If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Rob Bell

Paul Coulter continues his review of Rob Bell's book Love Wins by considering Bell's view on Heaven and Hell.

Is Heaven Now or Then?

As we have already said, much of what Bell writes about Heaven as the “new world” free from evil and the perpetrators of evil (p.113) is a helpful corrective to popular misconceptions. Bell does, however, play down the radical difference that Scripture anticipates between the new world and the present world, the present age and the age to come.[1]

Bell writes that:

heaven is both the peace, stillness, serenity, and calm that come from having everything in its right place – that state in which nothing is required, needed or missing – and the endless joy that comes from participating in the ongoing creation of the world. (p.48)

Although this language helps us towards a picture of how eternal existence with God could be exciting and constantly fresh, it implies that Heaven is a continuation of God’s action of creation in this world rather than a re-created, restored world. Admittedly the key passages of Scripture (Revelation 21 and Isaiah 65) that describe the ‘new world’ are poetic, but they leave no doubt that the curse that came upon the world as a result of human sin (Genesis 3) will be removed and the biblical vision of this “new world” comes after the climactic events that the Old Testament prophets called the ‘Day of the Lord’ and that the New Testament connects with the personal return of Christ. That day will come suddenly, “like a thief in the night” and will mean wrath and destruction for some but salvation for those who trust in Christ (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11). It will involve the melting down of the so that they can be re-formed into a new world (2 Peter 3:10-13). Bell says nothing about the personal return of Christ in glory or any such final judgement, suggesting that he does not think of the future in these terms.

Are Heaven and Hell Fixed Destinies?

The absence of a final decisive judgement means that there is no fixed divide between Heaven and Hell, which are closely intertwined. This concept is clear in the way he handles two passages from the Gospel of Luke. In writing about the parable of the ‘Lost Son’ in Luke 15, Bell claims from the way the father responds to the son who returns home that, “What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story. It is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news” (pp.171-2). On the basis of this reading he defines Hell as “our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (p.170). Since the two sons are physically present with the Father at the end of the story but only one is able to enjoy the party while the other is stuck in his own indignation, Bell claims that, “In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other” (p.170). Although this understanding of the gospel as a retelling of our story is appealing and has much to commend it, Bell is fundamentally mistaken in reading this parable as a description of Heaven and Hell. The story was told by Jesus in the context of people who were self-righteous and did not recognise their need of God’s grace (represented by the older son). Through it Jesus challenges such people to realise that they are missing out on the joy of joining in God’s celebration because they are caught in their pride in themselves and their judgement of those repentant sinners who Jesus embraced (represented by the younger son). In other words, rather than being about Heaven and Hell this is a parable about the love of God, the universal need for repentance and the danger of missing out on the former because of neglecting the latter. It is a parable about the here and now that challenges us to repent and join in God’s celebration.

The other passage in Luke is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in chapter 16. This passage is, of course, a favourite one in any discussion of the Christian view of the afterlife. Bell interprets it to describe the destiny of people who reject God’s love in this life, although he stops short of saying for certain that the passage says anything about the next life. He writes:

What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next. (p.79)

One may wonder how Bell can find “different kinds of hells” in this story that seems to describe only one place of suffering. His basis for the claim appears to be his interpretation of the reason why the rich man is in ‘hell’. He suggests that it is because he continues to expect Lazarus to serve him – he is trapped in his own hell because of his self-centred thinking. This, rather than a plea for relief from his agony, is supposedly the reason why he asks for Lazarus to be sent with water for his tongue (verse 24, see p.75). Bell is trying to say that the rich man’s ‘hell’ is of his own making and that he only continues to be there so long as he remains proud enough to expect to be served. Bell writes, “It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart!” (p.75) This is in direct contradiction to what the passage says about the chasm. Abraham says it “has been fixed” and that no one can cross it in either direction if they “want to” (verse 26). How can the chasm be of the rich man’s making yet he cannot cross if he wants to? It is remarkable that Bell can turn a chasm that cannot be crossed by people who want to into one that is only there so long as people want it to be! Clearly this story is telling us something quite different – that there are two destinies after death and that which we end up in depends on how we live during this life, with no possibility of a second chance. We must acknowledge also that the story does not speak about the ultimate destiny but the condition of departed people as they await the future resurrection.[2] This story speaks of Hades (the place of the dead) as opposed to Gehenna, although the NIV confuses matters by translating Hades, which it usually leaves untranslated, as “hell” in verse 23. Bell makes no distinction between the two in his treatment of the passage. If we follow the New Testament through to its end we discover that Hades is destroyed at the final judgement by being thrown along with death into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14), which is generally accepted to be synonymous with Gehenna. It appears that Bell has twisted the passage beyond recognition in an attempt to make it fit his own thesis. Bell does continue to explain what he means by “different kinds of hells”, saying, “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (p.79). Bell may be correct in claiming that Jesus wants us to take seriously our impact on the world now as well as our future destiny, but Jesus never uses the Greek word Gehenna in this elastic way, and to do so seriously risks making the word meaningless. Hell, for Jesus, is somewhere people end up after death because of how they have lived in this life. Once again we note that Bell is blurring the line between this life and the age to come.

