One week ago, HarperOne released a book by Rob Bell called Love Wins: a Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. But before it ever hit shelves or came out of the Amazon warehouse things were buzzing in the blogosphere and Twitterverse about the message of his book. Most of the activity was coming from the camp decrying Bell as a Universalist and thus a heretic – this based off a three minute Youtube teaser video and a book summary. In the last seven days the cyber-jousting has continued, and after having been asked what I think of all this and some long discussions, I have compiled a few questions and thoughts that might be helpful in this conversation.
Why are we so quick to throw people under the bus? I have not read the book, so I can’t make a definitive statement on what I think of what Rob Bell is saying…but how could everyone else? It seems that instead of waiting to take the time to read the book, maybe even try to have an actual conversation with Rob Bell, statements like “farewell Rob Bell” and labels of “heretic” are very quickly handed out. Whatever happened to civil dialogue, believing the best in others and thinking that we might be able to learn something from others? We should all be glad that our judicial system is founded upon the basic assumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty. Could it be that we’ve made Bell out to be guilty until his book proves him innocent?
Is there room for discussion on issues like this? On many issues there seems to be the belief that there are only two sides and one is orthodox and the other is heretical. Maybe it would serve the Body of Christ well to slow down and realize that there are some terms we should learn to create a more informed dialogue (for a good list and definition of terms valuable for this discussion, visit Glenn Packiam’s blog here), and to accept that there are multiple perspectives on the afterlife that are within the bounds of orthodoxy (for a few worthwhile and credible perspectives click here, here, here and here). We should remind ourselves that respectable God-fearing people have been debating (and disagreeing about) these issues for a couple millennia.
When truth is in question what does our response look like? I believe that we can and should hold the line of orthodoxy. Period. But what happens when someone falls off the path (and I’m not implying that Bell has. Haven’t read the book yet.)? Do we all of a sudden stop acting like Jesus? Though Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees, he still extended a welcoming hand to them to identify themselves as lost and come home to the Father (Luke 15). If Rob is a misled brother we are called to restore him gently (Gal. 6:1-2). If he is in fact a heretic, it seems that we should and can defend truth but are then called to love him as a lost sheep…that wouldn’t seem to involve condemning him to hell! It doesn’t seem like love is winning in this one.
Why are we so scared? I have heard a lot of “having any ambiguity on this subject is dangerous,” or, “anyone who is wondering about Universalism will only be given permission by Bell to believe it is true and walk away” talk. So in an attempt to make everything safe we make a clean cut statement about something that is not so clear in Scripture. We know that there is an afterlife and eternal punishment, but there is also a considerable amount of mystery involved with them. Can we be ok with that?
In our desire to not allow for ambiguity for fear of people walking away, have we maybe made things so clean and unambiguous that people have been pushed away from the faith? Ambiguity within faith has its value. Maybe it causes us to lean in to the Holy Spirit and allow Him to reveal truth. Isn’t that what the Christian life is about?
Are we missing the point? Is eternal punishment a biblical idea? Most definitely. Is it important? Absolutely. Is it possible that there is more to this discussion than “is hell about eternal conscious suffering”? I think so. What about a challenge to the hell, fire and brimstone style of preaching that scares people into praying a prayer? Are we approaching the Gospel from a “what we are saved from” angle or from a “what we are saved into” perspective?
If there is any heresy here (and we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that there is), the Body of Christ should deal with it in a loving and gracious way. But let’s be people that are quick to promote the Kingdom rather than sitting around waiting for our chance to pick someone else apart.