Beginning tomorrow, Patheos is hosting a discussion of Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins. I’ve posted some opening thoughts already. The fate of non-believers is one of the most challenging issues facing evangelicals today, in part because it tends to divide evangelical on generational, cultural and social-political lines. It also unearths a whole host of related issues, such as the authority of scripture, the work of Christ, and the nature of God. We thought it would be worthwhile to host a conversation and to try to make that conversation as charitable and constructive as possible.
Last night, Bell’s publisher, HarperOne, hosted an event to celebrate the launch of the book today. Bell was interviewed by Lisa Miller, an award-winning writer on religious issues for Newsweek. I will post the entire transcript tomorrow as a part of the Book Club discussion (please bookmark it), but today I wanted to post the parts of the conversation that concern salvation and hell, since the controversy has centered on these issues. So, below is the transcript (it’s not short) of the most important parts for our purposes.
Note: I post this as a resource for the conversation. Feel free to cut and paste, but please link back here. Tomorrow I will post my own review of the book – which will be fairly critical, alas.
I believe that God is love, and I believe that Jesus came to show us this love, to give us this love, to teach us about this love so that we could live in this love and then we could extend it to others. The first people who heard this message responded with, “Now, that’s good news.” I believe our world desperately needs good news. When you hear the word Christian, what words come to mind? When you hear the word Christian, do you immediately think, “Oh yeah, the people who never stop talking about God’s love for everybody?’ Or do a number of other images and associations come up? And I believe there are moments when we have to return to our roots and acknowledge that perhaps we’ve lost the plot along the way, and we need to return to the simplicity of God is love and that God send Jesus to show us this love so that we might know this love and extend this love to others.’
I never set out to be controversial. Dramatic pause. [Laughter] I actually don’t think it’s a noble goal. I don’t think God honors it when people set out to be shocking or dangerous or provocative. My interest is in what’s true. And where is the life? And where is the heart? And what inspires? And if that happens to stir up a few things, which I’m told it does from time to time, that’s something I accept. But what’s interesting to me is the conversation. What compels me is that for thousands of years people have been conversing about what matters most. The Bible itself records this cacophonous conversation. You have laments and poems and people arguing with each other, people shaking their fists at the heavens, people hearing, speaking, singing, writing letters, recording what happened, passing along all of these fragments and ideas and words of encouragement and hope and conviction. So when we gather here, it is an ancient, holy thing that we are doing, when we take part in this conversation that has been going on across the ages.
I have lobbed a book into this conversation, which releases tomorrow. But I throw this book into the conversation with the awareness that it is one more voice, and every voice matters when we’re talking about the things that matter most. In some ways I’m not talking about anything new. These ideas and these discussions and trying to wrestle with these questions and come up with answers and explanations that might actually give us life and guidance and hope and help us to know God better and be better followers of Jesus, this is something that has gone on for thousands of years. So the fact that you are here tonight and you are in on the discussion, I think is a beautiful thing. So, are you with me now?
According to polls, 81% of Americans believe in heaven and according to a Newsweek poll 8 or 10 years ago, 70 percent of those believers think of heaven as a real place. By which I think they mean a geographical location. Is heaven a real place, a geographical location that is not right here and right now?
I think heaven is a real place that exists. I saw with a man last year who was a couple days from dying of cancer. He is moments from taking his last breath, but he was very clear and lucid. He kept saying, “If only people know, if only they could get it.” Get what? The peace and joy and the stillness and calm with everything being all right is available. It’s available here. It’s available now. I just wish people knew – and his body is moments from saying, I’m done.
My experience has been that we bump up against this reality all the time, and we bump up against people who are experiencing it? Do I think there’s a place with streets of gold and everybody has a Ferarri? That probably has more to do with cartoons than anything.
So, in the Middle Ages, the monks made maps with heaven somewhere on the map. It’s over here or over there. Is there a secret door?
Jesus turns the whole discussion upside-down. He comes from a first-centry Jewish world view, and he keeps insisting, actually God is interested in restoring you and restoring this world. God made a world and he calls it good, and so the fundamental story that unfolds is Jesus, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. So he thinks of it as a real place. The father is in heaven. And yet it’s always heaven and earth becoming one. So as opposed to the “How do we get there?” his interest is “How do we bring there here?” Now that’s a much different kind of discussion.
