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JONAL ENTRY 1215 | January 12 2012

I have just read the most controversial book in American religion last year, Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell, until last month founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible (mega-) Church in Grandville, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a recent transplant to Los Angeles and film-making. Though I followed the controversy mostly through Christianity Today online (the book was puffed before its bookstore release in a USA Today feature, the author was interviewed on talk shows "all over the TV networks," and was the cover story of last Easter's edition of Time magazine), I had not planned to read it.

My reading schedule usually has a pile of waiting titles and I don't usually go in for pop religion best sellers. But a copy was given to me at New Years by an Orthodox friend who had found it on a clearance table for $2 and thought I might enjoy it. It's an easy read, though I told my friend when I was one or two chapters in that if I'd been reading it in front of a fireplace it would have been in the fire before the end of chapter one. I'm glad in this case that I don't have a fireplace. The writing and formatting are gimicky (a little-noticed writer's way of saying it's clever in ways I never thought of), and sometimes its disregard for the teachings of the church and of history seems infuriating but at other points it has flashes of fresh insight and rises to biblical poetry.

The controversy revolved mostly around the book's treatment of hell, which Bell isn't sure amounts to more than biblical allusions to ancient Jerusalem's smoldering city dump ("Gehenna") or the personal sufferings many people experience in our lifetimes. He suggests that our sufferings in life are enough to qualify as recompense for our failings or sins. He does recount Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) in which Lazarus goes to "heaven" (or the bosom of Abraham) and the rich man suffers in a hot place down below. But Bell sees the story not as a confirmation of a "literal" hell but mainly as a warning against exploiting the poor (which he cleverly sees in the rich man's asking Abraham to have the former beggar Lazarus get him some water).

Even more troubling to his critics is Bell's conclusion that if there is punishment after death, a just God could not justify its being eternal or everlasting as this would far outweigh everything anyone could have done in the relatively short span of any lifetime. Putting aside the question of who God might have to answer to, Bell never mentions cases like Hitler and Stalin who may be eligible for multiplied and extended punishments as their sins caused hell on earth for millions.

Bell's doctrine that everyone or at least everyone who wants to eventually gets into heaven is what the church has always called the heresy of universalism. Besides its never being taught as an acceptable view by Jesus, Paul, the other Apostles, or the Prophets, it has always been looked upon as "too dangerous" to teach. One of the most prolific writers of the early church, Origen (185-232), and one of the Cappadocian church fathers, St. Gregory of Nyssa, c. 335-386, shared Bell's view that those who are consigned to a place of punishment after death are eventually "restored" by God.

But the church labelled the teaching unorthodox, fearing that if it becomes popular, people might do nothing (as Paul says in one place) but "eat, drink, and be merry" all their lives instead of living responsibly and charitably. And despite its thumbs down on the teaching, the church still declared Gregory a saint for his other contributions. Similarly, an editorial in Christianity Today said that though the editors disagree with Bell's views on hell, they are not saying he's not a Christian or to be excommunicated or shunned. Lay people probably are more scandalized by the charge of heresy than they should be; when I was in seminary we Presbyterians called our Baptist brothers heretics for refusing to baptize their children and the Baptists retorted that they'd make sure we got dunked when we all got to heaven.

One of the most striking illustrations of some of Bell's points is his use of quotations from church websites about their doctrines about hell. "The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell," one "actual" website says, and "those who don't believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell" another warns. Many interpreters of the biblical teachings on God's judgment, rewards, and punishment, make similar conclusions, but the early church creeds (summaries of the church's fundamental teachings) did not.

The Nicene Creed (389 A.D.), the only creed ever adopted by an ecumenical council of the church representing what are the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches of today and "all" of the churches of the fourth century, does not mention hell and refers to the afterlife only in the phrase, "We look for . . . the life of the world to come." The Apostles' Creed and Athanasian Creed, both used in Catholic and creedal Protestant denominations (but not in Orthodoxy), say only that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion ("to liberate the captives waiting for the resurrection," in traditional teaching) and the Athanasian symbol adds, "they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire."

What do you make of these teachings? Have you read Bell's book and/or the biblical passages on eternal rewards or punishment?

Next, I'll continue with a look at C.S. Lewis and some other recent Christian writers on the judgment and "the world to come."

— Webmaster Jon Kennedy