Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Christianity without a hell?
May 8, 2011
Rob Bell, evangelical founder of the Mars Hill Bible megachurch in western Michigan, lit a blowtorch of criticism with his book” Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
Bell toys with the possibility that everyone will be saved because God’s expansive love renews creation at the end of time and welcomes the world into heaven. His book “has stirred up fierce debate about sin, salvation and judgment” declares Time Magazine in its April 25 cover story, “What if There’s No Hell?”
How would you interpret a familiar Bible verse that’s been dubbed “the Gospel in Miniature?” “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish (in hell) but have everlasting life (in heaven)” (John 3:16).
Evangelical Christians say those who accept Jesus’ invitation go to heaven. Those who refuse are bound for hell. Others emphasize that God’s redemption of the world may be as wide as He chooses. At the end of time divine love wins over evil, saving more than evangelical Christian doctrine allows.
Bell questions whether traditional orthodox theology has shrunk “the world” in John 3:16. Never in his book does he use the word “universalism” to suggest that all will be saved. But he does pulverize rock-ribbed certainty regarding who’s saved and damned.
“When we get to what happens when we die, we don’t have any video footage,” argues Bell. “So let’s at least be honest that we are speculating, because we are.”
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He’s not afraid to ask disturbing questions because this is what those in the church are trained to do.
“At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church,” he writes, “has been numbers (of believers) who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”
Critic John Piper, well-known evangelical author and preacher, banished Bell from the fold with a heave-ho tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, chastised Bell for his views on salvation for affirming “what can only be described as universalism,” the belief that ultimately divine love wins over human sin so that all are saved.
I heard Bell comment on his communication style at a Christian writers’ conference. He’s blessed with a quick mind, is media savvy and questions beliefs both sinners and saints hold dear. Bell comes across as a mix of three comedians. He uses Richard Lewis’ self-deprecating humor, Conan O’Brien’s quirkiness and David Letterman’s pungent wit to roast our culture’s sacred cows.
Why does Bell especially appeal to young Christians who didn’t experience the Great Depression, World War II and fighting in Vietnam?
At 20 years old, he preached his first sermon at HoneyRock Camp in Wisconsin.
“I didn’t know anything,” he admits. “I took off my Birkenstocks beforehand. I had this awareness my life would never be the same again.” He alludes here to Moses’ reaction to the burning bush. He removed his sandals as a sign of humility as he encountered God.
What do Birkenstocks symbolize for an emerging Christianity? Birkenstock faith doesn’t dwell on what’s “true,” meaning doctrinal purity. Truth for Bell’s believers is tied to what’s meaningful and relational. Moreover, Bell’s followers like a congenial God, rather than a dour deity who damns the lost. They tilt towards an accepting God and turn their backs on the Lord whose justice condemns human sin.
Bell resonates with listeners who don’t think about Christian belief in true-false, right-wrong, white-black categories.
“My generation wanted truth (correct doctrine),” says Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., where Bell attended theological school. “These (Bell’s audience) are folks who want authenticity.” They’d rather meander on several roads leading to faith rather than follow rigid doctrine’s tight path.
The breakdown of immigrant Christian communities and the Internet’s ability to shrink our globe have softened previously harsh saved-lost categories.
I’m the product of a third-generation immigrant Calvinist denomination near where Bell preaches. We worshipped with people of like convictions, dated those from our religious background, and went to schools where most students had Dutch lineage. In such a closed environment, it’s easy to believe only our kind is saved.
Now mixed marriages crossing religious lines are common. Denominations don’t count. Immigrant communities have melded into mainstream America.
The Internet, also, has diminished the number of Christians who think with a saved-lost mentality. In my boyhood, we prayed for the conversion to Christ of the lost who lived in faraway lands. Now the Internet brings such people to our doorsteps. We see that every culture brings some truth to the world’s broad table.
“The whole judgmentalism and harshness is something they (the Birkenstock believers) want to avoid,” observes Mouw. They spurn a God who’s curt, crackly and critical in damning the lost. They invite into their lives a lenient God who listens to their concerns.
Might Rob Bell’s book say less about him slipping from Christian orthodoxy and more about enlarging the world in which God’s love wins? That’s because he appeals to a Birkenstock generation that craves relational warmth and spurns doctrinal precision.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com),