Where are the souls of the people I love who are passed away right now?
The assumption is that, because physical bodies are buried, that they are disembodied. So you have soul, you have essence, people have used different words. They are nevertheless real and conscious and alive. Others say that everyone is sort of asleep, and at some moment in the future everybody will wake up. There’s endless speculation about that.
What would you say?
I’d say there’s endless speculation about that. [Laughter] Actually, I’d say it’s very important when you’re bumping up against [mystery], to not turn your speculation into dogma. And I think we’ve seen a lot of that, which is people saying, “This person’s there, this person’s there, this is how this will unfold.” But we have no available video evidence. So I think it’s very important for people of faith to say, yes, I believe in heaven. Yes, I believe it’s real. Yes I believe it’s somehow intermingled with this reality, and yet somehow separate from this reality. How exactly all of that works out, I don’t know. But I know within each of us are very profound longings, and I think that those longings, like C. S. Lewis says, you don’t have longings for things that don’t exist. And beyond that, there is a point where we are firmly into mystery and speculation. Let’s enjoy that speculation, but when someone drives their stake into the ground and says, “No it’s this.” Well, great, that’s what you think.
Let’s get right to it. You have been accused in a lot of the coverage of your book of being a universalist. A universalist, in theological terms, means that everybody gets to go to heaven – everybody is allowed to go to heaven. That means Buddhists, Hindus – you can reinterpret my definition when I’m done – Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Atheists, all get to go to heaven. Are you a universalist?
No – if by universalist we mean there’s a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point, whether you want to be there or not. And this is why. A couple years ago I did a wedding. The father of the bride made it really clear that he despised the groom, in a multitude of ways. And so, in the ceremony, when he walked his daughter down, and the father of the bride hands the bride off to the groom, he said “She’s yours now” [in a grouchy voice] in front of everybody. It was like, awkward! We could all just feel the love in the room. This father of the bride single-handedly cast the most oppressive dark cloud on the whole occasion, because parties are terrible when there’s somebody there who doesn’t want to be there. So, if by universalist we mean that love doesn’t win, and God sort of co-opts the human heart and says, “You’re coming here and you’re going to like it,” that violates the laws of love. Love is about freedom, it’s about choice. It’s about, “Do you want to be here?” Because that’s what would make it heaven. If you’re there, and you don’t want to be–
Now, do I think all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of labels, will be – yes, I think heaven’s full of surprises. And I think Jesus brought this up again and again and again. He told all sorts of stories about how all the people who were supposed to be in might be out and the people who are out might be in. This was central to his teaching. Like, ah-ah-ah, be careful. God’s middle name is surprise. That’s not actually a verse [laughter], but I like it.
This belief of yours, that good people — define what gets you in.
I begin with this. I begin with the reality of heaven and hell right now: greed, injustice, rape, abuse. We see hell on earth all around us, all the time. So I begin with these realities here and now. And we actually see lots of people choosing hell. We see oppression, we see tyranny, we see dictators using their power to eliminate the opposition, literally, with bullets and guns and fire. So, we see hells on earth right now. There are those [hells] we create on our own, and there are those that are somebody else’s spilled onto us.
So, if I’m an atheist who gives to the poor, helps little ladies across the street, spends all my free time in charitable works. Am I going to heaven?
Well, the essence of grace is Jesus saying, “Left to your own, we are all in deep trouble. We have made a mess of this place. We are all sinners. No one has clean hands.” So, the essence of his gospel was, Trust me, I’ll take care of it. Just trust me.
Now, how exactly does that work out? Because he [Jesus] is unbelievably exclusive. He says these things like, “I’m the way and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through me.” He says things like, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God.” He’s very exclusive. He’s also fantastically inclusive; he says things like, “I have other sheep.” He says “there will be a renewal of all things — I’ll be lifted up and draw all people to myself.” So he’s like in-ex-clusive. That’s a word I just made up. [Laughter]
So I think what happens, especially for followers of Jesus, is that they like his exclusive claims, that are often at the expense of the other things that he says, which are “Be careful, because I’m doing something for everybody.” And how exactly that pans out? That’s God’s job.
