Recently, there has been a lot of hullabaloo about Love Wins by Rob Bell, pastor of the emergent Mars Hill Church. I haven’t read it (yet), but in it, Bell apparently questions traditional Christian beliefs about Heaven and Hell, in his typically provocative and thought-provoking way.
Even more recently, the ‘Net has been abuzz with news that a United Methodist pastor has been “fired” by his church because he agreed with Bell’s notions in a blog posting.
First of all, let me say that no United Methodist pastor can be “fired” from his or her church–the Bishop and the Conference have the authority over who is and is not appointed within the Connection. As this press release from his conference states, it was a mutual decision between the Psator and his congregation that he leave early–he was a student pastor, and was slated to leave in June, anyway.
Second, given the above, let me say that I’m glad that blogging wasn’t big when I was in seminary, or I could have found myself in a lot more hot water than I did anyway back then. Blogging has become a way for many people to work out their thoughts in an environment where they might receive feedback, correction or encouragement from others. I know that if I had blogged my way through seminary, I would have been declared a heretic for the kinds of questions I asked back then.
One of the questions I asked back in seminary, which I am still struggling with today, is the question of Hell. Hell was not a big topic of discussion in my growing up years, other than the fact that we knew that it existed, and that “bad people” went there. I went through a period of my teenage years where I spent a lot of time obsessing about my own salvation, and wondering if I would go to Heaven or Hell when I died some day. I have preached funerals for people whose state of salvation, or whose relationship to Christ were, at best, questionable. I have struggled to answer the questions of teenagers who wanted to know if their relatives were waiting for them in Heaven, or if they had gone to Hell because they might not have known Jesus as their personal Savior. I have witnessed profound faith and wisdom in the writings and teachings of other religions. All of this has led me to know that I don’t have the answers about Heaven and Hell.
So, I keep asking the questions.
I think that the difference I can discern (so far) between Rob Bell and the UM pastor who was asked to leave because of his beliefs is that Bell doesn’t really come to any definitive, once-and-for-all conclusion about Heaven or Hell. No one who has read anything else by Bell could reasonably call him a “Universalist.” But, this young pastor, earnest and well-meaning as he may be, seems to have drawn the conclusion from Bell’s (and others’) writings that Hell doesn’t exist.
I struggle with that, because I’ve always seen Hell as being a separation from God. No fires and pitchforks in my vision of Hell, just eternal separation from the One Life Source that created, creates, and re-creates us all. The pain of that separation is felt in a temporal sense here in this life, but an eternity of that would be excruciating, even for those who might not acknowledge in this life that they know or need God. Bell seems to make the point (at least in the teaser video for the book) that the question of who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell is bigger and more complicated than a matter of belief or assent to a belief. He seems to be asking the question that all of us need to be asking: “What does my belief about Heaven and Hell say about my belief in God?”
I thank God that I am not God, and that I don’t have to judge such things as the eternal disposition of souls. But I also thank God that God is God, because I know that such judgments are in good hands. God’s grace extends beyond my knowledge, and beyond even the accumlated human wisdom of all the ages. In the end, perhaps the questions of who goes to Heaven/Hell, and if Heaven/Hell exist aren’t the right ones to be asking.
But what are the right questions?