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.