Emergent Deconstructionism: Hell

This entry is part 14 of 23 in the series Wolves in Wool

Deconstruction of Hell

Deconstruction is a philosophical idea which fits nicely into post-modern, and consequently emergent, thought processes.  Essentially, deconstruction is the systematic removal of all certainty and propositional truth from a text based on the assumption (loosely) that a text finds its meaning from its readers rather than having a finite and comprehensible intent of its own.  Or, put another way, there is no way to understand a text outside of our own insights.  This is supposedly due to the subtle biases which exist in every society.  Therefore, no text is able to produce a singular, declarative truth outside of a communal consensus which can remove all such biases through continued examination.

While I’m sure my definition is lacking, it is the functional essence of deconstruction in the least, and is seriously problematic to the idea of scripture being an inerrant revelation of God’s truth to mankind.

Deconstruction is at the heart and soul of emergent principles generally.  As adherents to the idea that “absolute truth cannot be grasped,” all that is left is a community-driven exchange of ideas concerning the negotiation of what these truths may be.

Concerning Biblical interpretation, the emergent habits of highlighting narrative theology to the exclusion of systematic thought, coupled with an attitude of deconstructive tendencies lead them to completely eradicate numerous historic doctrines and replace them with kinder, gentler “community-tested” and “post-liberal approved” substitutes.  One such set of doctrine are the biblical doctrines concerning Hell.

There is No Literal Place Called Hell

Being non-literal in their overall translation of scriptures (except in those times when convenient), the chief emergent conclusion regarding Hell is a no-brainer:  there isn’t one.  At least, there is no literal place called Hell, but rather a type of existence which will be observed momentarily.  The deconstruction of this doctrine appears to be one achieved through the use of human logic.  According to leading emergent author, Brian McLaren, the understanding of a literal Hell is logically contrary to the Bible’s teachings concerning the nature of the cross.

This is, one of the huge problems is the traditional understanding of hell. Because if the cross is in line with Jesus’ teaching then—I won’t say, the only, and I certainly won’t say even the primary—but a primary meaning of the cross is that the kingdom of God doesn’t come like the kingdoms of the this world, by inflicting violence and coercing people. But that the kingdom of God comes through suffering and willing, voluntary sacrifice. But in an ironic way, the doctrine of hell basically says, no, that that’s not really true. That in the end, God gets His way through coercion and violence and intimidation and domination, just like every other kingdom does. The cross isn’t the center then. The cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God.
Brian McLaren – Lief Hansen Interview (PodCast)
Podcast:  http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3?www.enteuxis.org/leifh/bleedingpurple21b.mp3
Transcript: http://web.archive.org/web/20070806231227/http://www.understandthetimes.org/mclarentrans.shtml

McLaren’s logic really isn’t all that bad, but is built on his presupposition that “a primary meaning of the cross is that the kingdom of God doesn’t come…by inflicting violence and coercing people.”  Such is typical of a human-centered argument.  McLaren’s sense of injustice in invoked as if the mean old nasty God is forcing people – by threat of Hell – to enter his kingdom (which is itself not true) rather than to understand that a good God is sacrificing his Son to save the nasty people from the justice due them, which is Hell.

All of this rhetoric aside, regardless of McLaren’s attempt at logic, his conclusion is the real problem in light of doctrine.  That conclusion is that there is a “problem” with the “traditional understanding of hell.”  While he is careful not to state the full nature of his understanding of what a “traditional” understanding of Hell is, his argument fills in the blanks.  He understands the idea of a literal and eternal hell to be “false advertising” of his understanding of a God who acts outside of coercion.  What he is not saying is that the “traditional” understanding is so for a good reason.  It is the conclusion which is produced by the use of a literal hermeneutic.

The term “Hell” is, of course, an English term which is and can be misunderstood.  McLaren and Bell have rightly (in separate works) spoken regarding the fact that there is not a singular Greek or Hebrew term that aligns across multiple English translations with the term “Hell.”  [For a systematic (and very non-emergent) study of the biblical terms, see my study entitled “Spiritual Realms” at http://www.returningking.com/?series=17 ] However, speaking specifically of Jesus’ understanding of Hell makes the argument simpler.  Jesus uses the Greek term “Gehenna” as his reference for the afterlife of unbelievers.

Gehenna (or Gei Hinnom) literally means “the Valley of Hinnom.”  The Valley of Hinnom is outside the walls of Jerusalem, along the west side of the wall going down to the southern side, where it meets up with the Kidron Valley which runs along the East side of the city.  Gehenna was Jerusalem’s trash dump in Jesus’ day.  All manner of refuse was thrown there and a fire burned there continually, partly because it was nursed along, and partly because of methane generated from the heap.  Dead bodies also were thrown here, of animals, criminals and others with no proper burial alternatives.  In short, Gehenna was a place of the ongoing destruction of the refuse of Jerusalem. 

Gehenna also had a nasty and well-known history to those which Jesus spoke.  In the Old Testament, the Valley of Hinnom was a place of human sacrifice to Idols.  In such sacrifices, human beings were literally burned to death as sacrifices to pagan gods.  In 2 Kings, Josiah is depicted as purifying the city and the horrors of this valley are noted.

2 Kings 23:10 (NIV)
10 He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice his son or daughter in the fire to Molech.

Contrarily, Ahaz is noted to be one who participated in such brutal ritualistic practices.

