Rob Bell’s new book, "Love Wins," continues to stir controversy. Most recently, that controversy centered on the firing of a North Caroline pastor who publicly supported the book and its animating belief that people are not automatically and eternally consigned to hell because of specific actions or lack of a particular belief.
According to Pastor Chad Holtz, he was dismissed from Marrow’s Chapel in rural Henderson, N.C. because his views no longer reflected those of his community. Whether Holtz and Bell are correct or not about who gets into heaven and who will go to hell is not something which anyone can know, it’s a matter of faith. Debating which understanding is actually true is just silly, not because the question is unimportant, it matters to millions of people, but because there is no way to determine which answer is correct while we reside in this world.
So why do people so passionately debate a question which, by definition, cannot be resolved in any definitive way? Because the question they are debating is a kind of shorthand for a variety of other questions, the answers to which define how those millions lead their lives.
Both Bell’s theories and those of the people who dispute him about what a loving God would do are simply mirrors of both his and their pre-existing definitions about love, God, and the afterlife. Those beliefs are great predictors of how people behave in this life.
Tell me a person’s beliefs about the afterlife, and I’ll tell you how they are likely to behave in this life, for better or for worse. Notions of the afterlife reflect our most deeply held values about this life, which because they are not always realized here, are deferred to the next life. Like all ideals, they represent that to which we aspire, and if we are serious about our aspirations, they are the compass points by which we navigate through life in the here and now.
But this is not simply a matter of personal faith or practice. How people think about heaven, hell, who goes to which and why, all have enormous implications on the lives of all the people around them, especially those who don’t share their beliefs.
At the end of the day, it is far easier to hurt and even to destroy another human being whom one already believes is cursed by God. After all, the hurt done to them in this life is nothing compared to the suffering they will endure in the next life and, so the argument goes, reflects God’s ultimate will and may even cause them to repent of whatever sins they are supposedly guilty.
Over the centuries, millions of people have been subjected to everything from regular degradation to the most horrendous suffering, including mass murder, all because they were outside of some other group’s salvation scheme. That tragic behavior continues to this very day in more places and ways than we can name.
Unfortunately, even those who are well-intentioned, including Rob Bell, may be guilty of perpetuating this problem. While not necessarily as toxic as consigning people with whom he disagrees to hell, Bell’s description of them as “truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation” is not much better. Am I in that category because I am a non-Christian? Are atheists in that category because they don’t believe in the existence of God?
While Bell argues for love, he does so in a way which embraces a belief in the still real spiritual failings of what I am sure equals billions of people. While his approach is a big deal within Christian theological circles, and is certainly an upgrade on those beliefs which regard many of us not only as damaged but eternally cursed, it’s far from where I think such beliefs need to be.
It strikes me as arrogant to imagine that when we are done in this life, there is nothing that comes after. But it strikes me as both arrogant and dangerous to believe that whatever is coming will be measured by any one set of beliefs that govern this world, or that that people will be measured by the rules of those communities to which they did not belong when they were here.
Whatever we mean by Divine love, eternal justice, or any of the many grand ideas being invoked in the current debate around Bell’s book, the most pressing question is how beliefs held about the next world might actually contribute to assuring greater human dignity in this world not only for those who share our beliefs, but even for those who may not.
Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and the president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.