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.”