By Alan Bean
Hell has always been a hot topic in America. Rob Bell’s Love Wins created such a pre-publication stir that the book debuted at number 2 on the New York Times best-seller list and remains on Amazon’s top 10.
Bell’s take on heaven and hell rests on the recent scholarship of folks like NT Wright (on the evangelical side) and Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (writing from a more liberal perspective). (Brian McLaren offers a slightly more cerebral, and original, popularization of this new scholarship.) The big idea is that salvation isn’t about going to heaven (or hell) when you die; eternal life (for better or worse) begins now.
In a recent chat with Welton Gaddy, Rob Bell offered this typically folksy summary of his perspective.
I start with the first century world of Jesus. Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within you.
So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. What happens when you die? He talks a little bit about that, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.” (My emphasis, along with a few quick edits)
“Let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now.” When I read this phrase, the American prison system sprang to mind. I have long believed that prison and hell are popular for the same reason: they validate the virtue of the good people and ensure that the bad people get what they deserve. As resentment, suspicion and vindictiveness grow, prison sentences lengthen and religion becomes more and more about what happens when you die. Prison is a kind of down payment on hell.
Widespread evangelical support for the use of torture in the “war on terror” should surprise no one. If it’s okay for God . . .
I’m not sure Rob Bell (or the scholars who inform his theology) know enough about the American Gulag to do much with the prison-hell connection, but somebody needs to. As Kathryn Gin has noted, the hell debate has a long history in America. In the 1930s, for instance, progressive missiologists like Pearl Buck argued for a new kind of Christian missionary who goes into the world seeking creative dialogue with adherents of the other great world religions. The goal of this new missions was cooperation rooted in shared belief.
The response was immediate. If Hindus, Jews and Muslims are hell-bound, it was argued, what could we possibly have to talk about? Since these people teeter on the brink of perdition, the search for common ground would simply worsen their spiritual plight. In short, the new missions advocated by Pearl Buck and wealthy patrons like John D. Rockefeller would lower the temperature of hell to the point that the “nerve of missions” would be effectively severed. If the heathen lose their fear of hell, why would they want to convert?
Is belief in hell, conceived as eternal conscious torment, an accurate precursor to Christian discipleship? A religion rooted in fear is unlikely to blossom into something beautiful. As Rob Bell argues below, the doctrine of eternal perdition, as commonly preached, is inconsistent with Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.
Nonetheless, hell is a stark this-world reality. Visit a prison near you and you will have little doubt of that.
REV. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST: Pastor Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins: [A Book About] Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” debuted at #2 on the New York Times best-seller list. Here’s the description: “Rob Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith-the afterlife-arguing, would a loving God send people to eternal torment forever…? Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly hopeful-eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.” Pastor Bell I know you’re on a book tour right now, so thank you for taking out time to join us on State of Belief Radio. REV. ROB BELL, GUEST: It’s great to be with you.
[WG]: Man, did you have any idea how much stuff you were going to stir up?
[RB]: No, I didn’t. I did not.
[WG]: I really have tried to imagine what you must feel like in seeing all of this, because I thought you poured out your heart in the book, and then here comes all of this furor around it. How are you feeling about that?
[RB]: Well, I share awareness, I think, with lots and lots and lots of people that sense that the Christian story has lost its plot in our culture. You say the word “Christian” for lots of people nowadays, and they have all sorts of images and associations that have next to nothing to do with who Jesus is and why he came. I believe god loves everybody and Jesus came to show us this love, give us this love so that we could experience it and share it with others, and I think lots and lots of people are desperate to hear good news. They know that there’s something more about this Jesus, but the, sort of, Christian packages they’ve seen just turn them off. So I get the extraordinary opportunity to interact with people, over and over and over again, who want to know this Jesus, and are thankful that we can have this kind of conversation. So it’s been incredibly encouraging and inspiring to me.
[WG]: Good, well, I saw one summary of the book that read: “Evangelical pastor writes book denying hell, catches hell for doing so.”
