Rob Bell and the “heresy” of a loving God

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.

[ROB HELL] Origen and Rob Bell are standing facing each other in waist-high flames. Origen: "Rob Bell? Is that You?" Rob Bell:  "Origen?"
(Image from The Naked Pastor, ht Jesus Needs New PR.)

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.

24 Comments

  1. Indeed. On some levels it’s simply not true that all Christians worship the same God. Yes, they use the same words sometimes, but the ways they use them are often not at all the same. Facing Christianity, as I did, with a highly pluralist background, I did what I had always done with religions. I approached it from at least three angles (probably more — but three stick out in my memory).

    I began reading their sacred texts. The Gospels especially are compelling texts. As I read them, it seemed I could relate this figure of Jesus to experiences in my own life. I went from the gospels to the acts to different letters. I actually began with John’s letters because his gospel had both resonated and challenged me the most. Near it I saw Hebrews, which seemed to translate Jewish symbols (and I was somewhat familiar with modern Judaism) in light of Christ. So I read it. Then I started reading random letters. I think, from Paul, I read Colossians first. By the time I read Romans (which is an intimidating treatise), I did so in light of a lot of other things I had absorbed.

    As I did that, I began to study the history of Christianity so I could have some context to understand the texts and so I could compare my thoughts to those interpreters who were much closer in culture and time. (I’ve always done that as well and I’ve always been fascinated by human history — independent of a religious context.) So I actually read the Didache, St. Athanasius, St Irenaeus, and many others early on. While I had tried to read the OT in several aborted attempts, it was finally St. Irenaeus who served as my guide through it in a Christian sense.

    And, alongside the above, I began to build mental images of the God I heard different Christian groups describe. At first I assumed they were all talking about the same God. But over time I realized they were saying things about God that were completely contradictory at times and incompatible. So I began building images of different Gods ascribed to each group and deciding if I could or would worship a God like that. Very often I couldn’t for exactly some of the reasons you outline.

    Calvin’s God is especially atrocious. His God is no better in many regards than some of the ancient, capricious pagan deities other than being even more powerful and controlling. But there are elements permeating a lot of the different versions of God that are repellent. Penal Substitionary Atonement is one of the most god-awful (pun intended) ideas ever invented by man and denies any possibility of love or forgiveness. It turns God into the sort of being who does exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells us to do. Total depravity isn’t much better.

    Mostly, over the last thousand years or so, primarily in the cultural West, we’ve seen a God of love denied not affirmed. Catholicism, I think, is moving back in that direction in recent years. I don’t know if I see much hope at all in Protestantism. Rob Bell offers a glimmer, but most Protestants and certainly most evangelicals are dead set against love winning.

    And that’s sad.

    • On some levels it’s simply not true that all Christians worship the same God.
      Absolutely. I definitely hear what you’re saying about arriving at a different picture of God depending on where you start from. There are a lot of problematic and disturbing things in the Bible, but even so I think if you read it from a modern perspective without a priori fundamentalist assumptions, you can pretty easily arrive at a very humane and loving view of God. The problem for me is that I’ve had the capricious -good word!- Calvinist/PSA god so drilled into my head that even though I can intellectually see how I can arrive at a more humane view of God, and even though it appeals in certain ways, it feels like moving towards such a view would just be self-justification. It’s not the only reason I’m no longer a Christian – I simply don’t believe Jesus is God and there aren’t many welcoming Christian communities for people like me :p But it is a significant contributing factor.

      Mostly, over the last thousand years or so, primarily in the cultural West, we’ve seen a God of love denied not affirmed.
      I think there are aspects of Eastern theology and culture that offer good correctives to extremes in Western theology (and vice versa!). I gotta say, though, I’ve interacted with some very judgmental and exclusionary Eastern Christians. There’s a strong tendency towards isolationism in some churches dominated by converts that, IMO, is related to the fact that many converts are former evangelicals.

      • Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t have any problem finding ethnic Eastern churches that also are isolationist and exclusionary. (Some of that has to do with being immigrants and the need to keep something amidst the change. Some of it is because any group can become insular.) So it’s not all the fault of evangelical converts.

        By the cultural West, I really meant the turn that began near the beginning of the medieval period. It’s that turn that ended up giving us a popular understanding more like Dante’s Inferno than the more variegated and nuanced understanding that had existed before then in Christianity and which continued to exist in the cultural East. These days, we export at least the American form of Western culture everywhere, so the distinctions are blurred.

