With his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, evangelical pastor Rob Bell has apparently infuriated his religious colleagues by proposing the heretical idea that God saves everyone — not just those who sign onto their particular view of Christianity. I haven’t read the book, but based on quotes I’ve seen around the web and Duke Divinity Assistant Professor Lauren Winner’s great essay in the New York Times, Bell is working hard to push evangelicals into maturing emotionally. (There is something infantile about kicking one’s feet and screaming: “My way is the only way, and everybody else is doomed to burn in hell!” But I digress.)
The controversy was sparked by a promotional video where Bell asks a question that Winner says is “guaranteed to inflame some evangelicals:”
“Will only a select few people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?” (Or, more succinctly: “Gandhi’s in hell? He is?”) Bell’s answer: “The good news is that love wins.”
Bell’s take on heaven and hell is more complex than that and worth reading for the theologically inclined. For the purposes of this post, however, I want to highlight a comment Winner made in her essay. She wrote:
Historians of heaven will tell you that we tend to sort out our most urgent social concerns in part through our visions of the afterlife. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described heaven [of loved ones united] for a generation saturated in Victorian idolization of the family and devastated by the carnage of the Civil War: for Phelps and her readers, it was impossible to imagine an afterlife in which intimate family reunion was not central. So, too, Rob Bell is articulating the concerns of a generation of Christians schooled in toleration, whose neighbors and coworkers and siblings are Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic, a generation whose pluralist social commitments are at odds with theological commitments to limited salvation.
I’ve never thought of theology as anything more than people’s notions about spirituality. It’s eye opening to conceive of theology as an arena for sorting through our social concerns. I wonder what evangelicals and fundamentalists are sorting through with their inordinate attachment to Hell.
Meanwhile, do read John Shore’s hilarious take on the Rob Bell controversy. Shore is a Christian of a decidedly non-fundamentalist sort and very, very funny.
Many thanks to Nancy Jane Moore for sending me the link!
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