The latest issue of Time magazine has as its cover story the question “What if there’s no hell?” which focuses on a 40-year old evangelical preacher named Rob Bell who is head of a megachurch in Michigan called Mars Hill Bible Church that boasts 7,000 members attending its services each Sunday. He is described as a ‘rock star’ in the evangelical movement and has just published a book titled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived that is causing consternation in evangelical circles by arguing that hell may not exist and that heaven may be open to everyone, not just those who accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, the usual standard for admission among evangelicals.
To be quite frank, I had never heard of Bell or his church or his book before I came across this article but I thought it interesting that yet another evangelical is finding the concept of hell problematic enough that he wants to abandon it. Hell has always been a thorn in the side of more thoughtful believers. As I have written before, its existence as a place of permanent and indescribable torment is simply incompatible with any concept of a good god.
I grew up in the liberal Protestant tradition where there was very little talk about hell from our ministers. They were too humane to preach that all unbelievers would suffer unbelievable torments. What they did was instead emphasize that heaven was a wonderful place because you got to hang out with god and hell was being denied this interaction. In this view, heaven was like a wonderful party that you would enjoy going to and at which there would be this person that you had really, really wanted to meet all your life. Hell was what you would feel if you were not invited and thus missing out on a great time. Basically it was what we might call ‘hell lite’, where you would feel kind of sad, but would not suffer physically.
But many Christians really like the old-fashioned idea of hell and seem to relish the thought of unbelievers suffering torments. The sainted Thomas Aquinas said in his Summa Theologica “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude and the grace of God more abundantly they are permitted to see the punishment of the damned in hell.” How nice for them. And this prospect of future gloating is common today as evidenced by the popularity of the Left Behind series of books and Ann Coulter’s statement “I defy any of my co-religionists to tell me that they do not laugh at the idea of [Richard] Dawkins burning in hell.”(Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006), p. 320-1.) If you, as an atheist, ever engage in conversation with such people, it is not long before they warn you that your unbelief is going to cost you big time when you die, so that you are foolish not to accept Jesus as your savior right now. In fact, for such people, fear of hell seems to be a more powerful motivator for allegiance to god than the attractions of heaven.
It is easy to see why fear of hell is a more potent weapon in the religious arsenal for recruiting and retaining believers than the lure of heaven. Try this exercise. Imagine heaven as the most wonderful place you can conceive of where you experience all the things that make you happy or content. Then think about that experience continuing forever. I simply cannot do so without it becoming crushingly boring. Even children would get bored with Disney World if they were stuck there forever.
This clip from the film Bedazzled (1967), in which Lucifer (Peter Cook) acts as the fallen angel who comes down to Earth for the soul of a short-order cook (Dudley Moore), provides a good illustration.
On the other hand, it is easy to imagine the unpleasantness of eternal torment because even if the same torture is done over and over again, you can easily imagine that it would still be painful. Unlike heaven, hell never gets old. Take away hell, and the appeal of belief is greatly reduced.
The evangelical traditionalists are aware of this danger and are appalled by Bell’s apostasy. R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that Bell’s message is “theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.” Mohler is right for the wrong reasons. Eliminating hell is subversive to religion because stoking fear of what happens after death is religion’s main recruiting strategy.
In 2005, This American Life ran the story of Carlton Pearson, the head of a successful Pentecostal megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma with Sunday attendance of 5,000 who, like Bell, began to question the idea of hell. Pearson just could not reconcile the idea of a loving god with one who consigns people to writhe and burn in the fires of hell for eternity, and started preaching as if hell did not exist. His assistant pastors were dismayed and broke away and formed their own church, taking much of the congregation with them so that it dwindled down to a few hundred, though Pearson started getting some new converts. You can listen to the episode.
Will this happen to Bell and his church too? It will be interesting to watch.