When a religious subject hits the Modesto Bee you know that the story is either really old or really big. The headline read “What is hell? Book sets off discussion,” as the article covered a subject that is arguably both old and big. The story dates back to the Garden of Eden when Satan tempted Eve with the challenge “Has God indeed said?” But it’s also a very new story sparked by Pastor Rob Bell and his recent book, “Love Wins.” The story gained national momentum last week when Pastor Chad Holtz posted a Facebook message supporting the book and was then summarily dismissed from his pastorate at the United Methodist Church in Henderson, N.C.
Family feuds always titillate the press, especially a scrap within evangelical Christianity. In his book, this young mega-church pastor presents numerous propositions that openly question the traditional biblical understanding of eternal punishment, namely hell. His work spurred the Associated Press to ask its readers pointedly, “What does hell mean to you?” That question spoke volumes as the secular media unwittingly exposed a very flawed doctrine. Rob Bell isn’t presenting a careful exegetical examination of hell from the pages of scripture, but instead is asking his readers to look deep within themselves and consider the true meaning of love, heaven, hell, punishment, and consequence. It becomes a subjective matter of the heart and not the mind. He writes this:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
Apparently this line of thinking has struck quite a chord with an American religious audience. Last week, “Love Wins” was the fourth best-selling book on Amazon.com, and the best-selling book in the religion category. It has spurred thousands of responses from pulpits, to Twitter, to Facebook, to weblogs. It is sure to make Rob Bell a notable and sought-after voice within Evangelical Christianity and will no doubt generate millions of dollars in revenue.
The crux of his argument is that God’s love can and will triumph over every humanly contrived circumstance, including, he leads the reader to believe, the sin of a lifelong rejection of Christ. It’s compulsory heaven for all, or almost all. Perhaps even Rob Bell believes that Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Khan are consigned to a place called “hell.” But who really knows?
This comforting doctrine of “heaven for all,” also known as “universalism,” is a sweet seduction inviting us to reach out and grasp a tempting but forbidden fruit. Let’s just believe that God’s love is so fantastic that it will ultimately override man’s choice, the reality of sin, His own justice, eternal consequences, and the clear teaching of scripture. After all, love in 21st century America doesn’t punish evil and it never demands justice. Modern love is a fairy tale that embraces diversity and tolerates every ideology as consequentially equal. Of course it hasn’t exactly produced utopia here on earth, as our prisons continue to swell with violent offenders, but how cheery to know that this new doctrine of love will be enthusiastically received by popular culture.
But anytime a “new wind” of doctrine blows through the church, we need to step back and ask ourselves if it is biblical. The apostle John wrote, "And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:15). Jesus said, "The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41).
And of course the early fathers of church history embraced and taught a doctrine of hell both literal and punitive. A cursory reading of the works of early American Pastor and Theologian Jonathan Edwards reveals a solid belief in hell as the eternal portion for reprobate sinners.
So if Jesus presented us with the doctrine of hell, and the apostles agreed and expounded upon it, and historic Christianity has repeatedly affirmed its existence in literal terms, where is this new doctrine coming from? And why is it having such a far reaching effect?
Could it be that the American church in the broadest sense has drifted away from the technical teaching of the Bible to embrace a more selective and relativistic doctrine that attempts to soften the bluntness of the gospel? Could it be that the culture is infiltrating and shifting the philosophy of the church more than the church is influencing the culture?
Rob Bell and the emergent church represent a generation that has been reared in a consequence-free idealism. Grade school teachers reward self-esteem no matter what the effort. Youth sports ensure that everyone wins and that participation trumps victory. High schools grade on the curve, and one phone call from an angry parent is sure to get the administration involved. Colleges regularly inflate their grades. The courts have permitted an avalanche of law-suits that shield people from even the most basic sense of personal responsibility. And if somehow you still manage to slip through the myriad safety nets and actually fail, the United States government will come to the rescue with a host of regulations and spending packages that ensure success. Your sex, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, geography, or ancestry will surely highlight your victimization and shield you from the consequences of personal choice.
“Love Wins” is simply the Bible recast in the narrative of a consequence-free generation. They honestly expect every official entity to buffer them from negative results. Certainly God is required to do the same. Certainly we can live like hell and still expect heaven. But tragically, even spoiled brats eventually face the harshness of reality. In the end, God’s judgment will play out exactly as the Bible explains. And Rob Bell will be the pied piper who lead far too many people down a very wide path called “destruction.” Love does win, but it’s God’s love received God’s way. And His saving love is only received by faith in Jesus Christ.