” “in the far distance,” “a long time,” “long lasting,” or “that which is at or beyond the horizon.”
Bell moves form a Greek word (aion) to a Hebrew word (olam) to make his point. This is just bad exegetical slight of hand. The New Testament was written in Greek and the word aion is consistently translated as eternal. In fact if you want to reduce aion to not mean forever, then heaven also doesn't last forever as the same word is used to describe "eternal life". Matt 25:46 says both "eternal punishment" and "eternal life" and you know what word was used for "eternal"?
Its the same word, consistently translated as eternal.
I think we need another "pause, to recover from that last sentence."

I haven't read Bell's chapter on heaven, but if he is arguing that heaven is forever then he is just being inconsistent.

I think Bell is right. There can be hell on earth, and his word studies in the Bible is just an example of that.


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