    • What is sad is that so many people, mostly biblically illiterate, assume to have a better take on the Bible than those who spent their lives studying it. How did those who WALKED with God himself, in the form of Christ, miss out on the valuable information Mr. Bell has stumbled upon?

      I watched Mr. Bell being interviewed, and the interviewer, much to his credit, especially since he was not a Christian, asked if Mr. Bell believed Jesus lied when He said, in Matthew 25:41 (Jesus speaking to unbelievers at the great while throne of judgment), “…Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” Bell stumbled verbally for a while, and never answered the question. Perhaps, Bell knows more than Jesus Himself about Hell, but I doubt it.

      What is sad is those who would salve their own consciences, which are uniformly evil (as mine is) by convincing themselves that the plain PERSPICUOUS (inherently understandable) Word of God doesn’t say what it plainly does. I truly Hope that God touches those who believe He was kidding about Hell, so they don’t end up there.

      • Jim- welcome to the blog. Just fyi, if you’re referring to the Martin Bashir interview of Rob Bell, you’re mistaken about him not being a Christian.

        I deleted your other comments; if you want to comment here, don’t spam a post. Thanks.

      • “I watched Mr. Bell being interviewed, and the interviewer, much to his credit, especially since he was not a Christian, asked if Mr. Bell believed Jesus lied when He said, in Matthew 25:41 (Jesus speaking to unbelievers at the great while throne of judgment), “…Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.””

        Jim, the way Rob should have replied is to have said, “No, Jesus didn’t lie. The liars were the Bible translators who translated Jesus’ statement in such an incorrect way. A better translation of what Jesus is recorded as having said is, “Go ye from me, the cursed, to the fire, the age-during, that hath been prepared for the Devil and his messengers” (Young’s Literal Translation).”

        The Bible, properly translated and interpreted, does NOT teach that hell is everlasting. See my website, http://www.christianheretic.com/hell for more on that.

  2. I intentionally left evangelicalism four years ago, and one of the main reasons was this one. I am a universalist who believes those seeking the Divine will find the Divine in this life and in whatever life is to come. The older I get the more I want to err on the side of love and mercy, and the more I want a Godde who will err on the side of love and mercy and not judgment and wrath.

    I’m a very happy liberal, univeralist Episcopalian now. And the more I see things like this continue to happen, the happier I am I got out.

    • I’m glad you found a place you can worship. I don’t believe in the tyrannical model of God anymore, but I’ve still internalized it so completely that it feels like accepting another view of God would be purely out of personal convenience. It’s sad.

  3. This might be my favourite post so far on the whole Rob Bell controversy.

  4. David Holland says:

    Grace,

    I like Rob Bell’s answer to his critics – “I love everyone … you’re next.”

    I also like his assertion that truth is truth regardless of where it is found.

    I recently read a book The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. He does a pretty even handed job of explaining why some Christians have the isolationist mentality you identify. He also does a good job explaining why just trying to imitate contemporary culture doesn’t work and how social Christianity works to express the love of Christ to the world. I think you might find a lot to agree with there.

    Last night when I heard the US Supreme Court upheld Westboro Baptist’s right to protest I was initially dismayed. Then I thought maybe that 3D caricature of Christianity would wake up some of the churches you talk about.

    I can only hope.

  5. I am a little unclear what you believe Grace about the afterlife. Can you clarify?

    • Hi Chris, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog. I’m an agnostic; I don’t believe anything about the afterlife. But I am interested in the implications of what other people believe about the afterlife. If I had to guess, I think it’s most likely that our consciousnesses or souls cease to exist when we die.

  6. Thanks Grace for both the welcome and your answer! I was just curious as to where you were coming from. Your site seems to have a lot about Christianity so I wrongly assumed you were Christian.

    Some of my thoughts to your posting and others comments:

    – I don’t believe that there is such a things as a social gospel. There is only the Gospel which when received will demonstrate itself through the fruit of spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

    – Jesus tells us that there will always be poor among us. That’s not to say we should not work to eliminate poverty but the eternal life is far more important that this life. (I understand we disagree on the afterlife)

    – The only equality is equality before God. God sees us and loves us all equally but that does not mean all behavior is equal.

    – It is impossible to fully understand the love of God without understanding the judgement of God. it’s impossible to understand the forgiveness of God without understanding the need for forgiveness.

    – I am not a Calvinist for good reason. God does not condemn anyone to hell. We choose it! I think you have painted a very broad stroke with regards to evangelicals. Every single one that I know of believes that people get to make the choice to accept or reject Christ. God may have foreknowledge of the choice but it does not negate free will.

