A couple of years ago, a friend of a friend introduced me to a series of videos created by a pastor in…Michigan, I think…named Rob Bell. I’ve watched a few of the videos and they were quite good, particularly "Lump" and "Noise". Bell has a way of re-presenting Biblical concepts in ways I had never thought of before. He brings a fresh perspective to theology, challenging my ways of thinking, and, I believe, bringing me closer to what God really was trying to say. Consequently, when my friend told me about a new book Rob Bell had just published called "Love Wins" the other day, I knew I had to read it. As soon as I watched the trailer for the book, I was hooked. I downloaded the book onto my cell phone (ya gotta love technology, sometimes!), and, well, I couldn’t put it down.
I read the entire book in something like five hours.
I’m still digesting the book, and I strongly suspect I will have to read it at least one more time before it really starts to sink in, but I think Bell was onto something. You see, we modern, western Christians sometimes look an awful lot like the Pharisees. We divide the world into "us" and "them", "saved" and "unsaved", "believers" and "unbelievers". Hmmm…Didn’t Jesus tell a story like that once? For us, Church has become our religious duty, something we do to make sure we are part of the "in" crowd.
But is it, as Bell says, "all just a massive exercise in completely missing the point?" He thinks so, and honestly, so do I. For example, in "Love Wins", Bell tells about the literal meaning of the Hebrew word "Gehenna", which is often translated as "Hell" in English Bibles. Gehenna, he says, was a literal place in the days of Jesus. It was a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem that was used as the town garbage dump. In the valley of Gehenna, a fire burned 24×7, reducing the waste of jerusalem into ash, and wild dogs and other scavengers skulked around the edges of the dump, picking at refuse. It was, quite literally, a place of eternal fire, filled with the sound of the gnashing teeth of scavengers. To the Jewish people to whom Jesus was talking, the word "Gehenna" painted a vivid picture of the effluvium of the city of God.
Paul said, "[The work of men] will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." At first, this sounds very much like what orthodox Western Christianity tells us: if we build on the foundation of Jesus Christ, then we will be saved — maybe just by the skin of our teeth ("as one escaping through the flames"), but we will be saved. We’ll be "in" (hallelujah!). Otherwise, "depart, i knew you not."
But is there another way to interpret this verse? Is that really what Paul was trying to tell the Corinthians?
The writer of Hebrews tells us that, "The Word of God is…sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit…" Harold Eberle, another Christian pastor, teacher and writer who has greatly influenced my theology, gives a different interpretation of this verse than what is commonly believed. Rather than separating soul FROM spirit, Eberle teaches, the Word of God separates the Godly part of our soul AND spirit from that which was ungodly. The Word of God does not cleave my body and soul from my spirit; rather it carves out the unwholesome parts of the spirit, the body and the soul from that which is good, wholesome and pure.
Now look at 1 Corinthians 3 in light of this view of Hebrews 4: if my works and my heart have been good overall, but I have also built fleshly, unwholesome works as well — say, I was active in my church, but neglected to feed the poor or stand up for the oppressed — after the Word of God has separated what was good in me from that which was not, there may not be much left. I would have escaped, but "as one who escaped through fire." The unwholesome would be burned off, I would be refined by fire, but like a small nugget of gold encased in a mound of ice, what remains after passing through the fire is merely a remnant of what I was before. And the Word of God is to cleave that which was not wholesome from that which is pure, what then happens to the dross? Why, it is thrown into the dump — cast off into Gehenna, the lake of fire!
You see, you and I were not meant for Hell! You and I were meant to walk in the Garden with God. Hell is only for the impurities, the works and heart and attitudes in our life that are not worthy of the Kingdom!
I grew up worrying, "what if I’m not good enough? What if I didn’t get it right? What if I only score an ‘F’ on God’s final exam? What if I don’t make the grade?" And I’m beginning to think I completely missed the point. I can’t earn my way to salvation; in fact, salvation wasn’t even a question for Jesus. As Peter said, "The Lord…is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." Now THAT is Good News, indeed!
