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Are There People In Heaven & Hell Right Now? (Qus Teens Ask 4.)

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Part four of my series on ‘Questions Teenagers Ask.’ All posts in this series are responses to questions I’ve had from young people written in the style I answered them.

Question: Are There People In Heaven & Hell Right Now – Before Second Coming?

Answer:

Great question! And the answer is yes but no!

I grew up in Blackpool where it had a nightclub called ‘heaven & hell‘ – but it was rubbish and so there’s no-one there right now! (I think it shut down actually.)

Anyway, you’re probably not asking about the nightclub; so is there anyone in the real heaven or hell right now?

If heaven is ‘in the presence of Jesus’ and if it’s ‘paradise’ then deffo! Yup! People are there right now. Jesus turned to the thief on the cross next to Him and said “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43) – not later, but today.

However, that’s not the whole story; Heaven & Hell ain’t done yet! They’re still brewing.

Heaven is amazing! More amazing than we could ever think of, but it comes in two parts, before the second coming of Jesus and after the second coming.

Before Jesus comes back Heaven’s epic, and it’s paradise, and we’re there with Jesus in some form or another; however it’s just spiritual. After Jesus comes back though, He’ll be stitching a new heaven and new earth together to be the perfect mix of physical and spiritual (have a wander through Revelation 21 & 22 to see this). We even get new amazing new physical bodies (1 Corinthians 15). Heaven will be all the best bits of the physical world and spiritual world clearly mixed together – and more!

Hell too – In a parable in Luke 16, Jesus tells us about people in Hell right now (also see Revelation 21:8 for more evidence of this). However at the second coming it’s sealed once Satan & the demons are chucked into it (Revelation 20:10-15). There’s also an argument to be made for people living in Hell-on-Earth right now needing the salvation that only Jesus can bring.

So yup, people in heaven and hell right now. But nope there is more to come including physical, hot, new bodies when Jesus returns!

More In The Series, ‘Questions Teens Ask’:

Part 1. Is Self Harm A Sin?
Part 2. Can Demons Cause Sin?
Part 3. Will Jesus Always Be Called Jesus?

Yet Another Rob Bell Rant…

People are always grinding axes when it comes to Rob Bell, and when ‘Love Wins’ was released many took it as the nail in the coffin for his ministry. “Farewell Rob Bell” was Piper’s quote.

That’s not entirely accurate though is it? Because in true evangelical tradition many commentators didn’t wait for the book to be released before slating it. They torpedoed any hope for engaged, informed debate on the issues. High profile theologians and pastors, people that I respect – some of whom I went to seminary with – issued warnings, judgements and frankly in some cases profoundly rude reviews before even smelling the dust jacket.

Rob Bell has become the ultimate straw man!

This has come up again more recently in light of Rob leaving his pastoral position at Mars Hill, working on a TV show alongside ‘Lost’ Producer, Carlton Cuse, and releasing his new book ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About God.‘ Once again the commentators are out, and the armchair theologians are throwing mud in the ring.

What do we do with Rob Bell?

The problem is that people don’t know what to do with Rob Bell. They don’t know what category to put him in. Is he evangelical, emerging, zionist, secular, rockstar pastor, philosopher, theologian, conservative, charismatic, hypermodern? I mean, what is he? What’s his label? Many of the people I’ve heard commentate on Rob have first tried to pigeon hole him, then attack that pigeon hole rather than the person or the views. Rob Bell has become the ultimate straw man!

During Rob Bell conversations with friends I’ve developed a catchphrase: ‘can you point to where he said that?’ Sometimes adding ‘in context!’ It becomes clear quite quickly that we’re not talking about Rob Bell or his views at all. Instead what’s on the table is some bastardized muddle of their personal views, Rob’s sayings, review and interview soundbites and a gooey misunderstanding of them all holding the pieces together.

I’m married to a philosopher with an amazing degree and a great understanding of the two major schools of philosophy: Eastern/Organic and Western/Analytical. When talking about Rob Bell one day she opened up for me the big differences between these two approaches and it goes something like this:

Organic philosophy puts everything on the table and moves the pieces around. It asks questions, opens things up, straddles lines, and simply trusts that asking the impertinent questions brings us closer to truth, not to disaster. Truth is found in the journey.

Analytical philosophy slowly eliminates things from the table. It gives answers, creates categories and systems, falls into camps, creates ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, and warns of the dangers of getting ‘too close to the edge.’ Truth is found in the conclusion.

The latter is the only type of philosophy I was taught at Bible College as the legitimate type of philosophy. Therefore many of the people who commentate on Rob Bell fall into the later category too, and they assess Rob’s views as if he does too.

What’s on the table is some bastardized muddle of personal views, Rob’s sayings, review and interview soundbites and a gooey misunderstanding of them all holding the pieces together.

Rob, however is definitely organic. He keeps things on the table, moves things around, asks the hard questions and he opens up the discussion. He rarely makes firm conclusions, and he simply trusts in the Grace and overwhelming wisdom and power of God to be right even when he is not.

This is exactly the approach of Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltman, Ruldolf Bultman, Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich. Unsurprisingly, we slated them too! Interestingly, Jesus Christ himself in the Gospels would more clearly fit into this school (along with the rest of the later Rabbinic Tradition).

