Healing (a parable)

Leah was getting burned out. She didn't know if she could continue at this pace. The solutions were more draining than the problem.

Leah had a troubled past. Having been abused by her father, rejected and used by other men, and lost a child during pregnancy,  Leah hated what she saw in the mirror. She was caught in a spiral of self-hate and destructive behavior.

At first, Leah thought her friend Tom had some good ideas. She was trying it all:  praying and meditating, journaling, reading self-help books, going out with friends to have fun, even taking a vacation. But she quickly found all of these things draining and it seemed like doing them took more effort than just wallowing in her depression. So to that she returned.

Tom tried to persuade her back into the therapeutic activities, but to no avail. On days she worked, she was like a zombie. On the other days, she never even got out of bed.

One day, while watching TV, Leah saw a story about a local shelter that was for women and children, many of whom were escaping the kind of hurt and pain that had been real in her life. She heard stories of abuse that were worse than her own. Her eyes welled up with tears and her heart with anger. 'No one should have to go through what I have.' But she quickly felt her rage morph into something else, something she couldn't explain at the time...

Leah called Tom and told him that she was going to go volunteer at this shelter. Tom became indignant and expressed his concern.  'There's no way she can go there,' Tom thought. 'It will hit too close to home. The abused women; the children she wasn't able to have. It will only reopen old wounds.' But try as he might, Tom couldn't dissuade her.

After not hearing from Leah for weeks, Tom was beyond worried.  He called and stopped by, but she was never home. Finally, Tom saw Leah at a local coffee shop. He didn't recognize her at first. She was sitting, talking to a younger woman. Leah's face had a vitality to it that Tom had not seen for some time. Her eyes were bright. Her frown and lackadaisical demeanor had turned into an attentive posture, focused intently on this young woman.

Finally, they made eye contact. "Tom!" Leah exclaimed. "Excuse me a second," she said to the other woman as she got up and ran to hug him.

"Leah, I've been so worried about you," Tom said in a hushed voice. "I haven't been able to contact you. I was concerned about what you were getting into. You need to be focusing on yourself right now."

Leah straightened and looked at him, not quite smiling. "But I was, Tom," she said. "I was deep within that dark place. I'm not going back."


"For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." 
- Matthew 16:25


Guest Post: "Please Stop Serving!"

For my first guest post, I'm pleased to share a piece from Wendy McCaig, founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond, whose mission is "to strengthen under-resourced communities by empowering community-based leaders and engaging people of faith in works of service."

Guest posts are for the purpose of sparking discussion and hearing from diverse viewpoints on topics that interest me, and do not necessarily reflect my own views.


Today we participated in a wonderful community day event that was hosted by Richmond City Police Chief Norwood’s Faith Leaders Roundtable. Congregations, faith based groups and non-profits banded together to bring resources, food and fellowship into the Hillside Court community. I love seeing the body of Christ working together!

This morning I asked my daughter to bring her camera and take pictures at the event. When we arrived, there was a long line of little children wanting to get their faces painted. Since Caitlin is a far better face painter than I am, I offered to do the pictures. Caitlin has a very nice, sophisticated camera. I took the camera and I got some great shots. I got kids hula hooping, blowing bubbles, and playing basketball. I even got 65 year old Lois playing soccer with 64 year old Mildred, who by the way was wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. It was a great photo opportunity and I was so glad I had the camera so I could capture that moment!

I got home and could not wait to see all my pictures. I asked Caitlin to pull the pictures up and my stomach fell to the floor when she said, “Mom, you had the camera on “manual” setting and you should have had it set for the sunshine.” Needless to say, all my pictures were completely washed out. My daughter then asked me, “Why didn’t you ask me to show you how to use it?” The answer was of course that, “I thought I knew how to do it.” I take great pictures, like the one above, with my iPhone and I thought it was the same thing. I was very wrong.

All across this country, the church is emerging from its walls and is becoming a force for change. This week I read an article in Leadership Network’s newsletter about a movement in Denver that has mobilized dozens of congregations and is transforming lives and communities. The brilliance of this movement in Denver was its simplicity. Mayor Bob Frie sparked this movement when he shared with a group of faith leaders that the social issues facing their community would be drastically reduced if we could just learn how to become a community of great neighbors.

