There has been a lot of buzz recently about the question of hell and salvation, some of it brought on by a controversy over a book by Rob Bell called Love Wins. I have not read this book, because, well… I just don’t have time for stuff like that. I can’t remember the last time I got to read a book for any reason other than research. But even more than that, I’m the kind of guy who refuses to read the book everyone’s talking about. I refuse to go to the restaurant with the two hour wait, and I refuse to see the film all the critics love. Times Square on New Year’s Eve or New Orleans at Mardi Gras are the last places on earth I would want to be. I just can’t stand the idea of doing what everyone else is scrambling to do. So no, I didn’t read the book. However, if you want a review from someone I trust, check out Adam Ericksen’s take on the book (make sure you scroll down to read part 1 first). Adam works with an outfit called the Raven Foundation, which is worth checking out, by the way – it’s run by some really great people. It’s almost as cool as the Phoenix Foundation. On the other hand, check out this youtube for an MSNBC interview that takes Bell to task.
So this is not a review of Rob Bell’s book, nor is it a critique of Bell’s theology. But the controversy got me thinking about it, and I’ve actually already put some thought into this, to the point that I’ve joked with my students that I’m going to write a book called, What the Hell? I’m not ready to write that book yet, but this week’s blog will be a preview, in the sense that I’m going to throw out some thoughts – things that would go into a book on the subject if I were to write one. So here’s some food for thought…
#1. Most of what we popularly think of when we think about hell comes, not from the Bible, but from other sources like Dante, Milton and Far Side comics. So all that stuff with the caves and stalactites and torn up clothing and smoke and pitchforks, it’s all BS. Find it in the Bible – I dare you.
#2. Pre-christian notions of an underworld are not an adequate explanation of hell. We have to keep in mind that God is omnipresent. In Psalm 139:7-8 the psalmist prays, “Where can I go from your Spirit, or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in the underworld, behold you are there.” So… what it would mean to be separated from the presence of an omnipresent God remains a complete mystery, not to mention a paradox.
#3. As often as not, fire in the Bible is an image of purification. Oh sure, sometimes it refers to destruction, no doubt, as in the image of “Gehenna.” But it can also refer to the cleansing or purifying fire, in passages such as Zechariah 13:9 and Revelation 3:18. In fact, in my new book The Wedding of the Lamb: A Historical Approach to the Book of Revelation, I talk about the so-called “Lake of Fire” in this context. It is possible to interpret the Lake of Fire as a symbol of purification, in the sense of purgatory. In fact, I think Protestants too quickly dismiss the idea of purgatory as unbiblical and overlook passages such as I Corinthians 3:15. I wonder whether the concept of purgatory could be the solution to this whole problem. (By the way, would someone please start a controversy over my book? You can even call me a heretic if you want to, and I’ll repent all the way to the bank.)
But I’m not talking about the old-school version of purgatory where each sin equates to a certain amount of time in heaven’s waiting room. I’m talking about the understanding of purgatory that Pope Benedict XVI talks about in his encyclical Spe Salvi (Spe salvi facti sumus = “In hope we are saved”). In this encyclical, the Pope wrote, “It is clear that we cannot calculate the ‘duration’ of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of the world. The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning – it is the heart’s time, it is the time of ‘passage’ to communion with God in the Body of Christ.” To me that makes sense. Purgatory not as “doing time” to pay one’s debt to God, but purgatory as the name suggests, a purification process that makes us ready for the presence of God. And in that sense, there is no one who is without hope. It leaves open the possibility that virtually everyone would eventually be in the Kingdom. On the other hand…
#4. I would love to be a universalist. No one would be happier than I if it turns out that hell is empty. But I can’t be a universalist for the simple reason that Jesus wasn’t a universalist. Matthew 22:13 alone makes this clear, and there are plenty of other texts, but I won’t belabor the point since I don’t want to appear to be prooftexting. To my universalist friends: I get it. I really do. And to be honest, I’m glad you’re out there saying what you’re saying. But in the end it’s all too easy. I can almost get on board with Rahner’s concept of the anonymous Christian, but I’m skeptical even of that. I say I’m skeptical but at the same time I refuse to limit God by pretending to know whom God can and cannot save (as if there’s anything God cannot do!), and I want to leave to God the prerogative to save whomever God wants to save. In any case, we know that God does not want to lose anyone (II Peter 3:9). In the end, I do know this (or I should say I believe this): that whomever is saved in the end will be saved through the atonement of the cross of Christ, whether they know it or not.
#5. Jesus wants us to keep our eyes on our own test. When Jesus said we should not judge one another (Matthew 7:1), he was not talking about critiquing behavior. In fact, we critique people’s behavior all the time – every time we put someone in jail for a crime. No, Jesus was talking about speculation about another person’s eternal destiny – that is what we should not do. In other words, no one should claim to know whether another person is “going to heaven” or “going to hell.” It’s enough to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). So while I do accept the reality of an afterlife in which some are separated from God, or “outside” of the Kingdom (whatever that means), I refuse to take the next step and start speculating on the criteria for exclusion. Because as soon as we start thinking we know which behaviors (that other people do) are hell-worthy, then we have made ourselves the judge – and that’s God’s job. And yes, I do understand that there are mortal sins (I John 5:16), but that’s for our own self-examination, it’s not a club to use on others.
So to the Bells out there… keep it up, even if it is heresy – keep reminding the rest of us to reject easy answers, on either side. As I always tell my students, we need heresy because heresy forces orthodoxy to define itself. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that heresy forces orthodoxy to clarify and refine itself. Personally, I like it here in the middle, but we need the people on the edges to push the envelope so we know where the middle is. My only advice to those on the edge would be this: don’t go so far as to give people the impression that it doesn’t matter whether or not they have a relationship with God. As my wife Susie put it recently, “People who don’t have God in their lives just don’t know what they’re missing.”