Facebook friends and others have directed my attention to the latest tempest in the evangelical teapot: über Christian Hipster Rob Bell has gone wobbly on hell. Here's one response which also includes a video trailer for Bell's new book.
What strikes me about Kevin DeYoung's critique of Bell is that he doesn't bother to argue for the existence of hell; instead he argues that giving rid of hell cuts the nerve of Christian ethics and proclamation. No hell, DeYoung maintains, means no remonstrating with unbelievers, no rationale to love enemies and a weakened rationale for loving God. It makes you wonder: if hell didn't exist, would we have to make it up?
No, we wouldn't. One reason to love enemies is to literally heap burning coals on their head, as Paul says. But we find another reason in the Sermon on the Mount:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
The Father loves gratuitously and indiscriminately, and so will his children, what with the apple not falling far from the tree.
What about scaring people straight into the everlasting arms of Jesus with warnings about hell? Admittedly this was Paul's approach with Felix, as DeYoung mentions. For the complacent and the unaccountable, "meditation on the future life" as John Calvin calls it must needs be an anxiety provoking experience. I doubt that Paul handed Felix a tract with a picture of the lake of fire. Perhaps all he did was tell the judge that one day he would be judged.
Still, I'm more inclined to approve of the approach that Karl Barth took in a sermon he once preached in his hometown jail on Ephesians 2:5, "By grace you have been saved." Stressing the passive voice and pluperfect tense of the verse, Barth does not warn the congregation that they need to save themselves; he announces that God in Christ has done for them what they could not do for themselves. Hell is now a thing of the past. It does not loom on the horizon like an iceberg waiting to sink you.
In a wonderful illustration he mentions a recent incident known both to Barth and the prisoners. A man had gotten lost in a dark and snowy night. He walked this way and that until he found shelter, only to find that he'd been walking all night across the frozen Lake Constance. One wrong step and he would have crashed through the ice and perished. When he realized where he'd wandered, he broke down in terror and relief. And that is what it is like when we have been saved. Only after the fact do we realize the danger we were in.
And yet, the danger was real, was it not? Which means that hell exists, does it not? Whether it's a place, as it often appears to be in the gospel of Matthew, or an event, "the wrath of God," as it is in Paul's letters, eschatological unpleasantness crops up enough to resist easy erasure, even in the name of that slogan that brings tears to the eyes of every liberal Protestant: God's inclusive love.
I'm not particularly happy about it. I don't really get it. Contra Anselm, I do not think that human beings are capable of an infinite offense, even though the one they offend is infinite, because they themselves are finite. Thus an eternity in hell seems to me to be a gratuitous punishment, and I have a problem reconciling gratuitous grace and gratuitous punishment in one God.
Perhaps hell is self-imposed. But that raises questions of the limits of free will which are not easily answered. Perhaps hell is purgatorial in nature, and God's grace will one day call everyone out of it. Perhaps Origen was right, that if God is to be "all in all," then even the devil himself will one day be saved. But those are speculative responses, which have their own set of problems.
Long story short: Bell's instincts are right and DeYoung's are wrong to make fear the linchpin of your theology and ethics. I believe that what C.S. Lewis said about the devil we can also say about hell: Don't say too much about it, and don't say too little about it. When it turns up in the lectionary readings, preachers should not shy away from it, but nor should they make a mountain out of a molehill. Say as much, and no more, than what a close reading of the text will allow you to say. And if hell isn't in the text, don't smuggle it in.