Right. So, this sort-of universalism that you’re preaching, that’s exclusive and inclusive, has offended some people who call themselves more orthodox than you. But I’ll tell you something: my mainline Protestant friends have a big conflict with the word “orthodox,” and certain people claiming to be orthodox. But there is something in here that offends me. And it’s not the universalist part. But it’s what you just said: that Jesus is the mechanism through which we all will get there.
Yeah, I understand.
So, I’m Jewish. Many of my relatives died in Europe for being Jewish. They would be appalled to think that their salvation was dependent on Jesus, because they died for being Jewish. So are you sure that Jesus is the mechanism?
Well, I would say this. In the Torah, when Moses strikes the rock and water flows from the rock, that’s a beautiful story for people who were thirsty and were told that, through Moses, God provides them with water. Then later – you know where I’m going with this – Paul is like, “Oh yeah, that water was Christ.” But he speaks of this Christ who is the Word of God who is the animating force of the universe. He broadens this way, way wide. Then he adds almost no commentary .He just says, “God has been rescuing people, redeeming people for thousands of years. We’ve seen this throughout history.” And then he sort of lets that just sit there. So that means that the Bible itself creates all sorts of space there.
Now, of course the Christian answers your question with, “Yeah, they’re going to get there, and they’re going to find out that…It was you all along.” That is a great question, and I Think it is most important for a Christian at this moment to be incredibly gracious and generous. And say, “He comes and he says, ‘I’m showing you what God’s like. I came to make the Torah speak. I came to show you compassion, I came to show you generosity, how to love your enemies. I came to show you how to make a better world.’ Does anybody have a problem with that? No? Great.
Then, he does say things like, very divisive sort of…but then he also says things like, Well, if you’re not against me, then you’re for me. [Actually, this is wrong.] He is a paradox. He is, within himself, bears tremendous tension. And we’ve been trying to figure that out for thousands of years.
Do creeds matter, in terms of getting into heaven?
Like if you say certain things? Like, if you get these 11 things in a row…?
Yeah, if you make a certain kind of declaration once a week, or every day…
I think creeds are very, very helpful for lots of people because they take a confession of faith and put it in a succinct form. I think there’s great life there. But then you have other stories, like, in the gospels it’s all over the map, these guys lower their friend down through a whole in the roof. And Jesus says, “Because of their faith” – to the man – “your sins are forgiven.” Well, what’s that [about]? Or a man named Zacchaeus says, “If I’ve taken anything from anybody, I’ll give it back.” And Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Which is a play on words, because that’s his name. But if you actually read the gospels, you see that people receive this grace, they affirm this, they experience this, in as many ways almost as there are people.So yes, creeds are terribly powerful. Do I think that if you say certain things every Sunday, that somehow magically does something? No.
I’m getting to this question that through history has been called the faith versus works question. Do you get to heaven because God – I can even leave aside Jesus – [do you get to heaven] because God is great and supernatural and God is God? Or do you get to heaven because you’ve helped the old lady across the street and have given to charity? Because you’ve taken care of the poor and you’ve cared for the sick?
I think that at the core of faith is trust. And I would use “childlike” very intentionally: a childlike trust that God is good. And that ultimately we’re okay. And I think that is a simple, beautiful, pure thing that can be complicated ferociously by all sorts of intellectual categories of assent and affirmation. And I think that, out of that experience, out of that awareness that life is a gift, that this next breath is a gift, that we are the recipients of this absolutely, unbelievably pure thing called life. Like Heschel said, “To remember,” that’s what we do.
And out of that, out of that gratitude and that love, you naturally want to share this with the world. So you actually do help the lady off the street, not because you think this gets you something, but because you are aware that you already have something that’s worth the universe. And out of that, who doesn’t respond with, “Yes, I will help that lady across the street?”
Your book has been, even before anyone had read it, criticized as being heretical. It seemed to me that a lot of the stuff that you write in the book is stuff that other people have written before. [Laughter] I mean that in the nicest way.
Yeah, actually in the Preface I say that there’s nothing new here.
So, tell me what’s so controversial about it?