According to the Leadership Network article,
“After hearing from Frie, the pastors realized that their mayor had just invited them to get their people to actually live out the second half of the Great Commandment. Fueled by Frie’s comment, the pastors launched the “Building Blocks” initiative. Their goal is to challenge and equip the people in their churches to be intentional about building relationships with their neighbors. The goal is to see people move from strangers to friends. To accomplish this they have asked people to commit to two things: first, learning the names in eight households closest to theirs and second, partnering to throw a great block party.”

Today, the faith leaders in Richmond threw a great block party for the residents of Hillside Court! However, for this effort to grow into a community of great neighbors, we have some work to do. First, we are going to have to live out the second half of the Denver challenge and learn the names of our neighbors.

I will confess, I am really bad with names. I met dozens of new people today but can only remember Lenny the construction guy, Jay the basketball player and Diante the facepainter. I would give myself a D- in the “great neighboring” challenge.

Last weekend Jay Van Groningen, from Communities First, taught us that a “good neighbor” takes care of their own property and looks out for the neighbors immediately around them. However, a “great neighbor” is someone who cares for the condition of the entire community – someone who knows everyone’s name and brings them together to address the issues facing the community. When I think of “great neighbors,” I think of Mrs. Mildred, Patrice, Mrs. Debra and Windell who are all residents of Hillside Court who make a point of getting to know their neighbors and who are working toward making Hillside a better place.

Being a great neighbor sounds like an easy thing. Just like taking a few photos sounded like an easy task this morning. Taking pictures would have been a very easy task for my daughter, because she knows her equipment. I realized after listening to Jay and watching my Hillside friends that in order to be a truly great neighbor, you have to actually know your neighbors. To truly know your neighbor you have to actually live in the neighborhood.

No matter how hard I try, I will never be a “great neighbor” to my friends in Hillside because I do not live there. The best I can hope for is to be a “good friend” who empowers them to be “great neighbors.” Jay taught us all that our role as outsiders is to lead by stepping back. Our job is to harvest and harness the gifts, talents, hopes and dreams of a community and empower community leaders to do all they can with what they have. In other words, we can help the neighbors become great, but we cannot do it for them.

I love Leadership Network’s emphasis on “externally focused churches.” I am excited about the missional church movement’s emphasis on being the body of Christ in the world and I agree with Eric Swanson who sees these trends as a movement of God. However, I am not sure that everyone who is embracing missional church language or who sees their church as “externally focused” really understands that this movement is a movement toward becoming a community of great neighbors.

The goal of the Denver movement was not to “build church membership.” They did not go into the community and “extract” people out of the community to attend church meetings or programs. The congregants left the church to offer themselves to the community as “great neighbors.” There was a releasing that took place. For me the missional church movement is not about “growing the church,” it is about loving our neighbors. In order for that to happen we have to take the focus off the “church” and put it on the “community.”

It is equally important to distinguish between “neighboring” and “serving.” In the side bar of the Leadership Network newsletter there was an article promoting the missional church momement that read, “More churches are pioneering a shift toward community service”. Is community service really the goal here? Is it the same thing as developing a community of great neighbors?

Many of the church groups that came out to Hillside today were there because their pastor encouraged them to come today and “serve the community.” My daughter and her friends were there to do “community service.” Community Service is a good thing but I think we are missing something if we see it as the same thing as “neighboring.”

I watched some of these “service” groups. They tended to stick together, they did their part and they all worked hard. Some cooked, some shared information about their church, some danced and others shared spiritual messages. However, I am not sure they could tell you the names of eight people who live in Hillside court, their gifts or their dreams.

I do not fault people for seeing the goal of today as “community service” or “church recruitment.” We have all heard countless sermons on the importance of “serving” but how many sermons have we heard about “neighboring?” We have all heard hundreds of sermons instructing us to invite people to church, but how many sermons have you heard encouraging us to stay home and hang out with our neighbors?

When my daughter handed me that camera this morning, we both assumed I knew what I was doing. Similarly, I think many church leaders who hear “missional church” language, think they know how to engage in under-resourced communities. I see many well-meaning churches take to the streets to “serve” with the goal of being more missional and often with a hidden agenda to “recruit” church members.

They have overlaid onto community development efforts older paradigms of evangelization and mission. Just like I thought I could operate my daughters camera with the same expertise it takes to operate my iPhone camera, many churches think they can do community development in the same way they have always operated as a church. However, neighboring is a complete paradigm shift for most “service” oriented church groups and most churches offer little or no training to their church members.

