In JI Packer’s piece “Still Surprised by Lewis” he finds the secret to CS Lewis’ contribution to be his blend of logic and imagination. In processing Bell’s third chapter on Hell, I find the Bell trying to follow Lewis’ imagination but his greatest failings to be in the area of logic.
The Word “Hell” Isn’t in the Bible
Bell begins his chapter once again pushing back from the evangelical construct he created in chapter 1. He then moves on to an analysis of the words in the Bible that tend to be rendered as “hell” in English.
This is a helpful thing because when I tell people that the word “hell” isn’t in the Bible, they give me strange looks. It’s a word trick of course, but it is helpful to do the exercise that Bell runs you through in terms of Sheol, Gehenna and Hades. His analysis of each is brief and cursory but its a popular level book and he doesn’t expect his audience to go too deep into the weeds. He merely wants to do a bit of deconstruction to open people up to a bit more nuance.
First some quibbling with his deconstruction and this is where we get into the “logic” failure of Bell and the careful attention to words and meaning that this subject deserves.
Jesus talks about afterlife punishment in far more passages than the word “hell” gets mentioned. This was one of the main points of a blog post I wrote a while ago. If in fact often comes up when Jesus in Luke is dealing with feasts. The Bible has a lot of metaphorical hyperlinks to its notions of post-life blessedness and feasting is a main on in the New Testament that is also in the Old. Jesus plays off on this often and in Luke where he’s often attending feasts and feasts come into his parables participation on the feast is synonymous with inclusion into the future blessing that God will bestow and exclusion from the feast with perdition. This entire theme, and some of the most important passages on the subject will be missed by doing a concordance search of the word “hell”.
It depends what you mean by the word “hell”
As I continued reading the chapter I was increasingly aware that Bell was hopping between dictionary definitions of the word “hell” throughout his chapter, often without much acknowledgment of what he was doing. He was trying to blend, but blending without definition or differentiation tends not to yield insight but rather confusion.
In the next section Bell opens up with some stories from a trip to Rwanda and some experiences he had with the consequences of those horrific events. He recounts seeing a little boy with severed hands. There he says this:
“Do I believe in a literal hell?
Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.”
I remember the Saturday Night Live sketches on our use of the word “literally”. In common parlance we have begun using the word to add emphasis rather than its traditional meaning.
“He literally bit my head off.” Really? How then can you still be alive.
Language is fluid but communication and thinking is helped by both parties in the communication process having agreement of understanding on the meaning of a word being used.
The subject of the book per the subtitle is the after life destination/destiny of every human being but in this little quote a literal hell is understood to be the kind of suffering that we experience prior to death.
I don’t have a problem with using the word “hell” as a synonym for suffering, and I don’t have a problem understanding suffering we experience in life as consequential to our rebellion against God and the wrong we do to one another, yet blending the meaning in this context is very problematic.
If we are trying to focus on suffering as consequence of our own agency and freely chosen activity, what does it say that “hell” is associated with the suffering of this little boy? This little boy “put through hell” by the evil actions of others. Is that use of the word “hell” helpful to this conversation? Isn’t the focus on our work the consequences that are imposed, by God or systems established by the creator for evil deeds in the service of justice and correction? Correction will be a big subject later in the chapter, but why use “hell” in this context in this way?
We have many words for suffering and sometimes we use “hell” as a metaphor for pre-death suffering. I think we want to stay a long ways from saying that all suffering is “hell-like” in terms of understanding “hell” as corrective or retributive justice for evil done. It’s better to say that the perpetrators of the dismemberment of this boy deserve hell, rather than saying that the boy gets hell as a result of their actions.
Later in the chapter he will make the same move with the word “death” and my critique is the same. We understand the use of the word “death” metaphorically, and we understand its literal usage. The Bible also uses the word both ways, but we can mostly understand which way it is being used how, when and where. That’s how language works.
Bell also notes that “death” is not annihilation. That’s important but he doesn’t camp on it. The fact that death is not annihilation relativizes “death” in important ways.
“Hell” as Jesus’ way of hyperbolic warning
Bell goes on to make the point that Jesus often uses hyperbole in his teaching which is absolutely correct. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” “Unless you hate your father and mother you are unworthy of me.” I know no one who takes these admonitions literally, nor do I think they were intended as such. One of Bell’s main points in this chapter is that this is how we should understand a lot of Jesus’ warnings.
Here again I think we should take a closer look at understanding consequence, agency, and what we mean by the word “hell”.
