Rob Bell, Hell, and the Evangelical Uproar

Posted: March 15, 2011 by skepticalprogrammer in Atheism
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Recently a pastor friend of mine shared a link to a critique of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. For those who haven’t heard about the controversy, the Evangelical Christian community is in an uproar because in Love Wins Rob suggests that a loving God would not send anyone to “Hell” as hell is traditionally defined. Instead of the traditional eternal torment and torture in a fire with no hope of escape for all eternity, Rob speculates that Hell could be more aptly described as the pain and suffering we put ourselves through when we live apart from the wonder of God’s creation.

The critique above basically sums up Rob’s book as the path to Hell (as traditionally defined, not as Rob defines it), and shows the author’s lack of critical thinking skills by using a number of logical fallacies to demonize Rob’s claims. One fallacy in particular that bothered me can be found in the following passage:

Throughout the book he engages in what can best be described as exegetical gymnastics, particularly in dealing with the Greek word aion, a small word that is crucial to his arguments.

While this word is commonly translated as “eternal” or “everlasting,” Bell argues that it can also mean “age” or “period of time,” or even “intensity of experience.” Using this approach, he briefly argues from the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) that eternal punishment isn’t eternal, but rather an intense period of pruning.

Now here’s the thing: aion and aionos definitely can mean “age” or “period of time,” they also mean “eternal.” The word’s context helps us to determine its meaning. So if we assume that these words primarily mean “age” or “period of time,” what happens when we apply that definition to John 3:16 where aionosis used?

For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have life for a period of time.

Not as encouraging, is it? While Bell might argue here that “life abundant” might be a better fit (playing on the “intensity of experience” angle and tying it to John 10:10), at the end of the day, we’re left with an approach that gives more credence to living your best life now than it does to worshipping Jesus.

Rob Bell’s argument is not that aion primarily means “age”, or even that it means “age” more often than eternal. Rob’s argument is that in the passages that are often used to describe hell aion can be translated more accurately as “age” or “period of time”. As anyone who has translated text can tell you, context is everything. While translating from English for example, the phrase “Firing up a bowl” would translate very differently depending on whether you were talking about pottery or a party; likewise the Spanish word Mariposa can either reference a butterfly or a homosexual depending on the context.

Why then would someone who is obviously familiar with translating from Greek make such a rookie mistake in logic? I believe the answer is that he is terrified of the implications of Rob’s assertions.

Without Hell, Christianity will die.

As a former Evangelical I can tell you that the thought of those I loved (or even those I didn’t know) ending up in Hell was enough for me to go out of my way to ensure that they never had to endure that torment, and I was from a church which focused on God’s grace rather than hell most of the time. Others such as my wife however, were not so lucky. Growing up in a more conservative background, she heard about the horrors of eternal damnation regularly in sermons, “Judgment Houses”, and everyday conversation. Because of this, she experienced fear and guilt when she began questioning her faith, partially because she had been conditioned to think that not believing would bring her eternal and excruciating pain. When it comes to converting others to Christianity, you would be hard pressed to hear an alter call that does not mention Hell as the alternative to faith in Jesus. Overall, without hell there is very little reason to convert to Christianity, or to avoid deconverting from Christianity.

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Comments
  1. DaveSchell says:

    I found your post refreshing. You expressed well some of the concerns I’ve had with most of the mortified responses to “Love Wins.” I think Rob Bell’s book still acts in promotion of Christianity as the faith of choice, but… with less eternal damnation as an act of God and more as an act of the person refusing to change and accept God. After reading “Love Wins,” I think that if Rob Bell is right, I would actually feel more comfortable sharing Christianity… because it seems better.. and makes more sense the way he described it. Of course, Bell is an author, and he makes his money by making sense.

    • skepticalprogrammer says:

      Dave, I agree. When I was a Christian I believed much like Rob Bell, and I think his version of God and Christianity is much more palatable to those of us who have really thought about the implications of a loving God sending people to Hell for all eternity. Thanks for the comment, and have a great day!

  2. Nate says:

    This is a great post. I grew up much like your wife — believing in a real Hell that was endless torture. It’s actually one of the things that finally made me stop believing.

    Before my deconversion though, I spent some time looking into ideas like Bell’s. I might check his book out at some point, though I doubt it would make me turn back to Christianity. I just have too many other issues with it now. But I do agree with your last statement: if I had shared Bell’s view of Hell, I probably never would have found reason to leave Christianity.

  3. Ryan says:

    I like your post…I’ll also say that, if Rob is right and could convince enough others, a certain form of Christianity would die…I think I and others like me wouldn’t miss it! 🙂

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