I have a friend who’s a big Rob Bell, Liturgists, deconstruction guy. He just raised the thought that Jesus may have been speaking about hell parabolically/rhetorically to convince his Jewish audience his message was important enough to act upon. Or something like that. How would you respond?
This is an important question, especially for “modern” times since it is fashionable and popular to question the reality of almost everything. There are several parts to my answer, as follows.
1. If we are going to be consistent (and consistency is essential in the pursuit of truth) then we must call everything into question, as many before us have done. Buddhism and Christian Science are convinced that nothing material is real. Rather, what seems to be real and causes suffering is the necessary and just consequence of asserting one’s own ego within our own fantasy of a physical world that seems real but is illusion.
2. If we are going to be more choosy than Buddhism and Christian Science, then we might join many who start with the creation account in Genesis, arguing that it is not a literal history but a story that conveys the idea of the importance of people to God; we are special. Then others go on to dismiss Noah and the flood, the walls of Jericho, Jonah and the whale and in the case of W.D. Davies, propose that the entire Old Testament history is fictional, composed by displaced people who found themselves in Palestine without an identity to call their own. Then on to the New Testament where the Jesus Seminar concluded that the only factual information is that there was a Jesus who taught.
3. At this point, consistency urges us on. Was Troy real? What about the rest of the 5,000 years of human history around the world? Are the discoveries and dating of archaeology fabricated (and don’t forget those who say we never went to the moon)? No Shakespeare, no Washington or Lincoln?
Does it make sense that a culture immersed in fantasy by way of novels about dragons and princesses, Disneyland, Avengers, and video games is likely to suppose that everything it sees or reads about is “make believe” (especially given the level of dis-information pushed out through the media)?
People who cannot afford to be dishonest about what their lives depend upon do not suffer from such questions or skepticism. Our thirst, hunger, pain, and fears are real – so is the death of the body and profound sense of loss. So the incarnation of the Son of God and His retention of that nature in and after His resurrection grounds us and demonstrates the reality of His creation and recreation of us, body and soul, for time and eternity.
Finally, among the principles of hermeneutics (interpretation of texts) is this: we accept all texts as factual and literal unless something forces us to understand them otherwise. Interestingly, the broad body of parabolic texts in the Bible is still drawing parallels and making prophecies with things that actually exist: locusts, mustard seeds, and living water!