Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Rob Bell & the Uneasy Topic of Hell

Photo Credit: s. alt
Up until a couple of weeks ago, Rob Bell was probably not that well-known outside of a certain subset of evangelical Christianity. Although Bell, pastor of Mars Hills Church in Grand Rapids, had gained a following through his books (like Velvet Elvis and Sex God) and his series of video vignettes (called NOOMA), many Christians had likely not heard of him.

But that all changed near the end of February.  It was then that Bell, who is known for his masterful art of storytelling and unconventional methods of teachings, began the promotion of his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  A promotional video and description from the publisher of the book, which has not even been released yet, set off a firestorm of discussion across the Internet as conservative bloggers voiced concern for Bell's apparent universalism and progressive bloggers applauded his addressing a difficult issue.

Since I have not read the book (which is slated to be released later this month), I will not attempt to comment directly on Rob Bell's views.  But I do think that his decision to tackle the topic of hell has certainly struck a nerve.  In the days immediately following the initial promotion of the book, Rob Bell was a trending topic on Twitter.  If you're not familiar with Twitter or trending topics, what that means is that at one point, of all the things being "tweeted" about across the country, Rob Bell was in the top ten.  That is extremely rare for a Christian figure to be that discussed, even if it is just for a day.  What that tells me is that hell is obviously a subject of interest to a lot of people and it is quite apparent that not all Christians have the same perspective on the matter.

Scot McKnight, a favorite writer of mine, addresses the Bell controversy with wisdom and grace here and here.  Some highlights:
"The pressing issue today is both to comprehend the absolute seriousness of the Christian claim, to realize that the ground has shifted in that many who are associated with evangelicalism simply don’t believe the traditional view and have embraced some kind of universalism, and we need also to understand the options so we can all, one more time, go back to the Bible, to our church traditions, and study all over again – as if for the first time – what to believe...

My contention is this: the approach to this generation is not to denounce their questions, which often enough are rooted in a heightened sensitivity to divine justice and compassion, but to probe their questions from the inside and to probe thoughtful and biblically-responsible resolutions. We need to show that their questions about justice and God’s gracious love are not bad questions but good questions that deserve to be explored."
For the record, I do believe that each of us will be accountable before God as sinners and that God is both a God of love and of justice. His love is demonstrated through the offer of forgiveness through His son, Jesus Christ, and His justice is displayed through Christ's death on our behalf.  I believe that Jesus is the only way for our sin to be forgiven and, without Him, we are without hope.

But I also know, as McKnight contends, that there is a generation of young evangelicals that are uneasy talking about (or even thinking about) the hard issue of hell.  We rarely hear talk of hell, even though it is a subject that most of us have some sort of view on.  It is important to remember that if heaven exists and hell is real (which I believe are both true), then there is no more important issue for us to consider than where we will spend eternity.

I am wholeheartedly convinced that some of us will spend eternity with God and some of us won't and it is Jesus that makes the difference.  In the promotional video for the book, Bell says, "What we believe about heaven and hell is extremely important."  I agree with him on that.  But I'll wait until I read the book to see what else we see eye-to-eye on.

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