Rob Bell’s co-teaching pastor has broken his silence with some measure of support for his colleague’s controversial book, Love Wins. In a recent blog post on his newly updated site, Shane Hipps, teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, has a very interesting take on the issue of heaven, hell, and the fate of everyone who ever lived.
The blog post is fairly short (just over 700 words) and can be read here. Nevertheless, allow me to summarize the main point of his argument: Believing is not the same thing as knowing. Knowing only comes from personal experience. So this whole discussion about the afterlife is somewhat useless since none of us have really experienced it. He goes on to argue that the only person who can speak authoritatively on heaven and hell is someone who has actually experienced it:
“Now having said this, I only know* one person who died, and I mean really died, like three days dead, and came back to life again. His name was Jesus. Upon his return from the dead, he didn’t believe anymore, now he knew. So if I wanted some indication about what happens after I die I should probably pay attention to what he said after he came back from the dead.”
So Jesus is the only one who can speak definitively about heaven and hell since he is the only one who truly “knew” (read: experienced) the afterlife. Once Jesus emerged from the grave, according to Hipps’ understanding, he now has the ability to speak to what the afterlife is truly like. However, Hipps sees Jesus’ silence on the issue speaking volumes:
“Here’s what he said about heaven and hell after his resurrection. Nothing. Nada. Zip.”
Since Jesus didn’t talk about heaven and hell in his post-resurrection accounts that means, according to Hipps, that those things were not important to him. Hipps’ line of reasoning would have his readers believe that the Jesus who spoke about the dangers of hell on many occasions during his earthly life had been drastically rehabilitated. One gets the impression from Hipps that Jesus was thoroughly mistaken in his understanding of hell before his death and that three days in a cool, dark tomb brought clarity to this thoughts. Not only that, we too, taking our cue from Jesus should be agnostic about the issue and get on with this present life since, like Jesus, he wasn’t so much concerned with the life to come.
While there is much to discuss with Hipps’ proposal I would like to reflect on two points in response regarding his method in interpreting Jesus’ words.
What Jesus Didn’t Say
Hipps seems to suggest that there should be a greater weight to Jesus’ post-resurrection words than on his pre-crucifixion words because his knowledge progressed with his experience. The argument is something like, If Jesus didn’t say it after he died and came back to life it isn’t as important because he knows more now. However, there are many errors with this fallacious argument from silence. If Jesus’ lack of instruction equates to lack of importance then it is interesting to notice some of the other things Jesus didn’t say in his post-resurrected state. For example, Jesus does not give any instructions about giving to the poor and needy after his resurrection. Similarly, Jesus does not mention a single parable of the kingdom in his resurrected state. In fact, Jesus’ greatest ethical command during his earthly ministry – to love God and love others – is completely absent from any of his post-resurrected words. Following Hipps’ logic, that would mean the Great Commandment simply isn’t important to Jesus.
Hipps does provide a selective list of things Jesus said after his resurrection. However, there are some words of Jesus that strangely didn’t make Hipps’ list, namely “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46–47 ESV emphasis added). Also absent from Hipps’ list are the post-resurrection words of Jesus that are most damning to his argument: “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29 Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:28–29 emphasis added). Jesus singles out for particular blessing those who have believed without seeing [experiencing?]. It is immediately after these words that John provides his purpose statement for his gospel: “… these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31 emphasis added). There are relatively few words of Jesus given after his resurrection and Hipps manages to avoid mentioning the ones that stress repentance and faith in Christ.
Hipps’ attempt to build a theology of Jesus’ teaching based heavily on what he did not say after the resurrection over against what he said before his crucifixion is very problematic. In other words, Hipps postulates that the multiple warnings of hell given by Jesus in three years before his death mean nothing if he didn’t explicitly mention hell in the six weeks after coming back to life. It is an arbitrary hermeneutic that relativizes a majority of Jesus’ teachings and trivializes his pre-crucifixion words.
What Jesus Did Say
If, as Hipps proposes, there is a greater authority to Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching because the extent of his knowledge on the subject matter had increased, then surely even more importance must be given to his post-ascension words. Some people think of Jesus merely in terms of his earthly life. It is often overlooked that the New Testament also records statements by Jesus given after his ascension and glorification. In other words, not all of Jesus’ words came during his time on earth. For instance, Jesus appeared and spoke to Paul after his ascension on multiple occasions (cf. Acts 9:1–9; Acts 18:9–11; Acts 22:17–21; Acts 23:6–11; 2 Cor 12:1–10). It is interesting to see Jesus’ instruction regarding Paul’s purpose in life:
“And [Paul] said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me’” (Acts 26:15–18 emphasis added).