This way of thinking about the proximity of Heaven and Hell allows Bell to envisage people passing from Hell to Heaven but, more remarkably, he also appears to imply that people may actually pass the other way, out of Heaven into Hell. In writing about the gates of the New Jerusalem which will never be shut (Revelation 21:25) he says that, “gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut then people are free to come and go” (p.115). Although Bell’s concern here is undoubtedly primarily to suggest the possibility of people entering Heaven his mention of ‘going’ as well as ‘coming’ implies that movement can happen in the other direction. What we are left with is a situation of flux where people, both in this life and after it, can freely choose to follow God or to reject Him. There is no sense of finality or of certainty, since the gates will never shut. There are numerous problems with this use of Revelation 21:25. Firstly, Bell completely ignores the fact that this scene comes only after the climactic judgement of Revelation 20 in which sin is finally dealt with. The city with wide open gates is only revealed after the dead whose names are not in the book of life have been thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). Since Revelation 21 says nothing at all about the lake of fire, and certainly does not imply that anyone can escape from it, we are straying way beyond the text in suggesting that people can come in and out of Heaven to and from Hell! Secondly, Bell misses the point of this statement in the context of Revelation 21. Verse 25 clearly says that the gates will never be closed because “there will be no night there”. The reference is to the fact that ancient walled cities closed their gates at night time for security reasons. This city does not need such security because there will be no night (the glory of God and the Lamb give it light according to verse 23) and because there is no threat to its security since any threats have been eliminated in the victory of Christ that Revelation describes. This discussion highlights the danger, which Bell himself acknowledges in this context, of speculating about the meanings of details in highly figurative passages such as this. Bell turns Revelation 21 into an allegory, in which every details corresponds to a specific truth, whereas it is, in fact, a vivid image describing God’s perfect future. Thirdly, Bell’s interpretation fails when we understand what the city actually symbolises. Revelation 21 says that the whole city is an image of the redeemed people of God (verses 2, 9-10). If the city is a people, who are the people who enter it? The imagery breaks down when forced in this way.

What is Hell, Then?

We have already encountered one definition of Hell in Bell’s comments on Luke 15, but what else does he say about Hell? His main concern, as we have already seen in our comments about his motivation in writing, is to challenge the traditional view of Hell as a place of unending punishment by God for sin. In the book’s Preface he says that this view is “misguided and toxic” (p.viii). Laying out this view in the book’s Preface may seem premature if Bell’s intention were to consider seriously the alternative perspectives on Hell in the Christian tradition, but he clearly has no intention of doing so. There are three predominant ways in which Christians have understood Hell:[3]

That it is a place of eternal punishment for sin – this is what Bell calls the “traditional” view and has been the predominant view among evangelicals. It includes two variations: the ‘literal’ view, which understands biblical references to fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth as descriptions of the true physical nature of Hell, and the ‘metaphorical’ view, which sees these details as images of spiritual and emotional realities.

That the souls of the unrepentant are ultimately annihilated – this is the ‘Annihilationist’ view and depends on an understanding of human beings as possessing only ‘conditional immortality’ (that is that the human soul only exists for as long as God sustains its life rather than possessing immortality as an inherent trait). It understands the biblical references to “eternal destruction” to mean destruction with no possibility of return and considers the lake of fire to be an image of annihilation after final judgement. This view has currency with a significant minority of evangelicals.[4] Bell does not engage with it as a possibility in Love Wins, except for a reference to the idea that those who continue to reject God may be progressively dehumanised until they are no longer truly human (p.105). This concept is a variation on the idea of Annihilationism although, significantly, it sees the final extinguishing of the human soul as a passive consequence of continued rejection of God rather than a result of active judgement by God.

