Farewell Rob Bell.
Some questions don’t require answers. Some require a conversation. This is one of the taglines for Starting Point, an environment at my church for seekers and new believers to ask questions about the Christian faith in a nonthreatening place.
Heaven and hell is one of those questions that requires a conversation.
I know a lot of you out there would love to believe that we have definitive answers to the question of heaven and hell. It’s all laid out there all nicely and neatly and you will see it for yourself if you would just open your eyes and read your Bible for crying out loud. But despite the best efforts of the John Pipers of the world, people are reading that Rob Bell book. And it is striking a chord with them–an awful lot of them, at least. Far too many of them to just dismiss this as a passing thing. This shows that for now at least, the issue of heaven and hell is FAR FROM settled.
Come on, people. Protestantism is NOT the religion of “Roma locuta est, causa finita est” (that’s “Rome has spoken, the matter is settled” for those of you who aren’t quite all the way up to speed on your Latin). As Protestants, we have historically believed that all truth is God’s truth. Therefore, it is perfectly OK to talk about things, and even to raise some ideas that are completely and totally out there. As we talk through these things, there is a sifting process that happens. This can take a long time, decades or even centuries–and it can get excruciatingly messy at times, thus the contention by some of our Catholic and Orthodox brethren that our rancorous debating and divisions are a slander upon the body of Christ. But God is in control of this process, and His truth will win out in the end.
Sure it would be nice to have a centralized, Magisterial teaching authority that could step up and shut down the Rob Bells and Joel Osteens and Ken Hams and Pat Robertsons and [insert the name of your least favorite evangelical leader here] of the world. But who corrects the Magisterium when they get it wrong (and they do get it wrong sometimes, the whole infallibility thing notwithstanding)? NO ONE!!!!!!!!!
Trust the process, people. It’s a whole lot better than the alternative.
Now then. Why do you think Rob Bell decided to write a book with some crazy new ideas about heaven and hell? Do you think he did it just because it thrills him to sit in front of his computer screen all day for weeks or months on end or however long it took to write the thing? Do you think he did it just to get a rise out of the whole evangelical world? Do you think he did it…just for the hell of it? (HAH!!!!! Made a funny!!!!!)
No. He did it in an attempt to correct something which he sees as a glaring problem in evangelicalism (and it is, by the way) : Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have been very poor stewards of the concept of heaven and hell.
We contend that we only talk about hell because Jesus talked about it. If Jesus spoke about it (and he did) then it must be a very real place, with very real danger in the lives of people who are headed in that direction. True enough. But the ways in which we talk about hell are driving many people away from Jesus. And that is not right.
When your beliefs about heaven and hell give you permission to deface a fellow believer’s artwork which prominently features poignant quotes from Mohandas Gandhi on peacemaking with post-it notes saying “Reality check: Gandhi’s in hell”, we’ve got problems. When your beliefs about heaven and hell give you permission to show up at the funeral of a 15-year-old who went around telling all his friends he was an atheist and announce that he’s in hell and there’s no hope for him, we’ve got problems. When your beliefs about heaven and hell give you permission to treat evangelism as an over-the-top, full-contact sport (“We’re only doing this because we love you and want to save you from eternal danger so TURN OR BURN BITCH!!!!!!!!! TURN OR BURN!!!!!!!!!!!”), we’ve got problems. When your beliefs about heaven and hell give you permission to turn a blind eye toward the real-life physical and/or emotional hells faced by many people right here on this earth–rape or abuse victims, victims of natural disaster, people living in war-torn regions, just to name a few–we’ve got problems. And when your beliefs about heaven and hell give you permission to plaster “FAREWELL ROB BELL” all over the Twittersphere whenever someone shows up on the scene asking the questions that Bell is asking in this book, we’ve got BIG FAT STINKY problems.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned–for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
There is a pattern here, a pattern of beautiful symmetry: One man (Adam) sinned and brought condemnation and death to all. One man (Jesus Christ) was righteous and brought righteousness and life to all.
But many evangelicals, especially those influenced by Calvinism, hold to a vision of the Gospel which denies the symmetry of Romans 5:12-19. In that vision, the “all” on the front end of verse 18 really and truly does mean all men, but the “all” on the back end of verse 18 does not; it is limited to only those people who were chosen by God to be part of his “elect”. In that vision, sin and death are the final word that wins out in the end. God escapes with His elect, to be sure, but His creation and all that remains in it are lost forever to sin and death.
