It is rare when a Christian mega-church pastor winds up somehow on the cover of TIME magazine. But when a story about (now former) pastor Rob Bell was plastered on the front of TIME five years ago in 2011, people took notice.
As the mind behind the popular Nooma series of videos, Rob Bell had written a controversial book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the book, Bell raises a lot of provocative questions about the classic Christian doctrine of hell, but he does not provide very firm answers. In his engaging and winsome way, Bell believes that when people experience rough times in this earthly life, such experiences can be truly hell. Who can argue with that? But as to whether or not hell exists in the next life, Bell is not so sure.
Uh-oh. There are yellow flags here.
As there should be.
There is a Hell..But What Exactly is Hell?
The God of the Bible is a God of love, but He is also a God of judgment. Holy Scripture affirms both of these divine attributes, so as servants of God’s Word, we do not have permission to split these attributes and pit one against the other. “Love wins,” but “justice wins,” too. Divine punishment of human rebellion against a holy God is an appropriate response to the senseless violence and injustice in our world, from a God who genuinely desires reconciliation with His creatures. The sobering reality of a future hell as taught within the pages of Holy Scripture is simply difficult to miss.
While Bell raised some good questions, his very public and ambiguous conclusions regarding hell took him down from his position of influence within evangelical Christianity. It was not so much what Bell said or did not say that raised eyebrows, but rather, how he said it. According to his critics, instead of displaying a humble, submissive attitude towards the teachings of Holy Scripture, Bell tapped into the postmodern tendency of cynicism towards classic Christian doctrine.
After Bell’s book was published, Minneapolis pastor John Piper’s now infamous tweet on Twitter, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” has since proven itself prophetically true. Bell’s demise among the broader evangelical Christian community ultimately signaled the end of the Emergent Church Movement. Let us just put it this way: Rob Bell is still around, but unless you are involved with a progressive-thinking religious community or you get your theology from the Oprah Winfrey Network, you probably will not see Rob Bell on the Christian speaking circuit any time soon.
The firestorm over Bell’s book a few years ago has died down. Rob Bell left his job as a megachurch pastor in Michigan, and he now spends a lot of his time surfing off of the coast of Los Angeles. Life moves on. Nevertheless, the controversy still leaves students of the Bible with an important question:
What exactly is hell?
It is one thing to believe in the existence of hell. The Bible leaves us no doubt about that. But it is quite another thing to be able to describe the nature of hell. What are the characteristics of hell, according to the Bible?
Let us be honest. “Fire and brimstone” preaching is not very common within evangelical churches today. I mean, you might find a street preacher on a soapbox yelling about hell, but is the topic ever mentioned in your typical, evangelical Sunday morning sermon? Things have changed a lot in recent years. Back during the medieval period, a typical medieval Italian preacher’s warnings sounded pretty grim. I am sure that such sermons rattled many in those days. But can you seriously imagine any preacher in our churches preaching like this, today?
Fire, fire! That is the recompense for your perversity, you hardened sinners. Fire, fire, the fires of hell! Fire in your eyes, fire in your mouth, fire in your guts, fire in your throat, fire in your nostrils, fire inside and fire outside, fire beneath and fire above, fire in every part. Ah, miserable folk! You will be like rags burning in the middle of this fire.
Not exactly your typical commendation for the “purpose-driven life,” interspersed with humor, is it? So, the topic of “hell” has indeed become a type of taboo in many Christian circles in our post-modern day.
We know there is a hell, but we have difficulty talking about it, in part because it sounds so terrible, but also because, frankly, we are not so sure what hell according to the Bible really is. It has something to do with God judging people according to how they lived their life on earth, but what really are the negative consequences? If someone were to ask you, “What exactly is hell?,” what would you say? For example, here are some important questions about hell:
- Many Christians are content to say that hell is “eternal separation from God.” But what exactly does “eternal separation from God” mean?
- Is the punishment in hell physical, as in the medieval preacher’s literal “fire,” or is it essentially mental?
- How long do those in hell experience their punishment? Is it a never-ending cycle of torment, or does it have a specific duration, leading to a complete destruction of the alienated soul once the appropriate punishment is meted out?
- Do those in hell ever get a second chance? Is it possible that someone in hell can ever get eventually saved?
- If sinless perfection is impossible to experience in this earthly life, and only those who have been entirely sanctified can enter into God’s heavenly and holy presence, how then is sin completely removed in the afterlife for the believer? Does this imply some sort of purification process, kind of like a “short stay in hell,” prior to experiencing God’s heaven?
- Are Christians squeamish over the thought of hell because we have bought too much into worldly ways of thinking that minimize or ridicule the idea of hell?
- Does asking questions about the traditional view of hell as conscious eternal torment amount to an attack on the authority of God’s Word, or can it lead to a more refined and robust understanding of what the Bible actually teaches?
These are difficult questions, and they require concentrated study in God’s Word to find the answers.
