The controversy over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived is fading, but a new article in the Christian Century (“Betting on a Generous God” by Peter W. Marty) brought it up for me again. I’ve written before about why I am sympathetic to Bell’s questions about the fate of every human being. But I’m bothered by the response to his book on both the liberal and conservative side of the Christian aisle. If Marty’s article is any representation of the liberal side, then he fails because he mischaracterizes the conservative position. He writes,
Devout believers, professing to know the precise purposes of God (and having a corner on scriptural interpretations that confirm that knowledge), quickly become obsessed with being right. Have you noticed how love always takes a backseat when self-righteousness is behind the wheel? Convinced that God dislikes the exact same people and things they do, these overconfident drivers mow down anything that gets in the way of their personal possession of the truth. As far as they are concerned, there is little question of whom God accepts and whom God condemns.
Okay. I’m more than willing to concede that I don’t want to have a conversation with the person Marty describes. But most of the people I know who believe that hell is real and that real people go there after death aren’t like Marty’s hypothetical overconfident Christian. The people I know feel deep distress over the thought that loved ones might end up eternally separated from God, from love, from life. In telling others about heaven–in inviting others to experience life with God– they are trying to share and give, not condemn. Sure, evangelists for anything–be that Jesus or vegetarianism or cloth diapers or Dansko clogs–can be overbearing. But their fervor often demonstrates care and love.With that said, I also applaud Mickey Maudlin, Bell’s editor at Harper One, for defending the book and critiquing the polemical response by many evangelical conservatives. Maudlin writes :
When did “believing the right things” become equated with determining who is “saved” so that, as some have claimed, affirming Rob’s teachings might jeopardize one’s eternal destiny? (If salvation is dependent on having the right Protestant theology, how could the apostles be saved?) What exactly is so threatening about Rob’s expansive vision of God’s love and grace?
As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism, where God’s interests are reduced to and measured by those sharing your history, tradition, and beliefs, and where one needs an “enemy” in order for you to feel “right with God.”
I suspect that Rob Bell’s book has helped some people feel welcomed, and I hope it has caused some Christians to question their assumptions about who’s going where and why. As for me, I call myself an agnostic when it comes to the eternal destiny of my fellow human beings. I believe that Christians can have confidence in the security of their eternal relationship with God. I don’t know what happens to everyone else, but I trust in God’s faithfulness, justice, grace, and love. Jesus warns that we’ll be surprised by who ends up in the kingdom of God. I’m willing to trust in Him and accept his invitation to live in step with his Spirit now and forevermore.