Rob Bell's Hell: A Threat to the Evangelical Business Plan

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There are more reasons than mere theology why Evangelical Christian leaders are raising Cain over the message now being wholesaled by the Rev. Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church, featured in TIME's current cover story, "What If There's No Hell?" Bell's I'm-O.K.-you're-O.K., we're-not-going-to-hell-today spin is not merely a refutation of a basic belief. If this piece of theological reordering takes hold, it's the Evangelicals' business plan that's going to hell.

Fire and brimstone has been one of the Evangelicals' main product lines. It's based on a zero-sum outcome: heaven or hell. Believe or perish. And part of the deal, at least in practical application, is that you can't get spiritually right without monetarily supporting the church. Pay to play, in other words. It's the same with most religions. No one says so in those crude terms — it's all about the mission — but a sales pitch is a sales pitch, even one accompanied by a choir. You can't build the Crystal Cathedral on prayer alone. There's a mortgage to pay.

And contributing money is a perfectly reasonable investment for the faithful. You may not be able to pay your way into heaven (sorry hedge funders), but you can help build the pathway on earth. Corporations like to measure return on equity, usually expressed as ROE. But you could say that church donations offer a different kind of ROE: return on eternity. And they're tax deductible to boot.

But what happens if Bell is right? Is it possible that the return on eternity on these contributions has dropped compared with other spiritual investments? For instance, maybe there's a bigger ROE in giving to the poor or volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. Tithing your church may be too much of an investment risk if the returns are less certain.

French mathematician Blaise Pascal famously pondered ROE in the spiritual-investment quandary called Pascal's Wager. It's an exercise in game theory. A rationalist, Pascal thought about how he might bet against God's very existence and behave accordingly: more rosé, fewer rosaries. But he also knew that had he pursued a hedonistic lifestyle and God existed, a negative outcome would ensue. And he'd be totally, eternally screwed. Better to believe, he reasoned. In Pascal's logic, the rational spiritual investor becomes risk averse and spends a big chunk of the portfolio with God. Pascal, in other words, recommended that you hedge your spiritual investment.

Preacher Bell is now positing that the endgame is different. If, in mathematical terms, you assign a zero probability that hell exists, then the rational spiritual investor reduces his exposure, since the expected ROE has been declined. "What do you give up?" asks Yale University professor Keith Chen, a game-theory expert. What's relevant in game theory is the difference between the good and bad outcomes. "If the idea is everybody goes to heaven and everybody enjoys the same privileges, then it unwinds Pascal's Wager," he says.

But both Chen and another game theorist at Yale, Barry Nalebuff, immediately posed another possibility: Is there a nonhell that's still not heaven? (Bell even suggests as much.) If there is heaven and a not-so-good nonhell, there's still a wager, although the spiritual investor might adjust it. Say, by moving it to a church like Bell's. Says Nalebuff: "The trick is, what's the cost of leaving? In my view he brings down the cost of leaving." In this view, Pascal's Wager is more like playing the lottery, says Nalebuff. If you win, heaven is the prize. If you don't, it's just a couple of spiritual bucks lost.

And that could be a competitive advantage. Churches operate in a marketplace of spiritual ideas, but they're directly connected to the temporal economy. The competition for the faithful can be downright unholy. Churches can and do go bankrupt if they cannot attract enough participants.

The adverse reaction to Bell's hell among some Evangelical leaders is based first on deeply held belief, not economic consequences. But it should really put the fear of God in their accountants. There are plenty of other reasons to invest in your church other than buying eternity insurance. There's the spiritual fulfillment that faith can bring, the sense of community, the built-in support group for when you need it most. Even those awful church suppers. But these are not the zero-sum, repent-or-burn outcomes that have underwritten the business so effectively over the years. Indeed, there's no hell to pay anymore.