Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hell's Bells

{Considering this post is about the Rob Bell firestorm, catchy title, ain't it? What? No? Ok then.}

I still haven't read Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins". I probably won't right away. Nothing against Bell or the subject matter. For me, personally, in where I'm at in my personal journey for truth, it's not a pressing issue for me, even though a curious one. I can certainly understand its significance to others, though, in where they are in their own personal journey for truth. Godspeed to us all as we uniquely and personally pursue truth.

I've been an amused, bemused, befuddled, and often saddened spectator of all of the conversation his book has generated, particularly given that practically no one has read it to this point. I've offered a few thoughts already here, and now I'm gonna offer a few more, perhaps a bit more pointed about the actual issues at the core of the debate, hopefully putting a cap on CoM's part in the dialog unless and until I ever actually read the book and become qualified to speak on it more extensively and intensively.

For starters, my thoughts on those slamming Bell for daring to question the commonly accepted, orthodox version of hell : you guys have just forfeited your right to ever call someone else closed-minded or to label yourselves as passionately pursuing truth. Unless and until we, as Christians, are willing to put ALL sacred cows of Christianity (short of salvation through Christ) on the table and meticulously examine them every which way but Sunday, the truth of the matter is we're willing to let someone else do our thinking for us - we aren't genuinely pursuing truth. (Those who haven't seen it should look at the can of worms I've opened over on the Water Cooler. Another sacred cow that needs to be fully examined before blindly settled upon.)

A few people, through the blog, other online discussions, and in the "real" world, have asked me about my belief concerning hell. Many of my views about my own faith have changed dramatically in the last 3 years due to my own experience and the knowledge of the experiences of others at the hands of literalists and hyper-fundamentalists. Gosh, even in the past year I've had some fairly dramatic shifts about the non-essentials. While I've never, ever considered myself a fundamentalist, I can look back and see where many of my beliefs were much more "fundie" than they are now (and to anyone reading that may have been in some way diminished by my beliefs at some point in my life, I ask your forgiveness). Frighteningly fundie. It's sobering.

So here goes...(as I watch the number of blog "followers" diminish as it did after my last post)...

Yes, I believe some form of punishment exists in the afterlife. What that punishment is, its intensity, and how long it lasts, I have NO clue. And...neither do you. Now, I don't WANT there to be punishment, nor do I WANT people to suffer eternally. Even so, there are far too many references to this punishment in the scripture to simply point at Christ and say his punishment nullified all of it for everyone - whether they know Christ or not. While you've heard me say that I don't believe that ALL of the biblical canon as we know it is God-breathed holy writ, you've also never heard me say I wholly discount the scriptures.

I think there has to be justice. A reckoning. In my own situation with my former future in-laws and their cohorts, you betcha I want justice and a reckoning. But, note that I don't want personal vengeance. That's entirely up to God..."Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (a passage that tells me that, yes, there WILL be some form of punishment for someone, somewhere, in the afterlife). I'd have to be the Spock dude, totally emotionless, to not want there to be justice and a reckoning in my own situation - or in the lives of those I communicate with daily who've suffered cruel spiritual and emotional abuses. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't still have moments where the borders of justice and vengeance become blurred in my situation, moments where MY justice would look more like vengeance, "Hey, God, umm, how about just locking these guys in a room with me for 5 minutes or so while you go and listen to some angels play a harp or something.", but I also realize that this isn't my place or mine to determine, and regardless of what anyone thinks, I don't want the worst for these people.

Some may say that the paragraph above lacks mercy and grace. I say that without justice there is no mercy OR grace. Mercy without justice is called accommodation. God doesn't accommodate sin. Justice and a reckoning first, and then mercy is God's to give, and my hope is that all find mercy with Him. 

Some have used the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to justify a belief in a literal, tormenting hell (Luke 16:19-31). Read it. Examine it. Closely. Then forget about hell for a second and tell me that's a heaven you'd want to go to. Being able to look across a divide and see people suffering in perpetual torment? Are you kidding me? You'd want to see that? That heaven sounds a lot like hell to me, and it's something I'd want no part in. I'd be standing there saying "God?! Why are you punishing me this way?! I don't want to see that! Please make it stop!" There's no way that passage was meant to serve as a literal representation of heaven/hell/the afterlife. No way. I've never been compelled to research it, but there has to be a much deeper meaning there than anything to be taken literally.

