Who wins? Thoughts on Rob Bell and Christian Feuds

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.

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9 responses to “Who wins? Thoughts on Rob Bell and Christian Feuds”

  1. As far as I am concerned, Greg Garrett’s thoughts Rob Bell’s book and what Christianity is all about are right on target! I haven’t read Bell’s book, but I. Having grown up between two strong willed traditions, worrying about my immortal soul and where it is going plagued my early spiritual life. I just could not believe that is what Christ wanted us to worry about.

    Then I noticed that Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven as being At Hand – right in front of us, right here, right now!

    It was as if God said to me, “Stop worrying about where you are going to go when you die. Stop judging other people about where they are going when they die.” I’ve learned to let God do that. He’s the creator of the universe. He can handle it!

    Our job is to participate in God’s reconcilliation! Love God and love our neighbors. Talk with God daily, talk with each other about God. As Greg put is so well, Do Theology!

    Let us be kind and respectful to each other whether we agree or not. That more than anything will determine our judgement. God will take care of the rest. Trust in God!

  2. “Do the historic creeds suggest that if we don’t assent to a set of beliefs, we will wind up in hell?”

    Nicea and Constantinople both expressly mention that Christ will return as a Judge. You glossed that part over in your paragraph. But why is he Judging?

    As for your question about historic creeds suggesting that if we don’t assent . . . you haven’t read too many creeds have you? Church history began when? Uh, the day you decided to first write about Church.

    Christ died to redeem his own from God’s wrath. That one is in the Bible.

  3. This new movement in Christian thought is very interesting to me. It seems that in a response to not appear exclusionary, Christians have swung in the opposite direction. You have no certain answers. Many Christians are so interested in appearing accepting and nonjudgmental that nothing (or very little) is left to the category of “wrong.”

    I know many Christians who have claimed to me that Christ indeed did come to love and not to judge. Yet, as an English scholar and book lover, I have read the Bible and it seems to me that Christ and the authors of the books of the Bible certainly did believe that some things were wrong.

    I know that you are well-versed on the scriptures, because I have read a couple of your books and several pieces by you, Greg. However, I still have to note that I think you are wrong. I think there are answers in the Bible to some of these things. To the Christians–if you stand for love, and charity, and being decent and good to others, then why can’t I do these things outside your religion? I would say to Christians like Greg and many others that I’ve been reading lately: you toe a line that leaves me wondering if you stand for anything of clear substance other than the feel-good formulas (and important formulas, no doubt) of being decent human beings?

  4. What I’m always surprised about when I discuss the possibility of universal salvation with some church folk, is the question “Well then why should I bother to be a Christian? ” as if it the faith had been a burden for them, as though they suspect non-Christians are having a WHOLE lot more fun they are, and at least they damn well better have more fun after they die. I don’t get it.

  5. Thanks for these comments. I wanted to ask why we fight over things that may or may not be essential to faith, and I think that’s where this questions lies. If God is moving in my life, I acknowledge that, and I try to live that out, whatever happens next is gravy.


  6. Question? What does John 3:16 say? What does “Shall not come into condemnation” mean? If there is no hell of punishment for those who do not believe, What does John 3:36 mean when it says that those who do not believe on the Son of God will have the Wrath of God on them,.

    You are teaching people that there is no hell when Jesus tells the story of such a place in Luke 16.

    The Bible teaches the truth. We cannot take only parts of it.

    Larry Golin

  7. Hi Greg,

    Excellent piece. I read a short interview with Eugene Peterson that echoed your closing sentiment re: focusing on what we do know–that Christ has called us to love God with all our heart mind soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves–rather than focusing on things that we can, at best, speculate about in an informed albeit imperfect way.

    Incidentally (and I don’t mean to spam your blog here but I couldn’t find a way to email you), I’m producing a documentary this year that seeks to do some of what you’re asking here–getting people (including me!) to think about, question and justify their beliefs about hell. You can read more about the film here: http://www.prlog.org/11383848-new-documentary-brings-hell-debate-to-the-big-screen.html

    You also must know a friend of mine–Chris Hansen.

  8. Mr. Greg and every child of God, The Bible, both the first and the last or the final covenant, were authored by the Holy Spirit. My friend it is without error. Simply because as it testifies of itself, it is God’s word and his word is truth. He is not the author of confusion. His word clearly states who he is, what he has created, why he created it and the purpose or role of man in his creation. The past, present and future existence of the world and the final condition of every man that ever lived as well as all of the heavenly hosts and they’re abode for all eternity. We can know this as a matter of fact without discrepancy, because it is his will that we may know it. OR, God is a liar. As a believer, albeit the least of all his children, I have been blest as are all true believers, with an understanding of his will through his written word. Not so for the unrepentant, only confusion and strong delusions until one employs what the creator asked the first of his creation to do, namely to ‘trust and obey’ him. Why were we born? To be like Jesus. Heaven is just a perk. Hell will be for the selfish and disobedient.

  9. Excellent piece. I read a short interview with Eugene Peterson that echoed your closing sentiment re: focusing on what we do know–that Christ has called us to love God with all our heart mind soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves–rather than focusing on things that we can, at best, speculate about in an informed albeit imperfect way.