There's a song by David Crowder Band that inexplicably makes me like them again, despite only really having a mild affection for them in college, and a sort of hometown affection for them while I was living in Waco. From their Church Music album, the song "Oh, Happiness!" bursts out, loud and celebratory, proclaiming loudly and happily about the grace of God.
The chorus is one that would make a lot of Calvinists balk, however: "Oh happiness! There's grace enough for us and the whole human race."
The verses get worse. The only nod to the exclusivity of the Gospel message - an exclusivity which the American church holds onto with a death grip - is the line "all who come." The rest of the song refers to "something that mends all of it," and the sounds of church bells ringing, celebrating the fact that "everything can be redeemed, we can be redeemed, oh, all of us."
But let's think for a minute what we're singing there when we sing along with this song in the car, on KLOVE or (if you're in South Dakota), KNWBC.
"Oh happiness! There's grace enough for us and the whole human race."
Grace enough. For the whole human race, including us.
Crowder's message in this short, sweet, simple song is one, ultimately, of inclusion. Very few theologians would deny that Crowder is correct when he sings that "everything will be redeemed," and that this is a reason to rejoice. It's straight out of the letters of Paul and the mouth of Jesus - all this world will eventually pass away to reveal a new heaven and new earth, a phrase likely meaning simply new world altogether. It will be a world in which, as the Lord's Prayer hopes for and solicits, God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven. The two will be joined as one and the kingdom of heaven will reign over all - a world of perfect community, perfect love, perfect relationships, a world without murder, rape, greed, robbery, or Wall Street.
But things get better than that! Grace is extended to ALL.
Crowder is not alone in his assertion that redemption is extended to all of us. This is a notion passed down from the Biblical fathers to the Church fathers throughout the Christian Church for centuries upon centuries. Jesus' blood on the cross is redemptive, for any and all.
Full stop. Period.
How many of you mentally added an "if" to that sentence?
Come on, raise your hand.
Many of us been trained so hard and so long in that particular doctrine of the church that to question it, to cut off the "if" statement at the end of the sentence is like hitting the brakes right after getting the car up to 60mph. It's jarring. I bet, even now, some of you readers are scrolling back up, looking for some wiggle room, some place where I don't propose what you're thinking.
But hitting the brakes on that sentences is precisely what Rob Bell does in his latest book, Love Wins. Even before the book was released, it caused a massive stir, based mostly on pre-release materials about the book, and not actual analysis of the book itself. In it, critics say, Bell proposes a theology that borders on univeralism, if it is not outright univeralist. He proposes a new way of looking at heaven and hell and proposes that hell may not be eternal.
Now, I need to clarify a few things before we go on: This book is not a theological treatise. You'll probably read, if you look around the internet enough at enough blogging sites with reviews of the book, commentary that makes this mistake. Bell is not attempting to create a new version of the Institutes. Or Luther's Theses. Or Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics.
It simply cannot be read that way. If you go into the book looking for precisely laid out Biblical proof that gives you a definitive answer, you're going to find what appear to be gaps, holes, leaps, and misreadings. And that's purposeful. Because Bell isn't concerned about giving us "the answer." He isn't giving us a volume on "Why I Am Not a Believer in 'X' Doctrine" to use as a clobber book when we get in late night arguments with friends in the dorm. He's giving us thoughts on a topic.
Toward the end of the first chapter of the book, Bell has asked a series of Socratic questions, questions that are, in a sense, rhetorical. He's going to try to give us some sort of response. This is precisely what he tells us, and the word he uses - response. And that word choice is important - he doesn't ever claim to be giving the answer, he doesn't even really claim that what we think right now is totally and completely wrong. What he does want us to do is be open to the possibility. Be receptive to the idea that there are alternative interpretations, and nothing, especially Hell, is as set in stone as we have made it in the modern day evangelical church.
Second, and related to the first, the genre of the book is "sermon." It is what it is. It reads like a sermon (when you get a copy, read a couple of pages out loud - certainly sounds like a public speaker, eh?). As such, it doesn't end on the last page, just as a sermon doesn't end at the benediction. You are supposed to take it home with you and discuss it. You are supposed to pull out your Bible and examine it. You are supposed to go "oh, I didn't think of it that way before," and sit and digest it for the rest of the week or month or year or however long it takes to pass from your brain to your heart. That is, quite obviously, the type of writing Bell has always done. This genre is especially evident in how he cites Bible verses - he doesn't give us chapter and verse as though he's providing evidence in a court case. No, he references book and chapter, indicating that he wants his reader to go take a look at it for herself, to examine the whole verse in context. It is important that he does this, because he is saying: "Feel free to do your own research. Go on, challenge it, but you'd better have done the reading."