[RB]: What’s interesting about that is: I don’t deny hell. And in the book I clearly state: I see right now in our world greed, rape, abuse, financial scandals, I see genocide. We see hells on earth right now, so the idea that there is no hell… We see people rejecting the good and the true and the human all around us, all the time, so in the book I very clearly lay forward: the very nature of love is you have choice and you can make really destructive, toxic decisions now and, I assume, after you die, but that’s a funny comment, because it’s not true.
[WG]: Rob, what would be an accurate characterization of your place on the theological spectrum? You’re being billed as an evangelical pastor, is that the way you would identify yourself?
[RB]: If by the word “evangelical” you mean “good news,” I would love to be a person of good news.
[WG]: That is…
[RB]: So I love… The original use of that word comes from the first Christians; there was a global military super-power called the Roman Empire, and they had lots of military propaganda convincing people of its noble intentions while it went around the world basically crushing everybody in its path. And these first Christians took that military propaganda of a good news, of another city that Caesar had vanquished, and they used it to talk about Jesus, who they believed was the true Lord, who said there’s a better way to be in the world and that’s the way of sacrificial love and humble service. So if that’s what we mean by Good News, I’m all about it.
[WG]: I understand and I wish that that was the common definition, unfortunately it’s not; and I mean that raises a question I want to ask you. Where do we get this preoccupation with bad news; like, if religion is negative, somehow it’s more authentic?
[RB]: Right, right. And I’ve heard this over the past couple weeks. Somebody said: “You’re trying to communicate to modern people. You’re just trying to appeal to modern people.” Well, yeah. I think that’s what a Christian does. You want to tell this story. So, I also think, and I think you make great point: when you read the Gospels, Jesus is insisting to people that God is on their side. And that was a very, very subversive idea. When He says, “Your heavenly Father causes it to rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! No, we’re the righteous, they’re the unrighteous, God is on our side, God is not on their side, and so we have us and them, and when Jesus comes along and insists that you love your enemy because God loves enemy… This was very subversive, radical teaching. And I think to this day, the idea that God is on our side and He’s on everybody’s side, and God wants to know everybody… This is hard. For some reason religion likes to think “God’s with us and against them,” and so, it’s been radical from the beginning.
[WG]: I don’t want to make the mistake of fixating just on hell myself, so let me ask you to talk, if you will, about some of the main points that you get across in “Love Wins.”
[RB]: Excellent. One of the first things I do is start with the first century world of Jesus. And what you find for Jesus is, Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within in you. So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. And, sort of, what happens when you die… He talks a little bit about, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.”
[WG]: Has this been in your mind and heart for a long time? What prompted you to put it on paper?
[RB]: I’ll tell you, probably five years ago, I started, because I kept stumbling… In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to the renewal of all things; in Colossians 1, the apostle Paul talks about the reconciliation of all things. Peter in Acts 3:21 talks about the restoration of all things. This phrase “all things” comes up again and again and again in the Bible. It’s as expansive a term as you could come up with. And what really struck me is, I didn’t hear that many Christians talking about this biblical idea of all things being put back together, being reconciled, being renewed. And let’s read those, let’s study those, let’s talk about those; because that’s an expansive, inclusive vision of what this Jesus is up to in the world, and what God may have in mind. And that’s something, in my experience, a lot of people simply haven’t heard. So that’s probably where it started, a number of years ago.
[WG]: This is going to sound like a flip question and it’s not a flip question; but Rob, why do we have to have hell? I mean there are people who seem to resent the fact that there would even be an opportunity for some people to enjoy whatever is we call heaven. It’s like they resent that.
[RB]: Right, right. It’s very interesting. There is this fascinating letter called First Timothy, where the writer Paul says to Timothy: “God wants everybody to be saved,” which is quite astounding. So here you have, in the Scriptures, the Creator of the universe, according to one of these first Christians… The Creator of the universe wants everybody to be reconciled, to be healed, to be whole, to flourish in God’s good world… So that would, to me, appear to be a very basic longing, as we ought to long for that which God longs for. So, when someone comes along and almost seems bitter that the party in heaven may include more people, that isn’t a Christian longing or value. That’s going against sort of a basic longing of the Scriptures. And I think sometimes religion convinces people that, for them to be right, somebody else has to be wrong. And that can be quite destructive.
[WG]: Well, you are no stranger to controversies. Some of your past books include “Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality,” and “Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile.” Does the controversy get in the way of trying to get people to the truth?
