Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert. It is dangerous, especially in America, because it is anti-democratic and is suspicious of “the other,” in whatever form that “other” might appear. To maintain itself, fundamentalism must always define “the other” as deviant. – Peter Gomes
There’s a huge controversy brewing in the evangelical blogosphere and twitterverse over Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, an upcoming book by Rob Bell, a pastor associated with the emergent church movement. According to the promotional materials for the book, Bell argues that “a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” The immediate accusations of universalism and hand-wringing about the state of Rob Bell’s soul are yet another illustration of how swift, uninformed condemnation of people and/or ideas they don’t like is not only common among reformed evangelicals, it’s practically an art form.
Both the criticisms of Bell’s presumed argument and the way they were aired reveal some ugly truths about the values and priorities of the evangelical community. They dogmatically oppose even discussing the possibility that, regarding the fate of humanity, God’s love wins, because in their view, a Christianity that preaches God’s love without God’s wrath is heresy, and no Christianity at all. They insist on a divine love mixed with wrath that can’t be satisfied without blood, which isn’t love at all. They are literally against the idea of a God who loves.
What’s more, the incredible speed and vehemence of the backlash points to a deep investment in the idea that no one outside their tiny corner of Christianity could ever be loved and welcomed unconditionally by God. On some level, they cherish the idea that most of humanity will suffer for eternity. Sure, evangelicals warn people about the dangers of hell, and try to convert people. They express concern and sadness over the ultimate fate of “lost” souls. And yet, the words and actions of reformed evangelical leaders betray how attached they are to the belief that they are the chosen few.
The constant rhetoric of being “holy, set apart, and different” from the rest of the world is a subtle example of this (e.g., Joshua Harris’s argument that wifely submission is a sign of being specially chosen by God for a home in heaven). Evangelical leaders claim marginalized, “counterculture” status as a badge of pride, insisting that “the world” hates them because they are God’s people. They point to their “persecution” in this word as a sign and promise of eternal rewards in the next; their identity revolves around it. Of course, this means that the condemnation of the majority of humanity to hell is also a central aspect of their faith and identity.
This is made more explicit when evangelical leaders talk about hell at any length. Take, for example, the perceptible relish Mark Driscoll takes in describing the torments of hell, and pontificating on who will end up there: “There is an eternal hell. This is not a point for philosophical speculation. This is a fact. There is a real hell that will be full …. a place of conscious torment … For ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever.” Or take the example of Denny Burk, who flatly concurs that “only a few select people will make it to heaven” and asserts that a “countless throng of people” will be cast into hell.
Evangelical leaders often cite Augustine’s maxim: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” In other words, certain non-negotiable doctrines and practices exclusively define who is and is not a Christian; on other matters, Christians are free to believe and practice in many different ways. The reaction to Rob Bell reveals the perverted nature of evangelical understandings of what is “essential” and “non-essential” to Christianity. There’s room in their gospel for Bryan Fischer, who claims that God gave the Americas to Europeans because Native Americans “morally disqualified” themselves from “sovereign control of American soil.” There’s room for unrepentant race-baiters, nativists, misogynists, and even rapists. But the idea of a hell crammed to the gills with eternally, infinitely tormented people is an essential, non-negotiable doctrine, and anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is met with howls of outrage, ostracized, and condemned (Bell, Carlton Pearson, William Paul Young, among others).
They show what they truly value. They don’t care about having a church that works towards equality and more social justice. They don’t care about harm done to others not like themselves. They believe that hell will be FULL and call that “good news.” They condemn the world and call that a “liberating gospel of grace.” They preach emotional sermons complete with melodramatic tears, quivering lips, and and cracking voicess, waxing lyrical about the beauty of the gospel and how grateful we should all be for what God has done for us. But their gospel cannot be a beautiful thing for most people. It’s not a message of hope, not a message that anyone can be saved and spend eternity with God. By their own theology, most people cannot and will not be saved. No, their message is one of hatred and condemnation. It’s “good news” that you will be damned for eternity unless God decides you’re special. This isn’t a gospel of Christ. It’s a gospel of hell.
Rob Bell is absolutely right: what evangelicals believe about heaven and hell shows what they believe about who and what God is. It exposes the lies and contradictions at the heart of their gospel. God is to be loved, but God is to be feared. God desires that no one should be lost to hell, yet hell will be full and only a few will be saved. The gospel is good news to sinners, yet most sinners have no hope of ever attaining salvation. God is infinite love, but will torment “his” own creations without mercy, and without remorse.
Evangelical theologians don’t want to deal with the real implications of a God who doles out salvation based on membership in an exclusive secret society. Nor are they honest about the incoherence of basing an absolutist theology of hell on biblical references to the Greek Hades and Hebrew Sheol, neither of which are anything like the modern Christian concept of hell. They insist with mindboggling arrogance that the Bible only supports one position on the afterlife, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with that position will be punished forever by God. Unsurprisingly, even on this point they are inconsistent and hypocritical, simultaneously condemning Rob Bell and praising C.S. Lewis, who certainly did not believe that only Christians can be saved (cf The Last Battle and The Problem of Pain, for example).
It’s all so patently ridiculous, so breathtakingly and absurdly arrogant. I wonder now how for so long I couldn’t see this doctrine for the utter mockery of truth and human dignity it is.
Partial transcript of Bell’s comments in the video below the jump.
Will only a few select people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe, or what you say, or what you do, or who you know, or something that happens in your heart, or do you need to be initiated, or baptized, or take a class, or converted, or be born again? How does one become one of these few?
And then there is the question behind the questions, the real question: what is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted, and how could that ever be good news? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith, they see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies, and they say “Why would I ever want to be a part of that?” See, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important, because it exposes what we believe about who God is, and what God is like.
What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful than whatever we’ve been told or taught. The good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.