I guess other people could answer that better. I think that grace and love always rattle people. As soon as you say that perhaps this particular little club of people, who have decided they’re the orthodox ones, as soon as you say, “I think it might be a little wider than that,” then you’re threatening whole systems. You’re threatening whole ways of thinking, and that’s, that’s threatening.
I guess what I’m asking is, aren’t you just a mainline Protestant posing as an evangelical? Aren’t you just saying what Episcopalians have been saying for fifty or sixty years?
Do I make some claims to originality? No. Do I think that I am evangelical and orthodox to the bone? Yes. And I actually think that orthodoxy is a terribly wide, diverse stream. I think that’s the real question here: the endless religious compulsion to say, “We’re in, you’re out,” [the compulsion] to constantly narrow it and all of that. And I think that vibrant, real, historic Christian faith is wide and leaves lots and lots of rooms for lots of varying perspectives.
When people say, How can you say that? Well, lots of people have said that. And they’re firmly within the Jesus tribe. It’s very diverse and wide. That’s okay. That’s actually part of its strength, its life and its vibrancy. That’s why it’s so beautiful to me. And evangelical means “good news,” the announcement of good news. It should be a buoyant, hopeful, joyous thing. People who want nothing to do with Christians could say, “The things you’re talking about, and the way that you’re living and moving in the world, that is good news.” I think we need to reclaim that. Is anybody with me now? [applause]
[From the audience:] Let’s say, hypothetically, I’m an atheist, and I don’t want anything to do with God. Would it be loving for God to put me in heaven if I didn’t want anything to do with him?
If you were an atheist, would it be loving for God…? Well, I begin with God is love and love demands freedom. And God gives us what we want. And for somebody who is like, “I want nothing to do with peace, joy, reconciliation, forgiveness, joy, generosity, really really good food and wine,” I sort of just begin at a very simple level. I believe God gives us what we want.
If someone’s like, “No way, I don’t want that.” Then God says, “Okay, okay.”
[Lisa Miller] Sorry, can I interrupt? Isn’t that completely self-interested? Isn’t that like, “I want wine, you want beer, I want Chinese food, you want Indian food. What does that have to do with God? What does God care about Indian food or Chinese food or beer? I mean, isn’t heaven about being with God?
Yes, but once again I would bring it back to everyday sort of things. As a pastor, I see people make unbelievably destructive choices. And when sort of it is laid out, you realize that you’re miserable. You realize that this choice is, you yourself have said, I’m in agony. The people around you are dying, watching you do this. And the person says, yep, and I’m going to keep doing it. You know what I mean? You get the whole intervention thing, whether it’s drugs or whatever…”We all love you so much. We’re begging you to [change your ways]…” “Nah.”
I’ve seen that. We all have, where you see the hardness of the human heart. It makes no sense. People claim to a path that is destructive, they are “hell bent,” sometimes we say, and it’s a fundamental mystery of the human heart, why we would see – and you could even say, you know if you choose this way it will be joyful and it will be satisfying and…yeah, I know. But I’m going to do this.
So we see that around us all the time. I assume that sort of choice, ability, option, continues on into the future. Now your whole question about Chinese food in heaven, I’ll have to think about.
[Audience:] I have a question specifically about Matthew 7. What would you do with the passage that talks about specifically, “Wide is the road that leads to destruction and narrow is the path that leads to life.” What would you do with that passage?
I think it’s a great passage because the things in life that matter take incredible intention. I think it’s a passage, ultimately, about intention, and about the power of devoting yourself to something and to somebody.
So let’s take marriage. Marriage doesn’t take much work at all. You just get along with this person fantastically, year after year after year. [Laughter] No, I mean, let’s be honest. There are a thousand ways every day for marriage to…broad is the path. Do you know what I mean? All the different ways in which it can unravel, to where somebody is on the couch. So, for it to work takes extraordinary intention. It is a narrow way. It is saying, we are going to devote ourselves to this. And we are going to not give up, and we are going to work and persevere.
So, first off, at a basic level, athletes who train. There are lots and lots of distractions. Kierkegaard says that a saint is the person who wills the one thing. So, so, narrow is the way. Jesus I think is speaking of all the different ways we lose the plot of what it means to be human. So there was a very real political climate that he lived in, and a number of people said that the thing we are to do as the people of God is we are to pick up swords, and we are to fight the Romans.
