Rob Bell is a Heretic

I have some time to kill between now and Saturday Night Live, and I've been loosely following the Rob Bell 'Controversy' for the last few days. He's my favorite Evangelical, so I thought I'd throw down my thoughts.

For those who haven't heard the story, there was a nice synopsis in the New York Times yesterday. Basically, Rob's a hugely popular pastor of a giant hip church in Michigan with a vast media empire, and he wrote a book recently (not even out yet) that no one's actually read, but might maybe suggest that it isn't entirely clear that everyone goes to Hell if they aren't a Christian. Prominent Baptists, bloggers and other bigots are already all upset and are convinced that he's no longer a Christian and he's leading the children to Hell. (C.S. Lewis and about a million other Christians through the centuries took the same position, but for some reason nobody seems to be as upset about that.)

I don't care to argue the theology behind it, but the situation has been interesting - people have been really fired up about this. It makes you wonder why it's such a big issue - as I understand it, Rob hasn't said that Jesus isn't important, or that Jesus wasn't God or anything - he's just raised the question as to whether you can reconcile the idea that God is love with the idea that God send people like Gandhi to burn for eternity in Hell because they didn't decide to come to a particular confession of belief. In Christian tradition, the idea that 'Love Wins' (which is the title of Bell's new book) and God will save everyone has actually been a pretty acceptable position. There was a dude named Origen in the 2nd Century who established it as a major strain of Christian tradition, and since then there have always been people who've seen 'heaven for everyone' as a perfectly Christian idea.

But it's definitely not orthodox Evangelicalism.

But I think that most Evangelicals kind of want to believe it.

Which I think is probably why folks are upset about this. My thought is that Rob's said what everyone is hoping for - that, in order to be an Evangelical, you don't have to think that God is some kind of cosmic monster who will send you to Hell if you don't tow the line. It's an idea that has appeal, and is probably something like what most Evangelical churchgoers believe at an intuitive/emotional level if they're compassionate and honest, and if not at a cognitive level. After all, most Evangelicals exist in a world surrounded by good people they love who aren't Christians.

I also think people are upset about this because they understand the danger here of undermining the power of Evangelical religion. The whole, crudely stated, Gospel is that you're going to Hell because of your sins unless you accept God's mercy in Jesus Christ. If you aren't going to Hell, it's not such a big deal to accept Jesus. A slippery slope, eh?

For those interested in what the Bible says, it's honestly not that clear on heaven and hell. The Jews, for most of their existence, didn't believe in either. The New Testament isn't exactly clear. There are parts that definitely imply that there's a Hell, and that unbelievers and sinners are going there. But there are also parts that imply that God wouldn't let people burn forever because he's not a cosmic asshole.

It would be nice if the argument were to become more about what's right though, rather than what's orthodox or biblical. Is it really still okay to think that God sends people to Hell for having a different cultural upbringing?

That kind of idea, of course, is just the religious corollary of the kind of xenophobia and tribalism that allows us to complain about having to wear off-brand shoes and postpone resort vacations while children starve and people die of preventable diseases. It doesn't really have anything to do with logic or love or reasonable morality, but it's nice to be able to fall back on dogmatism when you don't feel like doing the right thing.

So, Rob, I'm not too worried about your ideas sending kids to Hell. If God's into that, he's an asshole anyway.

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