How does one start a talk about hell? Should there an image of fire in the background? So when you read the words of hell on this blog, would it cause heat? What about the devil with the pitchfork? That will get you thinking.
I mean, how does one open up a discussion on Hell? This is not exactly dinner time chatter…or a good dating topic. You wouldn’t go out with your friends and say we should go out and talk about Hell!
Please, do not go and ask your friends to talk about Hell.
So how does one start a conversation about Hell? I Googled some ideas. The ones that want to have this conversation usually start with something like this:
So, I will do one better:
I know that there is a Hell and I know exactly where it is.
Did that get your attention?
There is a town called Hell, Michigan. “…is an unincorporated community in Putnam Township of Livingston County in the U.S. state of Michigan. The community is near the border with Washtenaw County, about 15 miles (24 km) northwest of Ann Arbor. Population: Approx 268 people”. This, according to Wikipedia. They do have a website, a Facebook, a Twitter page and a restaurant called HellinaHandBasket.
There. That’s it. I proved it. Argument over. Problem solved.
Wait, you have more questions? I don’t understand. I clearly pointed out there was a Hell. I gave you a location. This should settle it.
Something doesn’t feel right? You’ve heard so much about it? You might have told someone to go there. Or hoped an enemy might? You read a tract that if you didn’t know Jesus you would go there?
Well I know these guys named Rob and Francis. They wrote some things about it. Well they really wrote what they thought the Bible said about it.
Here’s what Rob Bell writes about what the Bible says about Hell, Page 61:
“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.”
Another highlight, page 67:
“Next then, the New Testament. The actual word “hell” is used roughly 12 times in the New Testament, almost exclusively by Jesus himself. The Greek word that gets translated as “hell” in the English is the word “Gehenna”. Ge means “valley” and henna means “Hinnom”. Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was an actual valley on the south and west side of the City of Jerusalem.”
To Bell, that was it. Bell explains there is not much language about what happens after we die in Hebrew Language.
I’m assuming Bell and Chan read the Bible about Hell. Chan seemed to see a much different perspective. He sees not a little, but, and pardon the pun here, a hell of a lot more about Hell. He actually sees enough to write chapters on.
What Jesus Followers Said about Hell.
Now you might be thinking “what the Hell?”. How can two people see this so differently?
In order to answer that, I would like to break this into three sections:
Perception and Translation
While I have been reading these books, I’d often picture this as a court scene with two lawyers. On one side, Bell showing his letter of the law to prove the actual language. On the other side is Chan giving Exhibit A, Exhibit B, and Exhibit C, trying to disprove Bell’s very little evidence with a bunch of overwhelming evidence. There is also a judge asked to make a verdict
Now both people’s approach to the evidence was similar. They both went back to help us go forward. Chan has a chapter called Has Hell Changed? Or have We? This is a chapter where Chan shows when Jesus lines up with Jewish culture about the realities of Hell. Bell would agree that Jesus was speaking to the cultural understanding of the time. If you wish to read more on Bell’s thoughts on that specifically, he touches more on this in his book Velvet Elvis.
Chan doesn’t really bring us back to Scripture at first. He brings in a closer cultural context and images. He starts us off on the image of Jesus. He begins with the usual image of Jesus: Caucasian male with long flowing hair and beard. This image has lead to other images. There is an example of what he is talking about from page 48.
“Before we knew it, we have an American Jesus, a Western Jesus, a post modern Jesus, hippie Jesus or a capitalistic or socialistic Jesus. Deep down in the heart of every person is a hidden desire to reinterpret Jesus in light of culture, political bent or favourite theological belief.”
He then compares this to the idea of Hell. He discusses the idea of the phrase “What the Hell?”. He touches on perspectives from Origen believing that Hell was purification to bring us back to God. Dante’s depiction of the nine levels of suffering. He even goes into C. S Lewis view of hell being a dark gloomy city or place “being fades into nonentity”. AC/DC stated that “Hell ain’t a bad place to be” to eventually Bells description of “Hell on Earth”.
Chan takes us to theory that if we are seeking truth, we must start with what Jesus actually said about Hell. How is Hell used in the context of Jesus time in Jewish culture?
At this point, Bell would agree with the idea Chan is presenting.
Now if you go back to the video Chan used to promote his book, you will note he said there were things about hell “that surprised him”. He doesn’t get into specifics in the video, but it would seem to me this chapter and section is a start of the example. It seemed his lead and his intent was to refute Bell completely on his view. As the chapter goes on, I see Chan pulling away from responding to Bell and going into some honest reflection, and at this point we are seeing some strength to his book. When he writes in deep personal reflections and study, he is in his element. When he begins to directly respond to Bell, he is not. Chan is not one that appears to be comfortable getting into a direct debate as it seems to not be his style.
All this to say in his intention of bringing out truth, he chooses words; or to be more relevant, language. But not to start off from Scripture, but from Jewish writers 1st century descriptions of Hell: He covers writing describing Hell as a place of punishment, images of fire, darkness and lament, annihilation, and never ending punishment. He argues that while there was disagreement about the exact look alike for hell, there was agreement that there is a hell.