That Hell refers to a place where the souls of dead people spend a period of time before being admitted to Heaven – this is the ‘purgatorial’ view. Like Annihilationism, this view can be thought of either as a consequence of God’s action in judgement or of the individual’s continued rejection of God after death. The former is seen in the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which understands it as a part of Hell where people who are not deserving of eternal judgement but not ready for Heaven are temporarily subject to active purifying judgement from God until they are ready to be admitted to Heaven. The alternative is that Hell is purgatory in the sense that people continue to choose isolation from God until they finally come to their senses and accept him.[5]

Although Bell falls short of explicitly endorsing the purgatorial view, the way he writes about two New Testament passages reveals that this is the direction in which he is pointing. The first is Paul’s discussion of judgement in 1 Corinthians 3. Bell strips this passage out of its context by implying that Paul is writing about the judgement of all people and the purification of our attitudes (pp.49-50) when, in fact, he is specifically talking about how people build in the church on the foundation that he has laid, which is Christ (verses 9-11). Since this passage says that even those whose work is burnt up will be saved, even if only “escaping through the flames” (verse 15), reading it as a comment about God’s judgement of all people turns it into a useful text for the ‘Universalist’, but realising that Paul is actually speaking about the purification of the church means that we cannot read this passage as being about how someone is saved. Bell writes of the flames described in 1 Corinthians 3 as “Flames in heaven” (p.50) and claims that they are involved in removing our “sins and habits and bigotry and pride and petty jealousies” (p.50). We might note that he has placed purgatory in Heaven. Bell seems to be committed to the need for a purgatorial dimension to Heaven because “Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspectives” (p.50). The process of purification takes time in this life and he believes that its completion will also take time in the next life:

Much of the speculation about heaven – and, more important, the confusion – comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who ‘know’ everything. But our heart, our character, our desires, our longings – those things take time. (p.51)

Although Bell is correct in saying that Jesus did not speak of an instantaneous transformation, Bell ignores two other New Testament passages that explicitly speak about transformation. 1 John 3:2 says, “we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”. John does not leave any room for the kind of purgatorial process Bell envisages and seems to describe exactly the kind of instant transformation that Bell dies. The instant nature of the transformation is even clearer in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, where he says that “we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”. Once again Bell blurs the line between this life and the age to come since he connects the time that it takes to change us with the process of discipleship, yet then returns to speaking about “The flames of heaven” which “lead us to the surprise of heaven” (p.51). Bell appears to see Heaven and Hell as realities that begin now and continue beyond death and that are never far removed from one another.

Following his discussion of 1 Corinthians 3, Bell turns to the account of the ‘sheep and goats’ in Matthew 25 (p.51-2). He says that the sheep say “When did we ever see you?” (p.52), implying that they are people who had no relationship with Jesus at all. In fact they don’t say this. Their surprise is not that Jesus was unknown to them but that they hadn’t realised the many ways in which they had served him unawares, and Bell is correct to suggest that their words mean something akin to “What did we ever do to deserve it?” (p.52). The passage says that these people acted for the sake of Jesus’ “brothers” (verse 40) and in doing so they were acting for him without knowing it. It is not that they did not know Jesus – in fact, if anything, it is because they blessed those who belonged to him. In any case, the account does not say how people become sheep or goats (it is on the basis of what they are that they are separated), but it does show that there will be a future day of judgement when they are separated from one another based on their nature, a concept that does not fit with ‘Universalism’. In its context within Matthew the real scandal of this account has to do with the fact that the nations are gathered (verse 32) and that the decision as to who ends up in the kingdom is based not on membership in national Israel, or even how people had treated the Jews, but on the basis of how people had responded to the brothers of Christ irrespective of their national background. It is a parable of inclusivity, in that both Jew and Gentile can be in the Kingdom, but not of universality, since some are ‘in’ and others are ‘out’. Bell returns to this passage later in Love Wins. He claims that the judgement on the goats is “‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction” (p.91), denying that it is a final, decisive judgement. He bases this claim on the use of the Greek word kalazo in verse 46 (NIV “punishment”). He chooses to interpret the word in this way despite the fact that in the context verse 41 (which Bell does not mention) qualifies it as the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. Does Bell believe that the devil and demons can be saved after a period of “correction”? Furthermore, this is one of a number of parables in Matthew 25, all of which are set in the context of the glorious appearing of the Son of Man when he will separate his people from the world (Matthew 24:30-31) on a future unknown date (Matthew 24:36). Again we see Bell wrenching verses from their context to support a view he wants to promote – the idea of purgatorial suffering after death before admission to God’s kingdom.