Many churches have adopted “missional” language but I wonder how many see the goal as shaping their congregants into a community of great neighbors. I am very thankful that last week Jay Van Groningen was able to come to Richmond and provide us with this type of training. As the Richmond affiliate of Community First Association, Embrace Richmond will begin providing this training to local congregations and faith based groups who are interested in doing more than “serve” the community but who have the desire to shape a community of great neighbors.

So, stop serving and start neighboring!


Wendy McCaig is the founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond.  Wendy blogs at wendymccaig.com.

This guest post in its original location:  http://wendymccaig.com/2011/06/19/please-stop-serving/

If you are interested in submitting a piece, please visit the Guest Posts section.


Don't Say That in Church, Johnny

Like perhaps some of you, I grew up learning that church was "God's house."

Some of us kids could be found laughing or running, maybe someone had just flung a booger, or maybe my friend David had just gotten put in the closet by our Royal Ambassadors leader for talking (yeah, he actually put people in the closet).  Whenever an adult reminded us that we were in God's house, many of us would get this pitiful, momentary look of guilt on our face as if to say, "Oh yeah, that big guy in the sky is watching."

But this isn't just something you hear in the children's wing.  I occasionally hear it said between two adults:  "Don't say/do that; you're in church!"

I'm going to let you in on a little secret:  it irks pastors when people say that.  Of course, I do appreciate the sentiment, and you can't knock the effort to be respectful in church.  But it bothers me every time I hear it, and there are two reasons:

First, it often represents a reduction of Christian morality to the trivial.  You may have heard the old, humorous summary of Southern Baptist morality:  "Don't smoke, drink or chew, and don't go with girls who do."  I'll be in social situations where people will use profanity or crude humor, and upon realizing that I'm present or that I'm a minister, they apologize.  I don't care!  OK, I'd prefer my kids don't learn it, but I could care less about trivial morality and silly vices.  Cuss all you want to.  I occasionally use it in private myself.  The writers of the Bible were interested in a much higher, more consequential view of morality.  These concerns about language, movie ratings, gambling, etc. are more a product of modern sensibilities than a serious discussion of biblical morality.  When looking at the Bible as a whole, its two greatest concerns - by far - are idolatry (Exodus 20:22-23; Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 2 Kings 21:1-16, Romans 1:21-22; etc.) and injustice (Exodus 23:1-9; Leviticus 19:15-18; Isaiah 1:16-23, 10:1-2; Amos 5:21-24; Matthew 23:23; James 1:27; etc.).  Much of the Bible would suggest that it's more of a sin to be a pew-warmer than it is not to know the rules of etiquette of your local congregation.

But the second reason that cleaning up ones act for church bothers me is because it implies that faith only claims a small corner of our lives.  I often want to say, "Does God only watch when you're in church?" God's claim on our lives is all-encompassing (Deut 11:18-20; Luke 9:23-26).  Part of me would rather have it the opposite way:  I'd rather people show their bad side in church and lead by example in the rest of their lives.  God has called us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt 5:13-16).  As in some of the examples above, scripture says repeatedly that God has no interest in our ceremonial religion if it doesn't manifest itself in transformed living every day.

And this is part of what it means to be "missional."  We must see God and faith not as one item on a list of things we do but as the center and driving force of everything we do.  "Church" is the people (Greek: ekklesia, "the ones called out").  As such, "church" may or may not happen on Sunday morning, and it's not a place you go.  It's who you are, and why you are.  "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matt 18:20).  How we behave "in church" is of little consequence other than perhaps social standing or avoiding being grounded for the week.  The question is, what does it mean for you and I to be the people of God at our jobs?  With our family?  As we raise our children?  As we schedule and prioritize and budget?  As we go through the check-out line?  As we go to the voting booth?  Does my faith inhabit an isolated corner or does it inform each aspect of my life?

The God who watches and smites whenever a careless word is spoken in "His house" ... that God is too small.  God's claim on our lives is all-encompassing.  Remember that song, "He's got the whole world in His hands."  God wants to use you and I to redeem that whole world, displaying God's love and grace wherever we are.

Where do you see God in your daily life?  Is there a part of your life that's hard to connect with your faith?  In what way?