He then addresses a key word argument about the word Gehenna. For those who don’t know, Gehenna “was originally the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned”.
Chan argues here that Bell’s point about Gehenna being a garbage dump is both misleading and accurate. He sites many verses from Matthew and replaces hell with the word garbage dump in attempt to prove that the verse doesn’t make sense. For example, “Whoever says, “You fool” will be liable to the garbage dump of fire” (Matt 5:22)
While I admire the attempt Chan makes to address the actual topic of Gehenna, I’m afraid he takes Bell out of context here. Bell is referring to the places that Hell is used in the Bible, not specifically that Hell was a garbage dump. Chan also states that there is no early evidence that the Hinnom Valley was a garbage dump, but a place that the bodies of the wicked would be cast. Again, interesting point, but at no point does Bell bring us back to Gehenna in a real sense.
Chan will then lead us into chapters about what Jesus and His followers said about hell. He builds the chapter quite similar to the way he builds his previous chapter. He breaks down Jesus’ view of Hell as a place of punishment, imagery of fire and darkness and lament, and annihilation. He then gets into images of the writers Peter, Paul, Jude, and Revelation says about Hell. Paul does not use the word Hell in his letter once. Peter, Jude, and Revelation give some strong images of this place called Hell. So in terms of the two lawyers building their case, here’s what really is happening:
Chan is building a case that there is a literal place called Hell. His argument is that there is strong image from the Bible proving this specifically the words of Hell, and when the word Hell is not used, the consequences of our sin, our unbelief, our lack of love for Jesus can put us into this literal world called Hell.
Bell is building a case that while there is a literal place called Hell, there are things in our real life that feels like Hell, and that the consequences of our actions can certainly lead us to feeling like Hell. Bell gives examples of a trip to Rwanda in 2002 in which he describes missing hands, arms, and legs. Some were in a wheelchair. He saw about fifty teenagers in the first several minds. The reason Bell explains that is – according to his guide – it was a way to humiliate your enemy so they would have to remember what they did to them. Here is a Bell quote which is interesting from page 71.
“Do I believe in a literal hell?
Those aren’t metaphorical arms and legs.”
He goes on and talks about more real life issues. A woman was raped; a five year old boy lost his dad to suicide. A funeral he officiates of the man who changed his will to keep his relatives out of it before he dies.
Now there is a lot here to read. At this point, let’s just step back and see examine what we are seeing.
The difference between Bell and Chan is that Bell would argue from Scripture that we need to take real world issues, such as greed, injustice, etc. very seriously. The consequences will lead people to hell on earth, and the language in the Scripture is descriptive for a reason. His reason is because the gospel is about “death that leads to life”.
Chan would argue that it is simply about knowing Jesus and for those who don’t know or don’t believe, the consequence is simply Hell. Not that Chan is ignoring these issues, he gets to this later, but what it comes down to is there is a real Hell and we can go there.
What is missing is language. We can discuss Greek, Translation, and all of those things if we want and they are huge. But I’m going to cut that out and tell a story.
Many of you know that I led a Bible Study with a church. We had a couple in our group that was “living in sin” at the time. I was given some options to deal with the situation or step down. I decided to step down. It was a gut wrenching, heart breaking experience. I loved what I did and it was a sad decision. What was interesting is a few of us were sitting around after the night was over and a friend said this.
“It feels like a death.”
Interesting. As much as the discussion is about what happens after we literally die, there are other ways of death. There is symbolic death and that loss can feel like you are in another world.
One definition of hell according to the dictionary is a situation, or place of evil, misery, discord, or destruction. Another definition I heard is the absence of God.
So when we use words in the Bible like ‘parish’ to say we are going to a literal place called Hell, that might be true, but it’s not capturing the whole language of the story. The Bible is not only literal; it does have some metaphor as well.
Now here is where I might surprise you.
As much as they seem to differ on many issues in this topic, Bell and Chan agree on many things as well. They both agree there has been poor misuse of this topic. They both agree there is strong language on this topic. And they both do ultimately land in the area of a literal hell.
Did you read that? Because I now said it three times. Bell discusses a literal hell.
This leads to another surprise.
If you are hoping to read Love Wins and find out Bell is saying there is no Hell, you are going to be disappointed. He might ask questions about it, but from page 79
there is a hell later.
And Jesus asks us to take both seriously.”
Likewise, if you are hoping that Chan gives an exact view on a clearly defined Scriptural view on the exact nature of Hell, you will also be disappointed. From page 86.
“The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it’s everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty.”
So what do we conclude about Hell and for that matter Heaven?
I have never been to Hell, Michigan. I know from a map and a website that it is there. But that doesn’t mean I have entire answers of how it looks, or the spirit of the town, or for what matter the people, and the feel of the town. If I met someone from Hell Michigan, I’d be inclined to ask some questions about the town.
None of us have actually been to Heaven and or Hell ourselves. We are reading people’s interpretation of a place we have never been and trying to prove or disprove these places exists.
Therefore, I don’t think that we can claim from the Bible an exact and true position of either or until we are actually there.
Until then, we can ask all the questions we want