[RB]: Well, it’s interesting, as I never set out to be controversial. What I’m interested in is the truth. I’m interested in the hunt, the exploration, the discovery… And I take very seriously hatt Jesus called disciples: and the disciples are students, it’s somebody who’s learning and growing. There is a sort of wide-eyed sense of wonder and awe, of “look what we stumbled across, look at this, check this out, have you seen this?” So I take very seriously being a disciple, which is rooted in humility. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re learning and growing, and our hearts are being transformed. So for me, I don’t actually find being controversial a noble goal. That was never the intent. I was always just interested in people meeting the resurrected Christ who I’ve met, and continue to experience over and over again. So I’ll accept that perhaps this is controversial from time to time, but it’s never been the goal. And yes, after a while of hearing the word “controversy” in interview after interview, it’s a little wearying.
[WG]: Sure sure. But you know, I think, and this is another important point, I believe, that the enthusiasm that the public is showing for your book, “Love Wins,” says something about organized religion, doesn’t it?
[RB]: Yes, and like, tonight I’m in Chicago and I’ll do an event, and the level of electricity, of excitement, and the number of people who say: “I always had these questions, I always wondered about this, I always knew there was another way to understanding this…” It’s really… It blows me away. Every night, at one of these events, I just… Wow. What an amazing thing to be a part of.
[WG]: Tell us, what has been your favorite comment from a reader, or, one or two of your favorite comments.
[RB]: There’ve been a number who have said, “You know, I might actually believe in God now.” And that’s from across the spectrum of every sort of background and non-religious background, every sort of background. That’s been a consistent theme: “You know what? I actually might… I think I might now follow this Jesus.”
[WG]: I know you’ve had some stunning negative comments.
[RB]: Apparently that’s the case. And if you don’t like the book – that’s fine. It’s just… It’s my contribution to a discussion that’s been going on for thousands of years; and if you don’t find it helpful that’s… No worries, that’s ok. That’s the beauty of it; it’s just part of the discussion.
[WG]: Are you going to follow this up with something else, are you working now on writing something else?
[RB]: I absolutely love to create things; whether it’s sermons, or books, or films, so I’ve always got…there is probably three of four books that I’m working on right now, and there is a film idea that I’m going produce, and there is this Sunday’s sermon… So, yes, more things are coming.
[WG]: Good, good, that’s great to hear. Well look, you’ve been talking to a lot of people, and in all kinds of media, for which I am grateful. Is there a final taught that you would share with us… And think about, what have you not been asked, or what have you wanted to talk about that you haven’t gotten to talk about much?
[RB]: Joy. Joy! There is joy to be experienced and had by all of us. And I have bumped into people… There was a woman a couple nights ago, a young woman, probably mid-twenties, whose young husband just died, and she’s going through all the sort of grief and all the sort of, you know, the horrible tragedy of losing your young husband… And yet, there is a spark of joy. I’ve seen people in extraordinary suffering; I’ve seen people in settings around the world with nothing, with a dollar a day to live on with joy. And faith should be about joy. It should be about living in this big, beautiful, mysterious, exotic world and finding joy in it, in spite of the suffering and the brokenness and the misery. There is joy here. For me, I happen to really love creating things, I love writing books, I love exploring ideas, I love presenting this Good News of Jesus to people… But I do it because it brings great joy, and that’s a gift. And it’s there for all of us. And that’s why I do what I do; and that’s what I believe is there to be able to be experienced by everybody: joy.
[WG]: Rob, you know, you may very well have studied the Bible too thoroughly, and understood it too clearly.
[RB]: Well. It is a fascinating, unpredictable, messy, exotic book that continues to fascinate me to no end. And I draw great life and inspiration from it.
[WG]: Pastor Rob Bell, of the Mars Hill Baptist church in Grand Rapids Michigan, is the author of numerous books. His latest, “Love Wins: [A Book About] Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” is a provocative, thoughtful, and ultimately generous meditation on meaning, and life, and afterlife… And you probably shouldn’t read it if you don’t want to feel better. Pastor Bell, great thanks for being with us on State of Belief Radio.
[RB]: You’re great. It was a good time. Thank you.