On the Discussion of Hell

Several weeks ago the Christian community became quite stirred when a pastor named Rob Bell released the below video questioning whether Ghandi is in hell.

Drama has swirled over the last several weeks in certain circles of evangelicalism. A number of pastors have spoken out against Bell as as unorthodox, irresponsible false teacher. I appreciate and respect a great number of these pastors, including David Platt, a local pastor here in Birmingham. Platt recently shot and posted the below video.

Filmed in Gandhi’s home country, Platt is using the recent controversy to issue a focused challenge to the American church. It’s a brilliant, noble and needed challenge. We’ve got to stop our pseudo-Christianity that is more interested in our feeling good, our feeling fulfilled or feeling comfortable—a challenge he issued first in his challenging book Radical. The message of Jesus is the message of the cross.

The message of Jesus’ sacrificial, reconciliatory death. The message of Jesus’ victorious, conquering resurrection.

Our response is gratitude. Our response is worship. Our response is service to others. Our response is working for the justice of the kingdom today.

Platt has done an immeasurable service to the kingdom of God by reorienting us away from our often systemically selfish religious systems and towards the self-giving cross that is the center of the Christian faith. While I do share some of Kevin DeYoung’s concerns about his book—and some of his approach in general—I think his is a prophetic and needed voice for the Church today.

Although I agree with so much of Dr Platt’s message and motivations, this video also represents much of what is troubling me about the current conversation with the Christian community.

In the video, Platt says, “…And there’s really only two simple options here: either number one we believe (ala Rob Bell) that all of these people will one day experience God’s everlasting love in heaven; or number two we believe (ala orthodox Christianity) that one day all of these people will experience God’s eternal wrath in hell”

This is really frustrating on a number of levels. Since I’ve got papers to write and not really much time for blogging, I’ll limit myself to just a few. First the world never divides into two simple options. That’s the polarizing work of modern Western culture.

Second, Rob Bell is not saying that one day everyone will experience God’s everlasting love. If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that everyone is already experiencing God’s everlasting love. They are free to reject it—perhaps they even will forever—but that would be hell.

Third, whatever Dr Platt means by “orthodox Christianity” implies that different interpretations and articulations of the faith have never existed—that “orthodoxy” is monolithic and uniformed on this issue. In fact, the Orthodox (big “O”) church that spans so much of the east nuances judgment very differently than the Western church. And even in our own tradition, we cannot condemn Clement of Alexandria, Origin, Gregory of Nyssa, George MacDonald, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Rob Bell and countless others because they interpret and articulate the Bible’s message about judgment differently than we do. If we do, the number of people who are “inside” just gets smaller and smaller.

Is this interpretation and articulation really the measure of true faith and orthodoxy?

This troublesome line-drawing should bother everyone in the Christian community, shouldn’t it? After all, the above group of people (Bell certainly included) takes Scripture very seriously. They’re not just making stuff up. It’s a matter of interpreting the text.

Challenge—take 10 minutes and read the following: John 12:32, Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-23, 1 Timothy 2:3-7 & 4:10, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 John 2:2. If you don’t think that this inclusive sounding language means “every individual” at least respect those who do and have. Many Christians have decided to read the (real and present) passages of judgment in light of these rather than visa-versa. One has to decide which is clearer.

A perhaps surprising example of this is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Consider the following from Ethics:

“In the body of Jesus Christ, God is united with humankind, all humanity is accepted by God, and the world is reconciled to God. In the body of Jesus Christ, God took on the sin of all the world and bore it. There is no part of the world, no matter how lost, no matter how godless, that has not been accepted by God in Jesus Christ and reconciled to God.

“…The church-community is separated from the world only by this: it believes in the reality of being accepted by God—a reality that belongs to the whole world—and in affirming this as valid for itself it witnesses that it is valid for the entire world. The body of Jesus Christ, especially as it is presented to us on the cross, makes visible to faith both the world in its sin and in its being loved by God, and the church-community as the company of those who recognize their sin and gratefully submit to the love of God.” (66-68)

A great number of Christians (Like Bonhoeffer and Bell) have considered that the reality of hell must be something within the already loved and reconciled reality that Jesus has accomplished.

This isn’t a minimization of the cross. It’s trying to take its enormity as seriously as the Bible does. If you disagree with it, that’s fine. But don’t call it unorthodox or heretical—or even imply it.

Despite their profoundly different readings of Scripture, these pastors have a great deal in common—both are concerned about defending the character of God and challenging the way we live right now. Platt understands the holiness and justice of God as something that should compel us to work right now. Bell understands the love and grace of God as what should do the same.

We’re all in the same family. Jesus’ high priestly prayer for unity (John 17) especially applies on these tough issues of disagreement.

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