In 2011, Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, resigned from his post. The reason for his leaving was not the usual adulterous affair or crass political endorsement, but a book Bell wrote, entitled Love Wins, in which he advocates for uncertainty about the existence of hell and chides Christians for their emphasis on it. Though he embraced no particular view on the matter, Bell’s openness to universalism—the belief that all people will eventually be saved in the afterlife and go to heaven—made him a pariah in the evangelical community.
No matter your church, hell is not fun to talk about. Jesus speaks of it as “fire” (Mt. 18:9 NKJV). Revelation calls it “the second death” (21:8). 2 Peter 2:17 and Jude 1:13 both describe hell as “blackness.” Scholars generally accept that these are metaphors for the disintegration (fire) and blindness (darkness) of the soul in hell. Perhaps all we know of hell, or need to know, is that it is a state of separation from God. But does it last forever?
The Bible is adamant that Christ is the only means of grace and reconciliation to God. “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father,” 1 John 2:23 states. “Nor is there salvation in any other name,” Peter preaches in Acts 4:12, “for there is no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved.” Some universalists, surprisingly, agree to this, but argue that the Gospel will be preached to the lost after death until all of them are converted to faith in Jesus. Eternal loss, they believe, does not fit with a loving God.
I agree with them that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But I think their view misunderstands love.
Love is a mutual bond of self-giving and fidelity between two personalities who must be absolutely free not to love each other. If one person is not free to refuse the bond of love, then the bond is illegitimate, a kind of slavery. I think everybody instinctively knows that love coerced is not really love.
The British theologian John Hick, a supporter of universalism, wrote that no one in the afterlife would resist the Gospel once they discovered their error. After all, who would choose to continue in hell instead of seizing their ticket to heaven? I would challenge Hick’s entire premise here—there are probably souls who are spiritually obstinate enough to remain on the outskirts of paradise and blame God for their errors, as in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—but let’s assume that Hick is right and every lost soul comes to God, tail between its legs. Would their salvation be from a true love of God, or would it result, as Hick implies, from a desire to escape hell? Real love cannot be coerced.
The only time when we can receive a relationship with God is now, in our present life, when we have total freedom to resist God’s offer. God does love all of us, and desires all of us to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), but love is not fulfilled if its object refuses it. This is as true of a rejected marriage proposal as it is with God. And he knows love enough to know the choice rests with us.
I don’t pretend to be unaware that this is difficult for people. Everybody has a felon cousin or an alcoholic uncle or a shoplifting neighbor whose soul they might fear for. But our emotions can entangle us into a wrong view of God and an unworthy idea of what love means. In John 4:34-36, no one less than Jesus reminds us that the harvest is now, not months and years from now. Any belief that would lessen the urgency of his Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20) is an insult to his Gospel.
“I pay my taxes like everybody should…”
“Just because I’m not perfect…”
“Well, I didn’t mean to shoot him…”
Maybe you have defended or justified yourself with one of the above lines. I have to hope you didn’t use the third one (I’m talking to YOU, Dick Cheney). It is comforting to externalize evil, to believe it an out-there force embodied in terrorists and abusive parents, while our families and friends are flawed but basically good people.
That belief is wrong.
There are no good people. Truly. And I’m not speaking on my own authority here.
In June, I wrote on five kinds of preachers who don’t bring love and truth to a church, whether by incessant talk of damnation, political pandering, soft commitment to Scripture’s teachings, or preoccupation with family anecdotes. Now I want to share three ways that one Baptist church I met had a tangible difference in its message and culture.
1) The church believes missions should happen everywhere. The pastor encourages missionaries to travel to Africa, to Haiti, to Native American reservations. But he declares it no less honorable to evangelize Philadelphia, or Cincinnati (ten minutes away from us), or down the block at a liquor store, or on your neighbor’s porch. Churches often fail to reach people on their doorsteps because the Gospel seems more available to Americans. But Christians are to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19 NIV), and that includes college students, sales clerks, and newspaper boys in our hometown as much as it does tribesmen in distant wilds.
Have any of you ever hunted for a church? I wasn’t raised going to one, so in the summer after high school, I went seeking for a place in the body of Christ. During this salvation safari, I encountered many species of pastor and learned how a leader is often the decisive factor in the life of a church. I won’t reveal the identities of these churches, but I wonder whether any of you met these types in your search for a home.