Although Bell falls short of a clear statement about what Hell is like, his attack on the “traditional” view is so vitriolic that he clearly intends to leave no possibility of his readers accepting it. Consider this emotionally charged description and the force of his rhetorical questions:

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. [...] Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? (pp.173-4)

In considering Annihilationism and the purgatorial view, Bell only mentions the versions that do not include the concept of active judgement by God, which is unsurprising given what we have already discovered about his view of God’s judgement. Bell does not believe that God will judge anyone:

God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone. God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it as we please. Saying yes will take us in one direction; saying no will take us in another. God is love, and to refuse this love moves us away from it, in the other direction, and that will, by very definition, be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality. We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell. (p.177)

This view is clearly only compatible with the ‘dehumanisation’ view and the second understanding of the ‘purgatorial’ view. Bell spends very little space (just over half a page) describing the ‘dehumanisation’ option and it seems as if he is pushing the reader inevitably towards the conclusion of a ‘purgatorial’ view of Hell.

Hell of Our Own Making for as Long as We Want?

So, then, Bell does not deny the possibility of Hell, but he is firmly committed to two principles that restrict the possible range of ways in which Hell can be envisaged. Firstly, he believes that Hell cannot be inflicted by God because he believes this to be incompatible with God’s love. The possibility of Hell is, in fact, a necessary consequence of the way he thinks about God’s love: “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (p.113). Elsewhere he makes the same point: “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free” (p.72). As we have already seen, Bell understands biblical passages about God’s judgement to refer to restoration and he has no room for the concept of God’s wrath and so it is inevitable that Hell must be a place of our own making rather than a place created by God. It is a useful word to “describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us” (p.93). Any talk of ‘punishment’ in Hell is only a way of describing the self-inflicted misery that comes from rejecting God: “To reject God’s grace, to turn from God’s love, to resist God’s telling, will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on its own” (p.176). This concept of Hell is directly contradictory to the biblical evidence, however, which presents God as the one who judges (Romans 2:1-4) and the final destiny of those who reject God being a lake of fire that was prepared by God (Revelation 20:11-15).

Bell’s second conviction about Hell is that it must not be fixed, but that it must always be possible for people to leave Hell if they embrace God’s love (unless the ‘dehumanisation’ theory is correct and they simply cease to exist). This theory depends on the belief that Hell is not a place where people are subject to God’s judgement but free to live in sin and independence from God. The following lengthy quotation, which echoes some of the sentiments of the quotations above, emphasises this and says something about the nature of Hell in Bell’s conception:

‘Do we get what we want?’ And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes. Yes, we get what we want. God is that loving.
If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love
. (pp.116-7)

This description would probably be quite accurate were it only describing the nature of sin and its effects in this life, but Bell implies that people could continue like this after death, perhaps eternally. This is clear in the following quotation, which draws together his ideas of sin as our own version of our story (from his discussion of Luke 15) and of the gates of Heaven being permanently open (from his discussion of Revelation 21):

Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions – and the people who do them – from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people? Keeping the gates, in essence, open? Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom? (p.115)

So Bell is allowing for the possibility that sin can continue forever and that God will tolerate the continued situation of people in defiance of him. Clearly his belief in a perfect new creation does not depend upon a final solution to the problem of sin. This picture of people continuing eternally in their rejection of God, worshipping themselves as their own God, is a denial of the biblical teaching that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to God’s glory (Philippians 2:10). Although that verse raises the question, to which we will turn in due course, of whether or not all those who bow the knee will be saved, it does not leave any room for the idea of the eternal existence of sinful human beings who have set themselves up as rival gods to the one true God. There is no room for such a possibility in the grand vision of Revelation, in which the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of Christ (Revelation 11:15) or in Paul’s confident hope that all authority will be made subject to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:25-28).

Is Hell Just a Rubbish Dump?

