Robert (“Rob”) Bell is a prominent figure in the Evangelical world, an author and pastor. In 1999 he founded the Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grandville, Michigan, a very successful megachurch attended every Sunday by 8,000 to 10,000 worshippers. Earlier this year he published a book with the less than modest title Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has created a storm of controversy among Evangelicals. Among other places, the controversy can be followed on the Evangelical blog Crosswalk.com.
According to Bell, the book was triggered by a conversation he had with a hardcore Evangelical lay person, who asserted confidently that Gandhi must be in hell since, evidently, he had not (in Evangelical parlance) “accepted Jesus as his personal lord and savior”. Bell was deeply offended by this assertion. For one thing, he questioned the certainty with which the assertion was made. He asked his interlocutor where such certainty came from—can one be sure about such a matter? But beyond that Bell sharply criticized a view of God which contradicts the central message of the Gospel, which is the “good news” about a loving God who wishes to redeem the entire world. It is unthinkable that this God would impose eternal punishment on anyone who does not utter the proper words about accepting Jesus. Surely salvation is not limited to those who recite the doctrinaire formula of accepting Jesus. But Bell also criticizes the notion that the redeeming power of Jesus is limited to those who know him through the New Testament. Rather, he argues, there is the cosmic Christ, who is present throughout creation. He also espouses uncertainty. The only certainty, he maintains, is about the steadfastness of God’s love and its ultimate victory—“love wins”. In the meantime, one can believe that Gandhi, a very good man, is now in heaven.
There are at least three questions around which the controversy revolves: Is there such a thing as hell? Who is in it? And how long does it last? Bell does not deny that there is a place of punishment for the wicked beyond this life. He refuses to speculate about its duration, rejecting the label “universalist” which some of his critics have hung around his neck. (The theological meaning of “universalism” is the belief that, in the end, there will be no more hell and that all creation will be reconciled with God.) Bell’s disagreement with his conservative critics is, as it were, about the demography of hell—just who is in it ? Presumably not Gandhi—nor, by extension, other good people who have not “accepted Jesus”. If they have not done so in this life, they will have the opportunity in the afterlife. In all of this, Bell remains clearly Evangelical: Now or later, access to God comes only through Jesus Christ.
Despite his disclaimers, Bell’s critics are probably right in seeing his position as tending toward a theological liberalization of Evangelicalism. It should not come as a surprise that many of them don’t like it one bit. Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, calls Bell’s book “theologically disastrous”—supposedly, with its beliefs, “you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross… This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism”. Evangelical blogger Justin Taylor opines that Bell is “moving farther and farther away from biblical Christianity”. The book has also found Evangelical defenders. Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, sees Bell as representing a “generous orthodoxy”. Mouw also affirms his belief in hell—as the putative present residence of Osama bin Laden.
It should not also come as a surprise that liberal Protestants who have read Bell’s book (there cannot be too many) reacted favorably. On May 17, 2011, The Christian Century, the banner periodical of this persuasion, put the book on its cover. In a long article titled “Betting on a Generous God”, Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor, reviewed the book very favorably. An editorial by John Buchanan also endorsed it. Marty praises Bell for his openness to mystery, while continuing to affirm the centrality of Jesus.
Much of the history of American Protestantism can be understood as a long struggle to get away from the dour heritage of Puritanism. It is a very American story, a turn from a dark pessimism to a brightly optimistic view of the world. Morally, the story began with the so-called Half-Way Covenant in the Massachusetts colony, when an exuberant pluralism made it impossible to impose the Puritan creed and lifestyle on the entire population. Theologically (more of this in a moment), Jonathan Edwards was a pivotal figure. I think it is important to see the Protestant development in a much larger context of a great American mellowing of all imported pessimisms. It is no accident that “the pursuit of happiness” was incorporated into the founding document of the United States. The “pursuit” continues. In this perspective the defanging of Calvinism has successors all the way to our own time. Take psychoanalysis: Born in the gloomy worldview of fin-de-siecle Vienna, it morphed in America into a bevy of cheerful therapies of self-esteem and self-improvement. Take Buddhism: The Indian view of reincarnation created the horror of an endless cycle of deaths, from which Buddhism (like other fruits of the Indian religious imagination) sought an escape. American Buddhists tend to look on reincarnation as yet another chance to find happiness—like second marriages or midlife career changes.
Puritanism was deeply imbued with the Calvinist version of Christianity, including the doctrine of so-called “double predestination”, which held that God, from all eternity, had arbitrarily decided which human beings would be saved and which would be damned forever. Arguably the most repulsive doctrine in the history of Christianity, it made hell into a solemn divine project. It was already unbearable to most Protestants in Europe. It became acutely unbearable in America. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), pastor of the church in Northampton, Massachusetts, has been described as the first great American theologian. Highly sophisticated, he was hardly a simple backwoods preacher. Indeed, late in life he became president of the College of New Jersey, before it changed its name to Princeton University. Edwards is best known for his 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, which has often been cited as a prime example of the horrible nature of Calvinism. It is indeed pretty horrible—much of it filled with visions of the eternal torment in hell of those “without Christ”. And, right at the beginning of the sermon, Edwards reiterates the Calvinist view of the human condition: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God”. Yet, paradoxically, the sermon was preached at a revival service during the first Great Awakening (1730-1755), of which Edwards was one of the initiators. Yes, Edwards still affirms a Calvinist view of God’s free election—but the very notion of revival provides the escape hatch from the hopelessness of this view. Yes, man is hopelessly wicked and thus justly destined for hell—but he still has the chance to come forward to the altar, accept Jesus, be born again, and destined for heaven. Revivalism is Calvinist anthropology born again as the prototypically American pursuit of happiness. And American Evangelicalism has continued this metamorphosis ever since. Rob Bell stands in this apostolic succession.
I think a good case can be made for the proposition that liberal Protestantism, whatever else it has to say (some of it quite implausible), is closer to the image of a loving God put forth in the New Testament than the sinister image projected by the hairier versions of Evangelicalism. As Bell points out, the idea that most human beings are headed for hell is hardly the Good News of the Gospel. However, liberal Protestants should restrain their feelings of superiority in this matter. Whatever else Evangelicals believe (some of it implausible too), they still have a keen sense of evil and therefore the conviction that evil calls for judgment—in another life if not in this one. In one of my early books, A Rumor of Angels (1969), I discussed what I called “signals of transcendence”—not proofs for the existence of a transcendent God (there are no proofs), but intimations, or intuitions, of his reality. One such signal is what I called the”argument from damnation”: There are some deeds that are so evil that no human punishment is adequate, deeds which therefore call for a meta-human judge. I cited the trial of Adolf Eichmann, then still only a few years past, as a clear case in point. One could also speak here of an argument from hell—and for hell. If anyone, surely Eichmann must be in it. Evangelicals have a better sense of this.
My favorite medieval saint, Julian of Norwich, was greatly troubled by the power of evil. In her only surviving work, Showings (1373), she struggled with the question how to reconcile this fact with her overwhelming sense of the love of God, who promises (in her best known “showing”, a kind of cosmic lullaby)—“And all will be well. And all will be well. And every manner of things will be well”. But then she asks—what about the devil?—what about the damned? She knows that the church teaches the eternity of hell. As a faithful daughter of the church, she does not want to fall into heresy. Yet she cannot accept the idea that any creature will forever be excluded from the love of God. She lets the mystery stand. But, she claims, that God has already hinted at the answer: “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me”. There is a wide gap between the world of a medieval nun and the world of contemporary Evangelicals. There are also some interesting similarities in the struggle to grasp the realities of evil.