He isn't lazy. He knows what he's doing, and it has been done purposefully. We need to look at the book as a starting point for discussion, not the ending point.
Alright, clarifications are out of the way: let's get down into the nitty-gritty.
If you've paid any attention to this whole debacle surrounding his book, you'll have heard, well, any number of things about the content. But let me clarify what Bell is not proposing: he is not proposing that Hell does not exist. He is not proposing that everyone will just "go to heaven" after they die and therefore Christianity is useless. He is not saying the work of the church doesn't matter.
What he is saying is that God is way bigger than the box we've put on him with our concept of Hell - a place of neverending torment and suffering, all because you didn't respond the right way in the few short years you had here on earth.
What he is saying is that the Bible talks a whole lot more about loving your neighbor than it does about how that neighbor's going to end up in Hell.
What he is saying is that the work of the Kingdom is vastly more important than the fire insurance we've turned it into. And that God is way bigger and more loving than Hell allows Him to be.
And he's also saying: Didn't Jesus, like, defeat Hell? So why are we all sorts of worried about whether or not we're doing it right? As Bell says in the promo and in the book, our current concept of Hell does plant the notion that Jesus and the Father are in opposition, that Jesus saved us from the Father. When, really, didn't Jesus save us from, like y'know, ourselves?
Now, it would be silly of me to go back and rehash everything Bell has to say. You need to read the book to do that.
But I do want to point a few things out: Bell is not groundbreaking. In fact, not a whole lot of what he says is all that new - he just brought the argument into the open in the 21st century. And I'd like to take the rest of this post to examine one of Bell's major influences, CS Lewis, as the ideas presented in Bell are so similar that an examination of one is an examination of the other (indeed, in reading Love Wins, I was writing the titles of Lewis' works in the margins, referencing where these ideas had probably originated for Bell).
CS Lewis, a writer revered by many in the American church, a writer whom many of us read to our kids before bed, a writer whose work has challenged and worked on many of us and brought us to a new life in Jesus, had a very, very similar conception of Heaven and Hell. For Lewis, Hell was not a place of permanent suffering. In The Great Divorce, his major work on Heaven and Hell, he writes of a dream in which he wakes up in a grey town and takes a bus up, up, up in the sky into a green countryside. Upon leaving the bus, he discovers that he is a ghost in this country - the blades of grass are sharp and hard, and everything is immensely more real than he ever could imagine. He and his fellow ghosts from the bus encounter solid people who are residents of this green country. Lewis meets with his childhood hero and the man likely most responsible for making Lewis the man he is: George MacDonald. He and George walk about and discuss the nature of this new, green countryside. Eventually, it becomes clear that, in this green field, they are standing basically at the entrance to heaven.
Lewis asks: "But I don't understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?"
It depends on the way ye're using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory. And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heaven. Not Deep Heaven, ye understand. ... Ye can call it the Valley of the Shadow of Life. And yet to those who stay here it will have been heaven from the first. And ye can call those sad streets in the town yonder the Valley of the Shadow of Death: but to those who remain there they will have been Hell even from the beginning.
After a puzzled look, MacDonald goes on to explain that in our present state, there's no possible way humans can understand eternity. Eternity begins before death, he says, and the glory of Heaven and the torment of Hell both work backward, turning agony into glory, and pleasure into pain, even for our earthly life, in retrospect.
And when, after a discussion about the reality of Heaven versus the mental state of Hell ("Every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind--is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself."), Lewis questions whether or not there is a real choice after death, MacDonald cuts him off, tells him not to bother himself with such questions because he cannot really know and understand the relationship between choice and Time "till you are beyond both."
So, Lewis' answer to the Heaven and Hell question in The Great Divorce is, "Maybe there is grace after death. We don't know. And it's not really our place to speculate, in either direction."
Now, The Great Divorce is a work probably not many are familiar with.
So let's look at one which many people know and love: Narnia.
In The Last Battle, the end of the earth and Narnia tale that closes out Lewis' seven book series, the last two chapters are probably my favorite of any book series - even over and above Harry Potter. Lewis paints a picture of Heaven that is full of grace, beauty and glory. And here, he proposes two things that have made readers over the years scratch their heads, things that only make sense in light of how Lewis views Hell as expounded upon in his other works.
The first is the fate of the dwarves. The children and Aslan bound into that New Narnia, the Heaven like area where you can go running and running and running and never get tired, and where it is impossible to feel frightened, and it's bigger on the inside, so you just keep running further up and further in to this glorious countryside, bounding alongside Aslan and the rest of the happy citizens of that far green country under a swift sunrise. They have discovered that this place is Narnia, but is more real than any Narnia they had ever experienced before.
