I wonder if Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” is going to get people talking about Hell like NT Wright’s book “Surprised by Hope” got people talking about Heaven? It’s certainly got a critic in common with Wright’s book. (You probably know who I’m referring to.)
Is Bell a Universalist? Does he believe that all humans eventually get out of Hell and into Heaven? Or is he an Annihilationist? Does he believe that God mercifully annihilates the damned instead of letting them suffer forever? Is he a traditionalist? Does he really believe in a place of never ending torment filled with the majority of humanity whose “worm dieth not”? I don’t know…and I’m not really interested. That said, reading some of the hype/controversy on Bell’s ideas about the topic got me to thinking about my own understanding of Hell.
The Bible isn’t all that forthcoming on the “afterlife”. There are no drawn out descriptions of what lies ahead for the saved or the damned. (Not like in the Qu’ran, anyway.) The saved are given everlasting life. The damned aren’t. Going beyond that quickly turns into speculation (I think). Yes there are passages about a “crystal sea” and a “lake of fire”, but it has to be acknowledged that these are not intended to be viewed through the same grid that one reads a travel narrative.
Reflecting on passages of Scripture dealing with Hell, I remembered something Jesus said in Matthew 25. He’s describing the final judgment. He’s not describing the administrative details, but rather is simply saying that people will be divided into two groups: saved and damned. When he rewards the saved, Jesus tells them to receive “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”. When he condemns the damned he says “depart into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. Let’s leave aside what we could say about “eternal fire” and focus on its intended recipients. Jesus says that this Hell was prepared for the devil and his angels. Not humans. Hell is not for humans. Hell may very well have been created prior to the material universe (i.e. the world) but it was never intended to receive humans, because God intended to give humans a kingdom, a context for the exercise of power and authority.
If Rob Bell is right in saying that what we Christians believe about Hell “exposes” what we believe about who God is and what God is like, then let us believe this about God: that His purpose for human beings is to give us a kingdom, a context for exercising power and authority that He has given us, or to put it in the same terms as we find in Genesis, to be “in the image of God”.