Tuesday, March 1, 2011

hell and who goes there

This past week Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI, stirred up some controversy in the evangelical community by launching an ad campaign for his upcoming book Love Wins with this video:

It's an evocative video, beautifully-made, and it stands as a not-so-subtle provocation for religious folks who believe what Pastor Bell categorizes as part of a "list of endless absurdities"---specifically, that those who don't accept Jesus will go to hell and writhe in the fevered pit forever.

It's important to note what kind of argument territory we're in here. This is an argument about reality and the very real (to the arguers) consequences of behavior. The argument scholar Richard Fulkerson would categorize the issue as "substantiation" because it involves 1) questions of fact (e.g., hell), and 2) causal statements that don't involve value judgments (e.g., Gandhi has gone there because of the way he lived). My point is that as much as this debate seems like a debate about values (what's good/bad, right/wrong, moral/immoral), it is primarily a debate about what exists and what follows a particular kind of lifestyle.

Christianity Today covers the twitterstorm Pastor Bell caused by questioning the standard literalist take on hell and who goes there. The conversation reminds me of what George Marsden writes of Jonathan Edwards: To Edwards, hell was as real as China.

Establishing the structure of reality is hard enough when we want to argue about the attributes of this world (for example, its temperature); arguing about heaven or hell seems to me more about the emotional and ethical resonance evoked by metaphysical assumptions that cannot be demonstrated to the satisfaction of all believers. Maybe it's the William James fan in me, but I'd argue that the question is not "Is there a hell and is Gandhi there?" but more like "What emotional or moral value comes from our assumptions about the afterlife?"

And . . . if Gandhi's in hell, I ain't got a prayer.


  1. You know, Ghandi is probably in hell because he was the only one willing to help out the burned a little. He is probably starving himself right now until the demons turn on the air conditioning.

    I find the structure of this argument incredibly interesting, as you do. But Ghandi didn't go to hell because of the "way he lived," but rather for what he believed in and confessed to, right? Isn't that the condition that gets you in or out of hell. Maybe I am theologically backwards, but it seems like the simple fact of not believing that Jesus will save is the sole condition for Hellboundedness for the perturbed Christian community.

    So I am not sure that the argument is what follows a particular lifestyle but what follows a professed belief. Is that not right? This, to me, is the cog in this theology, and, I am assuming, the issue that Rob Bell takes up.

    At any rate, this was a fascinating post. Religious argument matters because it is life or death, as the Christianity Today article suggests. The William James question is a humanist question, the strain in contemporary Christianity that has been swept under the rug, I think. Or at least kept in the closet.

  2. So it's not Gandhi's lifestyle but his inner convictions that--by this logic--condemns him. Yeah, I think that's a better gloss of this kind of thinking. The point is that it's still an argument from consequence: failing to accept Jesus condemns you.

    I'm reminded, and I'm not sure why, of the Puritan concept of disinterested benevolence. It makes an appearance in H.B. Stowe's "Minister's Wooing." The idea is that you know you're not saved--in fact, you know you're going to hell--and yet you still live a Christian lifestyle for whatever good it does the world. It's an odd refusal, kind of like some funky inversion of Pascal's wager. Anyway, you've made me think more about belief and action and the rhetorical difference.

  3. Very interesting stuff. I like Rob Bell generally—at least the limited bit I've seen of him.

    It seems like your post's final question is mostly one for nonbelievers and impartial scholars, isn't it? The question seems to encourage people to favor whatever is emotionally and morally valuable, despite what religious doctrine might dictate. So if I found, for instance, that my belief in a hell were emotionally harmful then I should, according to the direction the question points me, scrap my belief in hell altogether.

    However, since a believer forms assumptions based on faith and not based on the after-effects of faith, I see limits to question's utility for a believer.

    That said, I am more interested in the post's final question than I'm interested in asking where's Gandhi these days. I'm thinking this is because I'm pretty agnostic about the afterlife. I believe it's there and that there's a judgment, but beyond that it gets fuzzy. So I'm willing to adhere to whatever view seems to benefit my emotions. (i.e. I'm going to heaven, so's Gandhi.)

    I guess the question I'm wrestling with is, Is the post's final question in conflict with faith?

  4. Okay, all things agreed, but to play devil's advocate in a more literal sense than usual, what comes of our kicking the hell out of Christianity (in a more literal sense than usual, again)?

    Is this that fuzzy, atheological, feel-good Christianity that Prothero sees as the enemy to people "knowing their religion"? It's interesting that Bell says that the bible is so different from this burning, but then... he leaves it at that. Man, I just read Isaiah this morning and there is some hell-fire, lions and locusts for the wicked (but never, explicitly, Gandhi). Bell's argument is all pathos and no logos, promising us what feels right about nice people like Gandhi without committing us to reconcile the very black-and-white scriptural evidence that led some to the hateful conjecture about his ending state.

    So back to your ending question--what comes of a religious climate that's all heaven and no hell, all mardi gras and no lent, and all mercy and no judgment?

  5. Well. Just to be clear, Mary, I'm not questioning whether there is or is not a hell. I'm simply asking, "What is the cash value of believing one way or the other?" What are the consequences, for example, of believing that people like Gandhi or Matthew Shepard, the U of Wy student beaten to death for being gay, are roasting in God's wrath? (Pastor Fred Phelps, a man in the running for the most un-Christian Christian, has a website that tells you how many days Shepard has been in hell. He knows this with iron surety, of course.)

    I think any thinking person would lean your way, Mary: There is evil, and there is a dialectic between good and evil that is too important to ignore by celebrating, exclusively, God's winning love.