Hell isn’t for real?

Some people look at Newsweek‘s precipitous decline as an example of how to destroy a magazine. (Its most recent issue had six ads.) Other people apparently want to emulate it. Or so I’m led to believe by TIME magazine’s decision to have former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham write its cover story celebrating Rob Bell and his views on hell.

It’s like Newsweek never got dumped for a buck and Meacham never lost his job! You can get the same quality journalism you might have enjoyed in such hits as “The religious case for gay marriage.”

Now, we’re just a few days from Holy Week and everyone knows what that means — it’s time for the annual Christmas and Easter traditions that many mainstream media engage in. The Associated Press ran a story about it a four or five years ago that began:

It’s a predictable part of the Easter season: The period of reflection on the Crucifixion and Resurrection has become a popular time for marketers to roll out works — from the scholarly to the sensational — that challenge Christianity’s core beliefs.

In the last several years, churchgoers have been hit with a steady stream of claims that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, that he had a wife and kids, and that the Bible is a fraud.

But Meacham, being Episcopal himself, always tended toward the more mainline Christian covers subverting more traditional views. He’s the original evangelist for a universalist Christianity. The Bell story is a natural for him.

The piece is long and begins by discussing how awesome Gandhi was. Which reminds me, did you see this Wall Street Journal piece about Gandhi from a couple weeks ago? Scandalous.

Anyway, the piece is pretty much what you’d expect a mainliner to write about an evangelical who sounds like he’s adopting mainline religious views. And Meacham really is an excellent writer and an enjoyable read. This isn’t really a battle of normal Christian traditionalism (there’s a reason why Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans haven’t cared that much one way or the other about Bell’s book) but the piece rather artfully avoids those issues.

There is an error early on, where Meacham writes:

In North Carolina, a young pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.

Not true, as Brad discussed in a previous post.

Anyway, the piece caricaturizes traditionalist views on hell as being about an elaborate “incentive” structure rather than the language the church has traditionally used. He asks the hilarious question “If the verses about hell and judgment aren’t literal, what about the ones on adultery, say, or homosexuality?” Because if Christians have been wrong about hell for 2,000 years, the most important conclusion to draw is something about gay sex, am I right?

Meacham then reminds people about Harry Emerson Fosdick and all the good things he did for mainline churches before saying:

Bell is more at home with this expansive liberal tradition than he is with the old-time believers of Inherit the Wind.

Inherit the Wind? Inherit the Wind? So Bell is more like Fosdick than a group of mindless anti-intellectuals? Good to know. Then Meacham asserts:

Still, the dominant view of the righteous in heaven and the damned in hell owes more to the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake, than it does to history or to unambiguous biblical teaching.

Totally. It’s not like Jesus ever said in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

Meacham does concede later, briefly, that Jesus did talk about hell. But he doesn’t really get into content (in addition to the example above, the Cake video embedded refers to another parable with rather colorful hellfire language). Either way, to discount Jesus’ explanation of his own parable relative to Blake is a bit of a stretch. Meacham then asserts that Scripture was made by humans:

Like the Bible — a document that often contradicts itself and from which one can construct sharply different arguments — theology is the product of human hands and hearts.

I mean, I’m not going to go riot over Meacham’s claim, but while this is definitely the view of Meacham and many mainliners, this is not an uncontroversial claim. In my confession of faith, we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, the product of the Holy Spirit working through men. We take this incredibly seriously and we believe the Bible is to be treated with utmost reverence. This piece is heavy on reportage, which is its strength. But unlike other Meacham/Newsweek-type pieces, its rather significant point of view isn’t so obvious. It’s fine to make these claims in an opinion piece but it’s just bad journalism to assert this in a reported piece.

When Jesus spoke of the “kingdom of heaven,” he was most likely referring not to a place apart from earth, one of clouds and harps and an eternity with your grandmother, but to what he elsewhere called the “kingdom of God,” a world redeemed and renewed in ways beyond human imagination.

I don’t even know what this means. I mean, again with the caricatures of the grandma and the harps against things beyond imagination. I mean, seriously, I would criticize this line more if I had any idea what he was talking about.

If Bell is right about hell, then why do people need ecclesiastical traditions at all? Why aren’t the Salvation Army and the United Way sufficient institutions to enact a gospel of love, sparing us the talk of heaven and hellfire and damnation and all the rest of it? Why not close up the churches?

You know, I don’t expect the average person to know that the Salvation Army is a denomination. But some people, like big time religion writers, I do expect that of. Word to the wise: the Salvation Army is a denomination. Like the United Methodist Church is a denomination. It’s a church. It can’t be “sufficient” and needing to be “closed up” in the same breath.

You can imagine that this is my favorite part:

Fair enough, but let’s be honest: religion heals, but it also kills. Why support a supernatural belief system that, for instance, contributed to that minister in Florida’s burning of a Koran, which led to the deaths of innocent U.N. workers in Afghanistan?

