Friday, April 18, 2014

Bell's Hell, and the Question of the Cross

Like many others, I don't like the idea of an eternal Hell and am puzzled at a loving and gracious God who would allow this. At the same time, we are in the Easter season; the idea of God himself dying (and the Father allowing the Son to die) on the cross for us is also grotesque.

These two incredible and horrible truths resolve each other when one realizes that the cross means that no one needs to go to Hell. Without the provision of the cross, Hell is the worst, most malicious and evil thing ever perpetrated on man by a supposedly loving Creator-God. Without Hell the cross is unnecessary, and a God who would allow his Son to die for no reason becomes the most despicable being one could imagine. The cross and Hell are problems which essentially resolve each other.

In Love Wins, Rob Bell argues that the idea of Hell as eternal punishment is simply the adoption of Greek terminology by Paul and others to describe the fate of those who reject God. They contend that there will be punishment, but it is not eternal and ongoing. That idea of unending separation and punishment came because some in the early church assumed that when the New Testament adopted Greek language (Hades, Tartarus) it was also adopting the Greek descriptions of that place and state. In fact, Bell and others would say that Paul and others did not intend to agree that these non-Christian concepts described reality: they were simply using the language of their day to talk about a state of punishment - which Bell and others believe and hope will not be eternal. Eventually love will win and all will be saved.

Allow me to point out a couple of flaws in this understanding. First of all, in 2 Thess. 1:5-10 Paul affirms God's justice and "everlasting destruction" and exclusion from the presence of God (v. 8) for those "who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (v. 7, NIV). Paul does not use the Greek terms for this place of everlasting destruction in this passage, but he most certainly affirms what it is like. This argues that it was not a failure of the early church to read Paul correctly that resulted in understanding Hell as eternal, but rather that Paul explicitly understood it that way himself.

Others, who identify themselves as annihilationist, say that the wicked dead will rise but ultimately are destroyed and will not suffer eternally. The effect of the punishment is eternal, not the punishment itself. A variation on this is something called “conditional immortality.” Its proponents argue that the punishment is eternal in the sense that those who die having rejected God will simply cease to exist. Only people who accept salvation will have life beyond the grave. This is completely out of sync with all the judgment passages of Scripture, including 2 Thess 1:5-10.

Daniel 12:2 makes it clear that both universalism ("all will eventually be saved") and annihilationism ("the punishment is not eternal, only its effect") are wrong. Daniel 12:2 states that, "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt." Once again we see the state and condition of the lost described without use of ancient place names like Sheol or Hades. This argues that the description itself is a correct one, not simply adopted by assuming that the pagan term described reality. The passage is also from the Old Testament, and the state described is therefore not a result of incorrect Greek understandings from the world of the New Testament. Further, the idea of "shame and everlasting contempt" has no meaning whatsoever if the duration of the punishment is finite, resolved either by everyone ultimately repenting or being destroyed. A non-existent entity cannot feel shame and contempt, nor do those who are redeemed.

Will love win? Actually, it already has won. On the cross love broke the power of death and Satan (Heb 2:14-15; 1 Cor 15:54-57). Love Won on the cross, which offers a provision for eternal reconciliation with God. It will not do so by a misreading of the Bible so as to limit Hell.

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