Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
In 2011 Rob Bell finished his book Love Wins. The book sparked a huge conversation among Christians and a strong critique from evangelical circles. It became so widely popular that Times Magazine did an article and named Rob Bell as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. But many Christian leaders were disgusted by Rob Bell’s ideas portrayed in the book, particularly evangelical leaders like John Piper, David Platt, and Francis Chan.
The concern for many of these Christian evangelicals was that Rob Bell was claiming in his book that Christians should call into question the idea of Hell as an eternal torture chamber. Bell talks about a number of different views on what Hell is, and also speaks to the idea of Universal Reconciliation. Bell does not actually claim to take a particular side in any of these cases, and even after the numerous threats of him being labeled a “universalist,” still claims to deny that belief. From listening to several interviews and sermons by Rob Bell (I have not read Love Wins) he claims that the goal of the book was to show that love will win, not to show that everyone will be saved. He points out the fact that true love involves the freedom to partake in God’s being love, and that for Christians to claim that anybody who is not a Christian will be tortured forever in a fire is toxic to the idea of God being love. While many Christians attacked him for this particular view, others like Eugene Peterson, Greg Boyd, and Brian Zahnd came to the defense of Bell, claiming he provides a valid and important point for Christians to hear.
Here are my thoughts on Heaven and Hell, and the thoughts that I think every other person should have: I don’t know. I do agree with Rob Bell however that the idea that God sends everyone who doesn’t believe to be torchered is quite toxic. I guess my first concern is, why even believe that in the first place? What benefit does it give us to claim that the God that we worship torchers anyone who doesn’t believe?
Let me lay out a scenerio: There is a young lady about 21 years old who lives in Japan and is a Buddhist. Ever since she was born she has been raised as a Buddhist. She knows nothing else beyond this religion. She is a kind young lady, she works hard, helps others and is peaceful. She has spoken up numerously when people are mistreated, and she has made it a priority to give anything she receives to those who need it more than she does.
Then there is another lady that lives in America. She was raised in a Christian home and has confessed the creeds in church each Sunday. But she is very self-interested. She has a good job but never really tries to help anybody. She has chosen to invest most of her time and money into her own particular life. A nice, cozy house. Lots of clothes. Good entertainment. And everything else she saves so she can have a good retirement. She goes to church every Sunday, claims to be a Christian, and votes for Christian politicians.
So in the view of most evangelicals, the young Buddhist lady would go to Hell to be torchered forever while the American girl would enjoy eternal life in heaven.
I can’t get this out of my head: Forever. Non-stop. Eternal, never-ending. Have you ever touched a hot stove for like half a second? It hurts really bad. But it was like half a second. What if you were burning on your entire body forever and ever. Oh, and not just burning, but a bunch of demons are gnashing their teeth at you and maggots are feeding on you. But it never, ever, ever, ever, ends. Can someone please tell me how this is a productive perspective for Christians to have under any circumstance? Many say it’s what we deserve. But is it? Really? Even someone who committed murder, do they really deserve to be torchered constantly forever and ever?
And yet, evangelicals were disgusted by the fact that Rob Bell would even mention the possibility of an alternative. John Piper tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell!” as soon as he heard about the claims he was making, and Francis Chan made several videos afterword ensuring us that Rob Bell was wrong to suggest we should question this understanding of Hell.
I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell claims, but I do think he provides a valid point: That Christians are way to arrogant in the way that they claim to know about the afterlife, and that there is only one understanding that is valid. If you don’t believe that, you are a heretic, and therefore can no longer ever be the source of anything valuable. The way I see it, the only thing I really need to know is that God will come to judge the living and the dead. However that is, I’m sure that it will be done in a way that is consistent with the life of the incarnate God, Christ.
But more importantly, the problem I have with the obsession with Heaven and Hell among Christians is that it tends to lend us to the thought that our world is broken, so we patiently await a new kingdom in heaven. This is handy, but we forget that we must be co-conspirators in the commitment to restoration on earth. It should make us feel a deep pain when we know that there is enough food in the world for everyone to eat and be full, yet millions of people are starving. It should hurt when we see the world being pumped up with huge amounts of CO2, eliminating plants and animals from the earth at a rapid rate. It should hurt when we don’t see people being treated equally. But as people committed to restoration, it should also make us get up and fight against big corporations ruining the environment. It should make us want to fight against a system that feeds the wealthy and takes from the poor. It should make us want to get up and serve the poor. It should make us fight against war. It should make us promoters of peace.
Evangelicals today are sympathetic. But they are sympathetic for the wrong reasons. They are trying to get as many people to become Christians as possible, so that they will not die and be sent to Hell. What I would object is that we cannot force people to become Christians. But we can partake in the Kingdom of God everyday we live. We can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly as co-conspirators in God’s restoration of earth. Maybe if we lived out our faith, rather than attacked anybody who questions whether God sends people to Hell to be tortured forever or other unimportant theological issues, and stopped forcing our faith on others, the Church of Christ would become a much more appealing place for the huge population of people today that are leaving the church.
Because Christians are so obsessed with Heaven and Hell, we become obsessed with getting ourselves there. This is why we are so committed to laws. This is why we are so committed to doing the right things. This is why we try to save as many people as we can. But we forget that we are already spiritual beings. We forget that the Kingdom of God is within us. Each day we have a choice to make. To make our life about getting people to a place we want them to be, or to actively engage in the Kingdom of God on earth. We live in a day and age when what we say is everything. But what is it that we are doing?
Here is the trailer for the film “Silence,” directed by Martin Scorsese in 2016. It is a very powerful film that deals with the desire for Christians to push their faith on others, and the trouble that it can get us into. It is one of my favorite films.