“I think Jesus shares your critique,” Bell replies. “We don’t burn other people’s books. I think Jesus is fairly pissed off about it as well.”

I’m sure, like me, when you think of the belief system that led to the murders and rampages in Afghanistan, your mind immediately blames Christianity. Am I right?

Happy Easter!

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Thanks for the link to the Wall Street Journal article on Ghandi. Sometimes it is amazing to read “the rest of the story” about a religious-political icon.
    If a Catholic bishop today behaved and talked the way Ghandi did on many issues, there would be a deafening uproar of condemnation instead of unofficial canonization of him by some who treat Ghandi almost as a mini-god.

  • http://blog.emergingscholars.org Mike Hickerson

    Not only is the Salvation Army a denomination, but their doctrinal beliefs on hell are pretty clear:

    We believe in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, in the general judgment at the end of the world, in the eternal happiness of the righteous, and in the endless punishment of the wicked. [Emphasis added]

    BTW, great video choice. Once or twice, I’ve caught myself singing that song out loud before realizing how bizarre it sounds to any non-Cake-fans around me.

  • Martha

    Thank you, Mollie, I am now dumber for having read this piece.

    Not your fault, I hasten to add, but the effect of the usual article, which is best described by G. K. Chesteron in an essay entitled exactly that, “The Usual Article”, in the collection “The Thing”:

    “So it is with this familiar product, the Usual Article. It is not only too usual; it has become intolerably, insupportably, unbearably usual. It is appropriately described as “A Woman’s Cry to the Churches.” And I beg to announce that, though I am of a heavy and placid habit, and have never been accused of any such feminine graces as hysteria, yet, if I have to read this article three more times, I shall scream. My scream will be entitled, “A Man’s Cry to the Newspapers.”

    I will repeat somewhat hurriedly what the lady in question cried; for the reader knows it already by heart. The message of Christ was perfectly “simple”: that the cure of everything is Love; but since He was killed (I do not quite know why) for making this remark, great temples have been put up to Him and horrid people called priests have given the world nothing but “stones, amulets, formulas, shibboleths.” They also “quarrel eternally among themselves as to the placing of a button or the bending of a knee.” All this gives no comfort to the unhappy Christian, who apparently wishes to be comforted only by being told that he has a duty to his neighbour.”

    The problem is not so much that this kind of thing gets trotted out every Easter and Christmas; the problem is that it gets presented as some kind of startling new insight when it’s been knocking around for fifty years and more.

    I certainly hope “Newsweek” succeeds in selling more advertising, if it means that valuable space will not be taken up by The Usual Article :-)

  • Jerry

    Which reminds me, did you see this Wall Street Journal piece about Ghandi from a couple weeks ago?

    No I missed it but heard a lot of axes grinding when I just read it. It fits right in with that “grand” tradition that includes those that believe Washington was not that great and Lincoln was gay.

    When Jesus spoke of the “kingdom of heaven,” he was most likely referring not to a place apart from earth, one of clouds and harps and an eternity with your grandmother, but to what he elsewhere called the “kingdom of God,” a world redeemed and renewed in ways beyond human imagination.

    I don’t even know what this means.

    I think your dislike for the piece led you to make a mistake here. Your theology might not agree with his, but Jesus establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth is not unique to this piece. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_God has a number of references to a physical Kingdom of God on Earth.

  • CarlH

    And Meacham really is an excellent writer and an enjoyable read.

    I guess I clearly need to hone my skills at reading for the pure joy of admiring the craft of the writer instead of letting all those petty gut reactions (or gut over-reactions, for that matter) get in the way of the sheer enjoyment, even when deeply held, well-considered personal beliefs are being dismissed, disparaged or wildly mischaracterized (and apparently purposefully so) as part of the thrill ride. Of course, Mr. Meacham might well substitute “clutched” for my use of “held” there.

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    I’m not sure why the ‘Ghandi’ misspelling is so pervasively common. The name is ‘Gandhi’, it’s pronounced completely differently than it would be if it were spelled ‘Ghandi’. It’s not a trivial difference….can we please spell it correctly?

    (And no, as someone of Indian descent, I’m not an especially big fan of Gandhi- I’m much fonder of Nehru).

  • Dave G.

    the most important conclusion to draw is something about gay sex, am I right?

    Yeah.

    Which reminds me, did you see this Wall Street Journal piece about Gandhi from a couple weeks ago?

    No I missed it but heard a lot of axes grinding when I just read it. It fits right in with that “grand” tradition that includes those that believe Washington was not that great and Lincoln was gay.

