Bell is partly correct when he affirms that “…the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined…For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with” (p. 67). However, he omits two passages that clearly speak of places where people will spend eternity. In Isaiah 65-66, the 8th century prophet talks about an eschatological time of a new heaven and a new earth, but it does not talk about universalist salvation. Isaiah 66:24 is actually quoted by Jesus and it says, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” The other eschatological passage that clearly speaks about two places of eternal reward or punishment is in the book of Daniel. “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Daniel 12:1-3). The text in Daniel points to the resurrection of both the wicked and the righteous and the wicked. If Isaiah only speaks of an eternal place for the wicked, Daniel distinguishes between “everlasting life” and “everlasting contempt.” These two expressions occur only here in the Old Testament, and the word “everlasting” refers to time without end.
Bell’s treatment of hell continues with the New Testament evidence. He states that, “The actual word ‘hell’ is used roughly twelve times in the New Testament, almost exclusively by Jesus himself” (p. 67). He correctly points “the Greek word that gets translated “hell” in English is the word “Gehenna…the Valley of Hinnom…an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem” (p. 67). Unfortunately, he fails to see the relationship between the Valley of Hinnom and Jesus’s view of hell because he continues, “so the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, “Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere…” (p. 68). In Matthew 10:28, Jesus uses the word in conjunction with the verb “to destroy.” “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In Mark 9:43, Jesus uses the word in conjunction with the expression “unquenchable fire.” “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” In Mark 9:47, it is clear that someone going to hell is not going to be in the kingdom. “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.”
Bell correctly states that “the other Greek word is “Hades”…we find the word in Revelation 1, 6, 20, and in Acts 2…Jesus uses the word in Matthew 11 and Luke 10…and in the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16” (p. 69). But in his treatment of the story of the rich man and Lazarus (which is not a parable), he incorrectly concludes, “What is see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells…in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next. There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (p. 79). First, there are markers for interpretation that shows us that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not a parable. Here the characters have names. In parables, the characters are nameless, and parables are generally introduced with a comparative.
One of the most extreme perspectives Bell presents is the insinuation that Sodom and Gomorrah’s eternal destiny could be changed. “More bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah? He tells highly committed, pious, religious people that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than them on judgment day? There is still hope?” (p. 84). In fact, what Jesus does, he compares two groups of people that will be eternally lost, not one that will be able to move from eternal damnation to eternal blessedness.
From a linguistic perspective, his treatment of the Greek language is either academically dishonest or ignorant. In mentioning the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, Bell affirms that “the goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo…An aion of kolazo…can mean “a period of pruning” or “a time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.” The truth is that the expression “eis kolasin aionion” used in Matthew 25:46 means “into eternal punishment” and it is used in contrast with “eternal life.” No version of the Bible or evangelical commentary translates this expression the way Bell does. He redefines hell. For Rob Bell, hell is, “the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us…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 God’s world God’s way” (p. 93). The problem with this view of hell is that it is not biblical. Jesus taught that there will be a bodily resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (John 5:28-29), with the righteous going into eternal life and the wicked in to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46).