And as they are running around and rejoicing, they realize that, through the stable they have just come through, the dwarves who had entered with them, are not enjoying the beauty of the land, are not jumping and celebrating with them. They are sitting, huddled together, by themselves in the same spot where they had first entered.
They are still in the stable. They are, as Rob Bell puts it, at the party but not experiencing it. When the girls try to force the dwarves to see the world around them, the dwarves reply obstinately, "The dwarfs are for the dwarfs" and insist that they are still trapped in the stable.
Hell is being at the party and not knowing it. Hell is a state of mind, a separation that YOU have put up between yourself and God, not a place that God sent you because "you didn't live right."
The second thing that happens is very unusual, and is probably the one thing people point to if they want to call Lewis a heretic. There is a Calormene, a separate race in the world of Narnia which is often believed to be either Muslims or Hindus. And he is there, in Heaven. He had served his god, Tash, in good faith and had lived out a life that resembled more closely that of Narnians than Calormenes. Aslan tells him upon finding him in that heavenly countryside: "I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him."
There's not really a way around it. This theme shows up over and over again in Lewis' works, reflected in Till We Have Faces, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity, That Hideous Strength, and Surprised by Joy. Lewis' view of Hell as a mentality, and his view that people would be given a chance at redemption after death, a chance to see that far green countryside should they choose to have it, permeate all his works.
If we're going to call Rob Bell a heretic, we have to put down Narnia as well. And I know far fewer Christians willing to do that.
Luke 20:38 tells us that God is not the God of the dead, but instead the God of the living.
Instead of emphasizing a theology of Hell which turns God into a bastard of a dictator, commanding that you arbitrarily say the right words in the right order in order to be saved from something, we have a God of the living, a God concerned about how you "drag the future into the present," concerned about how you are treating your neighbor and about how you love in community.
We are not saved from Hell. We are saved to Heaven. We are saved to living a life of grace, beauty and love. Jesus' atoning sacrifice was not about saving us from Hell, which, despite lip service to the contrary, is the main thrust of theology in the American church (I blame John Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," frankly). Our theology has become sin-focused and Hell-focused, when it was never meant to be. We are concentrating more on the fate we are saved from than what we are saved to.
That, my friends, makes all the difference.
How we think about Heaven and Hell does affect our life here and now. If we place Heaven and Hell as far off, far away things, we separate ourselves from them. We put them far in the future. And we devalue our life now - our lives merely become pit stops on the way to eternity, a mere 70 years or so (or less) in which we have to choose what we're going to spend all of eternity doing. When we put the emphasis on being saved from Hell, by acting through a magic prayer or what have you, or even by living your life in a certain way, we place the emphasis wrongly. We are to work on bringing the love of God to our neighbor, not by telling our neighbor he is going to Hell if he doesn't respond correctly, but by telling him of the infinite, unrelenting, all forgiving, all loving and all good God who is working right now to bring more good and more life and more joy into the world. We do not tell our neighbor of the fate that awaits him if he decides that his pleasure is more important than some far off, far away eternal torment. We tell him of what God is doing, right here and right now. Of a God who died not to save us from Hell, but to take us to a further up and further in community with Him. Of a God who knows him, who created him, and who knows, understands, and wants to be a part of his story.
That is the God I speak of. My God doesn't "test me" to see if I'm getting it right and, if I'm not, sits back and wags his eternal finger over the button that sends me to a fate worse than death. My God calls me to participate in a loving, graceful, beautiful world with him, one which will be a fuller experience of a more real world, regardless of whether or not a Hell exists eternally.
Isn't that, ultimately, a better story?
In closing, CS Lewis writes in a little known sermon called "The Weight of Glory" about this mental status of Hell - emphasizing that the choices we make every day are steps that we take into creating our own Hell, into building that wall between us and God that will be harder (but not insurmountable), after death. He writes, in what is often quoted by not always understood:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously--no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner--no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat--the glorifier and the glorified, Glory himself, is truly hidden.
Every choice we make creates a Hell or calls Heaven into our lives. In my choices, I choose, ultimately, to err on the side of Love. And it is in that truth that we can sing along with David Crowder: "There's grace enough. For us. And the whole human race." And we know we can experience that grace right here, right now. Grace that is about so much more than avoiding Hell. Or even about whether or not Hell is eternal. A grace that defeats death. That goes beyond death. That maybe, just maybe, bypasses death altogether and says that you have a chance. Dead or alive, you have a chance because my love is infinite, and extensive, and unfolding in numerous different ways and numerous different places all over the world.
It is, ultimately, a grace we can't understand, but we can celebrate and not fear.
And it is bigger and better than anything we can imagine, even bigger than Hell.
And isn't that, in the end, the Gospel story?