Monthly Archives: March 2011

What the hell?

How about an earthquake followed by a tsunami followed by the destruction of a nuclear power plant? That sounds like hell to me, but it is nature and the result of natural consequences. It may feel random, yet the earth’s geology and meteorology are not as random as it may feel to those who are living through disasters. That doesn’t mean it was god’s will either, even though Japan’s governor blamed the recent disasters on god’s retribution for “national egoism” (“6 other calamities blamed on divine retribution,” by Dan Gilgoff, CNN’s, 3/16/2011).

In the recent movie “The Kids are All Right,” Julianne Moore’s character said, “Your mom and I are in hell right now,” as the two leads tried to salvage their marriage from the damage caused by infidelity. Anyone who’s lived through divorce knows that feeling. But what or where is hell? Well, we have a Protestant (Christian) minister offering us a new definition. Rob Bell went to the same seminary as anti-gay mega-church Evangelical minister, Rick Warren, yet he is unafraid to say that Jesus did not teach that hell was a place of post-death damnation for those who haven’t been born again.

Bell’s new book Love Wins, was released on March 15.  Apparently in Evangelical circles being labeled a “Universalist” is like heresy for Roman Catholics, and such is their scandalous accusation of Bell. It turns out that his new book takes away the threat of hell as a conversion motivation. His explanation is neither clear nor concise, but it is nonetheless refreshing. I won’t go so far as to recommend his book because it is so poorly written as to be annoying – but what Bell tries to say is inspired.

“Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God, so they would believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love” (p.82).

The best I can paraphrase Bell on hell is to say that it is not a place but a word used as a literary device to communicate the (Christian) theological reality of making poor decisions. “We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way” (p.93).

There’s no question about one of Bell’s assertions: “I think it’s very, very important to point out that what happens after you die is speculation.” When’s the last time you heard clergy say that?

The other issue that Bell raises in his tedious, meandering style, is the affect of traditional Evangelical Christianity on people. “So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the word, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus” (p.6). Well, now he’s got it. He’s describing the salvation-compassion paradox of that brand of Christianity.

Does it matter? Well it apparently does to a lot of people because on February 26th Bell’s theological argument about hell was among Twitter’s top 10 trending topics. His book was among Amazon’s top three sellers.

Bell proposes what I have long suspected: hell is on earth. If you have never seen hell on earth, then you haven’t been paying attention. Watch some CNN clips on Japan and remember there were real people getting swept away by that debris-loaded, 500 mile-per-hour black tsunami water. Maybe if you take away the after-life-eternal-hell threat, people would be left just having to help each other to have a little less hell in the here and now. Somebody get Bell a decent editor because that’s an idea worth writing about. -J.B.