Bible scholar Preston Sprinkle has assembled a team of scholars, each one who takes a very different view on the topic of the nature of hell, in Zondervan’s newest Counterpoint book, Four Views on Hell. In this updated, extensive second edition of a previously published book under the same title, each expert contributor advocates a particular perspective, doing their best to demonstrate from the Bible that their view is correct:
- Denny Burk argues for the traditional view of Eternal Conscious Torment. Most Christians throughout church history have held to this view, most notably defended by the great African bishop of the early church, Saint Augustine.
- John Stackhouse argues for Annihilationism, otherwise known as Conditional Immortality, though Stackhouse prefers the description as “Terminal Punishment.” This second most common view has been held on and off through the centuries, going back to Justin Martyr and Irenaeus in the early church, to the Seventh-Day Adventists and John R.W. Stott in more recent times.
- Robin Parry argues for a type of evangelical Universalism, otherwise known as Ultimate Reconciliation (as opposed to other forms of Universalism that simply deny the existence of hell outright). Most orthodox Christians dismiss any form of Universalism as being unbiblical, but Parry believes that his approach can indeed fit within orthodox Christianity. A minority of believers have held to a view like this in church history, ranging from the early church father, Origen, to the great British fantasy writer of the 19th-century, George MacDonald.
- Jerry Walls argues for the Purgatory view, which in his approach is a Protestant version of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
I have not read the book yet, but based on the scholarly reputation of the authors, I anticipate that it will be well worth reading. What I find helpful about the Counterpoint series of books is its focus on getting people to really study the Bible by seriously interacting with different scholarly viewpoints, encouraging you to draw your own conclusions from what the Bible teaches. 
Obviously, not everyone has the opportunity to dedicate unlimited gobs of time investigating issues like this. I know that I do not. My “honey-do” list at home runs over several pages! So, it is really helpful to have in one fairly concise volume, a summary discussion of different viewpoints, side-by-side, from which to guide your study into Scripture on this topic. I look forward to reading it as an aid to my study of the Bible 
So, for those of you who want a meaty approach to the topic of hell, without having to buy ($$$) a bunch of different books and chew up all of your reading time, this will probably be an excellent, one-stop type of book. If you read the book before I do, please tell me what you think.
First, here is editor Preston Sprinkle’s introduction to the book as a whole, followed secondly by contributor Denny Burk, briefly talking about why the traditional view is still important to defend, but also why we should engage other biblically defended viewpoints with an attitude of charity :
[^1] My fellow blogger, John Paine, found an excellent, recommended video done by Bobby Conway, the One Minute Apologist, that critiques Rob Bell’s, “style-over-substance” position on hell in a very thoughtful and respectful way (the original link to the video is lost, but here it is on YouTube).
[^2] Hell is a tough sell today. A recent post at the The Gospel Coalition describes five reasons why preachers tend to avoid the topic of hell. On the other hand, not everyone is convinced that belief in the doctrine of hell is on the decline, particularly in America. See this book review of secular historian, Kathryn Gin Lum’s Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction.
[^3] Albert Mohler, in Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, editors, Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven?, Kindle location 81.
[^4] Preston Sprinkle co-authored a popular, but sometimes overlooked, book with Francis Chan in 2011, Erasing Hell. Did you know, that Jesus talks about hell more than any other person in the Bible? In the Gospels, Jesus often uses a geographical location in Israel, that his first century listeners would have known, as a graphic depiction of what hell is like. This is the valley of Gehenna, in Jerusalem, saddled between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. See Matthew 10:28, for an example. But that is not the whole story. Did you also know that the common idea among evangelical Christians, that gehenna was a garbage dump, is actually a medieval-based, urban legend? Here is a helpful summary review of the Chan and Sprinkle book. Sprinkle is also a scholar who I believe has written one of the best, top notch books on what the Bible teaches about same-sex attraction, highlighted here on Veracity recently.
[^5] This brings up a good point: Just because someone can claim to make an argument “based on the Bible,” does not necessarily make that argument right. The one making the argument could be DEAD WRONG in their interpretation of the Bible. It is important to evaluate claims made “from the Bible” by actually studying the evidence presented, in order to determine if the argument being presented is compelling or not.
[^6] Just by way of comparison, I looked briefly a few years ago at the first edition of Four Views on Hell, and it was good from what I read, but it was also a bit week in certain areas. For example, the essay by Clark Pinnock arguing for Annihilationism had too much sentimentalism for me to take his view very seriously, and the book lacked any challenging discussion about universalism. In the new edition, Robin Parry is one of the best living defenders of an evangelical universalism that I know of, from what I have read in his other writings, even though I am not ultimately convinced of his views (NOTE: the Kindle version of the Second Edition includes the text of the First Edition….a real bonus… like getting two books in one). An early review of the newest edition, by Arminian theologian Roger Olson, can give you a flavor for the new book.