But wait a minute…Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Obviously everyone doesn’t make it into Heaven, right? Only those who have accepted Jesus!
Well, maybe…but I really don’t think so. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross redeemed me from the law of sin and death. My sin means I can never attain salvation on my own merit. I didn’t pass the final exam; I missed the mark. And nothing I can ever do will ever atone for my mistakes. But Jesus took the penalty for my sin upon Himself, and in doing so, redeemed me back into the Kingdom. So let me ask you another question, in return. Is unbelief a sin? Is unbelief a worse sin than, say, lying? Drunkenness? Adultery? Homosexuality? Romans 6:23 tells us that the wages of sin are death. But what sin? Are my sins okay because I call myself a Christian, but your sins not because you wear a different badge? At what point are my sins forgiven, and at what point, if at all, can they be heaped back upon me? Does Jesus’ death on the cross require action on my part to work? If so, then by accepting Jesus am I not doing a work that earns my way to Heaven?
But I’m not saved by works! Romans 5:8 says, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." If the penalty for sin is death, and if Jesus overcame death at his resurrection, then the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus paid the penalty for ALL MY SIN! Grace is the extra-credit points I need to make the bar, and it doesn’t matter if I need only one point more on the final or a thousand — Jesus earned my grade for me!
Paul alluded to this in Romans 2, although this verse is often neglected by many Christians: "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." Wait — you mean even the Gentiles (unbelievers) have the law of God, even if they have never heard of Jesus? Well, yeah, it kind of looks that way.
I have long been uncomfortable with some aspects of my theology because I have always been taught that "…wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." Now, I still believe this is true, but again, not in the way I ever heard it preached.
A few years ago, my wife watched a movie called "What Dreams May Come." Yes, I know…it’s dangerous to base theology on Hollywood, but sometimes even Hollywood gets an idea that is inspired :) After watching this movie, my wife had an epiphany, and it’s a good one: we build our Hell right here, right now, on earth! This isn’t wrath that’s stored up for later. This is literal torment right now. If jesus preached that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, right here, right now, then is not the devil’s kingdom here, too? Go look in the eyes of a child whose parents were just killed by a drunk driver and tell me that child is not in torment. Talk to a rape victim and tell me they are not in Hell. Bell talks about traveling in Africa years ago and seeing mutilated teenagers because the warlords would take a machete and lop off the arms, legs and hands of the children of those who dared oppose them. No lake of fire can be any worse than the depravity and hatred that we can spew here on earth. We make our Hell every day through the consequences of our disobedience to God. I know for myself, the burning in my conscience when I know that I have let someone else down, that I have betrayed the faith someone else placed in me is indeed a fiery torment. No one can beat me up worse than I can beat up myself sometimes. I truly believe that this guilt and shame is the thorn in the flesh that Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 12. Fortunately, the solution is given in the very next verse: "But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’"
"Love Wins" is drawing some heavy criticism in the church. Many Christians are now calling Bell a Universalist, saying that what he says in his book is, at best, misguided, and at worst, flat out blasphemous. Many Christians argue that the Bible teaches that Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, pagans and others — anyone but Christians — will find themselves burning in Hell after they die. With all due respect, I would caution such people to be very careful about casting such judgments upon any others, for Matthew 7:1-2 warns about the danger of judging others. Judgment is for God alone, and unlike us, He judges both justly and (fortunately!) mercifully.
When my time here on earth is done, I expect to meet many people that don’t look quite like what we think Christians typically look like. I fully expect to hobnob with Socrates (Greek pagan) and to spend some time talking with Mohatma Ghandi (Hindu). Why? Because love wins. It’s not about keeping a list, even if that list only includes the single item of confessing Jesus. It’s all about your heart, perhaps even if you don’t completely understand what it is you are doing. Because of His great love for us, and while we were yet sinners, Jesus paid the price, and ultimately, that’s all that really matters.