“Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell.”
- Evolving in Monkey Town, Chapter 9
If you’ve read Evolving in Monkey Town you know that some of my most serious doubts about Christianity were triggered by questions related to religious pluralism and the destiny of the un-evangelized. After witnessing the public execution of a Muslim woman from Afghanistan on TV, I began struggling with the idea that millions upon millions of people like Zarmina had been sentenced to hell for eternity, most without ever hearing the gospel.
In Chapter 9 I write:
In Sunday school, they always make hell out to be a place for people like Hitler, not a place for his victims. But if my Sunday school teachers and college professors were right, then hell will be populated not only by people like Hitler and Stalin, Hussein and Milosevic but by the people that they persecuted. If only born-again Christians go to heaven, then the piles of suitcases and bags of human hair displayed at the Holocaust Museum represent thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children suffering eternal agony and the hands of angry God. If salvation is available only to Christians, then the gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it’s terrible news.
As I’ve travelled around the country talking about my experience with doubt, I’ve been approached by many people, especially college students and young adults, who relate most to this section of the book. With tears in their eyes, they confess that they too lie awake at night wondering how a loving God could damn the majority of his creation to hell, how a God who “desires that all be saved” could leave so many without hope.
In the book I explain why I think Scripture gives us reason to be optimistic about the future of humanity, but it has become increasingly clear to me over the past few months that this is a topic people desperately want to talk about.
With this in mind, I recently requested an advance review copy of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived. I was especially intrigued by a video trailer for the book in which Bell asks the very questions I’ve been asking myself since childhood and the very questions with which so many in my generation wrestle:
Will only a few select people make it into heaven?
How does one become one of these few?
Are people like Ghandi and Anne Frank really in hell, along with millions and millions of other people?
Do we need a loving Jesus to rescue us from a hateful God? Is this what the gospel is all about?
Is the gospel good news or bad news?
What is the essence of God's character?
Most of us haven’t received our review copies yet, but that didn’t stop a few bloggers from issuing their opinions about the book this weekend. Without even knowing Bell’s position, they declared it outside the bounds of orthodoxy and influenced by Satan. John Piper even issued a flippant “farewell” to Bell via twitter.
The message was clear: Ask questions about heaven and hell and you will be cast out.
But as Bell’s pre-orders soared and many rose to his defense, it became clear that that what John Piper and Justin Taylor failed to realize is that we are already asking these questions. We are asking them in our dorm rooms, at our kitchen tables, over coffee, in classrooms, at Bible studies, at church, in our journals, in our hearts, and in thousands upon thousands of tearful, faithful prayers each night.
Scot McKnight said it well in an interview with Christianity Today when he noted that “Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.”
Ready or not, we are having this conversation. And it’s important that a variety of views are represented fairly and accurately—from exclusivism to inclusivism to conditional immortality to universalism. The Christian tradition is rich with a diversity of perspectives regarding heaven and hell, and we should hear them all out. Most of us are not so impressionable as to simply believe whatever one or two popular theologians tell us, but to do the research and reflection necessary to make up our own minds.
At the end of the day, this isn't really about Rob Bell or John Piper or a single book or a single blog post. It's about a conversation that's been rumbling beneath the surface for a while now and has finally found the light.
May it be lively. May it be civil. And may it honor the One who prayed that our unity would reflect the sweet harmony of the Trinity…because the world indeed is watching.
Do you agree with Scot McKnight that that this is perhaps the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today? What sort of questions have you been asking about heaven and hell?
(Note: Please do not comment on Rob Bell’s book specifically unless you have actually read it.)