Read the Book, People: My commentary on Rob Bell

From 2007 to 2010, LifeWay Christian Stores (the bookstore of the Southern Baptist Convention) put warning labels on books written by authors like Rob Bell.  The labels said that these books should be "read with discernment" (because, obviously, other books can be read with blind acceptance).  The reason given on these warnings labels was that the author "may have espoused thoughts, ideas, or concepts that could be considered inconsistent with historical evangelical theology."

Rob Bell just published a controversial new book called Love Wins.

Here's the big question:  Does the book represent views that are inconsistent with historical evangelical theology?


Does the book represent views that are inconsistent with the Bible?


Key difference.

I'm told that some pastors have gotten fired for entering this fray.  One Methodist pastor says he was fired for recommending that people read Bell's book.  So you need know is that I'm supposedly risking my job by reading and responding to a controversial book that few opponents have read and in which Rob Bell says nothing new in terms of the history of theology.  What a farce this whole thing has become.

If you need to catch up, I hesitatingly would point you to the TIME magazine article where Rob's book is featured.  It will explain the controversy, but I hesitate because even the title of the article is a clear attempt to get ratings and already gets it wrong: "What if Hell Doesn't Exist?"  Rob's book is about much more than hell, with only one chapter dedicated to the subject.  Strangely, "hell" has gotten the most press.  Rob raises just as many questions about traditional views of heaven.  But apparently, the most important thing to Rob's opponents is that their understanding of hell stays in tact.

I'm not going to summarize or "give away" this book.  I'm tired of the hot air from people who haven't read it.  Go read the book.  God is a little too much like a power-hungry, low-self esteem bully if He's threatened by your reading different perspectives.  But I will offer some straight answers to some straight questions:

Does Rob Bell say that hell isn't real?  NO.  He challenges the modern notions of hell, and does so using the Bible, but he never says or suggests that it's not a very real thing.

Is Rob Bell a universalist?  NO.  He makes it very clear multiple times in his book that people can choose hell.  As he has rightly pointed out in interviews, universalism takes away human choice.  Or, as I like to say it, universalism is just Calvinism with one less destination.

In fact, before I move on, let me just allow Rob Bell to speak for himself in this awesome 40-second response he gave:

Two full disclosures:  1) I like Rob Bell.  I have read all his books and watched all his videos, and more often than not, I connect with what he says and how he thinks.  2) I'm not his press agent, and I will say that Love Wins is not his best piece of writing and that I did find some things in there to be a stretch.  I did not fully agree with his perspective in the book.  But what I'm more interested in is this fascinating phenomenon of Christian outcry against a book with the title Love Wins and this reaction to a challenge of their thinking.  For Christians to read in their Bible verses like, "God is love," and then become irate with charges of heresy against a book that says "love wins" is comical at best and troubling at worst.  Even a reviewer for Christianity Today, a conservative evangelical publication, applauded Bell for the assertion that "love wins."  And even a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who wrote Christ Alone: An evangelical response to Rob Bell's Love Wins, says that he likes and respects Rob Bell and thinks he raises very important questions.

Here are the two major things that have gotten Rob Bell in trouble.

1) He asks questions that millions of Christians are thinking but are afraid to ask in public (because they are afraid of how their families, friends and pastors will react...fears that are apparently founded).  In this day and age, we come across people of other religions every day.  They're often average people like us.  They're often  loving, generous and sincere people.  More and more Christians, especially young ones, are becoming less and less able to accept the idea that such people will suffer forever for not believing the right things.  It eats away at any sense of justice we have.  Millions are thinking and asking, and many have been met with a response that more or less says, "You can't question this."  Rob Bell voices this and many other questions that come to mind:  Is there an age of accountability before which no one is consigned to hell?  If so, wouldn't it be more merciful to kill children before they grow up and not take the risk??  What if a "missionary gets a flat tire" (that is, what about people who never hear about Jesus)?  What about people who grew up with a dysfunctional, judgmental view of Christianity and have simply rejected the only version they know?  What about people who act and live the way Jesus told us to but just can't intellectually bring themselves to believe in the supernatural?  In fact, the entire first chapter is almost completely filled with questions....questions millions are asking.

2) He very honestly deals what the Bible actually says - and doesn't say - about heaven and hell.  Even then, he only does a partial job of it, leaving out some important related concepts.  What DOES the Bible say? Answering this question requires some in-depth analysis that not everyone may be interested in, so I have reserved this for a separate blog post.

