Evangelicals who pay attention are all abuzz about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, and particularly Rob’s rejection of the traditional view of hell. He’s catching a lot of flak from evangelical heavy-hitters like Al Mohler and John Piper for his stance (see Brian McLaren’s defense of Bell here), and a lot of people I know and care for are lining up to get their licks in.
This post isn’t about Rob Bell and the controversy. This post is a lament on why we’re all so upset about all this.
First of all, let me declare myself: I am an evangelical with fundamentalist roots who isn’t nearly as sure about what he believes about heaven and hell as he once was. What was certain and unassailable for me at one time no longer is so. The older I get, the less I seem to know about these things and the more open I am to the idea that what I believe might be flat-out wrong.
But, at the end of the day, I just wish the whole heaven/hell thing would go away.
I’m not saying that I don’t believe in heaven and hell, even in the traditional sense of the words. I’m not saying that the doctrine of heaven and hell has no place at the table. I’m not saying that I’m going to stop picking out hymns that talk about heaven for our worship services at church.
I am saying that I wish the heaven/hell doctrine didn’t hold onto our imagination so, that it didn’t occupy so much of our energy and communication bandwidth. I am saying that it grieves me to see the gospel so closely tied to and marketed alongside the heaven/hell doctrine. I am saying that I wish the church would “sell” the gospel on its own merits, not having to rely on ultimate and cosmic benefits and punishments to make the case.
Here’s why I think everyone’s so upset: sometime ago the gospel stopped being about the invitation to follow Jesus and join with his followers as they incarnate Christ in the world for the redemption of the world, and it started being about appeasing God and securing one’s place in heaven. Hell-avoidance became the main selling point in the gospel presentation for many reasons, the chief one being its effectiveness in producing converts.
So now, any questioning of or deviation from the traditional view of hell is seen as a questioning of the gospel itself. And that’s tragic.
Playing the heaven/hell card in the gospel presentation is prima facie evidence that the temporal benefits of conversion are not sufficient to overcome skepticism about the church. The presentation devolves from an invitation into an insurance pitch. How I wish we could present the church to unbelievers and say, “Come join us where you will be loved and known, and where your life will be spent and poured out in God’s plan to redeem the world.”