Whenever I hear the word “heretic,” my mind immediately turns to history — the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, etc. To hear it applied to a present-day situation is, quite honestly, a bit frightening, but that’s exactly the word some in the Christian world are using to describe Michigan pastor Rob Bell. His crime? In his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, he challenges the concept of Hell as eternal punishment and the idea that God is so wrathful that He would send anyone who is non-Christian and didn’t meet a specific set of standards straight to Hell for eternity.
Full disclosure: I have not read this book. I heard about it on an ABC News report published Friday. During the ABC News interview with Pastor Bell (watch the videos that play above the text of the article), he says a lot that is really shaking up those with very traditional beliefs, such as: “Will only a few select people make it to heaven and will the rest burn in hell forever? And if that is the case, how do you become of these people? Is it what you believe or say or something happens in your heart or you are initiated and baptized? What is God like because millions and millions of people are taught that God sends you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. … Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of a God do we need to be rescued from? How can God ever be trusted?”
Bell explains in the interview that he is fascinated by Jesus and believes Jesus would be open to the varied discussions regarding the Christian faith that are taking place — not offended by them as most traditionalists believe. And I think it’s the lack of discussion that has created the largest barrier to the Christian faith.
I am a spiritual person with a powerful aversion to organized religion because the majority of my encounters with Christians and Catholics have been negative. As a child, I had a number of experiences that shaped a very negative perception of the Christian faith that followed me into adulthood. When I was in grade school, a friend of mine forced me down onto my knees and had me repeat a string of sentences that essentially amounted to me accepting Jesus into my heart. At least verbally. She didn’t care that I didn’t understand or even want what was happening; that’s what her parents taught her was right. In middle school, another friend did not like a book I had recommended to her and decided it was indicative of my evil nature, so she put hundreds of sticky notes in a Bible and thrust it at me one day at school, telling me I needed to read her notes because the devil was sitting on my shoulder telling me to do bad things. As I grew older and learned more about the religion, I started to recognize how rampant hypocrisy is among those who claimed to be practicing Christians. For example, while I was and always have been a monogamous girl, I witnessed my “Christian” friends cheating on their boyfriends, sometimes having more than one boyfriend at a time. Of course, I was looked down upon because I didn’t go to church with them every Sunday.
And throughout all of this, very few Christians I encountered were truly willing to discuss anything beyond what they learned in Sunday school. It was almost as if there were some secret Christian rules I never learned, like it’s okay to go against what’s preached as long as no one talks about it. Which brings me back to Bell, who I applaud for encouraging these difficult conversations about a complicated topic. How does God decide who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell? As a non-Christian, it never seemed fair to me that I exhibited moral behavior because that’s how my mother taught me, yet I’m destined for Hell because I was never baptized and I don’t go to church. My Christian friends, on the other hand, can do whatever the hell they want, as long as they show up to church every Sunday and ask for forgiveness.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I have not read Bell’s book (yet), so I cannot comment on his message in full. However, I think the traditionalists who are crying heresy should recognize the merits of what Bell is doing. As a non-Christian who has no interest in attending church, I have a sincere interest in reading his book and participating in this discussion about God, Jesus, Heaven and Hell. And if he’s nabbed this non-Christian’s attention, how many others have taken notice? If anything else, he’s doing some great indirect mission work, and that’s behavior they can’t call heresy.