Bell clearly wants to follow Lewis and Lewis makes the point very clearly that within the moral order established by God, doing wrong will have binding, eternal consequences. He makes this point in Mere Christianity in the chapter “Three Parts of Morality”
“I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with. God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
I think this is a tremendously helpful insight into one aspect of morality and I think it is an important message for a secular world that has little visceral connection with the idea of a God who judges our actions at the end of the age. Is this one aspect of Jesus’ warning? I can embrace that. One part of hell and heaven are our own making of it. I see that all the time in people lives. They are creating their own hells and cursing God and others for it. It’s a very sad imprisonment.
I do not, however, see this as either the majority reading of Jesus’ warnings.
Our secular culture tends to give us a rather solipsistic moral universe. If a universal, objective judge is removed morality tends to be reduced to “what works for me in the long term according the interests I desire and the values I define.”
Garret Keizer in “The Enigma of Anger” makes an enormously important observation regarding the acquisition of an independent moral consciousness. The turning point in the Samuel story of David is in the story of his adultery and murder in chapters 11 and 12. David has been going in power and God has increasingly becoming a tool to his own power and glory. This culminates in doing what he did with Bathsheba and to Uriah and telling Joab “let it not seem evil to you”. Word comes that whether or not it seemed evil to David, it was evil to God and now He was about to intervene. David’s son’s would be “struck” by God (2 Samuel 12:15 KJV) and in a sense his life would be taken as a replacement for the death David deserved (by virtue of the Levitical law) for what he did with Bathsheba and to Uriah. What we see in David is that continual turning of his core self as illustrated in 2 Samuel 8, 9, and 10 and coming to full flower in 11 and causing the misery he suffered. What is key, however, is God’s intervention in David’s sinful path. This intervention was initially unwelcome and Nathan plays a dangerous game in bringing it about, but finally it is in David’s and Israel’s interest that God intervene so that David not become the kind of tyrant that Saul had become.
Do we create hells, yes, in the sense that we bring onto ourselves the miserable consequences of our actions and we corrupt our own hearts. This is all right and good and helpful to bring to our context. Jesus’ warnings, however, go further. In fact, more is demanded by the evil of this world.
Those who raped, killed and maimed in Rwanda deserve more than the twisting of their own selves, they deserve what they have done to others. This always raises both sides of the difficulty of lex talonis. On one hand it can leave everyone blind. On the other a multiple murder has but one life to offer to repay for all that he/she has done. Rwandan butchers have but two hands to give and these children are not in a position to receive.
Bell is clear that he also affirms after life redemptive correction, but we’ll get more into that as we go through the book. I think it is safe to say, however, that Jesus often gives a full throated warning to people regarding not only the temporal consequences of their thoughts and actions for themselves but always assumes that there is one ultimate judge who will address all wrongs.
Raising the issue of God striking David’s son as a consequence for David’s sin raises exactly the kind of issue that we object to. Was it fair for the son to suffer? Our reaction reminds me of the scene from Charlie Wilson’s War and the story of the Zen master and the little boy. Does something inside of me kvetch at the story in Samuel. You bet. Another part of me knows how much I don’t know. Another part of me realizes that lives are lost and lives are taken by forces and circumstances that look completely arbitrary and that this happens in small, unnoticed ways every day and in large ways like the Japanese tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. Our anger and revulsion this obvious reality is instructive. On one hand we imagine a better world, one that we’ve never experienced (CS Lewis’ argument for the existence of God from desire in Mere Christianity) and our instinctive rebellion that someone more powerful than ourselves is decided for us and doing to us and there is little we can say or do about it. That is the feeling of smallness and powerlessness that we hate and define as wrong but it is also an essential component of our willful desire for mastery over all.
I remember when on a rafting trip our raft capsized into the river. I was amazed at the power of the river. I was nearly helpless in its grip. I experienced a tiny portion of what thousands of Japanese felt in the tsunami. I experienced an essential truth about the smallness of humanity and our fragility, a truth that will come to bear on all of us at some point as we inevitably and eventually lose everything to the age of decay. Death will have us.
Are we really angry that God presumes this right to give and take life for reasons he doesn’t disclose to us or that we don’t have that power ourselves.
There is more in this chapter that I think is important. Bell’s gospel and seeing Bell as an evangelical starts to come through here. This is already overly long and I’ve got to dash to do other things but I’ll have to get back to it later. pvk