But I'd like to raise my own third point that Rob doesn't really get to in the book.  Some people say they ardently believe in hell...but do they?

In traditional Christian doctrine, the most prominent version of hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment for those who did not believe in Jesus during their earthly life.  Eternal, conscious torment with no way out.  First of all, we need to stop and realize what a terrifying, awful thing that image is.  People have undergone physical torture and not lasted a full minute.  We're talking about something that's worse than that and lasts forever?

I'm calling foul; I don't think people actually believe this.  Our priorities and behavior reveal what we actually believe, regardless of what we say.  If I say I believe a chair will hold me up but I won't sit in it, that's pretty good evidence that I don't actually believe it.  And people who are the most ardent about their belief in a place of eternal, conscious torment can often be found living their lives much in the same way as everyone else.  They're doing house projects, they're going to baseball games, they're taking vacations.  But if you actually believed in a place of eternal, conscious torment for any non-Christian, you would spend every waking hour - you might even use manipulation - to keep your friends and family out of eternal, conscious torment.  An online reviewer very aptly articulated it this way:
"It is easy to speak of all this theoretically, but our lifestyles give us away. If we really believed in the 'hell of Jonathan Edwards,' how could we live like we do knowing that our neighbors and millions of people we know and don't know will suffer burning napalm for eternity? Wouldn't every waking minute be devoted to 'pulling them back from the brink?' Wouldn't every spare dime above our bare bones needs for simple existence be given for the purpose of "saving the lost" before they are thrown into torment forever? I dare say that a pastor, or seminary professor will not be so quick to comfort a family member, who has lost a rebellious 14 year old daughter before she 'accepted Jesus into her heart,' with the words that a God of unchanging love is demonstrating His goodness to your deceased child right now by allowing her to be tormented in the flames of hell...and this demonstration of love will continue on forever."
So is it just our modern sensibilities that have led some to question traditional doctrines and be O.K. with the kinds of questions that Rob Bell raises?  No, there's another very important thing that raises all kinds of questions about how we think today.

The Bible. 

That's what makes the response to this so amazing.  Pastors have gotten into trouble for wrestling with the text as it is instead of how we've interpreted it?  Pastors have found themselves on the firing line for leaving space for the questions many people are asking?  Pastors have been terminated for merely suggesting that people should read a book before criticizing it?  I actually find it hard to believe.  I've told myself that some of these pastors must have gone about it in the wrong way or caused more controversy than needed.  But maybe not.  Maybe some churches really are that isolated and anti-intellectual.  If any other organziation or group in society behaved that way, they would be closing their doors within the year.  But because it's religion, it gets a pass, and massive amounts of money are pumped into individuals and organizations that are on a mission to squelch anyone who is so much as rumored to have challenged "historical evangelical theology."  Critics charge them with doing so out of a concern for modern sensibilities, but they are actually heavily engaged with the Bible and challenge modern thought on the basis of the Bible.

If you're up for an in-depth Bible study and a look at what the Bible does and does not say about hell, see my corresponding post entitled "Where's the Fire?:  A survey of the concept of hell in the Bible."

Where's The Fire?: A survey of the concept of hell in the Bible

Prompted by Rob Bell's recent book and the controversy around it, this is a study of the concept hell in the Bible.  Prepare for stark contrasts with modern thought.  Interestingly, there's just one chapter on hell in Rob's book, with a few brief mentions elsewhere.  But apparently, this is what got people's attention.  I felt that Rob's treatment of the topic was OK but incomplete.  This post is strictly a study of the biblical text; if you're interested in my commentary on Rob Bell's book, I have written a separate post for that.

In the interest of length and focus, this post is only about the concept of hell.  If readers express enough interest, I will write a separate one on the Bible and heaven (a more complicated topic).

So...hell.  What DOES the Bible say?  Most readers will be surprised.

What does the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) say about hell?  Nothing.  Zippo.  The closest you get is the Hebrew word sheol, which in ancient Judaism was the realm of the dead where everyone went.  It is improperly translated "hell" in the King James Version.  There's debate about whether it was considered an actual place, but either way, it was "the destiny of every man" (Ecclesiastes 7:2, 9:10).   There was a place of "fire" and "burning" known as the Valley of Hinnom, but I will get to that in a moment.

