Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn't Exist?

Rogue pastor Rob Bell's argument about salvation and judgment has Evangelicals in a fury — and a young generation rethinking Jesus

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Brent Humphreys for TIME

Rob Bell

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Which is what has many traditional Evangelicals worried. Bell's book sheds light not only on enduring questions of theology and fate but also on a shift within American Christianity. More indie rock than "Rock of Ages," with its videos and comfort with irony (Bell sometimes seems an odd combination of Billy Graham and Conan O'Brien), his style of doctrine and worship is clearly playing a larger role in religious life, and the ferocity of the reaction suggests that he is a force to be reckoned with.

Otherwise, why reckon with him at all? A similar work by a pastor from one of the declining mainline Protestant denominations might have merited a hostile blog post or two — bloggers, like preachers, always need material — but it is difficult to imagine that an Episcopal priest's eschatological musings would have provoked the volume of criticism directed at Bell, whose reach threatens prevailing Evangelical theology.

Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus' atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.

From a traditionalist perspective, though, to take away hell is to leave the church without its most powerful sanction. If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life? If, in other words, Gandhi is in heaven, then why bother with accepting Christ? If you say the Bible doesn't really say what a lot of people have said it says, then where does that stop? If the verses about hell and judgment aren't literal, what about the ones on adultery, say, or homosexuality? Taken to their logical conclusions, such questions could undermine much of conservative Christianity.

What the Hell?
From the Apostle Paul to John Paul II, from Augustine to Calvin, Christians have debated atonement and judgment for nearly 2,000 years. Early in the 20th century, Harry Emerson Fosdick came to represent theological liberalism, arguing against the literal truth of the Bible and the existence of hell. It was time, progressives argued, for the faith to surrender its supernatural claims.

Bell is more at home with this expansive liberal tradition than he is with the old-time believers of Inherit the Wind. He believes that Jesus, the Son of God, was sacrificed for the sins of humanity and that the prospect of a place of eternal torment seems irreconcilable with the God of love. Belief in Jesus, he says, should lead human beings to work for the good of this world. What comes next has to wait. "When we get to what happens when we die, we don't have any video footage," says Bell. "So let's at least be honest that we are speculating, because we are." He is quick to note, though, that his own speculation, while unconventional, is not unprecedented. "At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church," Bell writes, "have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God."

It is also true that the Christian tradition since the first church has insisted that history is tragic for those who do not believe in Jesus; that hell is, for them, forever; and that love, in the end, will envelop those who profess Jesus as Lord, and they — and they alone — will be reconciled to God. Such views cannot be dismissed because they are inconvenient or uncomfortable: they are based on the same Bible that liberals use to make the opposite case. This is one reason religious debate can seem a wilderness of mirrors, an old CIA phrase describing the bewildering world of counterintelligence.

Still, the dominant view of the righteous in heaven and the damned in hell owes more to the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake, than it does to history or to unambiguous biblical teaching. Neither pagan nor Jewish tradition offered a truly equivalent vision of a place of eternal torment; the Greek and Roman underworlds tended to be morally neutral, as did much of the Hebraic tradition concerning Sheol, the realm of the dead.

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