Or we could look at it this way. What we’re really talking about here in our dispute with Team Hell isn’t just “What about Gandhi?” — it’s also “What about Ninevah?”
Scores of evangelical pastors and authors have condemned Rob Bell for asking “Will billions and billions of people burn forever in Hell?” and for expressing discomfort at the idea.
But Bell’s question echoes this earlier question:
And should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?
That question — the last words, the punchline of the book of Jonah — is nearly identical in substance to Bell’s question, but the tone is much angrier. That makes sense. Bell is a step removed from the subject. He’s asking, “Just what kind of cruel God do you think God is?” The latter question is more direct, more personal. It is God Almighty saying, “Just what kind of cruel God do you think I am?”
I bring up the book of Jonah here because its place in the Bible provides one of the clearest examples of another dynamic that frustrates any attempt at a conversation between Team Love and Team Hell.
Jonah is a polemic — a guided missile of a story in which the author takes aim at the opposing point of view with the intent to destroy it utterly. It’s a brutal piece of work. The author wasn’t trying to present a civil, charitable, fair-minded assessment of the opposing viewpoint. The author, rather, was trying to ridicule that view out of existence, to burn it down and salt the earth and dance on the ashes and laugh.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The opposing point of view survived this broadside. It can be found in books of the Bible written after Jonah just as much as in books of the Bible written before this diatribe. And it lives on today in streams of Judaism and Christianity and Islam — among every tradition that regards the book of Jonah as a sacred text, you can find factions or schools of thought in which the very ideas that book attacks are still embraced.
There are two layers of conflict here and both create barriers to a meaningful conversation.
First there is the conflict between the opposing views portrayed in the book of Jonah. And then there is the unspoken conflict over the existence of that conflict.
What does it mean when we say that Jonah is a polemic? It means that we are encountering two opposite points of view — two contradictory ideas. The one pole of this polemic is the author’s own position — for whom the author of Jonah, stacking the deck, has humbly enlisted God Almighty to be the spokesperson. The opposing pole is the position the book was written to attack — the “Who cares if Ninevites die? They’re $#@& Ninevites!” position for which the author, stacking the deck again, has made the bumbling, chauvinist titular antihero the spokesman.
What is at stake in this argument is what it means to be God’s chosen or God’s children — the saved, the elect, the faithful, the righteous, the RTCs, the “few select people” Bell talks about.
For the character Jonah, this chosen-ness, this election and being one of the saved, means that he will be raised up to “possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen.” That which now belongs to the unchosen, unsaved wicked nations will one day be given to him and people like him.
For the author of Jonah it means something very different. For the author of Jonah what it means to be chosen or elect or saved is to be called to participate in a divine plan by which “all other peoples may seek the Lord — even all the Gentiles.”
Huge difference between those polar opposite view points. That’s the first layer of conflict.
The second layer of conflict has to do with the inconvenient fact that “the authority of scripture” can be cited in support of both of these incompatible views. The conflict here isn’t over how to reconcile or choose between such competing views, but rather over whether or not the Bible ever presents opposing points of view at all. On one side of this conflict you have those who read this sprawling anthology of dozens of separate books written over hundreds of years and find in it arguments and disagreements and contentious disputes. On the other side you have those who assert that it is 100-percent unified and consistent, start to finish, Genesis to Revelation.
This aspect of the conflict is particularly confusing because it’s never wholly acknowledged. Someone like a Rob Bell will say that when the Bible presents us with these disputes and these contradictory ideas, we should look at the larger context of the character of God as revealed through Jesus Christ, making Jesus the standard by which we choose what side of the argument to embrace. But the other side doesn’t know what to make of that. They don’t see any need for such a standard for deciding between competing viewpoints because they don’t believe that the authoritative scriptures include any such competing views. If the Bible were like that, how would it serve the function they rely on it to serve as the “paper pope” (in N.T. Wright’s term) the ultimate arbiter of all disputes in the church? If those same disputes can be found within the Bible itself, then how could we use the Bible to resolve them?
This second level of conflict — this dispute over whether or not the scriptures include disputes — frustrates many attempts to discuss the sorts of questions that people like Bell are trying to discuss.
The concordance-driven proof-texting that provides Team Hell with its emphatic certainty is based on that premise of a 100-percent unified, consistent and never contradictory Bible. But because the Bible isn’t like that — because it does contain multiple points of view, endorsing or seeming to endorse different ideas in different passages — this proof-texting approach is bound to lead one astray.
Look again at the summaries above of the utterly incompatible ideas debated in the book of Jonah. Does being chosen/elect/saved mean that the righteous few who remain faithful will be given “the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen”? Or does it mean that they have been given the privilege and duty of participating in the redemption by which “all other peoples may seek the Lord — even all the Gentiles”? It cannot mean both. If one answer is true, the other cannot be true.
But a proof-texting reader can find verses that support both of those ideas. Those summaries of those irreconcilable views are, in fact, citing scripture.
And I’m not just citing different verses to support the two different ideas — I’m citing a single passage of scripture. Both summaries come from the very same words of the very same verse.
Open an English translation of the Christian Bible and turn to the final chapter of the book of Amos. There, in Amos 9:11-12, the King James Version reads like this:
In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up the ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old: That they may possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen.
Now flip over to the New Testament, to the book of Acts, and read along (Acts 15:15-17) as James, the brother of Jesus, reads from this same passage in Amos:
And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up: That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles.
Same proof-text, opposite meanings.
As it happens, thanks to the pliability of a written language that didn’t include vowels, both of these readings are valid translations of whatever it was that Amos wrote. Plug in one set of vowels and you get a promise that the chosen people will one day “possess the remnant of Edom, and of all the heathen.” Plug in a different set of vowels and you get a promise that God will work through the chosen people “that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles.”
Plugging in both sets of vowels is not an option. You can’t read this passage both ways.
You have to choose.
Which do you prefer? How should you decide?
Some Christians will say that they don’t need to decide. They’ll shrug off the example here, or that of the book of Jonah, as some kind of liberal/intellectual/seminary trickery and insist again that the Bible never confronts us with such decisions. There’s no need to choose sides, they say, because there’s only one side, the Bible’s side, and the only choice you have to worry about is whether or not you’re going to submit to the Bible’s authority. The paper pope will sort everything out for us.
What that means in practice, interestingly, tends to be that they choose Jonah’s side — that they long for the destruction of Ninevah and the glorious day when they, the select few, are granted the spoils of Edom and of all the heathen. The suggestion that this might not happen, as we just saw with the response to Bell’s video, makes them very angry. “Yes, angry enough to die.”