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Love Wins!: In which we go to Hell

Chapter Three of ‘Love Wins’ is entitled Hell. Possibly, there could have been some funnier, catchier title, but Rob Bell was like, “No! On with the theologizing and the weird e.e. cummings-like layout!”
And so here we are. The crux of why so many people are angry at the book.
Bell starts by going through the Bible, and offering to show us every place in there where the term ‘hell’ appears.
This is three pages into the chapter. And this, dear blog-reader, is where the wheels come off of the wagon.
Because here is where I began to talk back, in an audibly angry and frustrated voice, to my book, causing my Esteemed Lutheran Colleague to question my sanity.
The correct answer to Rob Bell’s experiment would have been ‘No Times! The term ‘hell’ literally appears not once in the pages of the Bible! Fun Fact!’
(For one, it’s English. So….there you are. Bible–written in Hebrew, Greek, and smattering of Aramaic. Not English.)
But, it turns out that Rob Bell is not so good at a number of things, one of them being the exegesis of the Hebrew Bible.
So he does a really good job of explaining about the term ‘Gehenna’ from the gospels, which is translated as ‘hell’ in many English translations, and yet was literally a garbage dump in Jerusalem, literally burning day and night and featuring unfriendly dogs eating the garbage in an un-kosher like manner, while gnashing their teeth. (Sound familiar?)
Also pretty solid on ‘Hades’, and ‘Tartarus’ which aren’t quite ‘hell’–more like ‘Realm of the Dead’, since it comes over straight from Greek mythology.

But. BUT. When he takes a whack at the Old Testament, the wheels come off, the top caves in, it’s just a complete mess.
Observe.
“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. One of them is the Hebrew word ‘Sheol’, a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die”(pg 64, 65)
Dude. Sheol is not a word for hell. Sheol means death, in a capital D sort of way. It’s not even clear that people go to Sheol after death, and here is why, and let me begin a new line for clarity.
THERE WAS NOT A BELIEF IN THE AFTERLIFE IN ANCIENT ISRAEL. THEY DID NOT HAVE ONE.
There wasn’t. Saying someone ‘was in Sheol’ is like telling a kid you sent their dog to the farm upstate. It’s a nicer, more polite way to refer to the fact that they are now dead.
Know who did have a well-developed belief in an afterlife? Egypt! Babylon! Rome! Greece! Assyria! Persia!
Pick a civilization that tramped through and conquered poor little Ancient Israel (Known affectionately as the Belgium of its time) , and I guarantee, they had a well-developed dualistic system of thought, complete with Soul, and Life after Death. It became a point of pride with the ancient Israelites of Old Testament-fame to hold on to their wacky, idiosyncratic beliefs in defiance of all their ever-conquering neighbors. Heno/mono-theism, and the resurrection at the last day. NOT AN ETERNAL, AFTERLIFE-HAVING SOUL.

I am sorry, Rob Bell, but it just isn’t there, despite your well-meaning (I hope) efforts to locate it. So, saying things like: “God is identified as the God of ‘Abraham, Isaac and Jacob'” who “were dead by the time this story takes place. Where exactly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were at that time isn’t mentioned, but Moses is told that God is still their God”(pg. 66) just becomes a problem.

Right. Because they were dead. Everyone knew exactly where they were. They had been buried, and their ‘bones gathered to their ancestors’ as was the custom. The expectation was that they would rise with the rest of the righteous on the last day, but, in the meantime…. they were dead. So no one is really concerned with them. This life is what’s important. (They get cited here because the writer wants this God to be the definitive Israelite God, rather than to be confused with an Egyptian god. So this God is the god of the Israelite patriarchs, this God curses people with really unclean things (which wouldn’t have bothered Egyptians much, etc.)

This would be less important (aside from being sort of insulting to people who take the Old Testament seriously in context) but it comes up again, and undercuts his ultimate argument.

Ok, so his argument ends up being that while hell, biblically, isn’t so much an otherworldly place of eternal torment,as it is tied up in humanity’s inclination to reject our God-given gifts of love, grace, and care for one another, and commit atrocities, both big and small. And that God lets us have the consequences of this. Fine. I might quibble with part of this, but I’ll see where he takes the next chapter.

But then, he expands to looking at verses that ‘talk about judgment without talking about hell’, and we’re back to doing crazy things with the Old Testament.
He’s talking about Sodom and Gomorrah (because, he’s right, this is a text that people have used to explain why God likes people to burn) and he cites Ezekiel 16, where God will “restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters” (pg 84).
He reads this as God wanting not so much eternal judgement or punishment for anyone.

Ok, I have absolutely no problem with that conclusion….but here’s the problem I do have.

It’s a metaphor. Ezekiel is using a metaphor.

He’s talking to a nation which is being destroyed, as he writes and speaks, by the Babylonians, and being hauled off into exile. They are suffering in the here and now. So, you know, they’d be feeling like the mythic torched city of Sodom (which, so we’re clear, was destroyed for being inhospitable and a lack of charity. Period.) Ezekiel re-interprets his people’s own religious stories (like a good prophet/pastor!) and uses it to console them at their lowest point. So God will rebuild Sodom, the epitome of the desolate, destroyed city, and God will rebuild and restore Israel now, Babylon or no Babylon. It’s pretty powerful in context. And Bell manages to strip it out.

This is just one example; Bell proceeds to do this to a grand total of 16 Old Testament passages.
And look, it’s not that I disagree necessarily with his conclusion–I don’t. I agree, for the most part.

My problem is that it’s disrespectful.
It’s blatantly disrespectful, in a way that I’m about 100% sure that Rob Bell doesn’t mean to be, both to the people who have found God for generations upon generations through the words of the Tanakah, (this would include Jesus) and to the text itself. Which, lest you forget, we Christians also call part of our scriptures.

Because, when you get right down to it, proof-texting, which is what he’s doing, cares only about matching up words. It’s a mentality that says “Oh! These words in this verse here match with what my thesis is. I shall use it like a geometry theorem! Who cares about what it means? The words are what’s important!” And in so doing, strips the text of the people who wrote it, the people who they wrote it for, the history around it, the commentary around it, the verses around it—its entire texture and meaning.

If such a thing were possible, I would posit that proof texting was a subconscious attempt to separate the scriptures from the Spirit who inspired their writing. Or, at least an attempt to quiet its voice, and the voices of the people whom the Spirit has spoken through around and in the text.

People before us wrote these texts, copied them, argued over them, preached and taught them, and loved them into holiness. We have a duty to these people to take these texts seriously enough to study them in their completeness, and not abuse the words for our own service.

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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