Chapter 2 – Has Hell Changed? Or Have We?
The goal for Chan in the second chapter of this book is to find out the context of teaching in which Jesus taught. In other words, what were the people teaching about hell in the time Jesus lived? This is important, because we find Jesus in the gospels constantly correcting bad theology. When the Pharisees were teaching things contrary to the teachings of the Old Testament, Jesus was pretty hard on them. So what they were teaching about hell, if it was too far off base, would need to be corrected. Also, they were using some of the same language which Jesus used, so it helps us to understand even more.
A problem which even Bell points out in “Love Wins” is that we need to understand Jesus according to His culture, not ours. Chan is certainly not arguing with him. However, he comes away with some very different thoughts. He points out four things about hell which were being taught in the time of Jesus.
First, he says they taught that hell is a place of punishment after judgment. After a person dies, they go to a “holding place” of sorts, which may or may not include some type of punishment. After the judgment, they are now thrown into hell. He is careful to point out that this punishment isn’t seen as “corrective” but “retributive.” It is most certainly judgment. He quotes an early writer who says that those who end up in hell after judgment “cannot now make a good repentance that they may live.”
Secondly, it is noted that hell is described in images of fire, darkness and lament. It is not a pleasant place at all, but a place of torment.
Interestingly, he points out that thirdly there were some people who were annihilationists. In other words, there were early Jews who believed that those who ended up in hell were only there for a time, and after their punishment was completed, they would be destroyed forever, never to live again.
The fourth thing he points out is that this was not a universal belief. Many believed in a never-ending punishment. Those who went to hell would remain there for all of eternity, and would not be destroyed.
If these things were all being taught while Jesus walked on earth, how does that change the way we understand His teachings? It should certainly make us wonder why, if Universalism is correct, Jesus never set the teachers around Him right.
The final few pages of this chapter deal with the issue of Gehenna. There is a lot of controversy concerning Gehenna. Bell contends that it was a garbage dump, and Jesus was talking about the fact that after we die, it is more like a dump than the ideas we commonly think of (fire, weeping…etc). Does this hold water?
Actually, no, it doesn’t. Chan points out that just because Jesus uses something like a garbage dump to illustrate hell, it doesn’t make the other things we are taught about hell any less true. The point of an illustration isn’t to be a complete explanation, but a picture of a larger truth. (I wonder if Bell believes we live in a mustard seed?)
The other thing which was fascinating is that Chan calls Bell on using the idea of a garbage dump at all, since there is no writing until around the year 1200 AD that calls Gehenna a garbage dump. Even then, it was used as an allegory of hell and destruction.