Time featured an in-depth article last week on Mars Hill Bible Church pastor Rob Bell, who has torn a path of criticism through the evangelic ranks lately following the release of his book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
The idea for the book began when Bell set up an art exhibit at the church to coincide with a sermon series on peacekeeping. Part of the exhibit featured a Gandhi quote from one of the artists. Next to the quote, someone, presumably a member of the church, added this pithy statement:
Reality check: He’s in hell.
Bell, even as a Christian pastor, isn’t convinced.
Thus begins his book:
Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?
Bell’s basic premise in the book is that each person could enjoy eternal life in heaven, that Jesus’ work of atonement on Earth could have been all-inclusive. Of course, this stands staunchly against accepted Christian doctrine, and, well, against Jesus’ own words.
In the book, Bell says the notion that
a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better (is) … misguided and toxic.
He’s right on at least one count. It is “toxic” that an all-loving god, with all the power in the universe to prevent a large majority of mankind from burning in eternal fire, would not prevent such a thing if he had the means. It’s also toxic that such a god is so obsessed with blood sacrifice and demands absolute subjugation from his supposed beloved creation. It’s also toxic that such a supposed loving father requires his children to pass tests for him to accept them (See Abraham and Job).
It’s heartening, on some level, that Bell seems to recognize these inconsistencies. Whereas these inconsistencies may draw a more rational person away from that kind of god, instead, it appears to have drawn Bell into some kind of bizarre no man’s land of religious ideology, a land that has afforded him no small measure of criticism from John Piper and other members of the evangelical community.
Piper, for instance, tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell,” apparently to signal Bell’s excommunication from the Christian community (very Christ-like), while R. Albert Mohler Jr., with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called Bell’s views “theologically disastrous:”
Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.
The idea that a train of thought could be “theologically disastrous” sounds like white noise for someone like me who doesn’t believe “theology” to be a legitimate area of study in the first place. Nevertheless, Bell’s book does serve a purpose within the church. In the early- to mid-20th century and before, the concept of hell was still firmly rooted in fire, brimstone, and physical, unending torment.
These days—I know this as a former churchgoer—many pastors simply describe hell as a state of eternal separation from God. This newer manifestation attempts to soften the concept of hell to appeal to a larger, more skeptical pool of potential believers. Hence, the devil and pitchfork image has been replaced with more of a spiritual darkness and a severance from God’s perfect love, which believers will, according to doctrine, be able to enjoy and worship forever.
If eternal darkness seems as enjoyable to you as groveling at the feet of a deity for all eternity, you are not alone. Bell, in spite of the clear declaration in John 3:16 that people who don’t believe in Christ will “perish,” seems to soften the hell concept further, redacting it altogether. But this would be, in my view, equivalent to embarking on a fool’s errand. It’s Christian revisionism, at best, and far from the revolutionary, Lutheristic kind, at worst.
At the core, it’s an attempt to modernize a religion that defies modernization.
But I do agree with Bell on another key point. Love, indeed, wins. I just don’t feel the need to summon a god to make it so. It “wins” everyday with or without beseeching heaven.
And yes, under Christian doctrine, Gandhi, with all his peacekeeping pronouncements, is unequivocally and without a doubt, suffering miserably and unmercifully in hell.Powered by Sidelines