Hell isn't for real?

Some people look at Newsweek's precipitous decline as an example of how to destroy a magazine. (Its most recent issue had six ads.) Other people apparently want to emulate it. Or so I'm led to believe by TIME magazine's decision to have former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham write its cover story celebrating Rob Bell and his views on hell. It's like Newsweek never got dumped for a buck and Meacham never lost his job! You can get the same quality journalism you might have enjoyed in such hits as "The religious case for gay marriage."

Now, we're just a few days from Holy Week and everyone knows what that means -- it's time for the annual Christmas and Easter traditions that many mainstream media engage in. The Associated Press ran a story about it a four or five years ago that began:

It’s a predictable part of the Easter season: The period of reflection on the Crucifixion and Resurrection has become a popular time for marketers to roll out works -- from the scholarly to the sensational -- that challenge Christianity’s core beliefs.

In the last several years, churchgoers have been hit with a steady stream of claims that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, that he had a wife and kids, and that the Bible is a fraud.

But Meacham, being Episcopal himself, always tended toward the more mainline Christian covers subverting more traditional views. He's the original evangelist for a universalist Christianity. The Bell story is a natural for him.

The piece is long and begins by discussing how awesome Gandhi was. Which reminds me, did you see this Wall Street Journal piece about Gandhi from a couple weeks ago? Scandalous.

Anyway, the piece is pretty much what you'd expect a mainliner to write about an evangelical who sounds like he's adopting mainline religious views. And Meacham really is an excellent writer and an enjoyable read. This isn't really a battle of normal Christian traditionalism (there's a reason why Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans haven't cared that much one way or the other about Bell's book) but the piece rather artfully avoids those issues.

There is an error early on, where Meacham writes:

In North Carolina, a young pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.

Not true, as Brad discussed in a previous post.

Anyway, the piece caricaturizes traditionalist views on hell as being about an elaborate "incentive" structure rather than the language the church has traditionally used. He asks the hilarious question "If the verses about hell and judgment aren't literal, what about the ones on adultery, say, or homosexuality?" Because if Christians have been wrong about hell for 2,000 years, the most important conclusion to draw is something about gay sex, am I right?

Meacham then reminds people about Harry Emerson Fosdick and all the good things he did for mainline churches before saying:

Bell is more at home with this expansive liberal tradition than he is with the old-time believers of Inherit the Wind.

Inherit the Wind? Inherit the Wind? So Bell is more like Fosdick than a group of mindless anti-intellectuals? Good to know. Then Meacham asserts:

Still, the dominant view of the righteous in heaven and the damned in hell owes more to the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake, than it does to history or to unambiguous biblical teaching.

Totally. It's not like Jesus ever said in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field." He answered and said to them: "He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

Meacham does concede later, briefly, that Jesus did talk about hell. But he doesn't really get into content (in addition to the example above, the Cake video embedded refers to another parable with rather colorful hellfire language). Either way, to discount Jesus' explanation of his own parable relative to Blake is a bit of a stretch. Meacham then asserts that Scripture was made by humans:

Like the Bible -- a document that often contradicts itself and from which one can construct sharply different arguments -- theology is the product of human hands and hearts.

I mean, I'm not going to go riot over Meacham's claim, but while this is definitely the view of Meacham and many mainliners, this is not an uncontroversial claim. In my confession of faith, we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, the product of the Holy Spirit working through men. We take this incredibly seriously and we believe the Bible is to be treated with utmost reverence. This piece is heavy on reportage, which is its strength. But unlike other Meacham/Newsweek-type pieces, its rather significant point of view isn't so obvious. It's fine to make these claims in an opinion piece but it's just bad journalism to assert this in a reported piece.

When Jesus spoke of the "kingdom of heaven," he was most likely referring not to a place apart from earth, one of clouds and harps and an eternity with your grandmother, but to what he elsewhere called the "kingdom of God," a world redeemed and renewed in ways beyond human imagination.

I don't even know what this means. I mean, again with the caricatures of the grandma and the harps against things beyond imagination. I mean, seriously, I would criticize this line more if I had any idea what he was talking about.

If Bell is right about hell, then why do people need ecclesiastical traditions at all? Why aren't the Salvation Army and the United Way sufficient institutions to enact a gospel of love, sparing us the talk of heaven and hellfire and damnation and all the rest of it? Why not close up the churches?

You know, I don't expect the average person to know that the Salvation Army is a denomination. But some people, like big time religion writers, I do expect that of. Word to the wise: the Salvation Army is a denomination. Like the United Methodist Church is a denomination. It's a church. It can't be "sufficient" and needing to be "closed up" in the same breath.

You can imagine that this is my favorite part:

Fair enough, but let's be honest: religion heals, but it also kills. Why support a supernatural belief system that, for instance, contributed to that minister in Florida's burning of a Koran, which led to the deaths of innocent U.N. workers in Afghanistan?

"I think Jesus shares your critique," Bell replies. "We don't burn other people's books. I think Jesus is fairly pissed off about it as well."

I'm sure, like me, when you think of the belief system that led to the murders and rampages in Afghanistan, your mind immediately blames Christianity. Am I right?

Happy Easter!

Please respect our Commenting Policy