So, then, Bell does allow for the theoretical possibility of Hell as an endless place of suffering (or misery), although he seems not to be able to believe that anyone will actually end up there eternally. His view of Hell can be summarised by saying that it is a place of our own creating that is the result of our rejection of God and where we endure our self-inflicted misery until we come to our senses and embrace God’s love. How, then, does Bell deal with the numerous passages in the Gospels where Jesus refers to Hell? At this point we must consider the Greek word that is usually translated ‘Hell’ in these passages, Gehenna. This word appears twelve times in the New Testament – once in James 3:6 and the other eleven times on the lips of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Bell recognises that this word derives from the name of the “Valley of Hinnom” (p.67), which was close to Jerusalem and was probably the site of a dump for the city and suggests that what Jesus meant by talking about people ending up in ‘Hell’ would be akin to saying that they end up in the garbage (p.68). This appeal to the semantic roots of the word fails to do justice to either the contemporary usage of the word at the time of Christ or, more importantly for this study, to the way in which Jesus himself uses it. The Valley of Ben Hinnom was associated with child sacrifice and occult practices in Old Testament times (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-32, 35) and may well have been used at a later stage as a dump, but these associations led by the time of Christ to the word Gehenna, which is derived from the name but not identical to it, being a term for a place of spiritual judgement from God. It is a cardinal error in biblical exegesis to base the meaning of a word on its historical roots rather than on its meaning at the time of writing (consider the confusion that may arise today from someone referring to a ‘gay pork’ when they mean a ‘happy pig’).[6] Jewish usage of Gehenna in later rabbinical writings varies from concepts of temporary purgatorial suffering to eternal punishment, and it seems likely that there was the same range of meaning at the time when Jesus lived and taught. To understand what Jesus meant in using the word, then, we must consider the way in which he used it. This, rather than the word’s etymology or the interpretations put on it by other Jewish thinkers, must be the deciding factor. Jesus speaks of the fire of Gehenna as somewhere that people can be thrown or condemned to (Matthew 22:33; Luke 12:5) as an alternative to entering the life of God’s Kingdom (Matthew 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47) and where the soul can be ‘destroyed’ (Matthew 10:28) as a result of failing to deal with the root of sin (Matthew 5:22, 29-30). These references clearly show that Jesus had more in mind than simply the local dump, unless we think that God’s Kingdom, which Jesus contrasts with Gehenna, meant nothing more than a contemporary physical reality. Jesus was using a word derived from the name of the valley where the dump was located to refer to a spiritual reality.

Despite playing down the significance of the word Gehenna, Bell does acknowledge that ‘Hell’ is a strong word and claims that:

Some words are strong for a reason. We need those words to be that intense, loaded, complex, and offensive, because they need to reflect the realities they describe. And that’s what we find in Jesus’s teaching about hell – a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experience and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone. (pp.72-3)

Undoubtedly Jesus does speak about Hell using rich imagery, but is it true to suggest that he portrays it as a place solely of our own choice? This is certainly not the case in any of the parables of Jesus that make reference indirectly to Hell since in each of them it is someone else (usually a master) who consigns the people who are judged to a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42, 49-50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30), which is also described variously as a place of “darkness” (Matthew 22:13), a “fiery furnace” (Matthew 13:42, 49), and “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46). On the one occasion when Jesus uses this same phrase outside the context of a parable it is to describe the place where faithless Jews would end up, and it is again clear that they will be thrown into it against their volition (Matthew 8:12). This usage shows that he did not consider this place to be simply an imaginary image within a story but a reality, although the degree to which the detail of fire can be thought of literally is debatable, especially given the fact that is often highlighted that darkness and fire would appear to be incompatible. Likewise, in Matthew 10:28 it is clearly God who can destroy the soul in Gehenna. In every one of these instances, then, Hell is a judgement inflicted by God.

