Love Fails – Rob Bell, Hellgate, and the Ethics of Christian Conversation

Love Fails – Rob Bell, Hellgate, and the Ethics of Christian Conversation March 11, 2011

To believe in hell is not to be hateful.  And to defend the truth as you see it is not to be angry, arrogant or abusive.  The truth matters, and we are not free to rearrange the truth to suit our preferences.  If there is a hell, then it would be unloving in the extreme to say that there is not.  The world loves the “love” that gives its blessing to what the world wants to do and believe.  Yet if our act of “love” is to announce that there is no eternal torment in hell, and yet there is one, then our “love” is a lie.  Authentic love must be willing to be perceived as hateful in order to serve the good of the beloved, and so sometimes the most loving thing we can do is confess the truth Christ taught even though the world hates us for it.

On the other hand, I strongly sympathize with those who would press Christianity in a universalist direction.  Theologically, anyone who does not feel cognitive dissonance between the profession of a God who is Love and the teaching that this God makes or lets his creatures suffer everlasting torment is failing to take one or the other idea seriously.  Personally, there is for many Christians a nearly unbearable tension between the doctrine of eternal damnation and their own experience of a God who is endlessly loving and gracious.  A tension is not a contradiction, of course; intelligent Christians for centuries have found ways to harmonize these elements.  Yet the cultural and psychological costs of these tensions are high.

I am referring, of course, to Hellgate — the firestorm of controversy sparked by Rob Bell’s forthcoming book and what appeared (the early responses were based on the promotional materials alone) to be its promotion of some form of universalism.  I have my preview copy of the book, but HarperOne asked that I wait until the book is launched on March 15th before publishing a review.  Still, I wanted to offer some thoughts first on the discussion so far.  It began with a post by influential blogger Justin Taylor, a “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet from even more influential pastor John Piper, and then a series of articles and posts from Scot McKnight (here and here), Ben Witherington, and Francis Beckwith (here and here) at Patheos; Joe Carter at First Things; Brian McLarenAlbert MohlerMark Galli of Christianity Today, Jason Boyett at Beliefnet; Tim ChalliesMichael Patton; and many others.  See The New York Times and CNN for more coverage.

Like so many other Christians I know, when it comes to the question of the eternal destiny of those who have not professed faith in Christ, I feel as though I am suspended in the air between two magnetic forces.  I fail to love my nonbelieving friends if I do not hope with all my being that the grace of God is so overflowing that eventually all people will be redeemed — yet my love fails my friends if I do not earnestly seek and honestly profess the truth whether or not it is what they want to hear.  We must, like God, desire that none should perish (2 Pet 3:9).  Yet we must submit that hope to the truth God has revealed.

God’s love never fails.  But our love fails if we do not profoundly desire that all people should enjoy eternity with God, and our love fails if we do not understand that the best way to serve all people is to confess the truth of Christ.  And our love fails our fellow believers if we do not conduct this conversation in a manner that is gracious and respectful.  In this spirit, I offer the following thoughts on Hellgate:

1.  First, some information. The controversy inspired HarperOne to move the book’s release to March 15.  There is an event in New York City the night before the launch that should be fascinating.  If anyone is able to attend, please let me know and share your thoughts afterward.  Also, Patheos will be hosting a discussion on the book that will include an interview with Rob Bell.  Recognizing the importance of the subject, we wanted to see whether we could bring disparate voices together and shape a more charitable and informative conversation.

Second, who is really being angry and judgmental here?  When the Calvinists at the Gospel Coalition, like John Piper, Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung, criticized the book, they themselves become the targets of a hailstorm of criticism.  While Piper’s tweet was unfortunate, Taylor and DeYoung discussed the matter, and continue (Taylor 1, 2, 3, 4 and DeYoung here) to discuss the matter, in a way that has been tough and critical but also calm and fair.  Bell has put his views out publicly, and it’s legitimate to offer public criticism of it.  Perhaps they should have waited for the book to be launched, but, from what I can tell, the promotional material is completely consistent with the book.  The angry and disrespectful comments have mostly been directed at them (see, for instance, here and here).

Third, “heresy” is not a bad word. We seem to have an allergic reaction to the word “heresy” or to anyone who will identify a teaching as heretical.  These words are associated in the popular mind with torches and pitchforks, the Inquisition, and religious wars.  No one will pick up a pitchfork today, but identifying heresy is very important.  The church cannot preserve its true and proper doctrine without clearly identifying that which departs from it.  False teachers can do extraordinary damage to the church and can wreak havoc in individual lives.  Especially if you do believe that there is an eternal afterlife in which torment is a real possibility, you have no choice but to stand up for the truth.  Heresy-hunting is not about hatred or control; it is about preserving a truth that liberates those who hear and accept it.  Concern for false teachers, and concern for protecting the true teaching, simply is concern for other people.

