Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Thought About Hell Lately?
Have you heard about the book, Heaven is for Real? I hadn’t, but apparently one and a half million others have not only heard of it, but bought it. It is the story of Colton Burpo, a four year old boy who was rushed to a hospital in Nebraska with a burst appendix. Following his ordeal, Colton began to tell an astonishing story. He had died and gone to heaven where he met his great grandfather, Samson, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Over the months and years his story became more graphic and vivid, including details that, according to Colton’s parents, were not things he could have known otherwise. This little paperback has become a huge hit, climbing to the top of The New York Times best seller list for non-fiction paperbacks.
Meanwhile, another book about the afterlife is causing a stir. Evangelical pastor Rob Bell from Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids has just published Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It, too, is rocking the best seller lists, but unlike Colton’s book, this one is generating enormous controversy in the evangelical world for challenging traditional notions of eternal destiny. Bell doesn’t deny the reality of hell. But he is unimpressed with notions of a God who would require the impossible of people in order to gain entrance to heaven: “If billions and billions of people are going to be tortured in hell forever – people who never heard about Jesus are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of – then at that point we will have a far bigger problems than a book from a pastor from Grand Rapids!”
Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, is a man who can never let a public opportunity pass him by regardless of how foolish or intolerant it makes him look. He recently denounced Bell’s attempt, in his words, “to rescue God from any teaching that his wrath is poured out upon sin and sinners.” Bell, Mohler argues, “wants God to vindicate the victims of murder, rape, child abuse, and similar evil. He seems not to recognize that he has undercut his own story, leaving God unable or unwilling to bring true justice.” I guess this means that hell for the unwashed is the only thing in the divine tool box capable of vindicating the vulnerable. Hmmm.
While debates like this tend to flourish in evangelical circles, progressive Christians forget that many people in their pews ponder these questions as well, and struggle to understand not just where grandma and the family pet exist, but also how God will vindicate God’s justice in a world where unpunished evil often does seem to prevail. After a recent preaching gig in one of our UCC congregations a man approached me during the coffee hour to inquire whether I thought the UCC’s “embrace of universalism” was part of the cause of our declining numbers. Absent the stick of hell, the carrot of heaven isn’t all that compelling. Or at least that’s what this member seemed to think.
I’ll admit that there is often a lack of urgency about the faith as it is practiced in the United Church of Christ and many other mainline denominations. Saving people from hell offers a pretty strong motivation for evangelism. But we’ve long since departed from images of the unconverted dangling over the abyss as if on a spider’s web. A colleague once offered me a useful image, however. In the UCC no one would argue that we have a responsibility toward physically homeless people. Indeed, many of our churches pour significant resources into helping those on the street. But what about the spiritually homeless? Those who yearn for a relationship with Jesus and with the community of the church, but who for whatever reason have felt unwelcome, unwanted, unworthy? Shouldn’t the passionate desires of these people give us all the sense of urgency and purpose we need?
Curiosity about human destiny is probably a universal – sorry, there’s that word again! – trait. Thus the popularity of books by people like young Colton and Pastor Bell. But given how little we can know about the subject, the contours of our future seem to me to be a pretty shaky foundation for influencing human behavior or explaining human motivation. A friend used to have a bumper sticker in her office that said, “Jesus is coming, look busy.” To be sure, the Bible contains passages that do seem to suggest that we need to shape up because the judge is on his or her way. But ultimate consequences – rewards or punishments – don’t often prove to be the ultimate determiner of human behavior, whether we’re talking about children of human parents or of the Divine.
What truly shapes people for healthy and whole lives, or for heaven, is love. I don’t mean love in the Hallmark Card sense. No, this love is costly, a love that expects much and where betrayals and fidelity do have consequences, perhaps even ultimate ones. I don’t imagine heaven or the ultimate experience of God’s overwhelming love as a reward for the quality of my life. For me it is simply part of the character of God. It is grace that calls forth my gratitude, not just my anxious obedience. Dr. Mohler may worry about stripping God of his fearsome armor. But in fact that’s just what happened on the Cross where vulnerable love vindicates the vulnerable, not the exercise of damning power.
In the end, I’m content with mystery, which is about all we have when it comes to the reality of heaven and hell. It’s an act of imagination, whether we’re talking about the Bible, Colton Burpo, Rob Bell or, for that matter, Dante! Some of us may apprehend more, or see with greater clarity. But in the end what’s important is how we use the portrait we’ve glimpsed. Young Colton seems to have it right: “People are getting blessed, and they’re going to have healing from their hurts. I’m happy for that.”
John H. Thomas