In 1966, Time magazine's April 8 cover story famously asked "Is God Dead?"
Forty-five years later the magazine is still hard at work attempting to discredit traditional Christian faith, with former Newsweek writer Jon Meacham exploring the question "Is Hell Dead?"
Meacham doesn't answer the question definitively but used the raging controversy over Michigan pastor Rob Bell's new book "Love Wins" to argue that evangelical Christianity may be moving away from its tradition teachings on eternal conscious torment of the wicked in Hell towards a universalist view of salvation:
The standard Christian view of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is summed up in the Gospel of John, which promises "eternal life" to "whosoever believeth in Him." Traditionally, the key is the acknowledgment that Jesus is the Son of God, who, in the words of the ancient creed, "for us and for our salvation came down from heaven ... and was made man." In the Evangelical ethos, one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.
Bell, a tall, 40-year-old son of a Michigan federal judge, begs to differ. He suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal — meaning that, as his book's subtitle puts it, "every person who ever lived" could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be. Such a simple premise, but with Easter at hand, this slim, lively book has ignited a new holy war in Christian circles and beyond.
"Ignited a new holy war"? I guess Meacham couldn't resist.
But what's got evangelicals issuing fatwas over Bell? Meacham makes the ultimate motivation seem one of market share for a "brand" of Christianity, not the eternal consequences of misleading folks with error-laden theology (emphasis mine):
Particularly galling to conservative Christian critics is that Love Wins is not an attack from outside the walls of the Evangelical city but a mutiny from within — a rebellion led by a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following. Is Bell's Christianity — less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient of assumptions — on an inexorable rise? "I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian," Bell says. "Something new is in the air."
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.
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.
"A case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude"? Meacham, an Episcopalian has to know better than offer readers such a false dichotomy between traditional Christianity and Bell's postmodernism.
After all, orthodox Christian doctrines like predestination, the Trinity, and the incarnation are accepted by millions of Christians but never fully grasped by them.
Shortly after this passage, Meacham made another odd assertion (emphasis mine):
[T]he 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.
Really? Sure, popular imagination of heaven and hell owe a lot to the imagination of artists that may be divorced from strict application of the biblical text, but does that really govern how the church has taught about Heaven and Hell? I don't remember any pastor of mine reading Dante or Blake or using a PowerPoint of paintings when preaching about Hell.
Meacham then added that "[n]either pagan nor Jewish tradition offered a truly equivalent vision of a place of eternal torment."
I'm no expert on either pagan nor Jewish tradition, but there's at least one reference to eternal punishment of the wicked in the Old Testament from the book of Daniel in the 12th chapter:
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Eternal glory of the righteous, eternal shame and contempt for the wicked. Sounds like heaven and hell to me.
Closing his piece, Meacham noted that religion "also kills," citing the riots in Afghanistan that broke out allegedly in response to a Florida pastor's burning of the Koran. Meacham gave Bell the last word and a plug for Bell's Palm Sunday sermon:
Bell knows the arguments and appreciates the frustrations. "I don't know anyone who hasn't said, 'Let's turn out the lights and say we gave it a shot,'" he says. "But you can't — I can't — get away from what this Jesus was, and is, saying to us. What the book tries to do is park itself right in the midst of the tension with a Jesus who offers an urgent and immediate call — 'Repent! Be transformed! Turn!' At the same time, I've got other sheep. There's a renewal of all things. There's water from the rock. People will come from the East and from the West. The scandal of the gospel is Jesus' radical, healing love for a world that's broken."
Fair enough, but let's be honest: religion heals, but it also kills. Why support a supernatural belief system that, for instance, contributed to that minister in Florida's burning of a Koran, which led to the deaths of innocent U.N. workers in Afghanistan?
"I think Jesus shares your critique," Bell replies. "We don't burn other people's books. I think Jesus is fairly pissed off about it as well."
On Sunday, April 17, at Mars Hill, Bell will be joined by singer-songwriter Brie Stoner (who provided some of the music for his Nooma series) and will teach the first 13 verses of the third chapter of Revelation, which speaks of "the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God ... Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches." The precise meaning of the words is open to different interpretations. But this much is clear: Rob Bell has much to say, and many are listening.