    I noticed that, too. Sort of what comes around goes around. To a couple generations, Gandhi publicly filled the Jesus void (did anyone watch Attenborough’s epic and not expect to see Gandhi walking on water?). Now, as a generation emerges that sees Woodstock as far removed as storming the beaches of Normandy looked to my class, new icons are starting to be lined up for the appropriate treatment. Should be interesting.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    “Traditioanalist” was a funny word to use to describe Bell’s critics. Most of them seem to be Reformed/Calvinist– and much of the disagreement over the book seems to be between New Calvinists and non Calvinist Evangelicals over God’s wrath

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Very good presentation of the yearly (seasonally) goofiness! Yes, the article on Gandhi was eye-opening; I’m sure many people were amazed this saint was maybe not.

  • http://www.faithandgeekery.com Justin

    New Rule: When a blogger/journalist/author complains about “Western Christianity,” they must immediately identify three reasons why this term applies to the situation and how it specifically differs from non-Western Christianity.

    If you’re going down this road, be prepared to talk about what “non-western Christianity” practices in opposition to the topic. Otherwise you sound like the kid who refuses to go to “corporate” Wal-Mart to buy your music and prefers ITunes instead.

  • R9

    Well as someone outside of Christianity, the hell bit has always seemed rather disturbing (it’s the really terrible news that comes with the “good news”). I don’t really know how many Christians reject it, but I thought this pieces was quite informative.

    So the negativity and loud sighing in this thread is because of… doctrine being challenged again? Should religion get a free pass on that?

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Good, Justin.

    Also:
    Anyone invoking “Catholic doctrine” or “the Catholic church” must note how it differs from Protestant doctrine.

    Anyone ascribing views to “religion” must specify which religion(s).

  • Gail F

    R9: I’m afraid I don’t understand your post. Hell may come as a nasty shock to you, but it is one that Christianity has preached for 2000 years — so it’s hardly news. The Jews preached it long before that, although the history of Judaism is complicated and so not all Jews preached it, or meant the same thing by what they preached. Anyway, you are making the mistake of looking at Christianity the way you look at a cell phone plan: Something just made up, and easily changed. Religion is held by believers TO BE just as it is, one accepts it or not, one doesn’t change it to suit.

    And no, the problem with the piece is not that a doctrine or belief is being challenged, it’s that 1) the author doesn’t seem to understand what is being challenged in the first place, 2) the author does not seem to understand many of the churches and beliefs he is using as examples in his arguments, and 3) teachings about Hell have been challenged many times before. The last means a) it is not news, and b) anyone discussing those challenges is obliged to understand the previous challenges before writing about them. It’s sloppy, sensationalized, and wrong. Does that explain it any better?

  • Dave G.

    R9,

    I guess I missed all of the negativity and loud sighing in this thread. A couple dealt with the theology part. Seems as many have had fun with the Gandhi part as anything. A couple dealing with Meacham. A few wanting specifics. If you could cite some of the negativity and loud sighing that I seem to be missing, it might help be see if your assessment is correct.

    Oh, and this

    kid who refuses to go to “corporate” Wal-Mart to buy your music and prefers ITunes instead.

    Made me laugh out loud.

  • R9

    Gail F:

    It’s not a nasty *shock*. It is however, nasty. The fact that it has been taught a long time makes it interesting to me when Christians differ from the usual line on that.

    Also you have no objective grounds to say the way I look at religion is a mistake. It’s just different to your way.

    DaveG:

    Maybe I am reading too much into the response. It was more the “yawwwn usual article” thing. But I suspect people only post to say that when the content (And not just the reptition) of the Usual Article bothers them. (if completely disinterested they would pass by without comment).

  • Ben

    Regarding that WSJ review of the Gandhi book: The biographer who wrote the book doesn’t seem to agree with almost any of the major claims in the WSJ review. Here’s an interview with the biographer: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2011/03/29/gandhi.

    The reviewer clearly has never read Gandhi’s own autobiography in which he was fully open about sleeping beside Manu naked (but not touching). He did it because he felt he drew spiritual power from his ability to overcome his sex drive. It’s unorthodox and certainly questionable given the power differential, but it does need to be understood in the context of Gandhi’s theories — all of which he was open about. None of this is new research, it’s all in his autobiography.

  • http://www.fpcjackson.org Ligon Duncan

    Outstanding. GetReligion does it again. Thanks.

  • http://blog.emergingscholars.org Mike Hickerson

    @bob smietana:

    Most of them seem to be Reformed/Calvinist— and much of the disagreement over the book seems to be between New Calvinists and non Calvinist Evangelicals over God’s wrath

    That’s my take, too – most of Bell’s strongest critics came from the Reformed camp. The disagreement also deals with the nature of Christian disagreement and the boundaries of evangelical Christianity. The Bell controversy is part of an ongoing debate between two camps of evangelicals with different visions for Christian unity. This 2010 article by Brett McCracken describes the divide well.


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