If you keep abreast of the periodic theological firestorms that break out within the Christian community, then you’ve probably heard of Rob Bell. If not, allow me to explain briefly: Bell, a nominal evangelical, has written a book entitled Love Wins in which he claims that Hell is a temporary punishment of our own making that we will all eventually escape in the next life if we don’t in fact escape it in this one. In response, countless Christians from various denominations have felt compelled to stand up for a more orthodox view of Hell. (Here, for example, is a very long critique of Bell’s book written by Kevin DeYoung, “Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan.”) The debate has grown so intense, in fact, that it has even made CNN’s headlines.
Far be it for me to behave as if my opinion is better than all the others which have been expressed, but I do in fact have Thoughts on the matter that I would like to share. If you wish to read them, click on the jump.
Dr. House’s Complaint
“If you believe in eternity, then… life is irrelevant. Same way that a bug is irrelevant in comparison to the universe.” – House
It may seem strange to start with a quote from a television show, but the argument that we see unfold between House and his patient at the end of the episode One Day, One Room nicely expresses a common secular criticism of Christianity. Let’s call it the “Criticism of the Dream Deferred.” According to the Dr. Houses of our world, a belief in Christianity – and the consequent belief in an eternal life – leads Christians to ignore the importance of making this life more enjoyable and more just. If you believe that all wrongs will be attended to in the hereafter, the argument frequently asserts, then you are less likely to do something in the here and now to alleviate the suffering of the poor and vulnerable.
Of course, the reality of Christianity as it is actually practiced by orthodox Christians doesn’t exactly line up with this particular allegation; there are Christians of all persuasions out there right now working for the cause of “social justice”. The Catholic Church in particular has always preached the necessity of caring for the less fortunate, and I know for a fact that orthodox Protestants have heard similar calls to charitable living because I was, for a brief period in adolescence, a Protestant. No — we Christians don’t completely ignore this world and its troubles.
On the other hand, the fact that Christians can be counted among the most generous people on the planet does not mean that Dr. House’s complaint is completely without substance. There are ways in which some American Christians do devalue life here on the physical plane. For example, when faced with a terminal illness, it is not unheard of for a Christian to declare, “Well, I’m done with this old life anyway. The sooner I can be with Jesus, the better.” Obviously, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be with Jesus; if that were the case, I would not be a practicing Catholic. But embedded in such a declaration is the potentially damaging assumption that a man’s physical life is a prison he should hurry to escape. This is dualism. This is the belief that the body is a debased, mechanical thing while the soul is what is living and personal. This is the belief that a soul is never truly free until it can “slip the surly bonds of Earth” and “touch the face of God”.
Dualism is not Biblical. In the opening chapter of Genesis, after God finishes separating the day from the night and the sea from the land – after He creates the sun, the moon, the stars, the plants, the animals, and men – He looks upon His Creation and sees that it is “good.” Let me repeat: Creation is good. The Catholic interpretation of the Scripture (which is not literalist, by the way) even goes so far as to declare that Creation was meant to be a temple and Adam was meant to be the temple’s priest. So not only is Creation good, but it is also sacred.
Or we can look at the spiritual significance of the physical Creation from another angle: If life on this Earth can and should be casually discarded, what are we to make of the fact that God Himself entered into our physical existence and so shared our Earthly sorrows and our Earthly joys? What are we to make of the fact that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – the Word of God Himself – elected to live the quiet life of an ordinary Jewish child before He launched His fateful ministry? Occasionally, one of my fifth grade CCD students will ask me, facetiously, whether Jesus went through puberty, had pimples, went to the bathroom, etc., and my response to such questions is always the same, namely: the Evangelists choose not to mention it for obvious reasons, but since Jesus was both 100% human and 100% divine, we can assume that He experienced all of those things. But why would He bother if man’s Earthly life is merely a shadow of Heaven and is not in itself something profoundly important?
One last point: The Bible is quite clear on the fact that when Jesus rose from the dead, He did not move about as an utterly disembodied spirit. No — He was physical enough for Thomas to touch him; He was physical enough to share a meal with his Apostles. The Catholic Church teaches that the Bible’s account of Jesus’ travels between Easter and the day of His Ascension offers us a preview of what we ourselves will experience on the Last Day when we are reunited with our glorified bodies. But wait — why should God resurrect our bodies at the final trump if those bodies are so much useless garbage?
No — the fact that we are physical beings in a physical Creation is not a punishment but an intended feature of human nature. “But what about the martyrs?” some may ask. “Doesn’t a willingness to die for Christ indicate a belief that our Earthly lives don’t matter?” No, not necessarily. As someone else has pointed out, giving up one’s life for one’s faith can only have meaning if that life you are losing is something precious to you. Does it really show honor to Jesus to say, “I gladly lay down my worthless, irredeemable physical existence for you, oh Christ”? I think not.
But About This Rob Bell Character…
My comments above may seem highly tangential, but trust me, there is a method to my madness. You see, I believe that the consequences of the Rob Bell brand of universalism are virtually identical to the consequences of Christian dualism. Bell’s claim that the clock will never run out when it comes to getting into Heaven – that we will have infinite chances in the afterlife to ask for God’s love and mercy and so be welcomed into his presence – essentially declares that what we do while we’re on Earth is of no consequence. If we can indeed ask for a cosmic mulligan in the hereafter, why should we exert any effort to get it right while we’re alive in the physical sense?
Bell’s theology is, to me, an invitation to spiritual laziness. Moreover, its connection to Scripture is quite dubious. Do you know who talks about Hell the most in the Bible? Jesus Christ. Throughout the four Gospels, Jesus consistently warns His audience that the rejection of God and His commandments will land them in the fires of Gehenna if they fail to repent. But I think I understand where Bell is coming from. In essence, he is echoing the classic progressive reaction to traditional Christian doctrine.
Progressives believe in an equality of outcomes — and the doctrine of a real, permanent Hell is a singularly offensive challenge to such a belief. “How can we call the Christian God loving,” many ask, “if He only saves some people and casts the rest into everlasting fire?” But such a question assumes both that God is the sole decision maker on these matters and that he judges people capriciously, and neither characterization is accurate. Hell is not thrust upon us out of cruelty and petty vengeance; it is a natural consequence of our sin, and a consequence that, in my estimation, must exist if free will is to have any meaning whatsoever.
Furthermore, it’s not as if God doesn’t give us plenty of chances to come around while we’re alive. Forgiveness is a reality in traditional Christian theology. Within the Catholic tradition in particular, it comes to us in the form of the Sacrament of Penance. If you genuinely repent (I emphasize the “genuine” there because some Catholics are, unfortunately, too cavalier about the process), confess your sins, and then fulfill your penance, God in His Loving Mercy will give you a do-over. If we who are able don’t take advantage of this and thus end up in Hell, then whose fault is it exactly? As C.S. Lewis observed in The Great Divorce, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell.” And here we come to the tiny grain of truth in Bell’s controversial book: Hell is in some sense sustained by human choice.