In the New Testament, there are two primary words that translated as "hell."  The first, hades, means "unseen" and is essentially the Greek version of the Hebrew sheol (hades was also a god in mythology).  Hades is the word used in Matthew 11:23, 16:18, Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; and Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13-14.  English translations vary in how they translate the word, and it's not always consistent within one translation.  Sometimes it is left untranslated as "Hades," other times "the realm of the dead," and rarely (inaccurately) "hell."  It is clear in these passages that hades is not hell as we think of it.  For example, Jesus uses hades in a parable in Luke 16:19-31.  Yes, Jesus refers to a rich man who is there being tormented, but Abraham is there too, along with a poor beggar named Lazarus.  It's just that there's a "great chasm" between them.  Jesus refers to the man being in a "fire" and needing a drink of water.  Sounds like how we think of hell, right?  Yes, but look more closely.  First, it's a parable.  Like any other parable, it's meant to be taken figuratively and the lesson of the story is what's important, not the details.  But more importantly, even if one insists that it's about heaven vs. hell, why is the rich man there (or, for that matter, how is he able to talk to Abraham)?  Read the story.  The only reason given for the rich man being "in torment" is that he received "good things" in life and was rich, while Lazarus received "bad things" and was poor.  Jesus paints a picture of reversed circumstances in the next life, the last being first (and had very few favorable words for the rich).  But we see most clearly that hades is something different from hell in Revelation 20:13-14, where hades itself is thrown into the "lake of fire."  Death itself being destroyed.

The other word in the Greek New Testament is gehenna.  Gehenna was an actual, geographical location, a valley south of Jerusalem.  The same location is referred to in the Old Testament as "the Valley of the son of Hinnom" which is supposedly the site where practitioners of pagan religions in the region sacrificed their children by fire.  In fact, it apparently gained quite the bad reputation as a place of destruction and evil (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-32).  There's a lot of scholarly debate centered around this.  There's no question that Gehenna was the name of a physical location that doubled as a metaphor for destruction and fire, but some think it was the "city dump" where trash and even carcasses were burned (Rob Bell unquestioningly assumes this).  There are passages in Nehemiah that talk about a "dung gate" of the second temple, and Jeremiah 19:2 mentions a "potsherd gate" that faced the valley (pottery was commonly broken and thrown out, and archaeologists have uncovered lots of potsherds in the area).  There's no direct evidence that it was used for this during Jesus' day.  But if it was such a place of burning, it probably would have had an "unquenchable fire" that burned all the time, and if you got far enough outside Jerusalem, one could imagine wild animals fighting for scraps of food and gnashing their teeth together as they did.  Sound familiar?  However, none of the 7 instances in which Jesus uses the phrase "gnashing of teeth" (Matt 8:12, 13:42, 50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30; and Luke 13:28) is used in conjunction with a reference to gehenna.  At any rate, all instances of the word gehenna, except for one in James, are found in the gospels on the lips of Jesus.  It is the word used in Matt 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33;  Mark 9:43-47;  Luke 12:5; and James 3:6. Jesus was very fond of metaphors and figurative speech:  weeds, sheep, salt, light, harvest, sword.  His teaching was highly image-based.  He used hyperbole and pulled out all the stops to shock his listeners and get his point across.  His Jewish audience knew about Gehenna (and he was not the first to use it in this way).  It was a cursed place.  It had a horrible reputation and history, and was just no place to hang out.  Gehenna.  What a powerful image and metaphor to describe where the destructive forces in our lives belong (Mark 9:43-47) and what it's like to be separated from God.

Funny enough, the closest you can get to the modern notion of hell is the word tartarus which is used once in an obscure verse in 2 Peter 2:4, a verse seldom read or mentioned.  Tartarus comes from Greek mythology and was a dark, gloomy dungeon of punishment and torture below the underworld.  But in this verse from 2 Peter and in the thought of Hellenistic Christians, it was a place where angels were sent for sinning, not humans.  (There's also an apparent reference to this in Jude 1:6 without the use of the actual word).

Paul, the reported author of 13 New Testament books and from whom Christians derive much of their theology, never mentions hell.  He mentions judgment, Christ's return, etc., but never hell.  He mentions salvation, but the only thing in his writings that is given as its alternative is "death."  There is, however, an intriguing idea that appears in his letters:  handing someone over to Satan.  1 Timothy 1:19-20: "holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme."  And in 1 Corinthians 5:5:  "hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord."  Clearly, whatever it means to hand someone over to Satan, Paul saw it as a temporary act that would result in correction and restoration.

