Is Gandhi in hell? Is Hitler in heaven?
Evangelical pastor Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins has caused quite a controversy in Christian circles. Some see it as a breath of fresh air while others simply call it heresy. I’ve been a universalist since before I understood the term, but I grew up in an evangelical church and I wanted see for myself what Bell had to say “about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.”
The book itself is concise and engaging. It’s a fast read – I finished it in one evening… though if I was still struggling with these issues it might have taken much longer to contemplate each point. If you are a Christian of any persuasion, or if you find yourself in religious discussions with Christians, I strongly encourage you to read this book.
Many of Bell’s arguments are familiar. They’re the same thoughts that led me to leave exclusivist Christianity and become – among other things – a Unitarian Universalist. A god who would mete out infinite punishment for finite sins is not a just God. If salvation comes only to those who “accept Jesus as their savior” then the odds are stacked against people born in non-Christian countries. And just how do you go about “accepting Jesus” anyway? The Bible isn’t exactly clear (despite the black/white doctrines some Christians have created around this issue) and Jesus himself was downright cryptic about it.
Bell is not a universalist, but he doesn’t miss it by much. He argues that heaven and hell are not “up there” and “down there” but exist here and now. Heaven is where the will of God is done and hell is where the will of God is rejected – and the will of God is Love. He best illustrates this with the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son, who squandered his inheritance, comes home in shame but is welcomed by the father with a great celebration. The older son, who had stayed home and worked hard, is angry and jealous because he never got a party.
Two brothers are at the same celebration – one experiencing heaven and the other experiencing hell.
For Bell, the central question is “does God get what God wants?” If God truly loves all Creation and truly desires that all will be saved and if – as conservative Christianity teaches – most of the world ends up in hell for all eternity, then God has failed. Bell doesn’t think God is going to fail.
Love Wins is more than an intellectual argument, more than proof-texting to prove a point. Like Jesus, Rob Bell seldom answers a question with a black/white answer. In an essay on Huffington Post, he says:
We are wise to pause here and remember that Jesus rarely answered someone’s question with a direct yes or no or with an even remotely straight forward answer. He tells a story, he spins a parable, he points to flowers and birds. This isn’t because he’s avoiding the questions or he’s scared to come clean on where he really stands. It’s because he understands that some truths can’t be crammed into sound-bytes.
Ultimately, this may be Rob Bell’s greatest contribution to Christianity and to religion in general – moving it away from literalism. We don’t understand religious mysteries by concocting elaborate doctrines of textual citations and logical inferences. We understand them by engaging them through rituals and stories and direct experience.
Is Gandhi in hell?
This is the challenge for Christian exclusivists – how could a just God send one of the most Christ-like people of our era into eternal torment? Rob Bell gives no simple answers, but his thoughts are clear – Gandhi is not in hell.
Is Hitler in heaven?
This is the challenge for universalists – how could a just God allow a genocidal mass murderer into heaven? Bell doesn’t mention Hitler, but again, his thoughts are clear – Hitler isn’t in heaven.
God gets what God wants – Love wins.
Now, what does this have to do with those of us who don’t accept the whole heaven or hell dichotomy?
Christianity is the largest religion in the world and the dominant religion in the United States. Although it has been in decline for the last few centuries, it isn’t going away any time soon, and certainly not in our lifetime. Many people believe their brand of Christians are going to heaven and everyone else is going to hell not because they’ve studied the Bible and examined the arguments but because that’s what they’ve always been taught and they’ve never questioned it.
These folks aren’t likely to listen to Buddhists or Pagans or Humanists and they certainly won’t listen to abrasive New Atheists. But they’ll listen to one of their own. They won’t listen to the story of Gaia but they’ll listen to the story of Jesus.
Imagine some of these folks – not all, let’s not get carried away, but some – not trying to qualify for the Kingdom of God and instead working to build the Kingdom of God right here right now. Imagine some of these folks not trying to shove Jesus down other people’s throats and instead living like Jesus right here right now. Imagine some of these folks not worrying about saving people from a mythical hell after death and instead working to save people from a thousand literal hells right here right now.
Rob Bell and I don’t tell the same story, but we share a vision of the way things could be. Rob Bell and Christians like him are our allies and we need to support them.
Love wins – and we stand on the side of love.