Love Wins: Part 4, "We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word."

Let's get this clear, I believe in eternal punishment.

I also believe that through Christ God will "reconcile all things to himself" (Col. 1.29). Is that a contradiction? Can you believe in eternal punishment and universal reconciliation?

I do.

After having talked about heaven in Chapter Two of Love Wins Rob Bell turns to the subject of hell in Chapter Three.

This chapter is an interesting ramble. In it Bell make a great many, generally disjointed, observations about hell. Consequently, as an argument the chapter isn't very clear or illuminating. But I'm not sure that's what Bell is going for. For the most part, I think Bell is more poet than logician. And I think there is power in his approach. By raising so many questions about hell Bell brings home the point that the word "hell" has been hollowed out, theologically speaking. Bell the poet is trying to restore the poetry of hell, the associative richness and thickness that has gone missing in many sectors of Christianity of the "turn or burn" persuasion.

So what are some of the observations Bell makes about hell in this chapter? A brief survey:

1. The Old Testament hardly mentions hell. And the New Testament not much either. It's just not a central doctrine.

2. Jesus talked a lot about the city dump outside of Jerusalem (Gehenna), but hell as we understand it?

3. In our otherworldiness we tend to miss the hells we find around us.

4. Hell is strong language, offensively so. But some evils require commensurate language ("Some agony needs agonizing language.")

5. Hell comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from individual evil to systemic injustice.

6. When Jesus talks about the "coming wrath" he was mainly talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

7. Jesus preached hell to religious people already a part of God's covenant. Hell is "insider" language.

8. The Old Testament visions of God's wrath repeatedly show two things: 1) Correction and 2) Ultimate restoration. These Old Testament teachings regarding God's judgment are strangely missing in Christian thinking.

9. Paul advocated handing believers "over to Satan" for their eventual salvation.

10. Aion, generally translated as "eternal", doesn't necessarily mean "forever and ever and ever." Aion often refers to an "age." Thus, "eternal punishment" can mean (as I take it to mean) "punishment in the next age."
Does any of this add up to an argument? Not really. But again, I don't think that is what Bell is trying to do. I think he's trying to restore a bit of the mystery, complexity, and poetry to what has become a thin and hollowed out concept. Thus Bell's conclusion to the chapter:
To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in the God's world God's way.

And for that,
the word "hell" works quite well.
Let's keep it.

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20 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 4, "We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word."”

  1. Yes, not a central doctrine. I've always made the case that, while we need to be savvy about evil, obsessing about hell and the devil just takes our attention away from God. The Bible calls us to turn away from and resist evil and participate in the Kingdom of God.

  2. As always on this subject, I can't top George MacDonald.  If anyone hasn't read The Consuming Fire from his Unspoken Sermons, then cancel everything, turn off your mobile and look it up on the Gutenberg Project.  It's a thing of rare power and beauty from start to finish.  It becomes a classic in the mind the moment it is read.  It seems impossible that you hadn't read it before.

    "Nothing is inexorable but love.

    ...For love loves unto purity.  Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds.  Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection...

    Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love's kind, must be destroyed.

    And our God is a consuming fire."

    Read it again!  Read the rest of the book!  Read the other two books!  Read all his other books!  I am.

  3. "He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakeable may remain: He is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal. ...Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so that He will burn them clean? ... They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear to be tortured."

  4. I agree - you can't top George Macdonald on this kind of topic (or most topics even) - My way in to George Macdonald's sermons was through "Discovering the Character of God" -  George MacDonald's writing (sermons and fiction and poems) 

    compiled, arranged and edited by Michael R. Phillips - which made me get into reading the originals (which I would have found a bit difficult to read otherwise ...well I am from an an evangelical presbyterian background after all!) ..... not sure if its still being published, but probably available 2nd hand on Amazon.  Another way in might be the sermons are also available on youtube - sound (not George' voice of course,and not even a Scottish accent - but you can't have everything!) and text ... so you maybe keep your mobile on and upload and listen!

