When the new issue of TIME magazine arrived a few days ago, my wife noted the cover story blurb -- "What if there's no Hell?" -- and said, I can't understand how anybody can believe in hell.
My reply to her: I can't understand how anybody can believe in Christianity, yet lots of people do.
Well, actually I do understand, because I've also believed weird spiritual stuff that now seems untrue to me. So I was speaking from my current churchless perspective.
For many years I entertained a belief that the only way back to God was to become a disciple of a "perfect living guru," so if hell is being separated from God, then I guess I was a believer in a sort of Christian'ish damnation: some are saved, and some aren't; if you haven't chosen to get on the Salvation Train, tough luck, because you're going to be left at the Bad Karma station.
Still, Christianity's hell is stranger than the maya of Eastern religions. Unquenchable fire. Torment. Damnation for eternity. That's truly hellish.
So I was pleased to read Jon Meacham's "Is Hell dead?" and learn that Rob Bell, an evangelical pastor, is urging Christians to adopt I don't know as a core tenet of their faith. Here's how the cover story starts out:
As part of a series on peacemaking, in late 2007, Pastor Rob Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church put on an art exhibit about the search for peace in a broken world. It was just the kind of avant-garde project that had helped power Mars Hill's growth (the Michigan church attracts 7,000 people each Sunday) as a nontraditional congregation that emphasizes discussion rather than dogmatic teaching. An artist in the show had included a quotation from Mohandas Gandhi. Hardly a controversial touch, one would have thought. But one would have been wrong.
A visitor to the exhibit had stuck a note next to the Gandhi quotation: "Reality check: He's in hell." Bell was struck.
Really? he recalls thinking.
Gandhi's in hell?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?
So begins Bell's controversial new best seller, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
And here's a few more excerpts:
Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus' atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.
Fundamentalists are irked at Bell. For good reason: if the existence of hell is uncertain, then why isn't heaven also merely a speculation? (A 1997 TIME cover story addressed this very question.)
Going further, how about Jesus' resurrection? And his being the Son of God? Heck, why not question the very existence of God? Isn't God as mysterious, uncertain, and speculative as hell?
I say, absolutely.
If that sounds, well, absolutist, that's how I intended my "absolutely." Uncertainty when it comes to the nature of ultimate reality is the only thing we can be certain of.
So it's great that more Christians are joining the Uncertain Club. Welcome! Us members enjoy not knowing what happens after death. That keeps us focused on living life, now.