The recent debate around the blogosphere as to whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist, has got me to thinking. There seems to be a substantial contingent within conservative Christianity, that is extremely dedicated to the notion of a hell where those who do not "believe" will suffer unending, conscious torment. Many of these people--dear friends of mine, some of them--are not angry, vindictive people in real life; in fact some of them are downright compassionate. So why, I wonder, do they get so upset about the suggestion that there might NOT be eternal torture awaiting those who do not believe the right things about Jesus?
The simplistic answer, of course, is that they are passionate about the literal truth of the Bible, and since the Bible speaks of a literal hell, to discount it is to disrespect the rest of Biblical truth as well. As I've pointed out before, however, the scriptural case for eternal, conscious torment is far too thin to support a dogmatic claim, and in fact a legitimate case can be made in scripture for annihilation or conditional immortality (a term I only recently encountered, but which accurately characterizes a perspective I found in the gospels). The same can be said for the other simplistic answer: "that's what the church has always taught," because in fact a survey of church fathers reveals a far more nuanced and diverse perspective than that on display today.
So why the obsession with hell? Although I have absolutely no proof for this speculation, I wonder if it really comes down to salesmanship. I have known a number of "believers" whose initial entree to Christianity was a fear of the condemnation they believed awaited them if they did not believe. I still remember the first time a Christian (this one was a Baptist missionary in Honduras) explicitly told me "If I did not believe there was a hell, I wouldn't be a Christian." Combined with the definition of faith as assenting to certain truths, and the doctrine of eternal security to keep those who have "believed" in the "saved" column, it becomes reasonable to try to convince people to "believe," as Malcolm X said of a very different struggle, "by any means necessary."
The paradox in all of this is that those who most vociferously insist on the doctrine of hell tend also to be Calvinist in their broader perspective, and often believe something to the effect that only those to whom God gives the gift of faith are even capable of believing. Here my comprehension starts to break down: if faith only exists as a gift from God, then why do we have to worry about the particulars of the sales pitch? Even more, if those who are predestined for heaven or hell are already determined, what's the point in trumpeting a hell that's irrelevant to those predestined for salvation, and the hopeless-but-inevitable destination of those who aren't?
And for those who aren't Calvinist predestinarians (emphatically including me), the question still stands. Jesus called us to make disciples, not to rescue hellbound infidels. He called people to follow him in an active life of love and service, not to rearrange their thoughts so they had the right concepts about him. Certainly we all have plenty of screwed-up thoughts that need to be straightened out--no denying that--but the place and time to get those straightened is (and in fact can only be) AFTER we have joined ourselves to Jesus and his church, not before!
Jesus calls anyone who is thirsty to come. When we come, he does invite us to take on his yoke, and elsewhere to take up our cross. There's plenty to be corrected and redeemed and saved in all of us. But that is the work of the Holy Spirit--and the fellowship of believers--to be accomplished in and upon and through us once we have believed. It's certainly not a precondition of salvation.
So, do you trust the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of confused, mixed-up, doctrinally-heterodox people who've nonetheless dedicated themselves to Christ and his church? Or do you think God is not up to the job of handling our doctrinal sloppiness? Do you trust the Holy Spirit, or not?
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