  5. Something I've found interesting is that we've lost the full sense of aionios as English speakers. In the Greek, that word can refer to a quantitative or a qualitative sense (see John 17:3). To quote Thomas Talbott, "When the letter of Jude describes the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah as "eternal fire," the point is not that the fire literally burns forever without consuming the cities; it is not that the fire continues to burn even today. The point is that the fire is a form of divine judgment upon those cities…that has its causal source in the eternal God himself. And similar for Jesus‘ reference to "eternal fire" in Matthew 25:41 and to "eternal punishment" in Matthew 25:46. The fire to which he alludes is not eternal in the sense that it burns forever without consuming anything—without consuming, for example, that which is false within a person (see 1 Co. 3:15)—and neither is the punishment eternal in the sense that it continues forever without accomplishing its corrective purpose. Both the fire and the punishment are eternal in the sense that they have their causal source in the eternal God himself" (qtd. in Hope Beyond Hell, pp. 29-30). 

    This is how I interpret aionios; the severity of our correction is the worst pain one could ever feel, but it's entirely brought on by our selves and God corrects it out of love. 

  6. Al, as Andrew suggested MacDonald's works can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg. (N.B. Sadly, Michael Hart, the founder if Project Gutenberg passed away this week.)

  7. The best quote I have ever heard on the matter was this:  "you don't get saved by believing in hell.  You get saved by believing in Jesus."

  8. A link of interest in this regard:

  9. To be perfectly honest, the fact that the Old Testament fails to mention Hell is extremely important. Jesus taught from these Scriptures and didn't come to start a new religion. He came to redeem mankind.

  10. Excellent point about the meaning of aionios.  I have a question though about the idea that the punishment in Matthew 25 is intended as corrective.  Or that it was corrective in the case of Sodom.  How do you get there?

  11. I'd answer the following way: It's not a corrective as here vs. there (Matt 25 vs. Sodom).  God's punishment is always corrective in aim and finite in duration (cf. Ezekiel 16:48-55).

  12. Please help me understand your 'here vs. there' point.  I was aware that metacognizant didn't seem to be comparing them in any way.  But, you seem to be?  Anyway, I am sorry to be a pest and I know you were trying to help.  But, I can't figure out your intent there.

    Well, I wasn't planning any time in Ezekiel today; but, . . .  I go there and see how Sodom etc. are used in telling Israel what God's plans are.  And, surely (at least to me) God's plans for the nation are redemptive.  But, for individual members of Israel or Sodom, I see no corrective.  Yet, you go there and see it.  If you have the time, I would be interested in how you see this in Ezekiel and also of course in Matthew 25.

  13. David, I've often tried to explain things to you, but after, say, 30 back and forth comments, we tend to end up back where we started. I know where you are coming from. You know where I'm coming from. Beyond that, peace be unto you my brother in Christ.

    Enjoy the rest of the day, and blessings on your weekend.

  14. Yes, indeed.  That is why I asked my question of Metacognizant and not you.  But, for some reason you chose to respond to me.  So, since I sincerely can't see corrective in those verses I thought I would ask.  No harm, no foul.

  15. Hi Deb, sad indeed about Michael Hart - Project Gutenberg is an amazing resource.  What I was trying to say was that I found it difficult to understand George Macdonald's writings in his Unspoken Sermons initially when I tried reading them, and found that I needed another way in to them - and found his fiction and poems a better place to start .... on hell I like the dialogues in the book Robert Falconer between Robert and his Granny (what a great character she is!)... its probably what led me to delve into Unspoken Sermons to find out more.
    Best wishes. Al

  16. Thanks for the recommendation, Al.  I counted up the other day and realised I still had about thirty MacDonald books to go, so a recommendation is always very welcome to help decide the next one.  Anyone else got a favourite?

  17. The Parish Papers trilogy was good. Don't know if you've read it yet, but it follows the life of a young minister coming to his first job and finding his way socially, ministerially, and maritally in the first one; the second one (Seaboard Parish) has his established family taking over for a friend in a neighboring parish for a season, with one daughter struggling with theology and another with her health; the third one (Vicar's Daughter) follows the life of his daughter, from her marriage and first child..

  18. Not sure I understand "I believe in eternal punishment."  I take it you don't believe that any person will be punished forever.  Do you just mean that you believe in punishment in the age to come?  

  19. Yeah, that's not clear. I was trying to be too cute. I was setting up a connection with the last point on the list in the post, #10, the notion that "eternal punishment" can mean "punishment in the age of come."

  20.  Great point. God will punish those who reject Him because He's a good Father. He won't punish them forever however because... He's a good Father. I have four children and I wouldn't write any of them off forever or punish them for the rest of their lives. Is God a worse father than I am? Of course not.

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