Originally published in The Daily Toreador.
Rob Bell isn’t exactly a stranger to controversy. The young pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church has often been criticized for being too “liberal” in his views of the Bible, Jesus and Christianity.
But his new book, “Love Wins,” which I must stress is not even in bookstores yet, is already being attacked for things it may or may not actually say.
Many Christian leaders and bloggers are attacking the book for its alleged views on the Christian concept of hell. To put it simply, Bell questions the idea that only a “precious few” people will go to heaven, as well as potentially questioning what one must do in order to become one of those few.
It is, of course, almost always inappropriate for people to be judging a book so harshly when they haven’t even read it yet. However, Bell did release a trailer for the novel in which he lays out some of the things he will be talking about (such as asking the question, “Is Gandhi really in hell?”), and he does seem to lay enough cards on the table to make the criticisms not entirely crazy.
That doesn’t make the criticisms right, of course.
The first real salvo seems to have been fired by Justin Taylor, a popular Christian blogger. A good friend of mine posted a link to Taylor’s article on his Facebook page, and a debate immediately emerged — a debate that I admittedly helped to spark.
I took particular issue with the statement that “(Bell) is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.” What I found a little troubling about that sentence was that most modern Christians’ ideas of hell don’t actually come from the Bible, though they may think they do.
When most people think of hell, they think of fire and brimstone, demons and eternal suffering. The problem is, this image of damnation has been inspired more by Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” than by any of the Biblical gospels. The New Testament only uses the Greek word “tartaroo,” which refers to “being cast into hell” in the sense that much of Greek mythology refers to hell, once.
Another common word that gets translated into “hell,” “Gehenna,” refers to an actual, physical place that existed outside Jerusalem.
So is Bell really moving “farther and farther away” from the Bible by thinking a little outside the box in regards to hell? To me, it doesn’t seem like something we know much about at all.
But more than that, many of the things we teach in churches today aren’t strictly from the Bible, yet we never really single them out as being heretical.
Have you, or a pastor or teacher or someone else close to you, ever told someone the way to heaven was to “ask Jesus to come into your heart”? I’ve encountered people who think pastors who don’t use such language “aren’t teaching the Bible.”
The problem is, that phrase is never found in any book of the Bible, nor is any phrase like it. The closest thing is in the Book of Acts, in which Peter and John pray that new believers in Samaria might “receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 12).
So if you want a church that “only teaches the Bible,” yet your church teaches people should ask Jesus into their heart, you need to find a different church.
That’s not to say that the concept behind such language is wrong. I personally don’t think it is. It’s the same with the doctrine of the Trinity, which I fully accept and support, though the Bible doesn’t specifically teach the concept nor use the word “trinity.”
And our current preconceptions of hell might not be wrong, either. It might really be a lake of fire where non-believers suffer forever, with thirst that cannot be quenched and pain that cannot be abated.
And it’s not like preaching about hell has never been useful. Christian thriller author Ted Dekker has spoken before about how important it is to paint evil with a “very black brush,” because by showing evil for the darkness it really is, it makes it more amazing when God’s light shines through. There’s something to that, certainly.
But my point is, we can’t always blindly accept old traditions and beliefs just because they’ve been taught for the past 2,000 years. They may not be wrong, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test them every now and then.
Taylor might be right when he argues hell is very real and very full, and Bell might be wrong. On the other hand, maybe hell doesn’t exist at all. Maybe hell exists but is empty. I personally hold a view shared by C.S. Lewis, in which hell exists but is essentially locked from the inside — its denizens aren’t there because God doesn’t want them in heaven so much as because they refuse to leave.
Maybe we’re all wrong, and we’re just too stupid to comprehend things outside our physical world.
But rational, reasonable discussion like Bell’s shouldn’t be discouraged. It should be welcomed.
I could talk for a lot longer about the subject of the afterlife — maybe even enough to write a book of my own. But I’ll end with something I’ve heard Chris Galanos, the local pastor of the Experience Life church here in Lubbock, say many times: We should major on the majors and minor on the minors.
That is, both Taylor and Bell accept Jesus and believe the Bible is the most important book ever written. For Christians, those are the two things you don’t really want to get wrong. Why do we have to fight with each other so much over all the other stuff, which is extremely minor in comparison?
Or, as Bell himself has said, God has spoken, and the rest is just commentary. Let other people comment. None of us have this world or its creator figured out completely. Let’s figure it out together instead of getting up in arms about it.