Flippant about Hell – does “not knowing” mean “not going”?

The noise has already started. Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, is seen as laying down the challenge to the evangelical commitment to the doctrine of an eternal hell. Read about some of the noise here.

This will give the more conservative wing of evangelicalism, the group to which I generally belong, another reason to ride off to war and be heroes. I am already tired of what I am going to see.

But I want to think a bit here before I get my white steed out of the barn and saddle up.

For one, the book isn’t out yet. It can’t be definitively said what it is that Rob Bell is going to be teaching. Let’s let him have his full shot.

Two, if Rob wants to increase book sales by upsetting evangelicals, I’m not so sure I like this method. People’s consciences are tender things, and PR campaigns to increase attention should not on purpose bring upset to the Christian community to increase the number of books sold. It feels calculated and cold to me.

Three, certainly Roman Catholics and many evangelicals, too, believe that Jesus Christ alone saves. There is salvation in no other name. But they do not thereby mean that personal conscience faith in the Name is the only means whereby one is saved. In other words, the grace of the cross reaches through cultures, ideologies and yes, even religions, and transforms the soul, particularly in those circumstances in which a person has not received any clear proclamation of Good News. In this view, a person who is, by God’s prevenient grace, responding to the truth that he knows with a sincere heart and humility, will be saved by Christ. In other words, the simple “not knowing” does not necessarily mean “not going” to heaven. Of course, conservative Christians who believe a version of this are very quick to build fences around this horse let it get out of the barnyard and end up being a full-blown universalism.

Four, there has always been around the fringes of the church some flirtation with “apokatastasis”. This is the teaching that in the end all things will be restored to God in the extinguishing of hell, or as some have referred to it, the razing of hell. Certainly the church father Origen rolled this around in his fingers without fully committing himself. For this and other reasons (another of which is that he castrated himself), Origen has not been canonized. George MacDonald, the famous writer and former pastor, did commit himself to a “Christian universalism” and lost his position as priest because of it.

I am going to be listening to Bell on this one. He is right to finally get to this topic and declare himself. The trajectory he has been on begs for this question to be answered. The very audience to which Bell aims his stuff would demand an answer on this one, particularly on why Christians could even think that a man like Gandhi would be in hell.

But I think any Christian who is authentically engaging Christ has to come to terms in his own way with the eternality of hell. Hell, traditionally conceived, is such an awful and terrible thing that the sensitive, feeling soul will not merely check it off on a doctrinal to do list and move on. He will stop and be overwhelmed with the pain of it, the horror of it, before he confesses “I believe.”

What I look for when I read

Let Pat Conroy say it.

Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf. Here’s what I love: when a great writer turns me into a Jew from Chicago, a lesbian out of South Carolina, or a black woman moving into a subway entrance in Harlem. Turn me into something else, writers of the world. Make me a Muslim, heretic, hermaphrodite. Put me into a crusader’s armor, a cardinal’s vestments. Let me feel the pygmy’s heartbeat, the queen’s breast, the torturer’s pleasure, the Nile’s taste, or the nomad’s thirst. Tell me everything I must know. Hold nothing back.

You don’t ever want to need the government’s help

Let me note, first of all, that we all get the government’s help. In my reading, I came across the observation that 80% of the wealth that we have is due to the place in which we do business, the USA. The infrastructure, the capitalist system, the technological advancement, etc., are all in place to make the creation of wealth not only possible but even probable for those who desire it enough. Born in another place, Africa for instance, the same amount of ambition and smarts might be able to produce mere survival. An accident of latitude and longitude.

But that said, you don’t ever want to be in the place where you have to have a government service. First, those who have to have what the government can give are the very ones kicked to the curb first. It’s just the way it is.  The very way the government spends money on itself is the giveaway. The inordinate salaries, the obscene benefits, the time off, etc., give you some indication of what the mentality of government is and the level at which you are going to be serviced. You are never first when it comes to government. Government is first.

Second, once you need the government your life will be filled with bureaucrats. Believe me, these are people you want to meet as little as possible. Been to the post office lately? Ever thought you would see people move so slowly? Ever thought you would like to ask one of them out on a date? Ever thought you would meet someone who is so incapable of eye contact? These are not people you want to mainstream into community and home.

Third, people who work for government are experts at rules. I’m all for order. But they aren’t for order. They are for rules. And that’s different. As you know, at some point in the rule making, there will be that place where one rule contradicts another. It’s gonna happen. Just be in the system long enough and you will find yourself there. And then watch the government worker’s head explode. It’s like watching a ministroke. They mumble, shake their head and wander away from their desk into the labyrinth of government hallways. When they return with an answer, it will be no answer. You will just get another phone number that you can only call on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am to 4pm, not during lunch and never on a Monday – Monday has too many holidays.

Fourth, you don’t have enough time to cross lines with the government. They have all the time in the world, since they really don’t have to produce anything. You, on the other hand, have no time since you have to produce everything.

Fifth, if you ever make friends with a government worker who you have come to rely on, don’t get used to it. By age 50 they are gone. You thought they cared? No, being vested and early retirement is the name of the game. Unlike the guy in the local hardware store who actually knows and cares about his customers and is always rethinking retirement because he has some sense that his customers need him, you’ll never get to know a government worker who has a personal commitment to you. You are not needed and irrelevant to their pay. For them it’s time put in, rules obeyed and the last three years at the highest salary.

Sixth, if you need government, they will call the shots, not you. Your life will be based on their rules, their mindset, their parsimonious hearts and bespectacled squinty eyes.  They will make you beg as you plead that though you know it is cheaper to have your leg amputated, you want one more try before they make it easier for themselves and cut off the doggone thing.

So squirrel away your money. Don’t go on vacation. Don’t add a pool. Send your kids to community college, and buy a 17″ TV at a yard sale and forego the big screen TV. Save all you can, and maybe you will have enough money someday never to have to interact with the government. That’s the one big ticket item I want to be able to purchase.

You don’t ever want government’s help.