Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rob Bell, Hell & Heaven in First Century Judaism

This thought has bugged me for a while, but I am not an expert on Second Temple Judaism so I didn't have the time to track down the sources. Rob Bell misrepresents Second Temple Judaism's view of hell. Dr. Preston Sprinkle covers it well in a balanced but brief essay that is worth your time.

His major question:

[D]oes Rob consistently follow his own bent towards situating the NT in its Jewish context in his defense of the doctrine of Hell? 
No. No he doesn’t. He’s actually being very inconsistent to his own love for Judaism. Early Jewish literature around the time of the NT unashamedly spoke of an eternal hell, where there would be on-going punishment for the damned (those who rejected the God of Israel). And let me tell you, their descriptions of hell would make your toes curl! [emphasis original]

Here are a couple of the sources cited:

Just a few passages will suffice. A book called 1 Enoch (about 100 B.C.), a book that Jude quotes, speaks extensively about this place of torment for the damned (25:4-5; 27:3-4; 54:6; 90:24-27). Those who reject God will go to “the place of condemnation…into an abyss, full of fire and flame” (90:24).
Another book called Pseudo-Philo, written in Palestine right around the time of Jesus and Paul, speaks explicitly about a hell (16:3; 23:6; 31:7; 38:4). It’s a place where the “fiery worm will go up into the tongue” of the unbeliever and “rot him away” in the “dwelling place…in the inextinguishable fire forever” (63:4).
Two other books, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, written near the end of the first-century (right around the time of Revelation) also describe an eternal place of torment for the damned (2 Bar 30:4-5; 44:15; 51:6; 54:14, 21-22; 4 Ezra 7:35-36, 45-51). And for 4 Ezra, most of humanity will be here! “I see that the world to come will bring delight to few, but torments to many” (7:47).

He concludes: "But Rob—while I appreciate much about your ministry and affirm many (or some) things in your book—you can’t have your cake and eat it too! The traditional doctrine of hell correlates perfectly with its Jewish (not 20th century Christian fundamentalist!) context." (HT: Denny Burk)

I've written about the issues of heaven and hell a little bit before in First Century Judaism particularly as it relates to some of the Emerging Church or other "new" conceptions of the issues. The problem, it seems to me is that too many love to throw out the words "First Century Judaism" but have done little or no investigation.

This is also true when it comes to heaven. Most of the popular level writers, so far as I can see, are correct when they talk about the eschatological hope of the "age to come" and that eschatology worked itself into history with God's inbreaking. They are correct to deny that the central Jewish hope was not disembodied existence. They are wrong if/when they say that the first Christians or Jewish did not believe in heaven. (So far as I recall, Rob Bell does not deny heaven). Second Temple Judaism did believe in heaven as the throne room of God. They did believe that ascensions into heaven could be made and that it was in some sense "spatial." Moreover, Christians believe Jesus ascended into heaven and thus heaven is a "place" where Jesus now dwells bodily. It was not Greek or Gnostic dualism where one shed the flesh to become the spiritual, and contemporary writers are right when they stand against that eschatology (as long as one doesn't deny an intermediate state). The final hope is indeed not disembodied existence but resurrection life and heaven itself descending in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Sadly, sometimes this has lead though to fuzzy articulations of heaven ('it's not a place at all but a reality now that has descended'). Heaven still is "somewhere" and that fact that a resurrected body went into heaven means that something with "three-dimension" is quite "literally" sitting in heaven. 

There is a lot of bad 21st century "fundamentalist/escapist" eschatology out there that needs to be rejected. A person is right to hold to an inaugurated eschatology. But lets not forget that part of the inauguration of the kingdom is Christ reigning bodily from a "place" called heaven that is the throne room that God created for Himself and where the locus of his glory resides. (see my conclusion to a series on heaven that I wrote a couple of years ago: "Heaven in a Worldview")

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