Hell: If you think Christianity exists only to help you avoid it, you're doing it wrong.The hubbub over evangelical pastor Rob Bell and his supposed universalism hasn’t let up yet. Perhaps in memory of a momentous article that magazine published decades ago (cached), Time magazine — in its cover-article overview of the Bell/universalism controversy — asks the question, “Is Hell Dead?” (WebCite cached article):

The standard Christian view of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is summed up in the Gospel of John, which promises “eternal life” to “whosoever believeth in Him.” Traditionally, the key is the acknowledgment that Jesus is the Son of God, who, in the words of the ancient creed, “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven … and was made man.” In the Evangelical ethos, one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.

Bell, a tall, 40-year-old son of a Michigan federal judge, begs to differ. He suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal — meaning that, as his book’s subtitle puts it, “every person who ever lived” could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be. Such a simple premise, but with Easter at hand, this slim, lively book has ignited a new holy war in Christian circles and beyond.

The Time article is in five pieces in its online form; here’s page 2 (cached), page 3 (cached), page 4 (cached), and page 5 (cached).

I’ve blogged a couple times already about this particular controversy and the fierce anger it’s engendered within the evangelical Christian community. The assumption seems to be that, if you take away the possibility that people might end up in Hell, Christianity suddenly becomes useless and moot.

This view is hypersimplistic, juvenile and short-sighted. It basically obviates all of Jesus’ teachings, and relegates him to the role of a cosmic magician whose death and resurrection are the only things about him that matter.

At the risk of — ironically — appearing to be a skeptical, cynical, godless agnostic heathen who dares to deliver a sermon on the meaning and importance of Christianity, I must point out that (if the gospels are to be believed, anyway) Christianity is about more than just “Hell-avoidance.”

Consider, for example, the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. These two discourses are not just about getting a “Get out of Hell free” pass; they’re about humility and sacrifice, as expressions of divinity on earth. While they state that humility and sacrifice will be rewarded, the content of these is not about the reward itself (which is avoiding Hell), they are instead about the hard work of being humble and of the godliness of sacrifice, and about how doing it will make “the Kingdom of Heaven” real.

Moreover, these discourses were the product of Jesus’ apocalypticism, a view which held that the end of all things was imminent, so concerning oneself with the present, with the physical, and with triviality, was useless. Giving everything — and I do mean everything, even one’s own personal welfare and survival — up to God was far preferable. That’s what holiness was about, to Jesus himself while he walked the earth and preached. Evangelicals’ obsession with (what they view as) the horror of Bell’s “heresy” is, by contrast, perhaps the height of triviality itself.

Any Christians who think Hell-avoidance is the entire point of being a Christian, therefore, cannot really be Christians. They’re doing it wrong. They would do well to put a crowbar to their Bibles, crack them upen just a tiny bit, and deign to read the gospels they claim to revere but know little or nothing about.

Photo credit: PsiCop original based on Signorelli’s Hell, via diy.despair.com.

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  • Documentaries Time

    Thank you very much.