Thursday, April 21, 2011

Two Big Problems with the "Hell is Now" Approach

Right off the bat, I do want to affirm that there is a very real sense in which hell is now, is here. I don't mean to deny the idea that what happened in Japan, what happened in Haiti, what happens in abusive homes and crackhouses and in genocidal tribalism is in a real sense hell on earth. But I think the emphasis on this concept of hell -- rather than the concept of hell as a "place" of punitive wrath after death for those not found in Christ -- is problematic for a couple of very significant reasons.

1. The concept of "hell on earth now" is largely foreign to the New Testament. We may find it between the lines, implied, of course. And the Bible does talk a lot in various ways about creation's diverse groanings and systemic injustice, etc. But the primary way the Scriptures refer to hell is as a place of post-mortem punishment.

2. The concept of "hell on earth now" (in the form of systemic brokenness, the sufferings of happenstance, etc.) removes the primary reason for hell: punishment via condemnation due to personally offending God. The emphasis on hell now to the marginalization of hell later diminishes the overarching justification for hell, which is sin against God. Hell in the form of tsunamis and economic inequality positions us as victims, not rebels. And "victims" is not the way the New Testament primarily refers to us.


Gabe said...

I first read 'post-mortem punishment' as 'post-modern punishment'.

In which case, Rob Bell might not be THE Devil, but he's pretty high in the ranks.

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

I think it's important to remember as well we use the word 'hell' today rather more descriptively (and frequently) than other generations did. Describing something as 'hell on earth' paints a word picture but is, in the end and as you say, not the biblical usage of the word.
Another reality here is that sin has consequences BOTH in this life AND in the next for those who are not covered by the blood of Christ. (Though i might want to) i can't get that scene out of my mind from the movie "Se7en" where that man who has been tortured and abused every day for over a year is in the hospital, and after describing all his injuries and suffering the doctor then turn to Brad Pitt and says, 'and, he's still got hell to look forward to." Now this is a movie, sure, but in a very real sense this makes the same point: we may suffer tremendously in this life from our own sinful choices and/or the sinful choices of others, but hell is a much worse and very real reality for those who would reject the cross of JEsus in this life. Conversely, to describe suffering in this life as hell, is like going to one of those dinky carnivals in mall parking lots and saying it's like Disneyland!

rdsmith3 said...

There is another danger with this manner of thinking. I grew up in the Roman Catholic church. Catholics generally believe that virtually all of them will spend time in purgatory before eventually going to heaven. There seems to be a commonly held belief that more suffering on earth equates to less time in purgatory. If you lead a Job-like existence, you may even go straight to heaven.

Of course, this is unbiblical, and works-based salvation at its worst.

Todd Pruitt said...

Spot. On.

Jason said...

I agree with Todd. Right on the mark.

zach hoag said...

Jared, if you are critiquing Bell directly, I'd be inclined to agree - he tends towards an 'either-or' kind of view with respect to hell now and hell later. In the very least, Bell's hell later is not really a result of a verdict (at the Judgment) but a continuation of negative results tied to negative choices (just like hell now) with the opportunity to choose one's way out (just like hell now). If that makes sense.

But there is also the danger on the other side, which Bell is trying to address but does so with the bridge too far. And that danger is abstracting hell later from hell now (another either-or). In other words, making hell something different than and entirely additional to "the wages of sin is death" and "choose life or choose death". (The typical evangelical preaching of hell has to do with "death is nothin' - just wait for what's gonna happen to you afterwards!") In other words, where I'm landing is that hell later is substantially similar to hell now - the same deterioration of creation (I'm going with Wright on this, obvi) because of sinful choices leading to death now is somehow ongoing or at least eternally effective in the next life; BUT it is distinguished from hell now by a distinct point in time, the Judgment, where Jesus casts a verdict re: one's eternal future, with no opportunity for choosing one's way out, etc.

Jared said...

Zach, as I mentioned in the intro to the post, I acknowledge the sense of "hell now."

The major problem I see with creating a "continuation" between hell now and hell later -- making that similarity continguous, if you will, making the "now" part of "the wages of sin is death" -- is that we end up suggesting that those who suffer abuse, hardship, disease, etc. are suffering because they are apart from Christ.