Again, I do believe, beyond question, that some form of punishment awaits evil, from God's declaration of "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay", to "it's a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (in reference to evildoers), to several of the statements of Christ, including the millstones around necks. Sin has consequences. I'm not so bold however, as to say what that punishment is or those consequences are, whether it's momentary and purging for entrance into fellowship with God, whether it's temporary or eternal separation from God, or whether it's eternal torment in fire and undying worms. I simply don't know (and again, neither do you). Will all be saved? I sure hope so, but I don't know so (and neither do you).

I've been asked recently - is it possible to come to God apart from Christ? To my understanding, not in this life it isn't. How that works in the afterlife, I don't know (and neither do you). I say that because there are thousands (maybe millions or more) of people who've never heard the gospel in their lifetime, having gone to their grave and entered the next life completely ignorant of Christ - and not by choice. So do you believe that some poor schmuck from some far flung island off of Keekamagoonga is gonna suffer torment forever in an unquenchable hellfire? So whether or not that person gets an opportunity at all to know a loving Heavenly Father in the afterlife, I don't know (and neither do you), but what I do know is that it takes one cold-hearted son of a buck to NOT want that person to get that opportunity, and just so our earthbound theologies hold up. That would be like giving those poor souls a good old-fashioned Christian "eff U". Doctrine over person. That's cultic.

Rob Bell has been accused of heresy, teaching "false doctrine" (my thoughts on "doctrine" as discussed in the scriptures also found here), saying people don't need Christ, saying hell doesn't exist, et cetera. I haven't read his book, so I don't know if he says those things in it. I've seen a couple of video clips of interviews, and to date, I've seen NOTHING like those accusations. I've seen him in no shape, form, or fashion diminish the gospel of Christ (though I have seen his detractors adding to it). If I read his book, my mind may change about all of those things and I may find him a false teacher. I simply don't know. I can only go on what I know, which is about as much as those slamming the guy. To me, what this has revealed is a LARGE section of people in the Christian community who are completely insecure and hypocritical about their faith. As I said earlier, if we genuinely seek truth, we have to be willing to place everything except the foundation of our faith (salvation through Christ) in play. The fact is, most of us aren't seeking truth. We're seeking something we can be comfortable with, and we're content to follow long held orthodoxy and ancient creed without examination. Thinking is hard. I'm not throwing stones here. I've never claimed my own innocence - it doesn't exist.

Hell is absolutely not a vital or essential part of the gospel message - unless your gospel message is simply a fire insurance sales pitch. That said, nothing which Bell is doing or saying (to my knowledge) diminishes from or adds to the gospel of Christ, so I can't help but conclude that those calling him a wolf and a false teacher WANT and NEED him to be a wolf and a false teacher. Anything less pushes their insecure faith out of its comfort zone. We make heaven and hell what we WANT and NEED it to be, and then judge everyone and everything else according to our own wants and needs. Funny how we do this with a lot of things.

Some suggest that Bell is a false teacher and a wolf because he's leading people astray. If he isn't pointing people away from the simple gospel of Christ, he isn't leading anyone astray. Period. That's all there is to that. If his willingness to put the sacred cow of the orthodox version of hell on trial is leading people astray, anyone who'd be lead astray by it is only seeking fire insurance, not seeking Christ from a true heart. Hard to put their blood on Bell's hands. Much easier to put their blood on the hands of those whose gospel is only valid if hell exists to scare people toward it.

If you haven't noticed, I've said "I don't know" several times in this piece because, well, frankly, it's true. I don't take or teach a dogmatic position on heaven or hell because I'm not enlightened enough on either subject to take a dogmatic position, aside from its non-essential aspect to salvation, and I'd rather not knowingly place myself in a position of having to answer to God for perhaps teaching the wrong things - even on non-essentials. I'm a firm believer that the ONLY issue that deserves dogmatic devotion is the simple gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as our reconciliation to God. I've heard Bell dare to say "I don't know" in his interviews when asked certain questions by interviewers trying to back him into dogmatic corners ("I don't know? I don't know?! How dare a pastor speak such blasphemy?!! *gasp*"). I respect him for that level of humility. You won't hear that from many mainstream pastors, nor from ANY fundamentalist pastors. We Christians like our faith, essentials and non-essentials, wrapped up all tidy in a nice black and white package, and we like leaders who give it to us that way. With all of this hubbub about Rob Bell and hell, and its non-essential status, I say to hell with it. Focus on Christ.

In my other post, I asked this question...

