It seems hell has made a resurgence of late. I’m not talking about the current state of affairs in many places of the world, though the sad truth is that the suffering of untold millions and the rape and pillage of our planet deserve billing credit for the hell that even now exists. I could go on about how we all, each of us, contributes to the making of this hell that so many live in. I could go on about how this doesn’t have to be, how God intervened in human history and removed once for all the condemnation we deserve for making the world a worse place.
But this discussion is about a very specific sequence of events occurring in a relatively small circle of people worldwide – a circle of people who seem to gather press on a very repetitive, if irregular basis.
I’m talking about the evangelical culture, sub-culture, maybe nano-culture would be a better term. Like anything else, we always seem bigger when we see ourselves in print or some sort of media.
Currently a large debate has been re-kindled in this nano-culture about hell. Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins, is to blame. Do people go there? For how long? What is it like? Who cares?
Actually, it appears there are many who do care, in theory if not in practice. One of the reasons this debate never dies is that the idea of an existence of an afterlife of never-ending torment has always struck some as being somewhat antithetical to the stories and hope of Jesus. For some (maybe many more than we’re willing to admit), it seems like we lost some data somewhere. Maybe a few scrolls fell off a camel or a scribe fell asleep at the wheel?
In the scheme of worldwide discussions, this debate is a relatively small, localized even to a few select people in portions of the United States, though you wouldn’t know that by the heat it is giving off.
And this is why I think that hell will continue to be a hot topic: because a lot of people really care how it turns out. I don’t mean just the debate, I mean why hell would exist and continue to exist ad infinitum in the first place.
Even among those who believe allegiance to God compels a harsh response to Bell’s book, it is clear that not all of our systems of thought or theology sit well with us, no matter how purely “orthodox” they may be. Here is a great example from one ardent defender, Denny Burk, who plays questions from Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” against his self-styled “biblical” point of view.
Bell: “And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?”
Answer: “I don’t know if anyone knows what the exact number will be, but the Bible teaches that at the end of the age there will only be two groups of people…This will no doubt be a countless throng of people (Revelation 20:10-15).”
I am pressed to ask whether Mr. Burk either can’t count (because last I checked, less than 50% of the world actually professed Christianity and of those even fewer are actually bible-believing, professing, faith-filled, active Christians) or if he appears to be uncomfortable with the fact that billions and billions will burn in forever hell because he is unwilling to state the mathematical facts known to us all. After all, we are using Mr. Burk’s definition of what it means to hear and receive the gospel. I won’t speculate as to why Burk might be uncomfortable, but we all have our ideas.
Let me make something clear. I respect individuals like Mr. Burk and Justin Taylor and Rob Bell and John Piper (I’ve enjoyed many a good sermon at Bethlehem Baptist). I respect that they are doing their best to protect sound doctrine as they see it. Surely, this is worth much, especially in an age where the worn is so often replaced with the flashy.
I also respect individuals like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren for standing up and saying effectively, “Wait! Perhaps our current ways of ‘doing church’ don’t work. Look at what it produces. Look at the inaction of whole churches of Christians in the face of the gates of oppression, sickness, evil and hell against all people.”
This debate crystalizes for me something that has always bugged me. Now I know what it is.
Some people believe it is holy to defend God against bad questions.
“We shouldn’t ask questions like those Bell is asking,” they say. I have a good friend, Don, who likes to respond along the lines of something like this,
“Which questions? You mean we shouldn’t ask the questions our neighbors ask about God, those questions? Are THOSE the questions you mean?”
Many is the time I have heard a pastor or church leader lament the fact that the people do not open their bibles, that they seldom study God’s word or neglect to pray. What is so telling and convicting about this whole war of words is that this is exactly the opportunity to inspire and fire whole congregations to open their bibles and engage in honest, frank discussion about God’s character and what God will do. Because what we believe about God’s character both now and in the future absolutely will influence our own.
This is exactly the opportunity every lay man and lay woman, altar boy and nursery worker needs (and wants!) to study the scriptures and ask some very hard questions about the system of theology he/she has constructed and/or been taught.