He’s like, okay, the sword thing? We’ve tried that. Let’s reclaim what it means to be alight to the world. He takes them all the way back into their history, which was a narrow way. So I think it works. And the beautiful thing for me about Jesus’ teaching is that they work at all these different levels. They are fundamental truths about how the world works, they were very clear warnings and teachings and guidance, for people he was interacting with. Real people in a real place who had real struggles. And actually, when I recently preached that at our church, and I told the story that there’s this freeway near where our church is. When you get on that freeway, the traffic is flying, and you have this really narrow way to merge. If you don’t merge and get over to the left really quickly, and you take your life into your hands every time, you end up going to Muskegon. And you don’t want to go to Muskegon.
So I did this whole thing on broad is the way to Muskegon. Which I’mr ealizing now is an inside joke. [Laughter] Sorry.
[Miller:] Here’s a question from Ben from Ohio. Is there a hell? And if not, does that take anything away from the cross?
I actually think there is hell, because we see hell everyday. We can resist, and we can reject what it means to be fully human and good and decent and compassionate. So yes, I think there is. We have that choice now, and I assume we have that choice on into the future. Yes, thank you Ben.
[Dr. Ron Walborne, dean of the Alliance Theological Seminary at Nyack:] My seminary and my stream that I come from is very focused on the great commission – and hopefully with the Great Commandment spirit as we go. But if we lose the concept of hell, and I’m not sure I understood – do you believe that hell is a real place? Or is it just hell on earth? And if we do de-emphasize the doctrine of hell, what does that do to the motivation of Christian mission?
That’s a great question. First let’s talk about hell. It’s absolutely crucial that we come face to face with the power of our choices. We can choose the way of compassion, the way of forgiveness, the way of generosity. Or we can choose other paths, and those have very real consequences in the world. So I always begin with: this is absolutely crucial.
And in terms of the Great Commission, I love that Jesus said “Go and make disciples, baptizing or immersing them in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” And there’s one way of seeing that [baptism] as immersing them in a Trinitarian community. So go out and announce this good news to people, proclaim God’s love, proclaim God’s rescue effort that God is pursuing people, and then invite them into your community where they can experience the love of God as it is shared and passed around and extended to each other.
So at our church, we often say, “The good news is better than that.” There’s actually a chapter in the book on that. There is a story, it is being told in human history, and Jesus invites us into the story and then to share the story with others. I think that’s absolutely at the center. And the real challenge for Christians, when it comes to witnessing and evangelism is, “Do you actually think this is a great story?”
We actually have classes at our church where people just sit around and talk about their story. Let’s talk about what you’ve been through. The hell you’ve been through – and what happened when you encountered grace. There is a couple from our church who, I think they had four or five miscarriages. It was absolutely excruciating to watch them go through it. This wasn’t the plan. So they started a group for couples who are trying to get pregnant and cannot. Had no curriculum. Just, let’s get in a living room and tell our stories. And the stories that have come out of just that group, of God’s grace meeting people in extraordinary sort of despair and suffering. And we say that’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. Let’s tell that Jesus story over and over again. It’s beautiful. Excellent question.
[Audience:] It seems to me that universalists and annihilationists are trying to reconcile God’s love with God’s wrath. Can God be both loving and just?
Yes. And actually that’s something I explore in the book, is there has been this human longing and desire for God to fix the world, essentially. To say, no more greed, we can’t have that here. No more exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. We can’t have that here. So there has been this Prophet Amos, “Let justice roll like a river.” This human ache to see those who have corrupted their power, who are using coercive violence to force others into all sorts of destructive things. So there is this longing for justice, so at the heart of the Jewish and the Christian understanding has been this longing for a day – you find it called The Day of the Lord, you find it called The Judgment Day – you have this, God saying “No longer here. If you want to do that, you can’t do it here. Out.” Or something along those lines.