"If you read Mr. Bell's book and found it all truth, would it unravel your faith?"

If you're among Bell's detractors and critics, and you answered that question "no", there's a good chance you're lying to yourself. Otherwise...we wouldn't even be discussing any of this.


  1. You know what's neat? There's a passage (I think written by Peter) that describes how Christ preached the gospel to those that had perished before the flood, during those three days he was dead. I think part of our problem with understanding things like hell is that we think in terms of linear time, and forget that time probably doesn't exist (at least as we know it) on the other side of the veil.

    So, I absolutely agree that no man comes to the Father but through Christ, but our notion of what "through Christ" means is often faulty. Some people think it means a person must have said the sinner's prayer and been baptized - and that the choice must have been made while alive.

    Not being a Calvinist, I believe everyone is given the chance to choose whether or not they will accept the freely given, unmerited salvation offered through the sacrifice of Jesus - and that if they aren't given that conscious choice while living, they'll still get another chance. I'm not dogmatic about that belief, though. I won't know for sure what happens until I've seen it!

  2. I don't know you or anything about you. I have never heard of Rob Bell or any book he has written. I got here from a fb link and now I gotta comment. I am taking issue about this paragraph you wrote -

    So do you believe that some poor schmuck from some far flung island off of Keekamagoonga is gonna suffer torment forever in an unquenchable hellfire? So whether or not that person gets an opportunity at all to know a loving Heavenly Father in the afterlife, I don't know (and neither do you), but what I do know is that it takes one cold-hearted son of a buck to NOT want that person to get that opportunity, and just so our earthbound theologies hold up. That would be like giving those poor souls a good old-fashioned Christian "eff U"

    All through your post you say "I don't know and neither do you" about many things but - not here.
    You are calling an all knowing God a cold-hearted son of a buck when you DON'T KNOW anything about the people of Keekamagoonga or how God makes Himself known to them. YOU have books, TV, radio and churches everywhere you turn and are assuming that is the only way an all powerful God can communicate!? YOU DON'T KNOW. Use your imagination. Is God a Spirit?
    Is He limited to only what YOU know about the Spirit world? How do you know these people don't call Christ by another name and have known about Him longer than you?
    How can you hold your own idea of justice above Gods? Is He only just when it comes to your neighborhood?
    Or perhaps there is still much YOU DON'T KNOW - but don't want to admit.

    1. Im sorry, but his post states " it would take not WANT that person to get the opportunity". It does not refer to to GOD as being one, its refering to any man (or woman) if they would WANT that...

  3. You should reread what I wrote.

  4. I've reread it several times now, and compared it to what you're saying...and I sincerely don't know what you're saying.

    Does discussion of orthodox views of hell/judgement/the afterlife push you out of your comfort zone? Still trying to figure out why that particular segment was so troubling to you, but seemingly not the rest of the article.

  5. Anonymous,

    Ah, the adventures of missing the point. Please go back and read the paragraph (and for that matter the whole post). I am pretty sure that Lewis is not doing any of the things you speak of here. I also think the context is pretty clear about who Lewis is referring to here, so the points you are making are not really germane to the discussion.

    Disagreement is great, but it requires some level of understanding of what you are taking umbrage with.

    Lewis, great blog and I appreciate your work and perspective. You can certainly take care of yourself and don't need my help, but I guess I felt like responding today. Love in Christ, brother.

  6. *chuckles* Agreed, anonymous misread the paragraph he/she took issue with.

  7. What I don't get is this...I'm accused of this...

    "All through your post you say "I don't know and neither do you" about many things but - not here."

    ...yet, look smack dab in the middle of the section of the article quoted. I think Anonymous needs to be honest about exactly what the beef here is.


  8. Yours is one of the very few blogs I read because your thinking seems so sharp, perceptive and astute. You haven't lost this visitor. You do it yet again, in this article.

    (A different Anonymous)

  9. Wow, Anon #1 REALLY needs to brush up on reading comprehension!

    Thanks for the awesome post yet again, Lewis!

  10. Okay. Late to the discussion here but this was an April Fool's entry and I think it's very pertinent to the discussion.

    Review of Love Wins

  11. lol...I'm gonna link that over on the Water Cooler, too.

  12. From the title of the post and general topic of the blog, I thought this was going to be about the film "Hell's Bells: The Dangers of Rock and Roll Music." It had repeat showings in my youth group, often followed by the destruction of non-Christian music. I am sure you would find it, um, interesting.