Saturday, March 26, 2011

Love Wins...So Let's Cut Off Hell Forever

Heaven is both the peace, stillness, serenity, and calm that come from having everything in its right place--that state in which nothing is required, needed, or missing--and the endless joy that comes from participating in the ongoing creation of the world.
Rob Bell, Love Wins (2011)

...the essence of Christianity (or real or authentic Christianity) is itself an essentially contested concept, one that by its very nature cannot be agreed on by all sides.
James McClendon, Doctrine (1994)

I think justice comes and judgement will happen, but I don't think that means an eternity of torment. But I can understand why people in my church aren't ready to leave that behind. It's something I'm still grappling with myself.
Chad Holtz, after being fired from his youth pastor position at a United Methodist church for resonating with Rob Bell's position on hell

Over the past month, an Evangelical bouillabaisse of blogs and tweets has been boiling over Rob Bell's new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (2011) which was just released 10 days ago. While Bell is "controversial" to those who make orthodoxy a narrow litmus test based on creeds and confessions, he is a fresh breeze to the soul for everyone else.

Bell, a 40-year-old Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary graduate who pastors a megachurch in Michigan is known for courageously blending critical thinking and transparent questioning with his vintage page-turning, easy-to-comprehend writing style of narrative and short quips. He is very sexy among younger evangelicals who "love Jesus," but are increasingly jaded with all the baggage that churches often load them down with (those searching for an "easy yolk"--Matthew 11:18-20).

Bell is a voice in the American Christians wilderness who consistently proclaims creatively constructive questions, commentaries and concerns. His detractors (distractors?) believe that too many Evangelical Christians are being diverted from the real message of Christianity by echoing Bell's voice (these echoes, of course, coming from "Bellions"...rhymes with hellions). And this real message is virtually always articulated with an emphasis on "salvation" from our sins and, therefore, hell for those who believe the wrong things. These naysayers believe that the Bellions just want to "get away with stuff" and water-down the gospel, swallowing a more popular Christian message that is easier to digest.

From the very beginning of Love Wins, Bell makes it clear that absolutely nothing he communicates is original.

...please understand that nothing in this book hasn't been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven't come up with a radical new teaching that's any kind of departure from what's been said an untold number of times. That's the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It's a deep, wide, diverse stream that's been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences. (Preface, x)

And later in his work he reiterates this with concise creativity like:

It is, after all, a wide stream we're swimming in.

This is the hermeneutical key that unlocks Bell. He's acknowledging, right from tip-off, that this game (the 2000-year Christian tradition) is multivalent, full of twists and turns and a variety of colorful shades of Jesus. But here's the irony: this passage actually says more about how readers themselves respond to Bell's newest work than Bell himself.

A. Some readers are not readers at all. They've heard nasty things about Bell so they stay as far away from him as possible. This represents the very worst of how fear motivates faith.

B. Some readers skip right over the Preface so they can read the Hell chapter. Most of these readers don't have a basic understanding of the wide variety of the Christian tradition and how "orthodoxy" has always been contested within the wider umbrella of the Body of Christ.

C. Some readers read it and disagree with it, preferring an alternative & dualistic narrative about Christian history. They firmly believe that there have always been two clear-and-concise roads for the Christian disciple: ortodoxy or heresy. You choose.

D. Some readers who do read Bell's Preface fully acknowledge the contested nature of orthodoxy on any given issue, but their own social location (vocational, denominational and/or regional) forces them into condemning Bell by any means necessary. Many pastors and Christian leaders would not be allowed by their congregations, boards and/or denominations to hold the same kinds of views that Bell does.

E. Some readers who also acknowledge the contested nature of orthodoxy find in Bell's writing an uncompromising threat to their own foundation of Christian truth. If what Bell is writing is true, then their game of theological Jenga crumbles. This is very scary indeed and leads many of these readers (who are also pastors and bloggers) to lash out at Bell in sermon and internet posting.

