Moreover some… of those who remain within the faith of the Church, while believing that there is none greater the Creator God, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men.
Origen, On First Principles
Rob Bell is the pastor of a large congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an author who writes intelligently and creatively about the Christian faith. I read one of his early books on Christian faith entitled Velvet Elvis. Recently Rob Bell published a book that is creating quite a stir. I have not yet had the chance to read Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived so I cannot comment knowledgably about its contents and arguments. All I can do is comment on the commentary, and look forward to reading the book when I can find a copy of it. My local bookstore is sold out.
Here’s what I have heard about the book. Bell began pondering what a Christian doctrine of hell might be about if it was a place that included someone like Mahatma Gandhi. He struggled with the idea that Gandhi could be in hell for eternity and so began to reconsider the meaning heaven, hell and eternal destiny. Bell has been considered an evangelical Christian, and these questions have created quite a stir in the evangelical community in particular. The Christian Century characterized Bell’s argument this way: Bell challenges the notion that hell is a place of eternal torment for people who aren’t Christians and argues that an emphasis on hell is misplaced, although he denies he is a universalist. Dr. Riley Case of the United Methodist Confessing Movement, an evangelical renewal movement within The United Methodist Church characterizes Bell’s book as follows: The book asks some important questions about eternal destiny, but in the end posits something close to universalism, the belief that in the end all persons are saved and there is no eternal hell.
It is Dr. Case’s further argument that I want to consider here. Case argues that there has been a distinct lack of conversation within United Methodism about this book and asserts that “a good discussion on hell… would be insightful and helpful.” From there he offers some observations on hell, including this: It is difficult to make a case for Christianity without assuming that hell exists and the fires are quite hot. He concludes his essay, published on-line through the Confessing Movement’s “Happenings Around the Church” April 6, 2011 with a criticism of progressive Christianity, citing H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic 1937 statement about liberal Protestantism in America about “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
“It is difficult to make a case for Christianity without assuming that hell exists and the fires are quite hot.” When Dr. Case makes his case for hell, I am assuming by the context that he considers hell a place of eternal punishment, to use a phrase from the Vineyard Church statement of faith – “eternal conscious punishment.” I want to ponder this, though in what follows I am not necessarily claiming that Dr. Case would hold some of the positions I am criticizing. I am going to use his statement as a springboard for theological discussion and reflection.
As a Christian, I take very seriously human sin and the need for forgiveness. I don’t have to look any further than my own heart and life to understand the ease with which people slip into hurtful behavior and how insidious and entrapping such behavior can be. I say something hurtful that I really wish I had not said. I am ashamed of this, but rather than admit it, I seek ways to deny my action, and the problem becomes worse. A similar dynamic is repeated widely in human experience. Of course, sometimes the stakes are much higher and the consequences much more destructive. The death of Jesus is a tragic example of the wages of sin – uncomfortable truth needing to be silenced, disquieting love needing to be extinguished.
As a Christian I also take seriously God as truthful, just and loving. In God’s presence the truth about our lives is made manifest. We cannot hide from God, and God’s truthful presence is also a truthful judgment about our lives. My Christian faith is not a faith about a God who simply ignores human sin, nor is it about sinless humans, nor does it lack a profound sense of God’s judgment, and in it Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are central.
Nevertheless, I think it is crucial to question an understanding of hell as eternal conscious punishment for those who do not believe certain Christian doctrines. I think we can ask if it really is difficult to make a case for Christianity without assuming that hell exists and the fires are quite hot, or we can ask what kind of case for Christianity is made when a cornerstone of that case is the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious punishment.
What do we say about God if we believe in hell as an eternal punishment for non-believers? We might rightly ask about God’s justice. Justice requires a punishment that fits the crime, so to speak. In at least some cases for Christianity based on the hot fires of hell, there is one punishment given to all, no matter the degree of their offense. A Gandhi who was Hindu is in hell for his unbelief, just as is a Hitler. One could say that it is the same punishment for the same infraction – refusal of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Is eternal conscious punishment a just response to unbelief? What about those whose contact with “believers” is quite mixed, or even cruel. Gandhi knew some of the cruelties of British rule in India. People experience abuse at the hands of clergy. Their ability to believe may be quite limited by such experiences. Do they deserve eternal conscious punishment in the hot fires of hell? How seriously can we take Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength if the invitation to love is footnoted with a “by the way, failure to love is punishable by an eternity in a fiery hell”? I don’t want to claim that theologians cannot make a case for Christianity that includes God’s love, God’s judgment, and an eternal hell. I do want to claim that there are some prima facie problems here that need addressing and that alternative cases for Christian faith can and should be made. I want to claim that at least some of the cases made for Christianity with hell as a cornerstone enjoin belief in a God as savage and unjust as some of the worst of our human rulers.
If Origen was right all those many years ago, that some in the Church, while believing in God, yet believe such things about God as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of persons, and if one belief that poses such a problem is belief in a fiery hell as place of eternal conscious punishment for those who don’t believe, then not only should a case for Christianity not depend upon such a belief, but we need to positively make another kind of case. I don’t believe Christianity depends on hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment, though the topic is worthy of serious discussion. I think another case can be made. I think other understandings of the death of Jesus, beyond the notion that God required a blood sacrifice in order to forgive so that people would not be sent to hell, are possible, and are present in the tradition, even in the New Testament.
As early as the third century CE, Origen offered a different understanding of the ideas of hell from those wherein it was seen as a place of eternal fiery punishment. “But when the soul thus torn and rent asunder, has been tried by the application of fire, it is undoubtedly wrought into a condition of stronger inward connexion and renewal” (On First Principles). “There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting” (On First Principles). H. Richard Niebuhr, in the same book in which he criticizes liberal Protestant Christianity in America, also wrote this: Liberalism represented again a dynamic element in religious life; it was a revolt against the fatalism into which the faith in divine sovereignty had been congealed, against the Biblicism which made the Scriptures a book of laws for science and for moral, against the revivalism which reduced regeneration to a method for drumming up church members, and against the otherworldliness which had made heaven and hell a reward and a punishment. (The Kingdom of God in America, 185.)
I look forward to reading more from Dr. Case. I look forward to reading Rob Bell’s book. I will do both with some other words of H. Richard Niebuhr echoing in my mind. I call myself a Christian, though there are some who challenge my right to that name… because I also am a follower of Jesus Christ… because my way of thinking about life, myself, my human companions and our destiny has been so modified by his presence in our history that I cannot get away from it… because my relation to God, has been… deeply conditioned by this presence of Jesus Christ in my history and in our history…. I call myself a Christian… because I identify myself with what I understand to be the cause of Jesus Christ. (The Responsible Self,43)
With Faith and With Feathers,