So, apparently there was a bit of an explosion in the Twitterverse over the weekend about a new book called Love Wins, by an already-somewhat-controversial evangelical pastor named Rob Bell. I haven’t read anything by Bell myself, though I’ve heard a lot about him. Apparently the controversy centred around, not his new book itself, but a promo for the book, which seems to dare to suggest that maybe, just maybe, God is not going to condemn billions of people to an eternally burning hell.
What amazes and amuses me about this is the immediate firestorm of criticism from fellow Christians who are certain that Bell is twisting and perverting the clear, simple truth of the gospel — because the “good news” isn’t apparently quite good enough if it doesn’t include a thread of unending immolation.
I just don’t get the hell thing. I mean, I get where people get the doctrine from, though I believe it’s unbiblical: what I don’t get is the sheer relish some people seem to feel about the idea of God destroying the wicked. The implication, for a surprising number of Christians, seems to be that my salvation doesn’t mean much if it’s not going to be balanced out by someone else’s damnation.
I’ve always counted myself fortunate to have grown up in the Seventh-day Adventist church, which teaches that the wages of sin are eternal death — not eternal torture — so I haven’t grown up with the spectre of hell hanging over me. I think that’s a huge blessing. But I’m blown away by the fact that some Adventists seem to actually regret that there’s no hellfire in our doctrine — as if the whole thing would just be that much spicier if you added a handful of hot-hot-hot sauce. I’ve even sat through sermons by an Adventist evangelist who shall remain nameless (but I bet a few SDA readers can guess) who liked to lived up presentations by yelling things like “If you don’t accept Jesus, you’re all going to HELL!!!” even after having affirmed that we don’t actually believe in a literally burning hell.
The other alternative to either hell or annihilation — the alternative that some people seem to fear this Rob Bell guy is sliding towards — is universalism, the idea that God will, in the end, find a way to save everyone.
I’ve read a bit about universalism. I still can’t make up my mind about it. But the one thing that’s perfectly clear to me is that I wish it were true. And I don’t understand why some people get so angry at the mere suggestion that God’s love and salvation might possibly be big enough to encompass the whole universe. Why does the idea of torment and punishment seem so necessary to some people’s theology? Ideally, wouldn’t you want every single person to OK eternally? (Apparently God does; see 2 Peter 3:9).
This is the bit that’s so hard to wrap my mind around: that you could desire someone’s damnation. I remember being blindsided by this attitude over 10 years ago, in the early days of internet discussion, when I was talking about homosexuality on an SDA discussion site. At the time I was still trying to sort out my ideas about the issue, and I made the (to me, quite obvious and uncontroversial statement) that while it seemed some verses in the Bible condemned homosexual sex as sinful, I wished this weren’t the case — I wished it were not a sin, so that the gay people I loved wouldn’t be condemned for doing what came naturally to them.
Well, another poster just lashed right out at me. How could I wish this horrible, disgusting behavior were acceptable in God’s eyes? Why wouldn’t I want people to be condemned for doing it? The salient point here is that at this stage in the discussion, I wasn’t even disagreeing with his reading of the Bible — I was just saying I wished it could be otherwise. And that was enough to unleash a storm of rage — just like the much bigger storm that has been unleashed at Rob Bell for, apparently, daring to raise the possibility that God’s love might, just might, be bigger and broader than we’ve imagined.
Why are some people so in love with the idea of hell? What do they get out of the image of their friends and loved ones being tortured forever? What the heck is up with Hell, anyway? Anyone know?