Of course there are other New Testament passages that describe Hell without using the word Gehenna or the word picture “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, although because of constraints of time and space we cannot examine them in detail. Philippians 3:19 speaks of “destruction” (Greek apōleia meaning destruction or loss), which is either understood to mean perpetual loss (in the traditional view) or annihilation (in the Annihilationist view) as the destiny of enemies of the cross of Christ. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, apōleia is said to be the destiny of “the man of lawlessness”. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 speaks of people who do not know God and do not obey the gospel being “punished with everlasting destruction [Greek olethros, meaning ‘ruin’]” and”shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power”. This can only mean active punishment by God and it is said to happen on the decisive day when Christ returns to be glorified in his own people (verse 10). He will be revealed “in blazing fire” on that day (verse 7). Hebrews 10:39 speaks of people being “destroyed” (Greek apōleia again) and the context shows that this is through “judgement and [...] raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (verse 27). 2 Peter 2:17 and Jude 13 speak of “blackest darkness” being reserved for false teachers. Revelation speaks of the “second death” that cannot hurt those who overcome (2:11) and has no power over those who are raised in the first resurrection to reign with Christ (20:6). The “second death” is later defined as “the lake of fire” (20:14) and the “fiery lake of burning sulphur” (21:8), which is the destiny of those whose names are not in the book of life and who practice the sins listed in 21:8. The devil, the beast and the false prophet will be “tormented” there “day and night for ever and ever” (19:20; 20:10). Those who worship the beast will be “tormented with burning sulphur” and the resulting smoke “rises for ever and ever” (14:10-11). None of these passages makes easy reading but it should be noted that the dominant images of Hell within them are fire and smoke and that it clearly involves suffering. Each passage can be understood in either traditional (unending conscious punishment) or Annihilationist terms, with some words favouring one or the other, but none of these passages would appear to fit with the idea of purgatorial suffering. In every case the context leaves no doubt that the suffering is the result of active punishment from God and not simply a consequence of his abandoning people to their own choice.

Does ‘Eternal’ Mean ‘Forever’?

Another major strand to Bell’s arguments against the ‘traditional’ view of Heaven Hell relates to the meaning of another Greek word aiōn,[7] which is commonly translated ‘eternal’ in English versions of the Bible, for example in the “eternal punishment” of Matthew 25:46 and in John’s numerous references to “eternal life” (e.g. John 3:16). It is also translated “everlasting” in the “everlasting destruction” of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and “for ever” in Revelation 14:11 and 20:10.[8] If the biblical references to eternal punishment (e.g. Matthew 18:8, “eternal fire”) are taken literally, then Hell must be a permanent verdict (either eternal conscious punishment or annihilation) and there can be no possibility of a decision after the final judgement to accept God and enter life. If Bell is correct in believing that Hell does not necessarily last forever then an alternative translation of aiōn must be possible. On page 31, Bell correctly shows that aiōn literally means not “eternal” but “of the age”. Bell claims that an aiōn “refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end” (p.32) and he is perfectly correct that this is the standard meaning of the word in Greek usage (our English word ‘aeon’, which can have this meaning, is in fact derived ultimately from aiōn). This allows Bell to claim that:

heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future. That’s not a category or concept we find in the Bible. This is why a lot of translators choose to translate aion as ‘eternal.’ By this they don’t mean the literal passing of time; they mean transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether. (p.58)

What Bell does not demonstrate, however, is that the word aiōn cannot mean eternal. We may, in fact, question on what basis he claims that translators use an English word that always means ‘unending’ to translate a word that they do not believe can include that meaning. When Jesus speaks about the life ‘of the age’ (‘eternal life’ in most English versions of the Gospels) he is clearly speaking of the life of the age of God’s Kingdom, the age that is to come. In asking whether or not this life is eternal we must then ask whether or not that age to come is eternal. The Bible does describe it as an eternal Kingdom without end (Isaiah 9:7; Luke 1:33) and Jesus said unambiguously that whoever has the “eternal life” that he gives will “never perish” (John 10:28) so that the life he offers must indeed be eternal in the common meaning of the English word. The aiōn to come is, therefore, different from past aiōns in that it has a beginning but no end.

