It's a huge topic of discussion right now thanks to Rob Bell's new book Love Wins. I immersed myself in the topic this week as I prepared for a message on hell to our college students. We had already had this topic on the schedule long before Bell's book, so the timing was good for me to re-engage the issue.
First things first... with all the sections to choose from, I had a hard time finding the book at Barnes & Noble.
I scoured all of those sections and apparently they couldn't decide because they had it on a special shelf toward the front of the store.
It's hard to summarize my thoughts on the book and the controversy that has come because of it. I'm not mad, I don't want to burn anyone at the stake (or the book)... but I am deeply troubled.
What troubles me?
First and foremost... I'm grieved by my own sin. I'm gripped by the reality that it's self-righteousness that Jesus frequently condemns- hypocrites who are glad to call out others on things they fail to do themselves. Like "love God and others" for starters. These were the "conservatives" of their day. Right in so many ways, but wrong in the thing that mattered most. I am not beyond any of that.
Second, and flowing naturally out of the first point, I'm in awe of what I've been saved FROM and saved TO. Darkness to Light. Hell to Heaven. Eternity without God to eternity with God. There's no way to understand or conceive of the horrors of hell or the bliss of heaven. The effect of immersing myself in this study can be summarized in the following: God has become very large, my view of my sin has grown proportionally, and grace has become... amazing.
My friend Alex says if you want your view of hell to pass as "biblical/orthodox", it must pass the "Scary Test." Any treatment of hell that is glib and void of horrors you may only encounter in a nightmare is probably too diluted. As one theologian says...
“Now, because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us by physical things, this is, by darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, unquenchable fire, an undying worm gnawing at the heart. By such expressions the Holy Spirit certainly intended to confound all our senses with dread.”
If all of our senses are not "confounded with dread", we may need to re-think our view. This is why any discussion of hell is difficult to have. It's probably why we don't talk about it more. It seems only fitting to talk quietly and with tears about such a topic.
You can't imagine the weight I felt standing up in front of a bunch of 18-22 year olds to tell them about Matthew 25. As if the imagery in that passage were not enough, consider the wonder of the criteria that Jesus used to separate the sheep from the goats. Again, that's why I started with my first point.
Third, I think there's a greater discussion going on than our debate about hell. We contemporary bloggers and pastors and philosophers and theologians are continuing an ancient controversy over this one word... "certainty."
What exactly can I know for sure?
There's a whole history of Western thought that I don't have the time (or knowledge...) to go into. I have an interest in philosophy that began from studying it in college and therefore have just enough knowledge to be dangerous. So look out...
Rob Bell is a product of ... Gasp... Post Modern thinking.
And for that I thank him...kind of (he's good at asking questions, deconstructing assumed meaning and certainty about art, literature, philosophy, theology... anything). This is contrasted with the Modernist who thinks everything is as easy as putting the text, painting, _____ under the microscope of the scientific method and getting at the answer. With this approach, I can empirically rationalize everything.
Modernists tend to love logical argument (i.e. Proverbs, Romans) while Post Modernists prefer narrative (Samuel, Acts). Modernists think in terms of organizing variables (A+B=C) and dissecting sentences like a good mathematician, while Post Modernists prefer to ponder stories.
Engineering versus English majors.
PC v Mac.
All of this is of course, an oversimplification.
Post Modernists are experts at asking the Modernist, "Are you sure?"
So that's my basic assessment of Bell's book, and how I explain the flaws in his thinking. He's a guy, who based on his PM worldview, views the Bible as a story filled with metaphors and prose to be interpreted (and often deconstructed/reconstructed), not as a set of specific theological concepts to be argued. That's why it doesn't do a lot of good to argue over the specifics with him. You have your view of the story and he has his. That's why it's hard to pin him down on anything.
Bell is not sure of anything. All that's left is more questions about hell. And this is my problem.
And so the theological stream of "orthodoxy" expands and stagnates into the Dead Sea. How can we know what orthodoxy is? Who's in, who's out?
So here's a situation I alluded to in a previous post about a conversation I had with a PM pastor Doug Pagitt. And here's where it gets back to Rob Bell. When I was reading Love Wins, I felt like I was talking to Pagitt. It was a flashback. Every statement I made was followed with a question...
Mark: "The Apostle Paul tells us to watch our life and doctrine closely, because in so doing we will save not only ourselves, but our hearers as well (1 Tim. 4:16). I think you need to be very careful."
Doug: "How do you KNOW what Paul's exact doctrine was?"
Mark: "You can read it... starting with those 10 chapters to Timothy."
Doug: "What are you so certain of? There's a cultural context that Paul wrote in that you have no way of knowing. The same is true with Jesus. When he said he is the way the truth and the life, what exactly did he mean? There was a Hebrew understanding of this that may not mean what you think..." [btw, it's funny that Bell used Jn 14:6 in his book]
Mark: "Hmmm. I'm just saying, I think there is doctrine we can know and be certain about. I think it can be the difference between heaven and hell for us and the people we lead, just like Paul said."
Doug: "What exactly are those doctrines you're sure keep people in or out?"
Mark: [Something really profound]
Doug: [More questions provoking uncertainty]
My point here is that questions are good- they are welcomed. I'm glad Bell asked them. It got me thinking.
But these are not just innocent questions. This is a way of interpreting text and understanding epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) that's based more on a French philosopher's deconstructionism (Derrida) than anything. The reason I can say this with such confidence is that Pagitt told me Derrida heavily influenced his view of epistemology. My contention is that the same method Bell uses to deconstruct the traditional view of hell can also deconstruct his own view. I'm sure my pagan professors at the university are thoroughly enjoying Bell's book- and not for his intended purpose.
For example, Bell obviously carries a lot of baggage into this book. He must've had a traumatic upbringing in a fightin' fundy home, based on his caricatures of people who hold a literal view of hell. They hang bad art in their house, are boring, stuffy, judgmental, and think they have all the answers. They also picket abortion clinics and funerals of gay people. In light of that, I could interpret all of Bell through that lens. He's writing out of his own context of spiritual abuse. Therefore, his view that "love wins" is more Bell's wishful thinking for a different god than it is the reality of the Bible.
That's one way to approach Bell's book. It's not the way I'd like to see it, though.
I'd rather sift the good and avoid the evil. (1 Thess. 5:21). Which is why I used the following key...
I think certainty is possible and (of course) encouraged in the Bible. And if you're certain about things, it doesn't mean you're a Pharisee. It doesn't mean you lack love. Jesus warned us about wolves. The Apostles John, Peter, Paul and Mary (sorry I couldn't resist...) all repeated this warning, often calling them out by name.
"Well, are you sure you should be calling Rob Bell out because of his view of hell? Does this make him a false teacher prepared for destruction?" (2 Peter 2)
I'm not sure.
There are good things to be uncertain about...
Thankfully- for all of us- I'm not God. I think judging someone's eternal destiny is something we should be cautious about (duh). It's God, not Mark, that will judge the peoples with equity- for right-ness and fair-ness are the legs that hold up his throne (Ps. 9, 97)
But I will call out this teaching for the flock I lead- and encourage them not to listen to Bell. I wasn't compelled to change our doctrinal statement (check www.veritasiowacity.com)- in fact I'm more resolved to cling to it. I think he asks some good questions, but I think on the whole premise of his book (that love will eventually win everyone... even post-mortem) he is wrong.
I'm certain of that.
A lot certain?
Kind of certain?
Certain most of the time?
Everyone who doesn't agree with you is going to hell forever certain?"
But I don't think Rob thinks I should be.