If Rob Bell’s thesis on Hell has made the cover of Time Magazine, as it has this week (just in time for Easter), then it is certainly worthy of comment here.
As regular readers know, I am not one who professes to any belief system that includes recognition of a place called Hell. I don’t view Heaven as any more probable, and, just to make sure I am completely understood, I don’t see a strong argument for the existence of God, not at least in what would qualify as a religious belief.
But Rob Bell is not a non-believer (a category I fall into most readily). He is a Christian minister of one of those mega-churches that typically feature evangelical preachers for whom the Bible is absolute gospel – scripture from on High, as it were.
And so, when someone of his stature writes that Hell is not necessarily the place of eternal damnation that the Bible suggests, folks who have a lot invested in that view are bound to be just a little upset.
Bell makes his position relatively clear on the point in his book, “Love Wins,” which, in addition to getting the attention of evangelicals, is all the buzz on cable news networks and talk radio. In his book, Bell says that Hell is irrelevant to a truly Christian life, which instead should be seeking to live ethically above all else.
As would be expected, Bell is being attacked as a heretic by some and as a provocateur by others. He seems unperturbed, speaking of the need to live in the here and now and to work on what he regards as Christ’s primary teaching: the power of love.
Be that as it may, with Easter week at hand and the masses (Donald Trump apparently included) about to make their annual pilgrimages to their local churches, the opportunity to explore the likelihood that Hell exists cannot be ignored (at least not by one who professes proudly to unadulterated agnosticism on the subject).
Here, then, for those who care to indulge in a little spiritual cogitation, is what makes sense to me.
The vast universe is too immense to make any real sense to mere mortals. Scientists who study it endlessly are constantly finding new ways to understand it. We seem to have passed beyond the view that life cannot possibly exist anywhere but on this little planet in this relatively tiny solar system in this otherwise insignificant galaxy.
The current scientific thought seems to be that intelligent life may well exist elsewhere in the universe, albeit we are unlikely to ever encounter it, the spatial distances being too great to ever transcend.
But accepting that we may not be unique and that the universe is immense neither confirms nor denies the existence of a master creator who put it all in motion and who even controls how it all plays out.
God, in other words, at least in a deistic sense, is no more improbable than probable. In fact, if we expand our inquiry to include how it all started (“it” here being the universe itself), we are left with a giant question mark that seems only capable of being answered with something akin to God, even if that concept is a mere acknowledgement of the laws of physics that seem to control everything.
And so, as an agnostic, I acknowledge the very real possibility that a master force, call it God, not only exists, but may well be in control. Saying so, doesn’t reject the only slightly less plausible notion that the laws of physics just are what they are and that the universe just is what it is, intellectually vacuous though that statement will appear.
In any event, whether there be a God or not, the likelihood of a Hell that is eternal damnation for all souls not deemed worthy of salvation seems outside the realm of intellectual calculation. It presupposes, among other things, the existence of something that “survives” the end of the physical life and that is somehow capable of experiencing pain and anguish even without the central nervous system that provides a living being with those sensations.
Moreover, it supposes a means of calculating the worthiness of every living being at the point of that being’s demise and of being unmerciful in assigning such “souls” to that eternally damnable place. And if such assignments are made by this same God that we hypothecate may well exist, what does that say of Its (His is so sexist; Hers is so condescending) creation?
Of course, the foregoing is a discussion devoid of faith, but faith does not provide much solace if it results in a God who deliberately created a universe without regard for how Its subjects would be treated once they were born into it.
And the same God that presumably assigns “souls” to Hell is also supposed to be merciful and loving, at least in the Christian version of the deity, since He (now I must be sexist) claimed to have embodied Himself in living form as Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago.
Similar inconsistencies can be found throughout the Bible and in the theologies that have embraced it. The fact that so many views of God exist in the organized religions of the world should provide more than ample evidence of the view that the Biblical God is a human creation (which is not to deny the view of God I previously acknowledged as being intellectually plausible). The two conclusions, if you follow my drift, are not irreconcilable.
At some point, however, the entire subject becomes absurd, which is why, as the thinking person that I believe It intended me to be, I cannot make sense of the puzzle.
And so, I applaud Rob Bell for his forthrightness and his courage. While I will probably never attend his church, I certainly might read his book. Any Christian theologian who acknowledges the likelihood that Hell is a human construct and, more importantly, who stresses the need to live an ethical life in pursuit of true Christian salvation, has my vote.
Happy Easter everyone.