Bell does acknowledge that aiōn can have more than one meaning in Scripture. He writes that, “Another meaning of aion is a bit more complex and nuanced, because it refers to a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (p.57). Again he claims that, “eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God” (p.59). If he said that eternal life is both a quality of life now and a life that will have no end we could not take issue with him since this is clearly what Jesus teaches when he defines eternal life as knowing God (John 17:3), but by making it a question of either unending duration or deeper quality of life Bell creates a false dichotomy that fails to do justice to the richness of Jesus’ use of the word. Since the ‘eternal life’ that Jesus spoke of means sharing in God’s life it must mean a life that has no end since God cannot die.[9] In any case, Bell’s argument from the semantic range of aiōn falls down by his own admission. On page 31 he equates aiōn with the Hebrew word olam in the Old Testament and on page 92 he accepts that olam can mean something like our common meaning of ‘eternal’, at least when it refers to God as being God “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2). This amounts to an admission that aiōn can indeed mean everlasting, and this conclusion is backed up by its usage in the New Testament in contexts where it must include the meaning ‘unending’. It is used to describe God (Romans 16:26) and elsewhere Paul says that God is worthy to receive “honour and might for ever” on the basis that he is “immortal” (1 Timothy 6:16). Surely he did not mean to say that the immortal God who will live forever deserves to be honoured and has power only for an age! Similarly Paul calls the resurrection body an “eternal house” (2 Corinthians 5:1) while in another passage he says it is imperishable and immortal (1 Corinthians 15:53). We must conclude, then, that Bell is wrong (indeed he contradicts himself) when he says elsewhere in categorical terms that aion [...] doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever” (p.31). His error is not in recognising that aiōn has a range of meanings in the New Testament (any Greek lexicon of the New Testament will reveal that it can) but in his attempt to narrow the range of possible meanings in relation to the life Christ gives and the nature of Hell and Heaven. Aiōn does not only mean ‘eternal’ but ‘eternal’ is contained within its range of possible meanings as defined by New Testament usage. Whether or not it means ‘eternal’ in a given usage can only be determined by a careful study of the context and I maintain that the usage to refer to the life that Christ gives, the Kingdom over which he rules and the punishment of which he warns must include the sense of ‘unending’ when the context and the wider New Testament evidence are taken into consideration.

Go to Bell on the scope of salvation


[1] In theological terms he appears to argue for an overly realised eschatology.
[2] In theological parlance this is called the ‘intermediate state’.
[3] For a discussion of these views the reader is referred to Four Views on Hell edited by William Crockett (Zondervan, 1996), which outlines each view with responses by the other contributors.
[4] The Evangelical Alliance UK recognises that evangelicals are divided between the view of Hell as eternal conscious punishment, which they call the “classic mainstream evangelical position” and the Annihilationist view that the immortality of the human soul is conditional and that those who are unrepentant cease to exist after the final judgement, which they recognise as “a significant minority evangelical view”. The Alliance’s report on this has issue has been published as The Nature of Hell (Paternoster, 2000) and the book’s conclusions and recommendations are available as a free download from the Alliance’s website, www.eauk.org.
[5] This view is often attributed to C.S. Lewis on the basis of his 1946 book The Great Divorce, which is acknowledged by Bell on his Further Reading page, although that book is written as a dream vision (so that it is difficult to say conclusively whether it represents Lewis’s fully thought through position) and the vision also includes a concept of a coming morning when the ultimate destiny of souls will be fixed possibly including annihilation for those who have persistently rejected God, so that Lewis cannot truly be claimed as a supporter of either Universalism or a purely purgatorial view of Hell. Where Lewis does appear to concur definitely with Bell is in the view that Hell can be thought of as purely self-inflicted rather than as a punishment by God.
[6] For more on this theme Chapter 1 of D.A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd edition (Baker Books, 1996) is recommended.
[7] I shall follow Bell here in failing to distinguish the noun aiōn from the adjective aiōnios for ease of reading.
[8] Although these two verses in Revelation use a specific phrase that contains aiōn twice and is hence translated “for ever and ever”.
[9] Bell’s argument (p.92) that olam is “a versatile, pliable word” is not disputed here, I am simply arguing that the meaning should be determined by the context and that in respect of ‘eternal life’ as Jesus spoke of it (accepting that olam and aion equate) that means that the meaning must include the idea of unending since God’s life is unending. I do, however, take issue with what Bell says about the meaning of olam in Jonah. He says that Jonah was said to be in belly of the fish forever (olam) when, in fact, he was only there for three days and nights. Bell seems to be referring to Jonah 2:6, but this is part of a poetic prayer which is not intended to be read literally and does not say that Jonah understood olam to mean three days and nights but that at the time when Jonah was speaking it felt like he had been there for an age (anyone who has spent a period of days in darkness would undoubtedly agree with his sentiment). This is another example of Bell’s careless use of Scripture.

Go to Bell on the scope of salvation

© 2011 Paul Coulter
This article is published on bethinking.org by the kind permission of the author.