The controversy over a still mostly unread book by a preacher who questions whether or not Hell still exists, or is populated, has continued all week. Folks all across the spectrum have been reacting, some with shock and anger, some with bemusement, some with welcome to a fellow believer.
The New York Times has an excellent summary:
"The furor was touched off last Saturday by a widely read Christian blogger, Justin Taylor, based on promotional summaries of the book and a video produced by Mr. Bell. In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Mr. Taylor said that the pastor ‘is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.’
‘It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine,’ wrote Mr. Taylor, who is vice president of Crossway, a Christian publisher in Wheaton, Ill.
By that same evening, ‘Rob Bell’ was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Mr. Taylor’s original blog had been viewed 250,000 times. Dozens of other Christian leaders and bloggers jumped into the fray and thousands of their readers posted comments on both sides of the debate, though few had yet seen the entire book.
One leading evangelical, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, wrote, ‘Farewell Rob Bell.’ R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a blog post that by suggesting that people who do not embrace Jesus may still be saved, Mr. Bell was at best toying with heresy. He called the promotional video, in which Mr. Bell pointedly asks whether it can be true that Gandhi, a non-Christian, is burning in hell, ‘the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.’"
Elizabeth Kaeton has her take on the controversy here. Kaeton, a priest from the Diocese of Newark and friend of Bishop Jack Spong, sees some parallels between the sorts of questions that Bell is inviting his readers to ask and the sorts of questions that Bishop Spong asks in his last book.
On the controversy itself, Kaeton writes:
I confess, however, that my real "guilty pleasure" will be watching the Evangelical Circus that will ensue. Evangelicals who get apoplectic about what they believe to be heresy - read: a challenge to their arrogant theology - provide the some of the best religious theater there is.
Without the enticement of "heaven" or the threat of "hell" however will they control the behavior of the poor, tired, huddled masses who just might read Rob Bell's book, decide that they can be evangelical AND intelligent without compromising their faith, and begin on a path to change their behavior - not out of some ultimate reward or real and present fear - but because they now believe that "eternal life starts right now"?
They just might say "to hell" with Hell, and start living as if God were present. Right here. Right now. In each minute, every day, week, and month of every year.
Christianity Today's blog has a long piece that talks about the controversy from a conservative Evangelical perspective. The article mentions in passing that Eugene Peterson has endorsed Bell's book.
The idea that Hell exists but may well be empty (since Christ burst the gates on Easter Day) isn't anything newsworthy, because it's a very old idea within Christianity. A number of Eastern Orthodox theologians held the idea, especially those of the Alexandrian School - though they were clear that they were speculating and not claiming to know. Many of Bell's critics are calling him a Universalist (with the implication that such a stance is beyond the bounds of Christianity). Universalism as it being used here implies that God is going to see to it that everyone God has created is eventually saved.
So what happens if you give up a belief in the reality of eternal suffering and damnation for those who reject God's salvation?
Chad Holtx has a good essay that talks about the theological changes that occurred when he gave up believing in eternal punishment.
For instance there's point number 3:
3. I lost the right to hate my enemy.
Yes, it’s true. Yes, I am well aware that Christians are supposed to love their enemies and pray for them. I’m aware that we are to love others as ourselves. But I have to confess that in my heart of hearts, that place where I worshiped a God whom I knew would send all His enemies to an everlasting hell, I really hated my enemies. Yes, I said with my lips that I “loved the sinner but hated their sin” (forget for the moment that our sinfulness is so ingrained in our person-hood that I, a sinner, am terrible at separating the sinner from the sin) and that I loved them with Christ’s love, but deep down I had a smug satisfaction that one day they would get theirs. This gave me comfort. And I can’t imagine that this deeply ingrained attitude of condescension was not obvious to those I sought to convert.