Millions of Christians have struggled with how to reconcile God’s love and God’s judgment. The sudden death of a loved one almost 18 months ago caused me to question my belief in hell. Yet my fear was, and still is to some extent, that I could lose my faith in the process or lead others to question theirs if I dared to share my thoughts out loud.
But what if these questions trouble us for good reason? What if the story of heaven and hell that we have been taught is not in fact what the Bible teaches? What if what Jesus taught about salvation is very different from how we have come to understand them as Seventh-day Adventists? Does God want us to ask these questions?
These are some of the questions Rob Bell addresses in his latest book: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I went to London last Monday to witness the launch of the book in the UK. This book has challenged both atheists and Christians alike; and judging by the diverse crowd of two thousand evangelical and mainline Christians along with some secularists I realized this was going to be an interesting discourse.
Rob Bell proceeded in an energetic and engaging story-telling way to answer some of these questions from scripture.
Bell pointed out that ultimately what we believe about heaven and hell will determine our answer to the fundamental question: What is God like? Clearly if hell is a place where we see multitudes being tormented for all eternity in a deep chasm of the earth screaming for deliverance, this may lead to hatred of God understandably. But we shouldn’t be surprised that so many people have such a big problem with the Christian faith? Bell asked.
From the outset Bell reminded us that God is love and that love is compassionate. Bell went on to explain that central to the biblical story is this promise that God will repair, restore and fix the world.
Bell reminded us that at the core of the human experience is a desire for justice; for the wrong doer to be held accountable. And so we point to the likes of Hitler or Gaddafi and cry “let justice roll down like a river” (Amos 5:24).
Significantly, our problem as Christians comes when we start claiming that hell is reserved for these bad people. We want to cleanse our hands from our connection to all injustice in the world. Bell stressed that hell becomes a way of not owning up to our own contribution to the brokenness of the world. Heaven and hell are a way for us to create an artificial separation and contributes to an “us and them” attitude.
I wondered, how do we reconcile this with the God that Jesus reveals: who searches for the lost sheep or the lost coin or who waits patiently for his son to return home? What if the story of heaven and hell we have been taught is not in fact what the Bible teaches?
And so far I had found nothing unbiblical with his findings. However Bell then decided to go a little deeper by addressing on of his controversial statements in his book: “No one can resist God’s pursuit forever, God’s love will eventually melt the hardest heart.” Hence the title message: love wins. What was he implying? Will all of God’s love prove to be so irresistible that it will result in an empty hell as one audience member challenged him?
Bell turns to the scriptures which speaks about the new Jerusalem coming down to the new earth and the very specific mention in Revelation of there being those who are not part of it because they continue to insist in perpetuating such evil things. So in response God gives a very decisive judgment where God is effectively saying: “you cannot exist in my new world”.
However, all Bell is prepared to state at this point is that there remains a tension in scripture as to just when this will take place. He points for example to the fascinating detail in Revelation 21:29 where it states that there is a wall around the city and there is a ‘gate’ which is not locked. Does this unlocked gate symbolize something Bell asks? If the open gate represents justice then there appears to still be a possibility for people to turn around and repent? He admits this is only speculation. But he appeals to Revelation to note that death does not necessarily end the opportunity to repent and those who never had heard of Christ will also be saved.
How do we reconcile that with our understanding of the investigative judgment I ask? Or the very strong separation language in Revelation 22?
Through this encounter, I am reassured that Bell is a Christian whose message focuses on Jesus’ invitation to salvation.
I also learned more about myself through this encounter. Bell rightly states that the fundamental metaphor for many people is that theology is a destination: once you get the beliefs and set of rules right: You. Have. Arrived. But for me and from the perspective of the Bible itself, my Christian experience ought to be a dynamic pursuit of discovery, a journey. And like with any journey the scenery changes because that’s what happens when you’re alive and so you learn and grow. This means for me that I’m compelled to revisit these subjects like heaven and hell.
My Christian experience is more than a cognitive exercise or intellectual debate. The Bible is full of hope, doubts, and questions. And thus, I welcome the debate concerning heaven and hell, but I cannot miss the urgent cry of Jesus to accept that the kingdom of salvation is now.
Ranette Prime is a local government lawyer in London, England.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3121