It appears that the gates of Hell are under assault once again. This time the charge is led by a 40 year old Evangelical minister named Rob Bell. His new book Love Wins has brittle fundamentalists all in knots.
I’ve read it and, as I expected, was left scratching my head, wondering what all the fuss is about. Despite the shrill allegations of his detractors, Bell never says that Hell doesn’t exist. Nor does he use the dreaded “U” word – Universalism.
For those of you not familiar with this term, it basically means that, when all is said and done, every human being who has ever lived will end up in God’s kingdom. It comes in a few different varieties. For example, pluralistic notions of Universalism teach that all, or nearly all, religions lead to salvation (abusive cults such as Jim Jones’s are usually considered to not be “true faiths). But even those who are openly irreligious will ultimately find their way to Heaven in this scheme.
A variant on this position is Christian Universalism. It maintains that Jesus is unique among the world’s spiritual leaders in that he is the means by which all people will be redeemed. It differs from mainstream Evangelicalism, however, in teaching that all persons who ever lived will ultimately come to faith in Christ, if not in this life then in the next one.
For those who want to know more about this position, here’s a link to an excellent article about it:
Love Wins never says that Bell is a Universalist. In fact, it doesn’t spell out what he believes on the matter at all. But it does ask some questions that many people don’t want to deal with. That’s one of the reasons that it has been viciously attacked and misrepresented by Evangelical power brokers such as the staunch Calvinist John Piper.
What are some of the questions Love Wins raises? Here’s a list:
- What becomes of people who live virtuous, compassionate lives, yet don’t become Christians? What happens to them after death? Bell uses the specific example of Gandhi when he brings up this issue.
- What about those who would have heard the Gospel, but circumstances prevented it? As Bell puts it, “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”
- Why would a loving God choose to keep anyone in a conscious state of horrific torment for endless eons of time? Even major league bad guys like Hitler and Saddam Hussein committed finite amounts of evil during their lives. How does that rate infinite punishment?
- Is it possible that Hell is meant to be a purgative and corrective experience, rather than purely retributive? If it is, does that mean that the people in it may one day be released, their characters reformed, their souls ready to experience union with God?
As I said before, Bell doesn’t give us answers to these concerns. He offers them as points to consider when pondering whether the traditional ideas about Hell and who goes there should be reevaluated. For this modest and reasoned effort on he has been called a heretic and false prophet. The editor of Christianity Today even tried to hang that most offensive of terms, “liberal,” around Bell’s neck.
For my two cents, I am firmly in Bells’ camp, though my personal views tend more towards Annihilationism. Below is a link to a page that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know and more about it.
The notion that everyone who doesn’t profess faith in Jesus during this life is doomed to an eternity of torment is absurd and repulsive. It makes a mockery of God’s fairness, compassion and love. And, despite what its defenders claim, it in no way is a logical consequence of God’s holiness or desire for justice. Quite the opposite is true.
Perhaps the soundest rejection of common notions about Hell comes from Jesus himself. In the entire Bible there is only one passage that offers a prolonged description of Hell. It’s in the Gospel of Luke I’m posting it below. The text is from the English Standard Version, Luke 16:19-31.
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.
The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’
And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
A careful reading of these verses brings out several key points:
- Jesus goes out of his way to show that the rich guy was a really bad dude. He let poor Lazarus lay in the dirt outside his front door and starve while he stuffed his face. He was no Gandhi. Muhammad, Confucius, the Buddha and countless other moral and spiritual leaders would have found him loathsome.
- The rich guy keeps his superior attitude even in the fires of Hell. When he looks up and watches Lazarus being comforted by Abraham, does he say, “Oh my God, forgive me! I see the error of my ways!”? Hardly. Instead he sees a chance to enslave the man who he let suffer such degradation. “Hey, Abraham, send that loser out to get me some water! It’s hot as Hell down here!” This is one cold-hearted piece of crap.
- He knew full well that what he did was wrong, even when he was alive and could have changed his ways. Note that he’s aware of the Old Testament; i.e. “Moses and the prophets.” Their writings are filled with exhortations to practice social justice and to care for the poor. The rich man lived his life in direct violation of God’s position on these matters.
The point of the story is obvious. Jesus is saying that divine punishment awaits those who refuse to help others in need, who know full well that they should do so, and whose hearts are so hard that even after death they maintain their self-centeredness.
These details make it clear that he wasn’t speaking of people like Gandhi, a man who devoted his life to helping the poor and oppressed. He wasn’t raising the specter of Hell over the men and women of good will that are found in all faiths. There is no basis in the passage whatsoever for the claim that non-Christians suffer eternal torment after death.
“But Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ supporters of the old view may counter. “Doesn’t that mean that those who die without knowing Him are doomed?” No. It doesn’t.
Let’s assume for now that Christian claims of Jesus’ uniqueness are correct. Let’s agree that no man comes to God the Father except through him, for the moment at least. Even if we allow that, it does not mean that Christianity is the only way to Christ.
CS Lewis dealt with this issue in a beautiful way in his Chronicles of Narnia series. The character Emeth worshipped a false god throughout the series, yet in its culmination Aslan, who was an allegorical representation of Jesus, welcomed into heaven. Emeth, in following truth to the best of his understanding, was in reality giving service to God, although his conception of the Divine was incorrect.
Commenting on this later, Lewis wrote:
I think that every prayer which is sincerely made, even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God, and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ. (Lewis, C.S. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2007)
The fundamentalist view of Hell is wholly unnecessary to a high view
of Jesus. It also lacks support from the Bible. Why, then, do so many fight tooth and nail to maintain it? Some say that Hell is essential to the church’s mission. “Why would Jesus command us to spread the Gospel to the world,” they ask, “if most or all will ultimately be saved anyway?”
This argument rests on a faulty premise, though. It assumes that the primary purpose of Christianity is to serve as an escape tunnel from this world to the next one. But this is an impoverished view that minimizes the power of Jesus to work in human hearts.
His words have given comfort and hope to marginalized people across the globe. They have inspired civil rights leaders, labor unions, and other movements for social justice. Christ has provided spiritual renewal and moral guidance to millions.
If these things aren’t enough to inspire his followers to carry on his mission, then threats of eternal damnation won’t do so either. In fact the traditional doctrine of Hell has served the church’s enemies well throughout the centuries, and continues to do so. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins delight in waving it in the faces of those who profess faith in a God of love.
No, Gandhi isn’t in Hell. Nor are the vast majority of people who have lived. Their souls are cradled in the arms of a merciful Parent, who graciously invites we the living to partner with Jesus in making the world a better place. We’re joined in that mission by people of good will from all religions.
This is a far more powerful vision than the one held by the poor, deluded ones, who cling to the tired old ideas about Hell. It respects and exalts the God and Father of Jesus, who, as the Scripture says, desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Knowing that is His will gives us glad reason to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”