Fourth, this is not about Rob Bell. Bell is influential, especially amongst younger Christians.  But this book is just the logical consequence of much longer trends in evangelical Christianity.  It’s hard to believe in hell if you don’t believe in sin, and countless evangelical churches scarcely speak of sin any more.  One of the gravest dangers to the church today is a rapidly dissipating consciousness of sin.  It’s also hard to believe in hell if you do not emphasize the holiness of God alongside his love, the fear of God alongside his grace.  Hell has no place in moral therapeutic deism; it has no place in the “Your Best Life Now” deformation of Christianity; it has no place in a vision of Christian faith that has devolved into social justice activism.  Even in strong churches, I suspect that the teaching from the pulpit and through the songs and hymns have made it difficult for Christians to believe that the infinitely gracious and forgiving God they experience in worship would ever countenance one of his creatures suffering endless torment.

Fifth, universalists can be evangelists. One argument from exclusivists holds that the belief in universalism leaves us no reason to evangelize.  I’ve never found this convincing.  Universalists can be motivated to evangelize by the calling to be obedient to Christ, but also by the conviction that our faith has value for this life as well as the next.  Do we not take joy in our fellowship with God even in this life?  I am grateful every day to live in communion with Jesus Christ.  I would want for all my friends to walk the Way, know the Truth and enjoy the Life of Christ even if I believed that their eternal destiny were secure.  In fact, both sides of this debate are sincerely concerned with evangelism.  Universalists believe that the doctrine of eternal suffering in hell is one of the great impediments to acceptance of the gospel.  Exclusivists believe that it is an essential part of the gospel message, and that the fear of God is a proper and necessary part of conversion.  In fact, one has to wonder how many exclusivists are really convinced that the unsaved will go to eternal torment in hill, if only because it seems that their actions would be different if they did.

Sixth, the biblical witness on the afterlife is more complex than you might think. I will say more on this in a separate post, but the oldest biblical texts almost never speak of an afterlife, but sometimes reference a “pit” or “grave” where everyone would go, with some hints (such as Elijah) of other afterlife possibilities.  Sheol evolves.  Eventually, it’s through the exilic periods that the Israelites began to speak of eternal reward for the people of God and eternal punishment for their enemies.  Since God’s people suffered so much in this life, it became clear that there must be another life where all things are made right.  The last Old Testament texts to be written finally begin to speak of a collective resurrection on the Day of the Lord – and then this developed into a variegated vision of the afterlife in the inter-testamental period.

What makes matters tough for would-be universalists is that Jesus himself seemed to believe in a hell.*[See Update Below] The culture around him had developed a sophisticated vision of the afterlife with an upstairs and a downstairs.  Could Jesus have been wrong?  Perhaps he just inherited it from his culture?  But…isn’t he the Word of God?  If Jesus believed it, mustn’t we believe it?  Thus Rob Bell has to reinterpret “eternal” (aion) to say that Jesus isn’t really saying that the faithful are punished for endless time, but receive a sort of infinite but temporary purification by fire.

Seventh, whether or not you believe in an eternal torment for the unsaved will depend in large measure on your broader sense of soteriology and Christology. Did Christ come to save us from hell?  Or did he come to profess the love of God and call together the community of the faithful that will work to redeem the world?  I can’t help but suspect that there is, behind this skepticism toward hell, a skepticism toward the broader vision of substitutionary atonement, a skepticism toward the whole narrative of original sin and the need for eternal justice to be satisfied through the sacrifice of Christ.  Hell makes no sense if the work of Christ is mostly to communicate God’s love to us and encourage us to love one another.  It makes more sense if there is indeed a fundamental rupture of sin between humankind and God, if the holiness of God requires justice, and if the only way to be reconciled to God is by grace through faith in Christ.

Finally, let’s remember that the world will judge us not only for what we believe but by the way we talk about what we believe. When we have given ourselves to Christ, we no longer get to choose what to believe.  We do our best to understand what God has revealed in his Word, assisted by the Holy Spirit and the guidance the Spirit has given to the church.  It no longer matters what we want to believe, and it doesn’t even matter what we think would be most reasonable or most just or most kind.  What matters is discerning what God has made known.  But we do get to choose how we talk about what we believe.  It is a rare moment when the world is watching Christians discuss their most fundamental beliefs — let’s make sure they see a conversation absolutely committed to pursuing the truth but also absolutely committed to loving one another throughout.

Let our discourse on hell be heavenly, full of grace and truth.  As we move toward our discussion of the book on Patheos, that is the kind of conversation I would like to see.

*Update: Some readers have misinterpreted the comment that Jesus “seems” to have believed in hell, and one reader even misinterpreted the rhetorical question, “Could Jesus have been wrong?”  I am just illustrating the choices that face a would-be universalist.  Given that Jesus sure seems to believe in a hell, the universalist must argue either (1) that Jesus did not really believe what he seems to believe, or that (2) he believed it and was wrong.  But if you believe in the divinity of Christ, and believe that his divinity would not have permitted him to be wrong about such things, then (2) is not really an option.  Thus Bell makes the argument that Jesus only seems to believe in a hell, because we have been mistranslating the term aion (“eternal”).  This is not a new argument; it’s been around for a long time.  In any case, my point was just to say that a person like Bell will have to devise ways to get around the impression that Jesus believed in a hell as a place of everlasting torment.

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