An evangelical Christian minister by the name of Rob Bell has recently caused quite a stir within the evangelical Christian community and beyond by suggesting that perhaps God does not consign anyone to hell. There are some people who have predictably labelled him as a Bible-denying heretic. But so novel is his approach believed to be that I was surprised at the gym one morning to see him being interviewed on one of the network morning shows. To see all the publicity, one might think that no one has ever had this thought before.
Of course, the reality is that many Christians have had trouble with hell, and the thought of a loving God consigning someone to it, for a very long time. In fact, centuries ago, many earlier Christian writers had deep doubts about hell as an eternal destination for anyone. They were unable to dispense entirely with the concept, but many of them developed theologies that enabled them to ultimately get beyond it. For almost all of these writers, as with Rob Bell, they simply could not reconcile their sense of the deep love of God with the concept of eternal punishment and condemnation. After all, if we, as human parents, could not imagine torturing our children for their misdeeds, how could we possibly assign such a desire to God?
What is most interesting to me is that many of the early Christian writers came to the conclusion that the image of hell as a place of fire and torment was an apt metaphor of what God’s love would feel like to a soul that refused to receive it. In other words, they saw “hell” not as a punishment given by God to those who were evil, but rather as a reality that we ourselves created by our own decision to refuse God’s love for us.
In fact, Bell suggests in his book that heaven and hell are not places we go after death, but rather speak to the state of our current relationship with Christ. In other words (and these are my words), if we are centered and rooted in Christ, then we experience life as grace-filled, we experience the kingdom of God as a present reality, and that may be symbolized by the word “heaven.” If we are not centered and rooted in Christ, then we may often experience life as the opposite.
When Jesus spoke of “hell”, he was speaking metaphorically. The word that is translated into English as “hell” in the Gospels is the word “Gahenna”, which refers to a garbage dump that existed outside Jerusalem in Jesus’ day in which the trash was always burning. It is, sadly, an apt metaphor for the way life (or the soul) can feel when the love of God is refused.
And if love is to be genuine, then the freedom to not love must always be there. We might ask ourselves how it is that someone would refuse the love of God? I think it is because that love requires something of us. While certain groups of Christians historically and in our own day may favor the instilling of fear in people as a tool for transformation, the reality is that any sort of transformation based on fear is probably not genuine. Fear can bring outward conformity, but it is seldom able to produce interior change. That sort of transformation depends on love, and God’s love asks us to change. We all know how difficult change can be. Often, we prefer ourselves as we are. Some people, it seems to me, could hold this preference so deeply that they would refuse God’s love rather than risk the invitation to change, growth and transformation that comes with that love.
I must admit that when I first heard of all this talk about Rob Bell and his questioning of what is regarded as the traditional Christian view of hell, I was irritated. The Christians among whom I have grown up and lived all my life have for the most part believed something close to what Rob Bell believes about hell. It’s not really a new idea, and it frustrated me that so many people were treating it as if it were. However, when I had the chance to think about it a bit more, my irritation changed to gratitude. Because clearly, Rob Bell is reaching an audience of people that all those people I know and have known in my own religious life obviously haven’t been able to reach. And if that means that more people begin to see Christianity as truly being about love rather than fear and condemnation – well, that’s something to be grateful for.