What Happened to Heaven and Is Gandhi There?
Something strange has happened in evangelical churches over the past generation. Not in every congregation, but in the main, sermons devoted to the grim prospect of hell have become rare, and even talk of heaven is muted.
Many have noted this development without making much impact. Along comes Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. His "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived" is now ranked No. 8 on Amazon.com, and it has been generating controversy since before its release earlier this week.
"There are a growing number of us," Mr. Bell writes on the first page—"millions"—"who have become acutely aware that Jesus's story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn't interested in telling. . . . A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell." Presumably this disquiet accounts for the reticence of many evangelicals when it comes to the afterlife.
So is Mr. Bell one more Christian liberal describing God as a mountain you can climb any way you want? Not exactly.
I first heard him preach in 1999, soon after he founded Mars Hill. The service consisted of about 20 minutes of music and then a sermon that lasted 70 minutes. I'd heard Mars Hill described as one of the so-called "seeker churches," disdained by some for softening the gospel to get people in the door.
Really? With sermons lasting 70 minutes? And about Leviticus? You could go to many evangelical churches every week for 10 years and never hear a single sermon on Leviticus. Mr. Bell—then still in his late 20s—talked about God's judgment in a way I'd not encountered.
His book, in other words, didn't come out of nowhere. It seems the measured culmination of his work as pastor and teacher.
Why, then, the bitter controversy? Consider this: In a promotional video about the book, Mr. Bell asks, "Gandhi's in hell? He is?" And: "Will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that's the case how do you become one of the few?"
Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leading conservative evangelical, wrote that in the video Mr. Bell "affirms what can only be described as universalism," the belief that ultimately all people are "saved." Most evangelicals find this position incompatible with scripture.
But anyone who carefully reads "Love Wins" will see that Mr. Bell is not a universalist. As C.S. Lewis did, he suggests that God grants free will to all, including those who do not want his divine company and therefore choose damnation.
Still, the account of heaven and hell that he rejects does sound a lot like what most Christians have taught and been taught for 2,000 years, with some modifications. The notion that heaven is the preserve of "a few select Christians" has never been normative. Though all too many Christians have strayed into that error over the centuries, most have not presumed to speculate about how crowded (or uncrowded) heaven will be. God is both perfectly merciful and perfectly just.
Mr. Bell's book is provoking an overdue conversation. Evangelicals—those who agree or disagree with him, and those like me who find much to praise and much to criticize—will find it worth engaging. And perhaps some who observe Christianity from the outside, whether warily or with a friendly spirit, will want to listen in.