Of course, I can see many of the more “fundamentalist” leaders nodding their heads in agreement with me. The fact is however, for many of these leaders the ends must justify the means. Put another way, it is all good and well to study these things as long as we leave the end-product, the heavy lifting, to the experts, the trained theologians. Only a self-described “orthodox” conclusion is acceptable in the end, else we’re all joining hands and skipping happily down the road to heresy. Never mind that God wants everybody to be a theologian, albeit at various levels of ability and understanding.
This is the opportunity folks.
This stuff, this hell business means a lot. To a lot of people. Lest we think it is so “un-orthodox,” out-of-line or heretical to consider that God in his wisdom may save more people than we think, that he may have thoughts and ways that are above ours, or that he may not require a prayer of salvation from each person as we’ve been taught or that perhaps Christ’s work can be sufficient for those who cry out to the unknown God, consider this: Paul had some pretty unorthodox thoughts about hell, too.
Like when he says he could wish that he himself were “cursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of his own people (Romans 9:1-3).
But wait!” say the self-described, bible-believing, orthodox fundamental Christian believers, “you can’t say that, Paul!” One can be sad, but must be okay with God pouring out his wrath on the unbeliever. The logic is simple – it may be hard to swallow, but the closer you are to God, the more it makes sense.
Lest we miss Paul’s point, his imagery is very graphic in nature. He wanted to make sure his hearers understood the exchange he would propose were it possible in this universe. It was an exchange that looked exactly like Christ’s – cursed, cut off from the community of God (and therefore God himself).
Where and how does St. Paul get away with undermining God’s plan for the unbeliever? Maybe he doesn’t, but you can’t deny he certainly wishes he could. Almost sounds like he’s beginning to feel like God does about this whole planet of depraved, wicked people made in his image, doesn’t it? (Ezekiel 18:32)
We get so wrapped around the axle, some of us, when professing “Christians” search the scriptures diligently to determine if the mystery hidden for long ages past and now revealed in Christ could be bigger than some of us imagined, when some wonder if it might include more people than those who enter the gate we moderns have co-opted or that it may not be as formulaic as we have supposed.
We love our formulas and we send people through hoops – something the Pharisees couldn’t get over either. The “Romans Road,” “five steps to faith,” these are easy to pick on. How about telling someone they need to 1) Understand and vocalize that they are sinners, 2) Understand that God is pure and holy and fully justified in torturing them forever and hear scriptures that support this, 3) Realize that God has graciously given his son over to redeem them from himself, 4) Repent (in word? in deed? How much?), 5) Become an active member of a local church (this usually means much of your time will be spent inside four walls learning about God’s love from a distance), 6) Spend lots of time reading the Bible, 7) Maintain an active prayer life, 8) spend time witnessing to his friends, neighbors and strangers, 9) Etc?
There are all sorts of formulas and theologies that have been distilled to their barest essentials over centuries. Systematic theologies, most of them. Because thats what we moderns do, and historical studies quickly bring to bear that this is really what people have always done. We make things as simple as we can and we try to keep things as low maintenance as we can because our minds and emotions and wills and needs and desires demand so much, which isn’t bad, except when we bring our desire to strip things to their barest essentials and apply it to God. By the way, I have a lot of respect for systematic theology…
I believe these things are true. I don’t believe God thinks like a modern human being, Christian pastor or no. All of the examples of salvation coming to someone in the New Testament defy the categories we have established. We point to something deep in the person’s heart as evidence of “what really happened” (funny how we could deduce that!).
What I find so strikingly odd about the whole debate is that otherwise mature individuals (including some very well-known and well-respected pastors of large churches with media reach that extends across the globe) have resorted to calling people out – not for faulty reasoning or logic, but for failure to take select passages of scripture as indicative of the whole.
Does this sound familiar? Remember when Martin Luther said he would rather like to get rid of the book of James because it didn’t seem to fit?
When our systems are challenged, it can lead to some real heat. As one voice wrote, “sometimes we need to step in an literally scare the hell out of people.”
Because that’s what Jesus did, right?
You might say that Jesus was responsible for the largest developments in our understanding of hell. If you did, you would be right.
Jesus gave honest warnings about hell. Was this his message, though? Was this his reason for coming, to scare us so badly that we would come trembling before the hard taskmaster? (Matthew 25:24-25) There is a sense of urgency about shifting gears – there needs to be. But there is a way – the way of Jesus.
Last I looked, he talked about separation from God as a possible and very real fact of life (and death). But he didn’t come to scare sheep into the pen, so why should we?