Editor’s Note: For the next several weeks, Patheos is hosting a conversation and book club on megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. This post by Greg Garrett is one response to the heated debate within the Evangelical and Mainline Protestant communities surrounding the book.
I wish I could say that I was more surprised that people were up in arms over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. By foregrounding the question of whether there truly is a hell, whether ultimately God might save all people, Rob Bell has struck a fork in a set of dangerous beliefs and pronounced them done.
Did Jesus the Son of God come to earth, live, die, and rise again solely so some Christians could experience streets of gold?
Did Jesus hang upon the cross outside Jerusalem because an angry God demanded some blood and death from somewhere or things were going to get ugly?
For too long, too many Christians have rooted their faith, such as it is, in avoiding one eternal fate and claiming another. In the process, many have made personal salvation the be-all and end-all of Christianity, which has often required defining who’s in and who’s out in a very clear way that may have little to do with the Bible or the tradition.
Do the historic creeds suggest that if we don’t assent to a set of beliefs, we will wind up in hell?
Do the historic creeds suggest anything more about the life of the world to come than that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end?
Eschatology has been a mystifying thing since the very beginnings of the Church—look at 2nd Thessalonians, written to explain why the end of things hadn’t worked out in the way 1st Thessalonians suggested. While it’s a natural human concern (Where do we go when we die?), the life and teachings of Jesus don’t center on what is coming, but on this life: The Kingdom of God has come among you, he proclaims, has come or is coming near. This “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” taught in many churches as the other-worldy Heaven to which we aspire is no such thing, as N. T. Wright and others affirm. And Jesus’s few apocalyptic teachings seem to refer to the future (his future) destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, not to something in our future.
None of us honestly know what is coming next until it comes—for us or for the cosmos. Will all of us be saved? Will any of us? Will we live in another realm? Will there be a new heaven and a new earth? Will, in fact, someone with horns and a pitchfork get thrown in a lake of fire?
As I wrote in The Other Jesus, nobody knows any of this stuff, although we have beliefs and suspicions.
So why do we fight about it?
Well, if I’m right and you’re wrong, I don’t have to change. I don’t even have to think about changing. I don’t have to think, period. If I’m right, God is going to send you to Hell, and I’m going to spend winters on the heavenly Riviera.
But if I’m wrong—then the world comes crashing down.
If any component of my flawlessly-constructed faith scaffolding collapses, what else might it bring with it?
So, easier to say: You don’t believe like we do?
You’re off the island.
As I understand Mr. Bell’s book, I may not agree with every element of it either. Nor do I need to. What I value is that he is asking people to think, to justify their beliefs, to do theology.
He is asking the most important question a disciple of Jesus can ask: What is Christianity about?
Is it about avoiding hell?
Is it about being upset that others we think really really deserve it might somehow avoid it?
Or is it possible that instead of being about something I can sit and wait for, Christian faith might actually be about something I should be doing right now, this very moment?
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including The Other Jesus from Westminster John Knox Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church. Garrett’s column, “Faithful Citizenship,” is published every Thursday on the Patheos Mainline Protestant portal.