[Book review] “Raising hell” by Julie Ferwerda

The topic on “hell” has been hotly debated this past year, especially after Rob Bell’s thought-provoking book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” has been published earlier this year. This book “Raising Hell: Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire” was released a few months later, which seeks to delve deeper into the topic on “hell” with meticulous research on the historical making of the Bible as well as the original languages used in the Bible; namely, Hebrew and Greek.

At this point, I would like to assert no one has all the answers to the questions on salvation, heaven and hell, including myself. We are all on a journey of learning and discovering, and we can learn from one another. I also have learnt that the Bible is not inerrant as many church institutions claim to be because there are translation bias and errors. Thirdly, I learnt that the Bible is just a collection of books written by human beings who are like you and me, and the 66 books happened to be chosen for the canon by some human beings in the early centuries CE, who were no more authoritative than the next person we meet on the streets. This is not to make light of those who have studied the ancient scriptures, but rather to say that none of us has it altogether when we hazard a guess about God. It is probably better to confess our human limitations and say what we think than to use the oft-used phrase “The Lord is telling me…” or “The Holy Spirit is telling me…” as a way of trying to convince others to agree with our interpretation of the scriptures.

Now that I have mentioned this, I wonder whether I should even write this review, since everything is subjective anyway. But for the sake of freedom from oppressive religious fundamentalism, I think an in-depth review of this book is necessary to help create awareness and encourage discussion about this “hell” doctrine.

For those of you who wish to sit on the fence and do not want to be drawn into the discussion, thinking that the gospel is all about grace and love (which is true) anyway and so you do not want to talk about hell, yet you believe there is a hell for “non-believers” in the afterlife, then I would say you are not only doing yourself a disservice for not exploring what the gospel is about, but also others with whom you interact because you are going to have an “us” versus “them” mentality, and you will subconsciously have a mental image of them “burning in hell” for not subscribing to your belief system (or your church denomination’s belief system). This may be seen by other people as religious imperialism or fundamentalism, which will turn them off and discourage them from wanting to know the good news of grace and peace.

The opening chapter of the book resonates with me, where the author Julie Ferwerda wrote:

“What child in the world would ever believe (without adult influence) that a loving parent would create a fearful place of torment, and then endlessly abandon His children there to punish in response to a limited duration of unbelief or rebellion, or for choices made from ignorance, distortions, deceptions, or bad influences? My educated, reasoned belief is zero.

In the coming pages, I’m inviting your inner child to take a journey.”

This reminds me of Jesus’ words that encourage us to become like a little child in order to enter (or experience) the kingdom of God (which is within us).  The author is humble to question her own beliefs, including traditional doctrines she has heard in the past, and she wrote “I don’t expect that everyone who follows my journey will embrace it (her alternative perspective) or come to the same conclusion…. Ultimately, everyone must decide for themselves what is ‘truth’.”

Part 1 of the book “Hell: Fact or fiction?” is well written and well researched, asking searching questions, such as “Who is going to hell?” and “Who’s responsible for lost souls?”, as well as examining original manuscripts in the old and new testaments for the missing word “hell”. It turns out that the popular concept of “hell” is nowhere found in the Bible, and the words that Jesus used, such as “sheol” or “hades” (or grave) and “gehenna” (or rubbish dump in Jerusalem), actually meant something symbolic that pertains to the Jewish apocalyptic culture in that day and age, and therefore, to me, these are not applicable in our age. Similarly, the author has done an in-depth study on the Greek meanings of phrases such as “lake of fire”, “everlasting destruction” and “tormented forever and ever”, and concluded that these phrases have been misunderstood by most church denominations, which took them at face value (or literally) and interpreted them out of the proper context and ignored the audience relevance.

Part 2 of the book “Love does not fail” delves into the loving heart of God and aptly compares His/Her Love with the characteristics of loving parents. It also deals with the fact that God (or Jesus) exhorts us to love our enemies.

Part 3 of the book “Hebrew perspectives on scripture” gets down to the nitty gritty of the biblical language used in ancient Hebrew culture. This is the part where the author examined the meaning of “aion” (which is thought to mean “eternity” when it actually refers to “age”) in detail. The author proposed that there are ages and covenants involved in Hebrew history, and without going into too much detail, I would say this information is interesting to know about, and my understanding of these topics may differ in some ways from the author’s, but suffice to say it is nonetheless well researched. One particular chapter I find noteworthy is about the explanation of “Lazarus and the rich man”, which has been used by many preachers as a case for “hell”, when it is actually meant to be a parable by Jesus to address symbolically the covenantal fate of Israel in the first century.

The last part of the book – Part 4 “Resources” – suggests a list of useful resources for further Bible study and reference, as well as useful tips for identifying mistranslations (with screenshots of online Bible study tools as a useful visual aid) and common misunderstandings of scripture. There is also a helpful Q&A at the end to address common questions or objections, such as “Evangelising? Why bother to share the Gospel?” and “What if you’re wrong? Isn’t it better to choose the safe side? If you’re wrong, you could go to hell for teaching such blasphemy and causing others to lose their souls.” I would say most of the answers offered in this book are quite sound, rational and balanced.

Now that we are living in the 21st century, when science has developed by leaps and bounds, and many people are experiencing spiritual awakening as part of our human evolution, there is perhaps no better time to read this book for yourself and be challenged in your belief system. The book may not answer every question satisfactorily you may have, but I would say it is a great starting point for further inquiry. I highly recommend this book as a launching pad into a deeper understanding of the gospel. If you are still living in fear, thinking you or your loved ones will end up in “hell” (or have gone to “hell”), I think you need to reexamine what you really believe. Doesn’t the Bible say “Perfect love casts out fear”?

You could download a free complimentary PDF copy of the book from the link given at the bottom of the book’s official website.

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