A Rob Bell Check List to Consider

Here’s a random list of Rob Bell related thoughts that you may or may not agree with, but for now at least I’m pretty convinced they’re true.

  • I don’t agree with everything Rob says.
  • Rob does not anywhere categorically deny the assistance of an eternal, conscious, torment in Hell.
  • Rob really hopes that Hell is not eternal, and really hopes that God’s mercy will extend there too. Me too! What, don’t you??
  • This hope does not deny any Gospel promise or systematic understanding. In fact it has been held by prominent theologians throughout the centuries.
  • Rob has not ‘come out’ as a universalist.
  • Rob’s understanding of hell is based on lexical study. He points out the four words, the three meanings, and the social-historical context where the hell conversations existed. It’s called exegesis people! (post on this here).
  • Because of this study Rob makes the important Biblical distinction between hell on earth and hell after life on earth – and the need to be saved from both.
  • Rob’s methodology is about asking questions, rather than giving answers.
  • Rob is not ‘unbiblical’ because he doesn’t use classical referencing in books aimed at non-Christians. Don’t ask how many Bible references does he quote, ask whether the Bible is in line with what he says.
  • Rob fervently believes in evangelism and mission.
  • Rob has proclaimed several times that he believes in substitutionary atonement, salvation through faith alone, the imperative need to repent, the sinless life-death-resurrection-and-ascension of Jesus, the authority of the Bible and the dynamic freedom and sovereignty of God.
  • I believe that we will know Rob in heaven. Let’s talk about and to him today like we know that.

Here endeth the rant.

What The Hell? Theology behind Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins.’

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I’m going to be posting a short ‘Rob Bell rant’ later today and so thought I’d take the time to look a wee bit at the word ‘hell’ as we translate it from the Bible.

For my own understanding and edification I’ve been studying and considering hell quite a bit recently as my classical views have been challenged. I’m looking into it and reading on it, but I’m still happy – for now at least – to be relatively undecided. That said I still lean tentatively on the classical evangelical understanding of a physical, eternal and conscious place.

What I’m exploring is exactly what Rob Bell in ‘Love Wins’ and others have done over the centuries. The question is not as simple and clear cut scripturally as we might think, so it’s worth a wee chat! I also feel a bit bugged when critics of Bell’s don’t actually consider or discuss the various exegetical and translation issues he presents – so I’m having a stab here.

Where does the word ‘hell’ come from in our Bibles?

Hell is the word inserted into our translations from the Latin Vulgate published around 400AD. It is not in the original versions.

The Latin word ‘hell’ appears in the Vulgate just over 110 times. The Vulgate translated Sheol (hebrew), gehenna, hades, and tartarus (greek) to all mean hell, and translated owlam (hebrew), and olon (greek) to mean forever or everlasting. Bible translations today still use the Vulgate as a reference and so oversimplify some of these words to mean ‘everlasting hell.’

Wooden, more literal translations of the original languages found in versions like Young’s Literal or the Concordant Literal, never use the word hell. Not once. Zip.

If then, the word ‘hell’ is not used, what words are, and what do the actual words mean? Most importantly, how they do inform our understanding of the hell we teach?

The Original Words

Sheol in the Old Testament literally means the pit or grave. Basically ‘where the dead go.’ This is sometimes used metaphorically – but often is very literal.

In the New Testament, three words are used:

Gehenna – Was a physical place outside Jerusalem literally meaning ‘The Valley of Hinnom.’ It was used as a metaphor for where the wicked would be sent. Historically it was the place that children were sacrificed to the Pagan God, Moloch in fire. During Roman occupation, fires we’re kept burning there constantly to dispose of waste and the bodies of criminals from the city. Thus it was heavily associated with fire, there was even Jewish stories that compared it to a ‘lake of fire.’

Hades – The NT equivalent to Sheol – the place of the dead. The grave or the pit. It is distinct from Gehenna as Rev. 20:14 says Hades will be thrown into Gehenna.

Tartatus – The prison of darkness where the wicked will receive punishment and torment. This is only used once in the Bible (2 Peter 2:4) and refers not to people but to fallen Angels.

Its also worth pointing out that the words for everlasting, eternal, and forever – Owlam in the Old Testament and Olon in the New – have two disctint meanings.

They can mean eternal in a forever kind of way; The LORD is Owlam (everlasting) in Gen 21:33 for instance.

They can also mean a finite period of time with a beginning and end. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for Owlam – which was three days and nights.

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There’s enough in these words to suggest that ‘eternal conscious torment’ is an over simplification of the translations of various ‘hell verses’ and left there is lazy exegesis. There are more dynamics and layers to the discussion of hell including the eternal but also the temporal and the earth bound. Rob Bell makes much of this in Love Wins by talking about ‘hell on earth.’

I’m not making mammoth theological conclusions from this other than to say its up in the air enough that we should be talking more graciously about it! We should discuss the various words and meanings in their various contexts. We should all be good exegetes and apply the real meaning of the text rather than just superimposing ‘eternal, conscious torment’ on every passage that mentions hell.

There may be much in the systematic theologies of salvation, judgement and holiness that would lead us to ‘eternal and conscious’ outside the translations of these words – but semantically there is more to it than this and the conversation is not closed.

God is big enough to not fall apart under our conversations and it will be worth it to better understand Him and His word!