Saturday, June 18, 2011

On H(B)ell

I just want to take a minute to throw in my two cents on Mr. Bell and his book, and make a couple comments on hell along the way. I think now that most of the fervor has passed, it should be safe to do so. However, as Francis Chan's new book on the same topic is due out soon, I am sure the discussion (argument) will resume again shortly. I will not even attempt to give a full critique of Bell's book, as this has been done by many before me, and much better (and if I am honest, much worse as well). Many blogs, videos, etc. have been devoted to this topic over the last few months. I have read many if not most of the substantive ones. In my opinion, you will find the fairest and best here.1 Now then, just a few comments.

First, if you are interested in the debate, or just want a popular-level introduction to what the Bible says about hell, you should read the book. It's a quick read, and if you can get past Bell's three-words-per-line writing style, an enjoyable one. As Ben Witherington points out in the review linked above, Bell is a poet, and he seeks to present the Gospel--and difficult issues like hell--in a way that will touch the heart as well as the mind. He does this well and I applaud him for it.

Second, all the hype surrounding the book and the controversy it caused is disappointing. I almost did not even read it myself, since Bell is not a scholar (though he is an educated pastor and seeks to use solid scholarship to inform his views) and I was sure that whatever he had to say about hell had already been said before, and probably better. I was right. However, Bell is up-front about this, saying early on in his book that he is merely re-stating what many have said before, for a culture that in many sectors seems to have forgotten. The controversy is disappointing precisely for this reason. He is not saying anything novel, and the fact that a book like his is able to make such a splash just provides further evidence (as if any more were needed) that Christians don't read. In fact, once I had read enough of the book to realize Bell's actual position, my first thought was "This is almost verbatim C.S. Lewis." Indeed, Bell cites Lewis' The Great Divorce in his bibliography. I was not the only one to notice this. This is interesting since many evangelicals seem to live by what Lewis has to say on most topics. I've even heard people criticize Bell's view of hell and simultaneously affirm Lewis'. All I can assume is that they have misunderstood one or both. However, Bell's book does seem to have re-initiated the discussion of hell and related topics among lay-people, and hopefully will spur them on to go deeper. This is a good thing.

Third, the response of the majority of the evangelical community (yes, the majority) to the book is disgusting. Even before it was out, there were many Christians condemning not only the book but Bell himself. He was called a heretic (see photo) and bid "farewell" by brothers and sisters in Christ who ought to know better. I'm talking prominent Christian leaders. Scholars, theologians, pastors. Major Christian book retailers refused to carry the book. The blogosphere lit up with angry Christians condemning what they had not yet even read. I doubt many of them ever did. Sadly, even after the book was out, the reviews still continued to be rather one-sided and eisegetical.2 Most were divided into two camps: one attacking Bell, misinterpreting his arguments and their context, or else generally refusing to acknowledge that he had made any; the other (smaller) one defending him against the onslaught. The charitable, Christlike voice of love and understanding--the one that seeks to comprehend before it judges--was unfortunately difficult to hear.

Fourth, the claim that Bell is a universalist is absurd. I find it difficult to believe that some who ought to know what this term means and who claim to have read Love Wins can still say this. As mentioned above, Bell is no more or less a universalist than C.S. Lewis, and I don't recall hearing anyone condemn him for this. In fact, his views of hell (such as its being "locked from the inside") are often quoted in defenses of the doctrine. Universalism, simply put, merely says that everyone will eventually be with God for eternity. Now to be fair, Bell does not outright condemn this view, but he is very clear about the reality of hell, both in this life and the next, and the possibility that it may be forever. For him, as for Lewis, the deciding factor here is not God's wrath, but rather our choice: "God gives us what we want, and if that's hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free."3 Bell is also not a pluralist, in the sense that all faiths are equally valid and lead to God. He describes the Christian view as an "exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity," affirming simultaneously that anyone who is saved will be saved by Jesus and He alone, and that who gets saved by Him is limited only by His infinite grace and their free choice.

Fifth, what we believe about hell is not the most important thing. Indeed, it is possible to be a thorough universalist and an orthodox Christian with respect to everything that Christians have always held to be true.4 Pluralism is less clear, though we would certainly not want to say that a pluralist could not be saved. But the important point is that while this doctrine is important (very important) and should be discussed and wrestled with by all believers, it is not in the center circle, and perhaps not even the second circle, of our faith (see here). True, our beliefs about it will likely make a difference in how we view God, humans, and how the two are related. But it should not, I maintain, effect the way we treat people, or even the urgency with which we spread the Good News. And it certainly should not cause us to forsake the Spirit of Christ and resort to senseless division and mean-spirited namecalling.

For Bell, it is not obvious that God's love will eventually win everybody over (this is not what the title means); he is perfectly comfortable leaving that question unanswered and hoping against all hope that the answer is yes. It seems to me that this is exactly the attitude that Jesus carried. He warned severely that not all would be able to follow him, and that many would falsely believe that they were. The future for those people, He said, was horrible. And yet, He exhorted them to choose life, and prayed for the forgiveness of those who hated Him. This is the spirit I find in Bell's book. I wonder how so many Christians can respond to this spirit with either vitriolic hatred or vain condescension.