Apparently, the ascended Jesus is greatly concerned that people turn from darkness and Satan to faith in God. The concept of universal salvation can hardly be gleaned from Jesus’ words to Paul in these verses. And this is substantive given Jesus’ exalted status when these words were given.
Jesus not only spoke to Paul but also spoke to Ananias after his ascension (cf. Acts 9:10–16). Jesus spoke to Peter after his ascension as well (cf. Acts 10:1–16). Additionally, Jesus personally spoke many words to John after his glorification in the book of Revelation. Consider for example the very words of Jesus in his appearance to John where Jesus describes events that are clearly in the future (Rev 1). Furthermore, consider the words of Jesus given through John to the angels of the seven churches in Asia (Rev 2–3). What did Jesus say in those passages? He seems to talk a lot about the danger of false teachers and false apostles (Rev 2:14–15; 2:19–25) and implores the majority of those churches to “repent” (Rev 2:5, 16, 21–22; 3:3, 19). There are even warnings of drastic consequences for denying him, one of which includes Jesus coming to make war with those that do (Rev 2:16)! Those who “conquer” are given life, will not be hurt by the “second death” (Rev 2:11), and will not be “blotted out” of the “book of life” (Rev 3:5). All of which thereby implies that those who do not conquer are offered no such recourse.
May I remind the reader that these are not the words of the earthly Jesus, nor even the resurrected Jesus, but of the highly exalted Jesus, and one would assume Jesus’ breadth of knowledge at this juncture to be quite vast. This Jesus speaks frequently in Revelation in contexts where the wrath of God and judgment on the unrepentant is prominent. Even the very last recorded words of the resurrected, ascended and glorified Jesus Christ are instructive:
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. … I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev 22:12–13, 16).
What is the result of this “recompense” and repayment that Jesus pours out in these his final words in the Bible? John’s vision tells us:
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:14–15).
Jesus is telling us that as Judge he will be dividing all humanity into two eternal states: those who have “washed their robes,” a figurative expression for faith in Christ, are saved and those who have not done so are eternally denied access to the tree of life.
If Jesus grew and developed in his knowledge as his “experience” increased then certainly Jesus’ most informative words would come from his exalted and glorified state as depicted in Revelation. So if we were to take Hipps’ interpretive method seriously and ascribe greater weight to the things Jesus said in proportion to what he “knew,” then we can say pretty confidently from this picture in Revelation that not everyone will be saved. And as we have seen, Jesus’ final words conclusively undermine the major theme of Love Wins, the very book Hipps is attempting to defend. It seems that the ascended Jesus isn’t as rehabilitated in his understanding of hell as Hipps longs for him to be.
A Better Proposal
“If anyone had the authority and credibility to provide a coherent-once-and-for-all description of exactly what happens after you die it would be Jesus upon his return from beyond the beyond. But he didn’t. He didn’t even seem all that interested.”
I fully agree with the first half of Hipps’ statement here. Jesus did have the authority and credibility to describe the afterlife, the judgment, heaven and hell. I would differ, however, in that Jesus did not progressively gain that authority and credibility over time or with experience. Nor did he possess that authority and credibility only in his post-resurrection earthly state. On the contrary, all of Jesus’ recorded words on the subject matter are relevant, including the ones Hipps wants to selectively neutralize. A far better proposal to what Hipps puts forward, and one that takes greater care with the very words of Jesus himself, would be to recognize that Jesus’ words – all of his words – have authority and credibility both before the cross and after the grave as well as from his eternal throne above. And as for the afterlife: Yes, Jesus is that interested.
*(It is surprising how confident Hipps sounds when he says he “only knows one person who died and came back to life”. Given the foundation of his whole discussion on the difference between believing and knowing, and how knowing only comes from personal experience, it would seem he should have said that he only believes in one person who died and came back to life. Unless of course, he wants to argue that he literally and personally experienced the post-resurrected Jesus at the same time and in the same way that his disciples did. UPDATE: Hipps has amended his blog post about only “knowing” one person who died. It now reads: “Now having said this, I’m only aware of one person who died, … His name was Jesus.” As far as being “aware” of persons who have died and come back to life, I am also aware of others besides Jesus: Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:22–43), Lazarus (John 11:1–44), Eutychus (Acts 20:7–12) just to name a few.)