Rob Bell’s hell and the seriousness of life

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

H/T Banksy. Major caveat – I haven’t yet read the book, so this could be completely off-base, and I reserve the right to amend it if it needs to be!

First point: I became an atheist at the age of about 14 after a long conversation with a school friend about Gandhi, and whether he was going to hell or not. So I understand and accept the broad point being made, that our understandings of hell are often sub-Christian at best. However…

There is a way of understanding the heaven and hell conundrum called ‘universalism’, by which is meant the idea that, in the end, nobody escapes salvation. It was first proposed – I believe – by Origen in the second century. It was also fairly swiftly condemned as heretical – and I think it is right that universalism is condemned as heretical.

A Wittgenstein quote on the subject (from memory): “Of course it was condemned as heresy. If what we do now makes no difference in the end then all the seriousness of life is done away with.” The seriousness of life – the idea that what we do makes a difference, for good or for evil. Without that dimension to life – what Wittgenstein called ‘depth’ in many other places – then something essential to our humanity is lost – after all, if nothing that we do makes any difference, then what is the point of all this painful drama?

My worry about universalism is that it is a form of political correctness applied to God – heaven is a multicultural wonderland where everyone is righteously right-on.

I hope Bell isn’t going to come out as a universalist. I’ve rather liked his stuff hitherto.

For what it’s worth, some of the best stuff I’ve read about hell in recent years has come from the wonderful writings of James Alison, and this sums it up:

“The commonly held understanding of hell remains trapped within the apocalyptic imagination, that is, it is the result of a violent separation between the good and the evil worked by a vengeful god. It seems to me that if hell is understood thus, we have quite simply not understood the Christian faith…”

There is no wrath in God…

11 thoughts on “Rob Bell’s hell and the seriousness of life

  1. What seriousness does heaven and/or hell bring to life that wouldn’t already be there if we had no such notion of those concepts? Certainly Gandhi took life pretty seriously.

    On the other hand, it’s still a mystery to me what role those metaphors play in the Christian language game. Not to mention it’s far to easy for the masses to be confused by fear of penalty, and find hell being used as a means of control.

    It’s seems to me we’d be better off without both of them. For in the least when coupled with our modern day metaphysical presup’s we trip all over eachother. Let’s just quit talking about it.

  2. I just love it when Christians try so hard to reinterpret hell into something non-horrifying. Even the most devout have a hard time squaring the notion of a good and all-loving God condemning people to eternal suffering.

    The folk that suggest (still the majority by my estimation) that hell is a place of eternal suffering are in my opinion support by the bible. The newer, fuzzier, interpretation-heavy perspective is simply the result of too much cognitive dissonance in people with compassion who try to understand how God could tolerate, not to mention instigate, eternal suffering.

    There is no wrath in God….

    Just read the book of Judges. It is a never-ending cycle of God delivering his people into the hands of their enemies (usually because they seem to find the worship of Baal so much more appealing). Incidentally, the people of Israel come across as the dumbest bunch of morons imaginable. They “do evil in the sight of the lord”, have their asses handed to them, God is pleaded with, he eventually takes pity and they are saved by some God sent super soldier, they rejoice and thank God. Then they very quickly abandon God and “do evil in the sight of the lord”… rinse and repeat as necessary. Round about every fifty years or so.
    If you can read judges and come to the conclusion that God was not being directly vengeful then I would suggest that you are not able to understand simple prose.
    Any alternate view you come to would have to involve so much presumption and “interpretation” that you clearly cannot be objective about the material. This is not even remotely surprising. We see the same thing with every holy text and its devout believers. They find what they want to find there.

    Did Jesus not go to pains to stress that you can only come to his father (incidentally himself – sort of) though him. This has always been believed to mean that faith in Christ is the only path to “Salvation” (ironically, salvation from a penalty that will be imposed by Jesus himself. Just think, if it weren’t for God, we wouldn’t need saving)

    Putting aside for a moment the ludicrous nature of the tale at large, it would be painfully obvious that there is a reward/punishment system at work in the Christian afterlife.
    It seems to me that if hell is not understood thus, we have quite simply not understood the Christian faith…”

  3. I’ll cast my vote with the “There’s no wrath in God” crowd. I’ve read a lot of Girard/Alison so “The God is full of Wrath/Anger/Violence/Murder” argument is pretty incomprehensible to me.

    So I think I can say a couple things.
    1. Girard/Alison have made a Hell/Gehenna a very real, violent,terrible place. Basically “Their “Hell” is a more real/literal place than your Hell.” Gehenna, of course refers to two things simultaneously. The first is the ever burning garbage pit outside Jerusalem, and secondly, and probably more importantly, it refers to the place where child sacrifice was comitted. So I don’t think one can even discuss Hell without bringing up human sacrifice. “War is Hell” or “War is Sacrifice.”
    One could go on and on, but that’s a start.

  4. When we talk about heaven and hell we tend to ignore the Incarnation. We are part of the body of Christ. On the last day we will be judging ourselves. This means that we will be accountable to those whom we have sinned against.

    I have always felt extremely uncomfortable on those occasions when I have considered the reality of hell. I feel like a murderer designing my own prison. My conclusion is that it is only those for whom we have made life hell who have the right to deny the existence of future hells.

  5. Don’t underestimate apocalyptic; it was there at the foundation of the church, and we need to take it seriously. If we don’t, we end up underestimating evil. I’ve seen it; I had a warlord for a neighbour, and my girls were caught up in his coup attempt.

    I don’t think it’s given to us to judge what happens after people die. God, and he alone, is our judge. Our responsibilities are in this life, not the next. God is merciful, but at the same time, he’s a good God. So wickedness will get its comeuppance.

  6. “God alone is our judge”

    In a court of law it is not just the judge who is part of the judgement process. Your concept makes God into a tyrant. It is more likely that if mere human beings accept that the needs of the victim must be taken into account then God will be infinitely more desirous to listen to them.

    We are inherently self-centred and usually assume that God tells us to forgive for our own sake. Perhaps, it is also for the sake of those we are asked to forgive, both in this world and the next.

    Finally, if we will have no responsibility in the next life then there might as well be no next life. We would not be who we are and so no different to reincarnated, amnesiac souls.

  7. Also, it is specifically Jesus who will judge us. Maybe he is most qualified to do this because he has taken on human flesh and include humanity within himself. If he had not then his judgement would be like a human being judging the crimes of a tiger.

  8. It’s all about how ‘wrath’ and ‘apocalypse’ are understood – I’ll put some more posts up about this in due course.

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