There is a great caution here needed, especially since Jesus and his apostles went through plenty of "hell on earth" in their suffering, but it wasn't for lack of righteousness.

When we speak of "wages," we speak of something owed. If hell now are these wages, we tell suffering brethren they are just getting the hell they deserve.

zach hoag said...

The main problem you mentioned in the post, though, is that "hell now" positions us as victims and not rebels. That's the problem I was addressing.

But no - hell now probably has two "senses", the macro sense and the micro sense. The fall had cosmic implications (we obvi agree on this), resulting in systemic injustice and even a disruption of the natural order with ongoing natural disasters, animal violence, and other tragedies. This is an aspect of 'hell now' which is a result of human sin in a big sense. It's the deterioration of creation unfolding. In this sense, the trafficking victim is experiencing the hellish effects of a fallen world.

In the micro sense, hell now is also the direct consequences for destructive choices - the internal degradation of the trafficker, his murder at the hands of rival thugs, etc. And of course, everything else, too, including family squabbles.

Ro. 1:18 ff. is probably the best example of both of these aspects of hell on earth (esp. as they are tied to the judicial wrath of God), with a micro sense of people receiving the 'due penalty' of their error now, and the macro sense of everything just devolving into chaos and eventually death (vv. 28-32).

But to highlight the point: a good Baptist might say to the person who lost family members in the tsunami: "Well, the really unfortunate thing is that they are now burning in hell. The tsunami was nothing by comparison."

And I think that does a terrible violence to the biblical narrative and its consistent presentation of sin, destruction, death, and judgment. Hell can be nothing if not the verdict of permanent deterioration and degradation.

Jared said...

a good Baptist might say to the person who lost family members in the tsunami: "Well, the really unfortunate thing is that they are now burning in hell. The tsunami was nothing by comparison."

And I think that does a terrible violence to the biblical narrative

But doesn't Jesus say a similar thing in Matthew 10:28?

Nevertheless, you make good points. I don't disagree, really, except I would reiterate again that I am not denying so much as cautioning. My fear is that by emphasizing this approach, which is in the minor notes of the NT and not the emphases of its writers, we may inadvertently (not intentionally, mind you) end up echoing the errant viewpoints on the fall of the Siloam tower or the cause of the blindness of the man born blind.

Hell, now and then, is only generically the "fallout of the Fall." It is specifically the punitive consequences of sin against a holy God. It would be a tragedy if -- again -- inadvertently those who would (rightly) repudiate the loose-lipped pronouncements of Falwell and Robertson in principle wind up practically echoing them.

I'm just saying we ought to keep the major notes major and the minor notes minor. But I know you get the nuance. ;-)

zach hoag said...

Haha, sure. I actually totally agree - and the point is very well taken - that those who play that hell-now note need to distinguish between destructive consequences for personal choices and the macrocosmic effects of a hellish world because of brokenness and sin, which result in indirect experiences of the effects of this world.

But disagree that hell-now speaking is something to avoid - anymore than the wages of sin is death is something to avoid. I'm not saying your grandma died because she lied the day before; I'm saying she was a sinner like everyone, and so we all die.

Taken in context, I actually don't think that's what Jesus is saying in Matt. 10:28 - at all. 'Destroy' is probably the operative word. And Jared would you seriously say such a thing to someone who lost friend/family in the tsunami?

And, if we are trying to locate the reality to which the hell metaphors are pointing - which, obviously, entail the negative result of the Judgment - then hell-now does become a major note, and perhaps the only referent to what hell later would be like. I would say that hell-now is actually far more major a note than hell later in general, too, as the entire biblical narrative is showing us the result of sin and the fall in this world, and in our own lives now (culminating in dea.

Neither Jesus nor Paul were working outside the basic worldview that the wages of sin is death.

Jared said...

And Jared would you seriously say such a thing to someone who lost friend/family in the tsunami?

No, of course not.
And I was only saying that Jesus says something similar, not identical.

I do think Jesus is saying basically "Dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you."