    – Jesus talks a lot about heaven and hell and it seems pretty clear to me.

    Thanks for allowing me to comment!

    • This is a blog about gender issues in Christianity, so naturally I write about it a lot. I was raised Christian and was one until very recently.

      Jesus said that about the poor, but he also said that anyone who fails to help “the least of these” could have no part in his kingdom. If you’re going to take Jesus’s words literally, it seems pretty clear that you can’t have eternal life without helping people in this life.

      I think I was pretty clear that this post was about reformed evangelicals, but I’ve never known a conservative Arminian who disagrees with the reformed interpretation that Jesus being the “narrow door” means that most people will go to hell. So regardless of semantics about who chooses to send someone to hell, the points about believing most people are condemned and the implications of that apply to both Calvinists and Arminians. Also, a “judgment” based on whether or not one chooses the right god (which really means in most cases being born into the right culture or religion) is extremely arbitrary and unreasonable given the limits of human knowledge and other factors. A god who judges people based on that can’t also be loving.

      Any comments are allowed here as long as they’re respectful :)

  7. Thanks Grace!

    It is true that a true Christian will automatically demonstrate the fruit of the spirit and help those in need. But if someone were saved and died immediately after, they would not be excluded simply because they did not help the poor. So eternal life trumps anything in this life. Also it’s important to understand that this life is not the end all. This life will never be “heaven” will never be perfect, will never be without suffering, pain and death. So while it is our mandate to serve the poor, needy and suffering we will never eliminate it and therefore that cannot be our goal.

    People will be separated from God for eternity (hell) by their choice. As many people who choose to reject Christ will be separated. How many that is we cannot know. You say thats semantics but it’s not. There is a distinct and important difference in God sending people to hell and people choosing that path.

    Peter tells us that God is being patient about the Second Coming so that everyone has the opportunity, no matter what culture or family they are born into, to hear and accept the Gospel. That’s what makes evangelism THE most important thing we can do as Christians! Not only to make sure that everyone knows about Jesus but when someone is saved thats one more person to serve the “least of these.” The more people who are developing the fruit of the spirit, the more the marginalized will be served.

  8. There is a real danger with a loving accepting god, though.
    Slipperly Slope!!! Universalists are too liberal!

    Part of that is no longer being one of the elite/chosen/TrueChristians. Which means a person can’t justify hating or excluding people.
    Even those fundy Christians who truly desire to love others (and I’m confident that’s most) are afraid that if they take out one part of the god definition they are preached, it’ll collapse like Jenga.

    One of my issues with Jesus is how harsh he is. Anyone who didn’t help everyone hurt Jesus personally and deserves some sort of punishment. (Matt 25:44-45)
    Jesus didn’t help everyone. And it wasn’t for lack of opportunity or willingness of those begging for freedom. If he is our example, we get to be selective and tell others they can’t be. Wow! Are Christians ever good at that!

    Amazing how its easier for me to find the fruit of the spirit in my life as I work my way out of the shadow of the gods of the bible. :)

    • Even those fundy Christians who truly desire to love others (and I’m confident that’s most) are afraid that if they take out one part of the god definition they are preached, it’ll collapse like Jenga.
      One of the truly ridiculous things about that mindset is that it’s self-fulfilling. When they teach people that there are so many absolutely correct dogmas, and if you don’t believe just one, you’re no longer a real Christian, they make it so any serious doubt or disagreement on even one issue is can cause someone to leave the faith altogether.

      • Hopscotch Grace says:

        THIS. Yes, and certainly hierarchical gender roles (aka “complementarianism”) are a test of orthodoxy in many denominations/churches these days (YMMV, depending on where you live). If you don’t believe that God put males in charge (gently and fairly, of course) of the church and home, you probably aren’t *really* Christian.

        I am glad that you are recovering from this practice, and that you are writing as you do so.

  9. I remember a pastor of mine talking about hell and saying “Don’t you want to believe that murders and child molesters will get justice?” It was this weird argument – if you want to believe that murders and violent criminals deserve punishment then you need to believe in hell, but to accept hell, you have to accept god’s holiness that means that even if you stole a pack of gum as a 5 year old, you deserve hell as well. And if you don’t think that you personally deserve hell, then you believe in relativism and should allow a child molester to babysit your children or else you’re a hypocrite.

