“If millions and millions of people who have never heard of Jesus are going to be tormented forever by God because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they’d never heard of, then at that point we will have far larger problems than a book by a pastor from Grand Rapids.” –Rob Bell, from an interview with Relevant Magazine
“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” –John, from The Bible
Last year, before the release of his book Love Wins, Rob Bell made a video where he seemed to question whether we should be certain that Gandhi is in hell. And people (without actually reading the book) lost their minds. Most of what was said in the trailer for the book was just him asking some questions (How dare he?) that people have been asking for a couple thousand years. Really, it was a brilliant piece of marketing–Rob Bell was the top hash tag on Twitter for about a week. “Rob Bell is a universalist!!” they yelled. “False Prophet!!!” “Heretic!!!!”
Right around the time people were ready to crucify Rob Bell over a book they had not yet read (and most of them had no plan to read), I shared this analogy:
Imagine, for a moment, there was a very wise, very old man who loved dogs. This man decided to breed a new sort of hybrid dog—a wonderful dog that had the best of all canine characteristics (and it was hypoallergenic too). He made huge sacrifices for this new dog. He loved this new dog, and wanted them to love him too, so he decided to give this dog three months to become a good dog. The dog needed to get along well with other dogs, as well as recognize the man as its master in this limited time period. If the dog was not a good dog by the time its time was up, the man would take this dog and he would kill it…. This would be pretty messed up, right? There is something in just about all of us (granted, maybe not all) that would look at this and think, “This is pretty messed up.”
Now imagine that, instead of killing the puppy, the man handed it over to a man who was very skilled at torturing puppies. He would hook up electrodes to the puppy’s tail, clip its puppy nails too short, poke needles in its little puppy eyes, and use a series of controlled fires to burn, but not kill, this bad dog. This would take place for the rest of the puppy’s life—about 14 or 15 years…. This would be more than messed up. This would be criminally insane. By just about anyone’s standard. Could this man be seen as loving his creation?
Now imagine that, instead of just 14 or 15 years, this is this poor creature’s fate for eternity. Unthinkable, right? And yet, this is the narrative that we have created (and some use to attempt to bring people to God) of what happens when people die without knowing Jesus. I contend that this narrative of an eternal, tortuous “Hell” for all “unbelievers” displays neither God’s mercy, nor his justice.
Have you ever wondered if God is anything like us? I think about this from time to time…. Most of these times are when I’m dealing with my kids. Like when the boy is in the back of the mini van and asks sixteen times (in one way or another) if we can play Wii when we get home. “I’m not sure.” “I am very aware that you really like playing Wii.” “I don’t know–we’ll see how well you do getting ready for bed.” “Seriously, son–we’ll see.” “I’ll tell you this much: If you hit your sister with that elephant again, the answer will definitely be no!” “BOY, DO NOT ASK ME ONE MORE TIME OR I WILL THROW THE Wii IN THE GARBAGE!!!” …. I’m fairly certain that God does not deal with us this way, but this question of whether God is like us (or we are like God) is an important one, because our reason (as well as our sense justice) is one of the big things that makes us human. If God has a completely different sense of justice or reason than we do, that could cause some really big theological problems: Could we actually have relationship with a illogical, irrational God with a sense of justice starkly different than ours?
Most of the Christian Church believes that God is going to punish billions and billions of people who don’t know Jesus by sending them for eternity to an actual place of horrific, endless torture known as Hell. Now, there are two basic grounds that people begin to question the validity of long-standing beliefs, and both of them involve our reason and rationality. The first reason is if evidence is pointing you in a different direction than the commonly held belief (for example, Galileo sees evidence that the earth is actually going around the sun and not vice versa). The second reason is if something just doesn’t “feel” right (for example, “I know that the Bible seems to condone slavery, but I feel something inside of me just knows that slavery can’t be okay”).
So, through literary criticism a person might start to question long-held beliefs about Christian Doctrine and start to think that maybe the writers of the Bible didn’t have the same exact concept of “forever” or “everlasting” as we do today. Maybe the closest word for “forever” is the Hebrew word “olam” which actually is more rightly translated as “a far off distance” or “an age.” Maybe in the story of Jonah being in the belly of the whale for three days, he described how long he was in the whale using the word “olam.” And yet we continue to translate that word into “forever” fitting into our current idea of “eternity”–especially in regard to the afterlife and eternal punishment. Or, maybe the translators of the Bible take the word “Gehenna” (an actual place that was a place the people of the city burned their garbage) and translated it as “Hell.” This is all true, by the way.
Or maybe, people start thinking about how God has been portrayed over the years, and that portrayal doesn’t line up with what they have experienced of God’s goodness (as well as Jesus’ description of God as a loving Father). Jesus appealed to people’s reason and logic all the time when he spoke, so we know that they are important and useful in figuring things out. Jesus said, “You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Makes sense…. But does a finite being (humans) in a finite segment of time (the time we’re alive for) receiving an infinite punishment (eternal Hell) really make sense? Can a God that is loving and merciful and JUST really be like this?
What inevitably happens when a person starts questioning long-standing beliefs about God is people accuse that person of creating a god in his or her own image. “You can’t pick and choose!” they yell. When someone says, “Wait, this doesn’t make sense!” people respond with the passage that says, “For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” And yeah, I get that–God is way smarter than I am, so who am I to question the rightness or wrongness of God? That would make plenty of sense…. If that was what I was doing. But I’m not. I am questioning the rightness or wrongness of man’s interpretation of who God is (as well as man’s interpretation of scripture).
What makes sense is important. When we paint God as the sort of Being who would sentence a 15 year old kid who dies of leukemia saying “there is no God” to an eternity in hell, it simply doesn’t make any sense. That is not what God is like–It can’t be, especially when we go on to explain the Bible as a cosmic love story between a Creator and his creation–complete with mystery and magic and even the complexity that is FREE WILL. We tell people that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” And I believe it. But that word “perish” does not have to mean “be sustained by God infinitely in order to be tortured in Hell for not believing in Jesus” in order for that statement to be infinitely powerful and loving and cool. For God is not something which Jesus saves us FROM, but God is someone that Jesus reconciles us TO.