The gospel of John never mentions hell.  The closest you get is verses like John 3:16 with the word apoletai, which is often translated "perish."  Apoletai was a commonly used word that referred to a finite end or a complete destruction (not the persistence of something in another state or place).

One other word that is never translated "hell" but needs mention is the Greek word abusson.  It's usually translated "abyss" and occurs 9 times in the New Testament:  once in Luke 8:31, once in Romans 10:7, and the other 7 are in Revelation (Rev 9:1-2, 11, 11:7, 17:8, 20:1-3).  The word refers to something "bottomless" and was originally synonymous with the sea/ocean (remember folks: no scuba equipment, no sonars.  As far as they knew, there was no bottom).  But as all concepts do, it developed, and that bottomless pit of the sea came to be known as the abode of Satan and his demons...and no one else.  As with tartarus, there is never a mention of a human going there (other than Jesus in Romans 10:6-7, but Paul seems to be addressing some kind of false thinking, implying that Jesus did not actually go there).

There are other passages in the Bible that seem to refer to "hell" in some way without using any of the above words; I am only going to look at a few.  At the end of Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), he says that the goats will go away to kolasin aionion; literally, "a correction/punishment age" (Matt 25:46.  The sheep go to zoen aionion - "a life age."  Maybe I will have to write that blog about heaven...).  English translations use the word "eternal" for aionion but that can be somewhat misleading.  We think of time in a linear fashion, which means that, for us, "eternity" goes on with no end, is necessarily in the future, and is kind of like "infinity" in mathematics.  But there's a technical difference:  it means "perpetual," and it didn't necessarily refer to the future (e.g., Rom 16:25).  Some Koine Greek scholars say that there was no such concept as "never-ending."  The point is that it's a very nuanced word that's hard for us Westerners to grasp.  The other word, kolasin, is said to have originated as a gardening term, referring to pruning and trimming.  And why do we prune and trim plants?  So that they can grow and flourish (remember Paul giving people over to Satan?).  Why do we punish children?  To correct their behavior.  We find something similar in Jude 1:7, this time with a puros aionion, an age of fire.  In Revelation 20:15, we read about a "lake of fire" where everyone whose name is not written in the book of life is thrown.  But remember, this is also where hades, death, is going to be destroyed.....not tormented.  And this comes after "each person was judged according to what they had done" (Rev 20:13).

...according to what they had done?  This leads me to a final point.  But first, let's summarize:  No mention of hell in the Old Testament, only the realm of all dead, which is also what hades refers to in the New Testament.  Gehenna was an actual place used as a metaphor.  No mention of it in Paul's writings or the gospel of John.  Tartarus and abusson were mysterious, bad places but were not for humans.  The New Testament sparsely mentions an "age of punishment" or an "age of fire."  But now, all these things - along with gehenna - were reserved for.....whom?

So far, we've explored the words and images used that gave rise to modern notions of "hell," and you should have seen by now that things have morphed quite a bit.  But there's something I haven't fully mentioned yet that is possibly the most jolting and shocking of all when compared to traditional, orthodox Christianity.

Gehenna, fire, punishment:  who were these things for?  Who was threatened with these things?  God's judgment is a very prominent theme throughout scripture.  But who is it for?

If you were to go back and read all the aforementioned passages in context to see who was being threatened with "hell" or who was in danger of judgment, here's the list you would come up with:

Pharisees (i.e., religious leaders; the "in" guys), children of the kingdom, hypocrites
Wicked, unrepentant towns (compared to Sodom and Gomorrah)
Rich people who don't share
People who insult others and rage in anger
People whose eyes and hands "cause them to stumble"
"Everything that causes sin and all who do evil"
"Lazy servants"
People who don't tame their tongue
Those who practice sexual immorality and perversion
Those who fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.

There are other passages not mentioned yet that list off things or kinds of people who "will not inherit the kingdom."  Paul has lists that include adulterers, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers, the arrogant, and the unmerciful.  Jesus said those who "do not become like children" will not "enter the kingdom."

Wait a minute.  Isn't something missing here?  I thought people were eternally punished for not believing the right things; for not being a part of the right religion?  Where is that?

Is Rob Bell a heretic who just wants to smooth over parts of the Bible that people don't like, or does the Bible itself cast more doubt on the issue than even Rob Bell does?

You decide.