Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bell's hell (Sunday Reflections for March 27, 2011)

I talked in my sermon a couple weeks ago about the current tempest in the evangelical teapot. The dustup is over a new book by Rob Bell, an evangelical pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids. Bell is considered a leader in the “emerging Christianity” movement which has been popular with many younger evangelicals, as well as some mainline Christians.

In the book, Love Wins, Bell continues to push the envelope of traditional Christian doctrine and theology. What has created controversy this time is his questioning of the meaning and reality of hell. The latest wrinkle is a story picked up by multiple news outlets. It seems a young Methodist pastor posted an article endorsing Bell’s book and this proved the last straw for his church’s members. As a result his rural North Carolina congregation fired him. They didn’t want a pastor who wasn’t a firm believer in hell.

In its summary of Bell’s book, the news story says:

Bell criticizes the belief that a select number of Christians will spend eternity in the bliss of heaven while everyone else is tormented forever in hell. "This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

In a video introducing the book,

[Bell] describes going to a Christian art show where one of the pieces featured a quote by Mohandas Gandhi. Someone attached a note saying: "Reality check: He's in hell." "Gandhi's in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?" Bell asks in the video.

Bell is right in seeing that the Gandhi example goes to the heart of the dark side of the black-and-white nature of evangelicalism. Historically, of course, most of Christianity has tended in this direction at one time or another. “Who’s in and who’s out” is a question the church has often obsessed over and sometimes wielded like a club (as the Methodist pastor rediscovered).

Personally it’s hard for me to take any of this very seriously as I can’t remember ever accepting the idea of hell as a literal place. Indeed most of mainline Christianity has treated hell as a metaphor for a long time. I remember a seminary professor saying thirty years ago, with a wry smile, that while he might believe there was a hell, he didn’t have to believe anyone was in it.

The repeated refrain of Bell’s evangelical critics is that he ignores God’s righteousness. The article summarizes a Baptist theologian’s assessment that “Bell errs in a conception of a loving God that leaves out the divine attributes of justice and holiness.” Ironically this rarely seems to be a concern of Jesus (as in Sunday’s Gospel story from John of the woman at the well). Rather, Bell’s critics sound much more like the Pharisees with whom Jesus so often jousts.

Probably the best takedown of those concerned for God’s justice, however, is the book of Jonah. After his detour with the fish, Johan finally goes to Nineveh to preach as God had asked him. When the city almost instantaneously repents, Jonah goes off into the wilderness to sulk, wanting to die. When God asks him what his problem is, Jonah complains that this is exactly what he knew would happen. The evil Ninevites would repent and get off the hook, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Hell - Deriec Bouts 15th c.
This has been the secret fear of righteous Christians all along: that the God of Jesus really is a big softy. In their distaste for evil and evil-doers, they want to see some hellfire and brimstone. They don’t want to belong to a club that lets everyone in. Isn’t part of the pleasure of heaven knowing that you didn’t end up in hell like those “other” people? What value is a prize if everyone gets it? Does the carrot really work if there isn’t also a big stick as a threatening alternative?

This debate goes to the heart of Christianity, of the Bible, and of religion generally. Indeed, it is a debate within the Bible itself, as the book of Jonah and Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees show. Many clearly want a God whose primarily role is to establish and enforce the rules. Historically this has been the god of official state religions, which then sanctioned the king as god’s earthly representative. It was his divinely authorized job to keep order and punish law breakers.

This, however, seems nothing like the God of Jesus. He is the one the church calls the Son of God just like Israel’s ancient kings, yet as we will see again in a few weeks rides into Jerusalem not on a war horse but on a donkey. He is the one who turns away an angry justice-seeking crowd with the disarming words, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” He is the one who looks on those who have hung him on a cross and says, “God forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

In one of my favorite movie lines, Groucho Marx says with typical self-deprecating irony, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” Somehow I have the same feeling about the heaven imagined by those who so fervently believe in hell. That’s a club I don’t think I would want to belong to.


Michael_SC said...

Why are some people so insistent on defending a concept of God that was developed 3000 years ago? Should religion, alone of all areas of thinking, be immune to development and evolution as people get more civilized?

Doug said...

Some people seem to think so, don't they Michael?