“There’s no such thing as hell, but you can make it if you try.” So says Greg Graffin, singer-songwriter of the L.A. punk band Bad Religion. Those lyrics came to mind more than once as I was reading Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
This Rob Bell guy is an interesting fellow. He’s definitely a Christian, and I’d call him an evangelical Christian, because he clearly wants to spread the message of Jesus. But Bell displays a sense of skepticism and a questioning mind that is incredibly rare among evangelical Christian writers.
Basically, Bell wants to let self-identified followers of Jesus to know that it’s OK to doubt or disbelieve the conventional Christian notions of the afterlife. He doesn’t reject heaven and hell outright, he just pokes holes in the mainstream conceptions of these two “places.”
“Somewhere along the way [Christians] were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will go to heaven when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it.” Bell continues: “Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.”
But Bell is right. Heaven and hell are concepts that have evolved over long periods of time within various Christian communities. By quoting extensively from the Bible, Bell shows that the prophets, Jesus, the Apostle Paul and others have all sorts of different perspectives on heaven and hell, none of which are perfectly clear.
Bell’s questioning continues: “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?”
See, I’ve never believed in hell, neither fire, nor brimstone. I grew up in the Episcopalian Church, and I honestly cannot remember ever sitting in the pew hearing Father Ken preach about damnation and torture. There was a lot about the Sermon on the Mount, and a lot about grace and forgiveness, but not eternal punishment. Later, when my parents moved into a Baptist church, and even later into non-denominational evangelical churches, I heard more and more about this notion that most people I knew would end up being tortured for eternity. Death, darkness, misery, fire, gnashing of teeth… stuck forever in a world like the cover of a Cannibal Corpse album.
For a long time I’ve believed that if a specific faith cannot survive without the element of eternal punishment for nonbelievers, then that faith is misguided. I’ve got plenty of rational reasons not to believe what I was taught in Sunday school. But on an emotional — let’s even call it spiritual, level — I’m sickened by the idea of a god and his followers forever rejoicing while nonbelievers are damned to perpetual misery. If my only problem with Christianity was that it requires damnation for its opponents, that alone would be enough for me to reject the faith entirely. I don’t respond well to threats. (Of course, there’s no evidence of an afterlife, no evidence that consciousness extends past death and the deterioration of the brain, so my point isn’t much of a point.)
Bell also rejects the idea of hell as a place of eternal damnation: “Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story.” Preach it, brother! “Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a good story.” Bell, who is prone to repeating himself, tells readers many times to reject the image of god as vengeful arbiter of damnation. That god, if he existed, would not be deserving of praise or admiration, but scorn.
Let’s break some of this discussion down into a mental exercise. Here is the concept of hell that Bell challenges:
A) Hell exists as a place of eternal punishment for sinners.
B) The only way out of hell is to believe in Jesus Christ (however you define that process).
Given A) and B), it follows that:
C) Very few people (as a percentage of those who have ever lived) will get into this heaven.
In this scenario, if we were to calculate the number of people who would end up in heaven over the number of people who would burn, the percentage would be incredibly low. If god were a baseball player, his batting average would get him benched, probably sent back down to the minors. If this is the afterlife, it’s also important to realize who would be excluded from heaven: almost all indigenous people (all that worshipping of other gods and not accepting Jesus as their personal savior); all the world’s 1 billion Muslims; almost all Jews; most scientists; Gandhi; John Lennon; Kurt Vonnegut; almost all of my friends.
On the flip side, heaven would contain some very shady characters, people I couldn’t stand to be with for an hour, let alone eternity. According to the mainstream conception of heaven, the following people would likely be allowed entrance: a large percentage of pre-Civil War slaveowners; most of the bloodthirsty Crusaders; the clan of bigots known as the Westboro Baptist Church; a lot of those Chik-fil-A supporters who stood in line for chicken sandwiches just to show how much they disapprove of gay people; Pat Robertson; and Mike Huckabee (hopefully there won’t be bass amplifiers in heaven).
Of course, this exercise of mine is ridiculous. That’s the point. It’s ridiculous to make up an afterlife and create criteria for who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Bell attacks this concept from an evangelical perspective, but he’s still attacking it. And that’s a great thing.
Bell does a good job parsing through Jesus’ parables. Jesus deliberately spoke through parables to highlight the complex nature of spiritual questions. His stories raise more questions than they answer. Many people came to Jesus thinking they had it all figured out, only to leave confounded and humbled. In the end, Bell writes, most of the parables are about renewal, about people making bad choices and finding fulfillment in righting their wrongs. As Bell writes: “The stories aren’t ultimately about things and people being lost; the stories are about things and people being found… This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.”
In “Love Wins” Bell manages to sneak in a few jabs at nonbelievers, mostly by putting up straw men atheists and hitting them. In one example he goes after the disbelief in an afterlife of any kind: “Are we the ultimate arbiter of what can, and cannot, exist? Or is the universe open, wondrous, unexpected, and far beyond anything we can comprehend? Are you open or closed?” Of course we’re not the ultimate arbiter of what can and cannot exist. All we can do is try to find out what exists and understand why it exists. And, being a nonbeliever, I was a bit ruffled at his “Are you open or closed?” question. It is not closed-minded to reject fanciful claims made without evidence.
Stylistically, I have to admit: this book is a gimmick. It’s written in…
With no indentations at the beginning of paragraphs.
And a lot of single lines.
Also, fragmented sentences. Bell likes to use. Them. A lot.
As Bell admits in the introduction, the themes in this book are not new. Bell has no exciting discovery or evidence or studies to present. He simply wants to open up the discussion about heaven and hell. He simply wants to call “bullshit” on Christians who claim they have a mathematical formula for who gets into heaven and who gets thrown into the flames. I appreciate his efforts. I second his questions. I, too, call “bullshit.”
Despite my religious upbringing and two years at an evangelical missionary boarding school, I don’t know enough about the world of modern evangelical Christianity to fully understand how Bell fits into it. I do know that a lot of Christians were shocked by this book. A lot of evangelicals don’t consider Bell to be one of them. (Maybe he’s destined to spend eternity with me?) I don’t know how many Christians have similar questions and doubts about heaven and hell. It seems to me that Bell’s nuanced view is in the minority, but this assumption could be based on the fact that the hellfire and brimstone preachers are the ones who scream the loudest. (Then again, a lot of evangelicals have attacked Bell’s work through their own books, like “God Wins.”)
But if Bell’s opinions represent even a small portion of people who consider themselves evangelical Christians, if evangelical Christianity is headed in this direction, then I wholeheartedly support its evolution. I see notions of heaven and hell as means of controlling questioning minds. Hellfire rants are based on fear and threats of violence, not love, and definitely not reality. Hell is a myth purported almost exclusively by people who believe “they” are going to heaven while the “other” people are doomed.
So, even though I disagree with Bell’s assumptions about god and the universe, his overall message takes a step in a positive direction. It’s time to leave behind these fantasies about nonbelievers suffering eternal pain. There’s enough hell and pain right here, right now. Let’s worry about that.