Is Gandhi in hell? What’s more, what is hell? Or heaven, for that matter?
These are some of the questions that have sparked a bit of a firestorm around Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: a book about heaven hell and the fate of everyone who ever lived. This first came across my radar screen when I read a post on Tony Jones’s blog late last week about the growing attention and criticism about this book. Then I did some searching and saw that it has even made a splash on the national news scene from CNN to ABC.
Controversy in and of itself isn’t surprising with Rob Bell. That’s happened before. What is striking is that judgment has been leveled by a number of people who haven’t even read the book yet because it has not yet been released!
Ultimately the controversy stems from the fact that Bell is raising core questions about issues that are central to the Christian faith. He has posed the questions in ways that have led some to conclude that Bell is promoting something called Universalism; a doctrine where everyone gets saved, no matter what. Again, these are all assumptions because none of his critics have actually read the book yet. The only worthwhile critique I’ve read so far is Greg Boyd’s, namely because he actually has read the book. (As a side note, as an Anabaptist, it’s worth paying attention to Boyd partly because he’s grown very close to Mennonites in recent years, even flirting with the idea of joining MCUSA.)
What is most intriguing and frustrating to me is not the discussion about universalism, but rather the controversy itself and the way this has been discussed and argued about in the last couple of weeks.
It has been astounding to see the speed with which he has been denounced as a heretic and the forceful unwillingness to even raise the questions he poses. For me this is a red flag. Why are so many vigorously defending a relatively specific doctrine of hell?
When you look at the Bible, there is no one consistent understanding of hell. For that matter, the concept of an afterlife in much of the Old Testament was non-existent. God blesses and curses you through your descendants, not in an afterlife (See the 10 commandments). There is no consistent version of hell in the Bible, and what is there most certainly doesn’t look like what most people today envision. The image of a red guy with a pitchfork and horns comes from Dante’s Inferno, not the Bible.
I think that the reason that many have had such a knee jerk reaction is because the doctrine of hell is a powerful weapon. Hell scares the…well..hell out of people. Combined with a select few leaders who determine who’s in and who’s out, this fear fuels enormous power and control. Even raising the question, as Bell has done, challenges the enormous power that many have enjoyed for centuries.
To be clear, I’m not defending Bell. I haven’t read his book so I can’t say one way or another. What I do know is that these questions are deeply important to an enormous number of people, both inside and outside the church. It is critical for the church to pay attention to this. It’s time that we learned to have these discussions, openly and honestly and in front of the watching eyes of the world. Because as Bell says “what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.”