You also have this side-by-side, God’s endless affirmation, God wants everybody to be saved. Psalm 22, “All people will be at the great banquet.” So you have the possibility of every single person being rescued, you have this sort of longing, and then you have this longing for justice. They sit side by side. If you get rid of that tension, the western mind, the modern mind, loves “is it this or is it this? Which are you? Are you left or right, conservative or liberal?” The Hebrew mind in the scriptures is okay with these things being true. And one of the things I explore in the book is that at the end of the Bible, at the end of the Book of Revelation, is this picture of a city, this renewed, restored city, heaven on earth come together now and God is dwelling with people. And then there are people who aren’t in it. And those are the people who choose to lie and murder and all those sorts of things. And then there’s this beautiful thing. It’s almost like the writer does another one of those wink-wink, nudge-nudge, “There’s this gate in the city, and it never shuts.”
Huh? Can you go….? It’s this picture and it doesn’t get resolved. It just sits there. And I think it’s important that we just let it sit there, side by side.
[Audience:] So, you haven’t proposed to any of us that you are answering all the questions. And we know that this is not the first time that this issue has been dragged up to be discussed with intensity in church history. But you have dragged it up. You feel motivated, your community feels motivated, and there are many people who probably feel motivated to look at ways we’ve thought about heaven and hell and etcetera, or the ways we’ve communicated about it. My question to you is: What is your concern if we ignore talking about it? If we aren’t to discuss current situations, views, ways it’s being looked at around the world…If we ignore that, if we just let it be the status quo, what are your greatest concerns?
That’s a great question. There are so many people who have had the same sort of question in front of me. First off, millions and millions and millions of people, the fundamental way they were told about Jesus was, God loves you, God has a wonderful plan for your life, God loves you so much that God sent Jesus because God wants a relationship with you, and all you have to do is accept, trust, believe. If tonight, you reject what I’ms aying to you right now, and you are hit on the car being home – which is, as KAnye West would say, an awkward way to start a conversation – but God would then have no choice but to punish you eternally with torment and fire in hell. So God would, in that split second, become a totally different being. If there was an earthly father who was like that, this one moment, this the next, we would call the authorities. Correct?
And my experience as a pastor, answering real questions from real people, is that lots of people have really really really toxic dangerous, psychologically devastating images of God in their head. Images of a God who’s not good. So my experience has been, lots of people go to church, they sing the songs, they hand out the pamphlets, they really want…but to be honest, deep down they have profound ambivalence about God. So we can talk about the Bible, we can talk about Heaven and Hell, we can discuss all this, but at its core – the question behind the question behind the question, the mystery behind the mystery behind the mystery – they have a view of a God who is terrible, that they can’t even imagine being loving, or wanting anything to do with.
And over and over and over again, I’ve interacted with people who, sort of, “Okay, I realize you brought me this question, but what do you really think is behind this? Who is the God behind?” You end up with them saying, Actually, I think the universe might be a really awful place. It might be terribly unsafe. God might be like my abusive father.” So I think it’s really important that we talk about this because what happens is, sometimes people are talking about good news, they’re talking about Jesus, and yet you’re smelling the God behind it, going “Whatever your’e talking about, the God behind that, I can’t trust, is not good.” So in some senses, God being good is such a fresh, radical, new idea.
There is a woman who comes up to me every Sunday at our church. She hands me a piece of paper. It’s half of an 8-by-11 sheet, and it’s folded in half. She walks away, we smile, I give her a hug, we talk for a moment, and she walks away. And on the sheet of paper is a number, and it is the number of days since she last cut herself. She told me about a year ago that every man she’d ever been with hit her. So when she hears about love, her experience of life has not been love. And just a couple weeks ago, she crossed the 365 day mark. So we brought her up on stage and I introduced her and said this is her name and she’s celebrating one year without cutting herself. And it was a beautiful, beautiful moment, to say the least.
But for her, it’s like a whole new rewiring of her heart and mind is going on. And that’s what all of this means to me. I love the discussion, I love the speculation, I love all the different theories, but ultimately for me its like, I don’t want her to cut anymore. It’s like, that simple. I want to see her experience good news. I want her to experience love. I don’t want her to live with these sorts of images and messages she’s been sent about who God is and what life is ultimately like and whether the universe is even a place that she can call home. I want her to give me another sheet of paper, and I want us to get to two years.
So I realize in these questions, I stumble a bunch. I realize I wander all over the place. I realize that. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a scholar. I’m not very smart. But I do know that there is good news. And I’ve seen it in action. And that’s something that’s worth talking about.