F. And lastly, some readers who read Bell's Preface acknowledge how it reflects the truth of Christian history and may or may not agree with Bell on certain points of the book. However, in the name of Christian dialogue (which is always loving, irenic, gentle, humble and listening-oriented), these readers acknowledge that Bell may actually be right about what he writes about. And if Bell is right, there are implications because theology always involves belief and practice. As Bell writes: We shape our God, and then our God shapes us.

It is understandable why many sincere Christians experience intense fear at the very thought of what Bell articulates. It has been the cornerstone that many, many churches have been built upon for a long, long time. To give up on hell (as it has been defined) is a HUGE step, involving deep psychological and emotional process. If hell goes, then everything unravels. Consider this post from younger Evangelical pastor David Platt:

If we believe that everyone is going to be OK in the end...and if we embrace universalism however it is cloaked, then we're free to live our lives however we want, to sit back as easygoing Christians in comfortable churches, because in the end all these masses are going to be OK.

For these kinds of Christians, if Christianity is not primarily about what happens to us when we die, then it is a slippery-slope into chaos, anarchy and hedonism. But what if, instead of this dire scenario, Christian faith is all about embracing and extending the very Love that holds our universe together right now? That Love, according to Bell's reading of Scripture, demands a re-telling of our stories about ourselves and everything else there is. His reading of Luke 15 (the parable of the prodigal son) is a dynamic reflection on the counterfeit stories that both sons tell themselves. We all need a father who tell us the truth about ourselves: that we are sustained by a Love that is far greater than anything we could ever ask or imagine.

But if Love is at the core of everything that has ever existed then there must be Justice. And there is. God is not indifferent or distant or apathetic or cynical. God is pissed off at the way greed and violence and addiction and abuse and income inequality and everything else that holds humanity in bondage. God is absolutely determined to redeem and reconcile the world back to Love.

As Bell addresses heaven, hell, finding truth within the diversity of religions, the meaning of the death of Jesus and what God really wants ("for everyone to be saved"--I Tim 2:4), he prolifically quotes from the Bible. Bell has what conservative Evangelicals take very seriously: a "high view of Scripture." Bell is not just making stuff up. He is reading the Bible in an intellectually honest way, contextualizing it in history and unveiling just how mysterious "salvation" was for the New Testament authors.

When it comes to these controversial issues, Bell's eschatological nuance on "salvation" is in good company with legendary Christian leaders like Origen, the 3rd century pastor and professor who literally emasculated himself to extinguish the lust that was plaguing his mind ("eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" as Matthew 19:12 reads in the old school King James version). That's a high view of Scripture.

As it turns out, the story of Origen provides us with an apt metaphor for the North American Church. After he made the fateful and fitful choice to become a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven, the lustful thoughts stayed with him--an unimaginable hell on earth! However, his convictions about the God whose Love destroys the myth of hell-as-an-afterlife for sinners who do not repent is great news for all of us, relieving us of the tormenting fear of burning flames for some people. Bell repackages this for a 21st century audience who desperately yearns for a God of peace, love and healing in a world of violence, apathy and narcissism. Let's join Origen & Rob Bell (and so many other Christian pilgrims over the past 100 generations) and cut off hell for good. And may it torment us no longer.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I'm not going to respond to this because there have been plenty of adequate responses to Bell's book, but I do have a question I've been meaning to ask...

    Why do you say "easy yolk" and not easy yoke? As the word actually is in Scripture?

    I can't figure out why someone would be looking for an easy 'yolk' or what that even means...

  3. Thoughts about Rob Bell's recent "confession"?

  4. Why would you be so hateful towards a great man who loved so many, and say he'll burn in hell just because he doesn't believe what you do? What if he's right and you're wrong? Personally, I'd say that he would be more likely to go to heaven than a bunch of the Christians I've seen here in the Bible Belt for loving from his heart, rather than loving out of fear of going to hell and because an awfully mistranslated book says so. If you believe I'm wrong about the bible, try and research it.