Which looks more like Jesus to you?

1 This link is to Part 1 of 8.


3 Love Wins, pg. 72.

4 This is not to say that a universalist would be denominationally orthodox (he likely wouldn't in most circles), only that there is not enough about life after death in the creeds that unite the church to rule out the possibility of some form of universalism.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Concentric Circle View of Faith

One of the most common and unfortunate theological mistakes Christians make is assuming that every aspect of their faith is equally important.

One need not look far for examples: a simple Google search for such topics as "creation," "eschatology," or sadly, even "Republican," will turn up countless websites run by sincere believers in Christ who equate their certainty regarding some particular aspect of some debated issue with the very foundation of Christian belief.

For many, the specific nuances of their way of interpreting Scripture (usually in accord with whatever tradition they hailed from) are essential issues. Each one is every bit as important as all the rest, and if you throw out even one, then you might as well forget the whole thing.

The unfortunate and dangerous consequence of such thinking is threefold: it creates needless and counter-productive division within the church, it weakens the message of Christ to those outside the church, and it makes for a very unstable foundation on which to base one's individual faith.

Regarding the first point: Jesus intended His church to be unified.1 This of course does not mean that we should all worship the same way, or even that we should all share exactly the same beliefs (indeed, I tend to think that some division is actually a good thing - see here). It is, rather, much deeper and more significant than this. The context of the cited passage makes clear that the purpose of the unity is so that the world may know who Jesus is and that God loves them just as much as His own son. And we know from elsewhere that the way the world is to identify followers of Christ is by how they love one another. So it seems that what Jesus meant by unity has much more to do with how we treat one another than with whether or not we agree on everything. But when we assert that every part of our faith is just as important as every other part, we are in effect denying that loving one another is more important than being right about x, y, z. We are saying that Jesus was, well, wrong.

To illustrate the second and third points, a not-so-hard-to-imagine, imaginative scenario:

Susan shares her faith with Bill. Susan is sincere and convincing, and Bill can tell that there is a peace about her that he does not possess. From their conversation, Bill begins to consider Christ in light of the love he saw in Susan, and he comes close to choosing to follow Him. Then Bill meets Dan. Dan attends a particular church in town, where they are certain that their brand of Christianity is the right one, and that it is wrong to begin to question even the smallest part of their theology. Dan invites Bill to church. He goes, and is promptly warned that Susan's brand of Christianity is false and dangerous, because she does not believe the same thing Dan believes about some issue. It is obvious, Dan says, to anyone who really knows Jesus, and besides, it says it right there in the Bible, in plain English. Bill is confused, but he does not know how to respond to Dan. Both of these people claim to follow Jesus, he thinks, but there is no sense in which they are unified. He does not see how his opinion on issue x will give him the peace he thought he saw in Susan, and he leaves the church, frustrated with Christians and their division.

Or an alternate ending:

Bill takes Dan's word for it, and joins his church, accepting that each link in the theological chain is just as important as every other. He then reads a book (or hears a message, or takes a class, etc.), in which one of his church's beliefs is cleanly refuted. This one domino knocked over, his whole faith crumbles, since he has given equal weight to each piece.

The first scenario shows how our insistence on the ultimate importance of every part of our faith weakens it to the point of ineffectiveness in evangelism. The second shows how it weakens it to the point of ineffectiveness in maintaining one's own faith.

This, however, is not the biblical model of faith, nor is it the one with which the church has operated from the beginning.2 That model, rather, is something more like what Greg Boyd has called a "concentric circle" model of faith. The idea is simply that at the core of Christian faith are the essentials - the most important things about being a Christian, what the reformers called the sine qua non of the faith. Built on top of these things are the less important things, and the further out you go, the less important the issues become.

In the very center circle would be what a friend of mine calls the "Big, Big Question." Who was Jesus? It is Him, and Him alone, that grounds Christian belief and practice. If He is who He claimed to be and what He taught is true, then we have hope. If not, then we are "of all men most pitiable."3 It is this circle and this circle alone that decides one's eternal fate. This is the hill we die on.

Just outside this would be what we would consider the essentials of orthodox Christianity. These are the things that define what it is to be a "Christian," the things that were set forth in the creeds back in the day, the things that all Christians even today agree on (believe it or not, there are several such things). These are things like God's triune nature, the dual nature of Christ (fully God, fully man), etc. To disagree with these is not to be outside the scope of salvation (we cannot know this), but it is to be something other than historically Christian.

A little further outside this ring are doctrines more specific to particular traditions; outside that are issues that are important but not rigidly defined by any tradition; further out still are things we just like to argue about but aren't really important at all, like what month Jesus was born.

As my pastor puts it, "major on the majors; minor on the minors." Not everything in the Bible is equally clear. Not everything we believe is equally important. Let's try to do a little better job of loving each other, and perhaps focus a bit less on who is the most right about the gray areas.

2 For a brief overview of what exactly Christians mean by "faith," a word generally synonymous with "trust," see here and here.