    It’s the need of hell that disturbs me. Believing that the Bible says there’s a hell is one thing, but the absolute need of it, where belief in God and loving God hinges on the need that there is a hell for those who don’t frightens me. I watched some television show once where a guy locked a woman under the floor for awhile. And then he finally took her out, nursed her back to health and she stayed with him because he was so kind and loving after that and was just wonderful. And this reminds me of that – “We love god because he could be evil and torture us and send us to hell and isn’t” is a pretty twisted and shallow kind of love.

    What I don’t understand is why god created all these unique people, yet can’t judge us uniquely. He sees the heart, yet only has two categories and can’t deviate from them? And doesn’t that mean that he’s not in control? I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of Ted Dekker’s books, but he has this running theme of people who create the rules and then *have* to follow them. And this is some depiction of the supernatural, but that seems so weak. If god created laws that he cannot break if he is *forced* to judge us in a certain way because of who he is, then he’s subject to something higher then himself, in my opinion. we shouldn’t worship god, we should worship his laws, or something.

    But to me, if god is so much greater than us, and sees more than we can – if he created the whole fabric of the universe, so he know how the threads got started in the beginning of the universe to know how it all mapped out to influence everything we do and think and are, and then, if he can see the motivations and intentions behind those things, then I would think he would ultimately a god that judges with consideration and nuance, rather than being so dense and simplistic to just create two categories and shove his masterpiece complex individuals into them.

    I don’t know if this will come out horrible, but something I’m liking with this Rob Bell controversy is seeing some of these hateful beliefs brought out. Question hell and you realize how much they need it, how much their understanding of love needs other people to be tortured and suffer and die. And it’s helping me realize that there’s just no way belief like that could ever be good. It’s helping me realize their abusiveness is not something necessary for my life and I don’t have to stomach and accept it as something true and good.

    • Yea, there’s absolutely no sense to the proposition that every thing from petty human foibles to murder and rape will be punished the same way. But the idea of eternal torture in general, even for the very worst people we can think of, is kind of disturbing. It’s not really “payment” for doing horrible things, is it? Those things have still happened and the people who experienced them still have to live with the fallout. Never mind that those people might end up in hell right alongside those who victimized them. It also seems to miss the point. It teaches that we shouldn’t do bad things just to avoid future punishment, not because of the material harm they do to people and the world.

      I don’t know if this will come out horrible, but something I’m liking with this Rob Bell controversy is seeing some of these hateful beliefs brought out. Question hell and you realize how much they need it, how much their understanding of love needs other people to be tortured and suffer and die. And it’s helping me realize that there’s just no way belief like that could ever be good. It’s helping me realize their abusiveness is not something necessary for my life and I don’t have to stomach and accept it as something true and good.

      I know just what you mean. It’s been very eye-opening.

  10. All who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. Satan wants people to get caught up in all these discussions to divert us from the truth! We shouldn’t get caught up in this type of talk – God is sovereign and only he will judge who will go to heaven or hell. He is just and his judgment will be right. Just because you chose not to believe in hell or an afterlife, does not mean that hell does not exist! You have the choice what to believe, as God, because he loves us, has given us free will! I think Grace that you have not really experienced Jesus – if you had I believe you would still hold true to your faith. Whatever you believe about an afterlife surely spending eternity in heaven with God is so much better than being in hell, or ceasing to exist!! To live forever will be wonderful and God wants that for everyone – he does not want one person to perish! Believing on him is the ONLY requirement!

    • I think Grace that you have not really experienced Jesus – if you had I believe you would still hold true to your faith.

      Right, the 20+ years I spent trying to serve Jesus was really all a fake. Well, if I haven’t really experienced Jesus, that seems to me to be his fault and not mine. He can hardly blame me for not believing he’s God, in that case.

      It’s kind of amazing to me how comfortable some Christians feel telling other people what they have really experienced or not. I don’t go around telling Christians that your experiences of Jesus are all in your head.

      Your telling me that I can just magically make myself believe a faith that I see no evidence for makes about as much sense as my telling you you should just become Hindu.

  11. When people are hungry, true Christians feed them.

    When people are hurt, true Christians comfort them.

    When people are sick, true Christians tend to them.

    When people are in prison, true Christians visit them.

    Yet when they imagine people in Hell, which is infinitely more devouring than the worst hunger, more painful than the worst hurt, more debilitating than the most devastating sickness, and longer than the longest prison sentence…”true” Christians wring their hands in pity, pass it off to “bad choices”, turn their backs, and praise God for His justice.

    The shortest sentence in the entire Bible is “Jesus wept.” Apt, that.