The remainder of evangelicalism is informed by a contrary view, called Arminianism. According to this, the responsibility for salvation rests squarely upon the shoulders of the individual. This does violence to the sovereignty of God, as God is reduced to a helpless spectator waiting upon people to make decisions to receive Him into their lives. This view is largely responsible for the full-contact-sport approach to evangelism that still exists in many parts of evangelicalism–if your salvation is entirely in your hands and you are in eternal danger if you choose wrongly, then it is incumbent upon me to get you to choose correctly, and anything goes.
Recently I have come more and more to appreciate the Lutheran take on heaven and hell and salvation. I’ll tell you straight out: It sounds an awful lot like universalism to those who don’t know better. But then, if you are truly preaching the Gospel, it is going to sound a lot like universalism to some people. If somebody out there isn’t denouncing you as a universalist, then you’re not preaching the Gospel.
To sum up, the Lutheran take is that God has already saved everyone through Jesus Christ, but everyone is free to reject God’s salvation. Why would anyone choose to reject a gift of that magnitude? Beats me, but people do stupid things every day. Tiger Woods, Tony Parker, and Arnold Schwartzenegger cheated on three of the most beautiful women ever to walk the face of the earth. Jimmy Swaggart had a hugely successful ministry and lost it all because he couldn’t keep his pants up while passing cheap motels on Airline Highway. Former UGA athletic director Damon Evans pissed away one of the best jobs in the entire country, if not the world, in order to come get crunk in the ATL.
This view solves a lot of problems. It preserves the sovereignty of God in salvation–for everyone who is saved, God has done it. It acknowledges human freedom–you are perfectly free to reject the salvation which God has given you. It acknowledges the reality that many people will not be saved, and retains the responsibility squarely upon those individuals who are not saved–if you were stupid enough to reject God’s gift of salvation, then it’s your own fault that you spend eternity separated from Him.
So to sum up: The Calvinist take on salvation is that you are not saved unless God has chosen you in advance to be part of His elect. The Arminian take is that you are not saved unless you make a valid decision to receive Christ. The Lutheran take: You’re already saved, now don’t be stupid and piss it away.
In conclusion, allow me to turn this whole heaven/hell thing around and come at it the other way.
IF we all make it to heaven and find that there is no hell and everyone made it after all, would you have a problem with that?
Now don’t tell me you would have a problem with that because Jesus clearly taught about the existence of a real place called hell. This is a pure hypothetical. We’re taking that completely and totally out of the equation for now.
Now answer me: IF you get to heaven and find that everyone made it after all, would you have a problem with that?
I think the most central problem that Rob Bell is seeking to address through this book is inside people’s hearts. For some reason, we HAVE to have a place of eternal torment existing alongside but apart from the abode of God, along with the knowledge that the vast majority of humanity that does not think and believe as we do is going to spend eternity in that awful place. This doesn’t have anything to do with what the Bible says or what Jesus taught. Even if hell were nothing more than a figment of our imaginations, we would still believe in it, or at least want to believe in it.
This is a heart problem. Some people have it more than others but all are prone to it. And this isn’t just an evangelical thing or a Christian thing: Every religion that teaches the existence of some version of heaven and hell has adherents who believe or want to believe that they are going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell. Even atheists who do not believe in anything remotely resembling God, heaven, or hell still share the impulse to believe or want to believe that they are right and all the rest of us poor fools who have to believe in some sort of religion are simply deluded.
To be sure, the Bible does talk about heaven and hell, enough to safely conclude that there is a place called heaven and a place called hell, and that the place called hell is not the kind of place you would want to take a girl on a first date. But can we please be honest enough to admit that an awful lot of what we believe about heaven and hell comes from Dante and Michelangelo and Thomas Kinkade and not Scripture?
I believe that there is a real place called heaven, and a real place called hell, and that every person who ever lived is going to spend eternity in one or the other of those places. And a lot of people are going to spend eternity in hell. BUT: There are going to be a LOT more people in heaven than you think. Some people whom you thought surely would be there, are not going to be there. And some people whom you thought had no chance and no hope whatsoever of making it to heaven, are going to be there front and center.
For further reading on heaven and hell, I strongly recommend C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. This presents a very surprising view of heaven and hell that you probably won’t get from your preacher.
For more about what Lutherans believe, check out the online version of the Book of Concord. This contains all their creeds, all their confessions, all their catechisms, etc. Everything you could possibly want to know about what Lutherans believe–it’s all there.