Tempest in an E-pot

By Kevin Pleas | Mar 25, 2011

I’m finding the brouhaha surrounding Rob Bell’s new book, “Love Wins,” to be genuinely interesting. Bell, if you haven’t been following, has gotten himself in dutch with some in the evangelical community for suggesting that the dogmatic torments of an eternal hell might actually not be what God has in mind for people. Those who don’t measure up to religiously conservative standards, Bell seems to think, will be given a chance to make amends, even if they happen to die in the meantime. Many in the “E” community, all aghast, have jumped on Bell’s book as the latest expression of the old heresy of “Universalism.” Many are calling him to repent of his wayward views or be condemned to that very hell he doesn’t seem to believe in. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Let me hasten to disclaim that my familiarity with Bell’s book does not extend beyond the headlines. I don’t feel a need to read it because he’s making an argument I’ve personally long since settled. I agree with Bell. I’ve never been able to reconcile the loving God I believe in with the eternal punishments some in the church seem so eager to condemn people to. In an interview on YouTube, Bell called churches that preach this kind of condemnation “misguided and toxic.” Be that as it may, a more forgiving understanding of God’s nature has long been a cherished hallmark of what many have come to snidely call the “Liberal” church. Yes, I am liberal. I admit it. I try hard to make it clear (Lord knows I try) that my liberality, professionally speaking, is theological not  political. It traces to my belief in a “liberally” compassionate God, which seems to be the same God Bell is preaching. More power to him, I say.

Interestingly, the fact that Bell’s beliefs are common in churches like ours is old news. The aghastness has long since gone out of the conservative church’s attitudes towards us. It seems we’ve been declared beyond redemption, or at least of minimal threat to “real Christianity.” Bell however, is a lightening rod for evangelical ire precisely because he is one of their own. Bell is the charismatic senior minister of the Mars Hill church, a wildly successful midwest congregation that is drawing people in droves. He’s been the poster child for what people are calling the “emerging church” for some time now. And judging solely by a video he’s put out called “Resurrection,” (also viewable on YouTube) he well deserves the attention he’s gotten.

On the subject of his book though, there is one piece of the puzzle I haven’t yet heard anyone address. That is, the question of motivation. A rational person might be forgiven for wondering why, apart from simply taking the Bible literally, the whole notion of hell persists in any branch of the church. The reason, it seems to me, is that, metaphorically speaking, hell is an expression of the idea that our actions have consequences, sometimes ultimate consequences. Preaching universalism, as attractive as that can be, too easily steps into the pothole of what we call cheap grace. It can be taken to suggest that there are no real or lasting consequences for our actions. If I can count on being forgiven no matter what I do, then how much does what I do really matter? What is my motivation for being good.

Personally, I don’t think we have to resort to the threat of a literal, eternal damnation to make people behave. But I do believe there are consequences for our actions, and I also believe that some part of our current suffering derives from our having lost sight of that fact. Yes, we do need a liberally forgiving God. But we need also to bear in mind that even a liberally forgiving God has standards, which we violate at our own peril.

Kevin Pleas is reverend of the First Congregational Church U.C.C. in Camden.

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