1) The Revival Reverend: Becomes a fierce, bristly creature while preaching, who exhorts listeners to keep a passport handy and prepare to be called into a “dark, dark place” where the Gospel has never been heard. Has an appreciable passion for evangelism, but never explores more than one theme: You’re going to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus. If you don’t want to get baptized, you’re probably not saved. Somebody needs to get up here and get baptized. Often seems hostile toward his listeners: “If you want to be a pew sitter, then there’s the door!”
I’m sometimes hooked by the CBS procedural Criminal Minds, but last Wednesday’s episode, “Angels,” gave a fine image of how Hollywood writers view Christianity. (Here there be spoilers). The FBI’s profilers are called to a Texas town where prostitutes are being murdered. One of the suspects is a hostile reverend whom all the residents call “Preacher,” who runs a ministry for victimized women. With the hucksterism of a televangelist, he assures the victims’ survivors that they “must have faith” and not question anything.
The Preacher is revealed to be running the prostitution ring (of course!) He turns out not to be the killer, but in the episode’s final seconds, fearing arrest, he grabs a machine gun and shoots two of the show’s beloved agents.
Has the place and time of your salvation ever seemed important to you? I once heard a preacher say that a person isn’t truly saved if she can’t recall the moment it happened. Really, though, would God make your eternity depend on your memory?
I admit a special irritation with pastors who question the authenticity of their worshippers’ relationship with God. I even stopped going to a church where a preacher said that if someone doesn’t feel an urge to get baptized, then maybe he isn’t really saved. The danger of thinking this way is that it leads us to look for emotional signposts of someone’s Christianity, like weeping during service or saying Amen forcefully. But God does his real work in the interior, in the deep catacombs where we deceive ourselves of our sufficiency.
With that acknowledged, though, I will tell you of the moment God saved me.
Once, two very different people died.
The first was a grandfather in his seventies who was helping his daughter and son-in-law build a new house. After finishing his work one day just before Christmas, he promised to return and trim the windows. Then he went home to spend the evening with his wife. As he sat speaking to her, a heart attack snatched him out of the world. He was never conscious again, and died within a few days at the hospital. His shocked family missed him, but found consolation in knowing he had followed God and his life had been rich with love toward them and others.
The second person was a widow in her nineties. At one time she’d bought a new five-hundred dollar suit every week to wear to a country club. She called the employer of her ex-brother-in-law’s new wife to accuse the woman, falsely, of breaking up a marriage. When her younger sister died, she said, “I’ll not shed a tear over this one.” She teased her nieces and nephews constantly about the money she would give them. The money never came, of course.
“New Year, same world. But new garment, new birth—new person.” – Jesus (paraphrase)
Here are the top five recent posts from this year, according to page views. May your year be more than a new number on the calendar!
1. We're Made of Dirt
Let's remember, we're all Adams here. Excuse my dust, please.
2. An Inconvenient Messiah
God didn't bother becoming a man to fulfill somebody else's agenda.
3. God Gives the Increase
God, never just a cheerleader, is the wellspring of everything we can accomplish on our "own."
4. What's Write for You?
Define your own way of writing, from the chair you choose to how often you write.
5. God Had a Seventh Day - Why Not You?
Rest is vital to the creative process. No one demonstrates this better than God.
The last year of high school can batter the ego. In my experience, friends who had spent years bragging that they would attend college in a sweeter clime—somewhere warmer, somewhere things happen, anywhere but [insert hometown, USA]—sheepishly admitted that they would be going to State U due to a scholarship’s failure to materialize. Nothing wrong with State U; I know people who have picked that route and thrived. But when someone has been staring at that castle in the sky for too long, and telling everybody else how tall the spires are and how the rooms are furnished in velvet, the castle’s fall into the sea will leave a humbling bruise.
Maybe this will sound glib, but it makes utter sense to me that if God became a man, we would all nail him to a piece of wood and spit on him until he died. Hence, the story of Christ’s Passion. People have an urge to get God out of the way.
Christ is a master of the unanswerable question. When the Pharisees are preparing to kill him for rebuking their unprofitable customs, he asks, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone me?” (John 10:32, NKJV). Outrageously, he seemed to find no distinction between himself and God: “The Son of Man [Jesus’s name for himself] is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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