Hell and Heaven

This has not been one of those blogs that serves as an online confessional. But for once, I’d like to bare my soul a bit and share something about myself that caught my attention over the weekend. Writing about it might prove to be utterly narcissistic, in which case I hope that you didn’t find too much of your time being wasted and that you quickly moved on to something more interesting (check the Recommended Links page). But perhaps it touches a nerve with you and you deeply agree or disagree with something I write: please take the time to respond to one of the questions at the end. Let’s start.

Confession #1

While I enjoy reading a great deal and in a wide variety of fields, there are certain books that simply don’t interest me. Amish romance novels. Memoirs by Kardashians (especially after Borders placed one in its “History Bestsellers” section). Anything by anyone with a talk show on any cable news channel.

And Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Rob Bell
Rob Bell - Zondervan

It’s not that I dislike Rob Bell. Or disagree with him. (Or agree with him. And if you’re not sure what I’m oh so obliquely talking about, I’d recommend reading Scot McKnight’s careful, nuanced review before continuing here.) I’m just not that moved by discussions of the afterlife.

When the Love Wins controversy first flared up, I did pay attention — but more as an evangelical with a semi-academic interest in the nature of evangelicalism. I was more concerned with the contours of the controversy (e.g., the John Piper tweet and the response those three words received) than the theological issues at the heart of the kerfuffle.

I don’t mean to say that beliefs about hell (or heaven) are unimportant to Christianity, since they clearly have been ever since Jesus said (or, if you prefer, early Christians said that he said) things like this and this and this. So neither do I think people ought not debate the existence and nature of the afterlife. (Though I wish they would do so more irenically and humbly.)

All’s I’m sayin’ is that those debates don’t move me, like they seem to move others. And, more than that, neither the prospect of hell nor the promise of heaven does much to motivate me, like they seem to motivate others.

I’m the unusual Pietist (according to the stereotype) who’s not “heavenly-minded.” At least in my adult life, I can’t remember thinking that my central purpose as a follower of Jesus Christ was to “get to heaven,” or regularly placing that reward in the scales of my decision-making.

Neither have I been, well, “hell-ly minded.” I didn’t grow up on fire-and-brimstone sermons warning me that I was in the hands of an angry God. And while I have struggled often with various sins and had my share of tearful repentance, I have never feared that my inequities would destine me for hell.

Wright, Surprised by HopeAt the risk of being repetitive, let me underscore that this is not a matter of belief. For the record, I believe in hell, but have no idea whether annihilation or eternal torment is the punishment of the reprobate. I don’t like the idea of God inflicting punishment for all time, but that dislike isn’t much of a reason to suspect that it’s untrue. I believe in heaven, but have little sense what it’s really like (add Randy Alcorn to the list following “Confesion #1,” I’m afraid) except that, as Billy Graham says, “It’s where God is” and I’m perfectly happy to learn the rest when I arrive.

To the extent I do read much about either topic, I’ve been most persuaded by two great British writers: C.S. Lewis (namely, his notion that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside — the only people there are those who truly want to be there) and N.T. Wright. And in the latter case, I will admit that Wright’s reminder that God is restoring heaven and Earth — so our goal is not to escape physical Creation but to restore it — has got me thinking more, but differently, about heaven and its connection to the mission of the church in general and to my participation in that mission in particular. Wright helps me understand why heaven, at least, is such a powerful motivation for so many Christians.

But I pray that I hold all that I believe about hell and heaven beyond their existence loosely. I’m a historian, for crying out loud! What do I know? And even trained theologians and biblical scholars should hesitate to profess any firm convictions about these topics…

No, this is less about what my mind comprehends than what moves my heart: and neither postmortem punishment or reward seems to hasten my pulse.

Jaws of Hell - Bruges Cathedral
12th century image of the "Jaws of Hell" - Bruges Cathedral

Why is this? I’ve thought of several reasons, most of them pointing to failings on my part. Just to mention two… First, my religious imagination might be less vivid than it ought to be; and second, I might be captive to my culture. It’s one thing for a 21st century Protestant with the enormous freedom that my religious, political, economic, and social circumstances afford me to say that he simply can’t imagine heaven or hell in any but the sketchiest detail. After all, more than most I can pick and choose the images and ideas I encounter, including those that surround me at worship and those that I read (or, too often, are left unread) in my Bible. (And the unchosen images and ideas in this culture that bombard do little to encourage me to focus on any life beyond the present one, in which I spend my money, cast my votes, etc.)

But what if I’d been born in medieval Europe, my piety centered almost entirely on a church building covered and filled with evocative images of judgment and suffering? Or, if I were like the vast majority of humans in history and born into a life of poverty and oppression, would I remain so little moved by the prospect of justice inherent in Judgment?

I doubt it. But as a privileged Westerner, and thus taught from an early age to compare and contrast myself with others, I do wonder if I’m unusual for my culture in not imagining or being moved by the afterlife.

