Americans may have thought that cracks in the façade and framework of evangelicalism would show up most visibly when serious evangelicals argued whether Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee would be the better presidential candidate.
But now we have a chance to see that other divisive issues among evangelicals beg for attention. When one of these, a theological argument, no less, makes its way to the New York Times and other papers plus many blogs, it’s time to pay attention.
Bystanders who think they have nothing at stake in the non-political arguments, and who have never heard of Pastor Bob Bell of Grand Rapids, Michigan, or his critic, neo-Calvinist John Piper, may stand by in fascination, but they are likely to be reached this time. The topic? Hell, and a punishing God’s use thereof.
Bell, featured in the New York Times story, is a star of the emergent middle among evangelicals. He is seen by his enemies as baiting those to his right by writing too kindly about God and the many mortals destined for hell, and they insist that softness has to stop.
Pastor Bell is soon to publish Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. His publisher and others have tantalized the public with clips from the book, but the critics did not need to have read it and do not need to know more than that Bell is not so sure that a God of love will condemn those billions who never heard of Jesus Christ, or those millions who have heard but did not recognize him as their Saviour, in order for them to fire up their own condemnations of Bell.
The Michigan pastor-author is not alone; Bell’s hell is paralleled in treatments of a whole wing of evangelicals. Some of this group "out” themselves, while others are in a kind of purgatory of inference that they are not quite "orthodox" on the subject.
What this second wing keeps pondering and sometimes proclaiming is that there are ways to witness to the fact that God is holy and just, other than saying that he takes delight in punishing those ignorant of the stakes or those who are players of other salvation games. It is one thing to agree with sophisticated evangelical theologians and their artful articulators who semi-dodge the issue by saying that no one is ever sent to hell and suggesting that she or he chooses to go there.
Publics, including those serious about the Bible, doctrine, and church tradition, have not found ways to accept the teaching which they cannot square with witness to the God of love, so Bell and company would witness positively to them.
Formal theologians in the evangelical camp are bemused by the consistent polls in which only a small percent of the clergy are ready to affirm and preach doctrines and threats of hell and the large percent of their followers who are not. They know of the gap, and feel they must close it. Otherwise "orthodoxy" will disappear and relativism or universalism will win. The evangelical parents whose teenage “good kid” son who has not made a formal profession of faith in Christ and thus will be condemned to hell if he dies, need better reasoning than the dogmatic professors of hell give them.
Otherwise this latest fissure in evangelicalism will grow, and arguments will distract preachers of hell from their tasks and opportunities to win people from its brink, thus swelling its population in the interest of saying the right thing about this form of a holy and just God’s mode of everlasting punishment. Why are they writing editorials and condemnations and attending conferences on hell when they could be out on the street corners, passing tracts and witnessing to hell—and divine love?
Bell asks for answers.
Erik Eckholm, 'Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old Question, New York Times, 4 March 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/05/us/05bell.html?_r=1
© Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.