No Hell Below Us: Evangelical Pastor Stirs Theological Turmoil With New Afterlife Arguments
Originally published on The Blaze. Reprinted with permission.
“All dogs go to Heaven,” the classic kids movie suggests. But do all people, no matter what they do or don’t believe?
That’s the question haunting the evangelical Christian community after a young pastor released a video detailing an upcoming book challenging orthodox views on Heaven and hell — a book some prominent Christian leaders are calling heresy.
The book is Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Its author, Rob Bell, has a knack for pushing the envelope and is somewhat of a theological rock star among hip evangelicals. With his rectangle, black-rimmed glasses, his widely popular and artfully-crafted NOOMA videos, and his church-wide art shows, he appeals to a younger audience often searching to challenge the faith of its parents and push Christian societal norms. He’s controversial. Love Wins is no exception.
Why? If the title didn’t give it away, the book’s description will.
“[In Love Wins] Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith — the afterlife — arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering,” the books publisher, HarperOne, explains. “With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic — eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”
It continues: “What if the story of heaven and hell we have been taught is not, in fact, what the Bible teaches? What if what Jesus meant by heaven, hell, and salvation are very different from how we have come to understand them?” [Emphasis theirs]
Accompanying the description is a short, indie-style video Bell has nearly trademarked:
That description and video were enough to ignite a scathing critique of Bell — who pastors the megachurch Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI — by prominent Christian blogger Justin Taylor, which set off a firestorm across the evangelical community.
“It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine,” Taylor, vice president of Christian publisher Crossway, writes. “It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but … full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.”
From there, other prominent Christian leaders weighed in. Some did it using three words, such as John Piper’s, “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet. Others launched into more lengthy dissections.
“Time is running out on the Emerging folks,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says in a blog post. Eventually “they appear as nothing more than a mildly updated form of Protestant liberalism.” He even calls the book‘s description and Bell’s video “the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.”
“Emerging,” as Mohler mentions, is the theological camp Bell has championed. It emphasizes the love of Christ and the inclusion of the cross, but rarely emphasizes the judgment of God. The “way” of Jesus is glorified over some of his more unpopular, and challenging, teachings.
Others, while still skeptical, are leery to pass judgment.
“I’m grateful to God that Rob Bell is opening this after-life door,” Scot McKnight, professor of theology at North Park University in Chicago, writes. He says Bell’s questions about the afterlife are the same questions haunting many of his students. “The approach to this generation is not to denounce their questions, which often enough are rooted in a heightened sensitivity to divine justice and compassion, but to probe their questions from the inside and to probe thoughtful and biblically-response resolutions.”
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, suggests the topic should be debated. But all conclusions must be reserved until the book releases on March 15.
“The issues raised will not go away by dismissing them as irrational or unfounded or malicious,” he writes. He also offers a word of caution: “traditionalists need to marshal arguments and not ad hominems.”
Josh Staton is executive pastor at Trinity Grace Church in New York City, a multi-site church throughout the city traditionally comprised of younger evangelicals like Bell’s. He generally enjoys and respects Bell but also understands Bell can be “provocative” — and he does see some cause for concern regarding the issues raised in Love Wins.
“There’s a lot of universalism going around, especially within the younger generation that doesn’t talk about hell much,” he tells The Blaze. “We have hell on the books but we have a hard time confining anyone there. We think of Hitler, and say, ‘of course he’s in hell.’ But after that it’s hard.”
But Staton also thinks the controversy may not be Bell’s fault alone. “To a certain degree publishers know how to sell books,” he says. “And with all this they’re going to sell a ton of books.” He admits, however, “I was definitely surprised. Looking at the video it does look a little suspect.”
Still, Staton’s “withholding judgment until the book comes out,” and believes “any attention on the fate of those who don’t believe [the gospel] should inspire evangelism.”
Like Staton, respected evangelical scholar Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary didn’t lash out at Bell. Instead, he chosen to chastise those who have critiqued the pastor before they’ve read the entire book, if at all.
“It seems that there are a ton of Christians out there in cyberspace who are prepared to judge Rob Bell before his book has even been published,” he posts on his blog. “I must say I am hugely disappointed in people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, who also haven’t read the book yet, and yet are prepared to condemn Rob … .” [Emphasis his]
“Shame on you,” he concludes.
In the end, Witherington’s may be the most important point: the entire “content” of the book is still unclear. It has yet to be released, with many basing their critiques on the publisher’s description and the promotional video (although some such as Taylor have read a few chapters and Galli has read the entire thing). In the end, no one has talked to Bell — he’s refusing requests for comment until the book debuts.
The New York Times did read an advanced copy. And while not an authority on theology, writer Erik Eckhold offers a summary:
Much of the book is a sometimes obscure discussion of the meaning of heaven and hell that tears away at the standard ideas. In his version, heaven is something that begins here on earth, in a life of goodness, and hell seems more a condition than an eternal fate — “the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”
While sliding close to what critics consider the heresy of “universalism” — that all humans will eventually be saved — he never uses the term.
“Imagine there’s no heaven/It’s easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky,” the classic John Lennon song goes. Come March 15, it might just mirror a new theological persuasion.
Jonathan Seidl is a graduate of The King’s College, New York City and a member of the House of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.