2 Chronicles 28:1-3 (NIV)
1 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord. 2 He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and also made cast idols for worshiping the Baals. 3 He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.

§  See also 2 Chronicles 33:6, Isaiah 30:33, Jeremiah 7:31-32

Jesus was the first to use the term Gehenna to refer to the eternal state of the soul.  He is clearly using the name metaphorically to refer to a literal place with very discernable characteristics.  Chief among the characteristics of Jesus’ description of this eternal state for unbelievers is that both the body and the soul are destroyed.

Matthew 10:28 (NIV)
28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

If the body is destroyed along with the soul, then clearly Jesus speaks of a literal place.  He does not speak of a metaphorical “state” of Hell, but rather a place where one can be sent to endure a physical and spiritual destruction.  He further asserts the literal and physical nature of Hell as he states,

Mark 9:43-48 (NIV)
43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where “‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire.

Also clear from Jesus’ use of this term is that it is a place where people are sentenced.  He states in Matthew,

Matthew 23:33 (NIV)
33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

Here, Hell is a place resulting from possible condemnation at a future point in time.  It is also a place which one can escape being condemned to, though it is clear that the teachers Jesus speaks to will not.

Hell’s “traditional” understanding is in fact, one which is arrived at through a proper literal exegesis of scripture.  Jesus’ teachings are not shrouded in some mystical language that only an emergent can understand.  He makes clear and customary use of a metaphor, the burning trash heap of Jerusalem, to represent a literal place of the eternal destruction of the body and the soul of those who are sentenced there.

In the end, perhaps this idea of God’s sentencing of people to Hell is the real issue, rather than a lack of clarity concerning the Bible’s teachings concerning the literality of Hell.

Rob Bell is less cautious in his declaration.  He clearly states his lack of believe in a literal Hell and questions the integrity of the many who believe in such.

I am a bit skeptical of somebody who argues that passionately for a literal hell, why would you be on that side? Like if you are going to pick causes, if you’re literally going to say these are the lines in the sand, I’ve got to know that people are going to burn forever, this is one of the things that you drive your stake in the ground on. I don’t understand that.
Interview with TheOoze.com,  July 13, 2007

For the record, I am a bit skeptical of anyone who rejects biblical teaching of a literal Hell.  Bell’s emergent bubble can be clearly observed by his amusing, and most likely accidental admission, “if you are going to pick causes!”  I have apparently failed to understand that theological causes were up for the “picking.”  Of course, in the emergent culture where theology is group-affirmed, one does “pick” and argue a cause for the lack of faith in the written literality of the scriptures.  Yet, the “traditional” understanding of Hell, like it or not, stems from countless hours of careful exegesis, a literal hermeneutic and the proper interpretation of Jesus’ application of the metaphor “Gehenna” to a literal and physical location.

Bell’s Hell is quite different, not because scripture in unclear, but because of the communal nature of emergent deconstructionism.  Bell sides with the decisions of his community concerning theological matters.  As such, he redefines Hell by “what people mean” when they say the term.

“When people use the word hell, what do they mean? They mean a place, an event, a situation absent of how God desires things to be. Famine, debt, oppression, loneliness, despair, death, slaughter–they are all hell on earth. Jesus’ desire for his followers is that they live in such a way that they bring heaven to earth. What’s disturbing is when people talk more about hell after this life than they do about Hell here and now. As a Christian, I want to do what I can to resist hell coming to earth.” – Velvet Elvis, p. 148

Before answering Bell’s postulate I would like to ask his question again.  “When people use the word hell, what do they mean?”  In all fairness, that was his question.  I do not know who Bell hangs around with, but I can surely assert that the communities I have worked with all understood “hell” to refer to a literal place.  So… whose community is right?  Bell’s or mine?  Obviously the question is without merit.  It means what it means in spite of community collaboration.

Surely we can agree, however, that Hell is a place “absent of how God desires things to be,” but is that a sufficient definition?  Can famine, debt, oppression and loneliness be equated with Jesus’ words, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire?”  If so, then how does one reconcile another name of Hell, “the lake of fire,” in its usages in scripture?

Does Revelation 20 speak of depression and debt?

Revelation 20:12-15 (NIV)
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

In this text, people are “thrown into” this lake of fire.  This lake of fire is called “the second death.”  It is a place which follows the final judgment.  It is a place which all whose names were not written in the book of life were “thrown.”  Surely we are not expected to understand that those who reject God’s sovereign offer of salvation (purchased through McLaren’s cross of “false advertising”) are summoned together at the end of all time to be ceremoniously cast into debt and depression.

Those who claim to love the narrative aspect of scripture should spend more energy putting their own practices to work for them.  It is not only the words of Jesus which give us the “traditional” doctrine(s) of Hell.  It is the whole of the story.  The “story” begins with “the day you eat of it you will surely die.”  The story ends with judgment, rendering all of mankind into a literal Heaven or a literal Hell.  God’s justice demands that sin be paid for.  If he did not make such a demand, he would be no more just than a judge who lets his friends get away with murder. 

Being just- and loving mankind- he sent his Son to willingly offer himself as a substitutionary atonement for the crime of sin.  All have sinned.  All are guilty.  All are subject to judgment because of God’s justice.  Yet, by God’s GRACE, all have been given an opportunity to escape their collision course with their due punishment: by accepting Christ as their redeemer and King, and following him.  This is not only “traditional” theology, it is what the entire narrative of scripture speaks to those who will listen.

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