Confession #2

While I enjoy reading a great deal and in a wide variety of fields, I don’t have the time to do it as often as I would like. So my favorite periodical is Books & Culture, a Christian version of the New York Review of Books edited by the mind-bogglingly well-read John Wilson. I can’t think of another publication whose bimonthly arrival evokes such anticipation. Or one that I read cover to cover without fail.

Books & Culture, July/August 2011That’s partly because reading it at all closely lets me act as if I’ve consumed far more books than I actually have. But most B&C reviews do more than encapsulate: they transcend their sources and become enlightening essays in and of themselves. At the very least, almost every page gives me something to think about.

Back, then, to Rob Bell and hell, which show up at least a couple of times in the current issue of Books & Culture. Most directly, novelist N.D. Wilson’s not unfair but not especially kind review of Love Wins. (Warning: you need a subscription to read all of Wilson’s piece and the next review I’ll mention. So here’s a taste of Wilson on Bell: “…a pitiful piece of coffee-shop thinking and foggy communication. It reads like an extended blog post…” Uh-oh. Nearly 1200 words and counting…)

Which is followed, probably not coincidentally, by Calvin College philosopher Kelly James Clark’s review of Gary Scott Smith‘s Heaven in the American Imagination. Though Clark has surprisingly little to say about the merits of Smith’s book, he does present an intriguing essay on heaven, hell, and salvation that winks at the Love Wins controversy (“Let me state very clearly, lest the Piper prematurely ring the Bell again…”) and got me started me down the path of self-examination that led to this post.

And, if I decide to be easy on myself, Clark made me think that perhaps I shouldn’t worry that I don’t seem to be preoccupied by eternal fates (mine, at least).

He begins with the story of his Philosophy of Religion students, “scandalized” that the Anglican philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams had just given a talk questioning the existence of hell:

…the source of their outrage was that if there were no hell, they would lose all motivation to be faithful to God in this life. If one could grab for all of the gusto—sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (and no getting up early on Sundays for church)—and still get into heaven, why believe in God at all?

Even more striking for Clark (and for me, reading about it) is that his students

were motivated more by the stick (fear of hell) than the carrot (desire for heaven). Even more disturbing, they were motivated by selfish desire—avoidance of pain—not by love of or faith in God. Explaining to them that they should be faithful because God is our greatest good, even in this life, left them strangely unmoved. They indignantly demanded their hell.

Kelly James ClarkThis launches Clark into a rumination (occasionally featuring examples from the book under review, though not always) about the nature of hell and who goes there (and why we should pray—if not believe—that no one does) and then the “entry requirements for heaven.” Here Clark notes the dilemma that salvation by grace alone seems to put the focus not on what you do in this life, but what you believe. Leading to heresy-hunting and R.C. Sproul “barely” letting Arminians into heaven and, in general, to the kinds of doctrinal debates that make Pietists cringe or roll their eyes.

Now, Clark does acknowledge that Christians across the theological spectrum can agree that “heaven gives us a vision of a redeemed creation. Our earthly calling, then, is to coax the earth as close to this heavenly vision as possible. Justice and mercy won’t be delayed.” (Back to what I said about finding N.T. Wright convicting.) But otherwise, he seemed to be telling me (in my self-centeredness) not to worry about my relative disinterest in getting to heaven or going to hell. Clark concludes:

…if you’re tempted to apostasize, think about hell. If you’re a slave or are persecuted and in fear of death, or if you require a model for redeeming creation, think about heaven. If you’re not one of the above, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

And that, as I’ve confessed above, makes all the sense in the world to me. And so I go back to the beginning of Clark’s essay and try to pray these words from the great Jesuit missionary to Asia, Francis Xavier:

O God, if I worship thee for fear of hell, burn me in hell; and if I worship thee in hope of paradise, exclude me from paradise; but if I worship thee for thine own sake, withhold not thine everlasting beauty.

What about you? Do you think much about heaven and hell? Do they move or motivate you?


7 thoughts on “Hell and Heaven

  1. Great post, Chris. I find that I think a good bit about heaven, but less about hell. My thinking on heaven, like yours, is influenced by Lewis and Wright, as well as the singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson (not related), whose thinking on the matter seems influenced by the same sources (plus some Tolkien). I’ve had a similar experience to yours of thinking about heaven differently in the context of God restoring heaven and earth. I’m not particularly motivated by heaven or hell, but I am moved by the concept of heaven. I find Lewis’ over-arching description of heaven in “The Great Divorce”–utmost reality–to be particularly profound, and something I look forward to with great anticipation.

    1. Thanks, Kyle. I think “The Great Divorce” was the first book I read on the suggestion of a student at Bethel — and a great suggestion it was. “Utmost reality” sounds pitch perfect to me. I’ll have to look up Andrew Peterson; now that you mention a songwriter, it makes me consider that traditional Protestant hymnody—much as I love it—does not necessarily do a great job of helping us imagine heaven. I recall Wright lamenting the other-worldly quality of many favorite hymns…

  2. Nice one, Chris! I read _Love Wins_ a few months ago, just to see what all the kerfuffle was about. I did think that Bell did a good job of complicating the concepts of heaven and hell for a popular audience, and found his style and tone oddly winning (I also found his tone to be pretty “coffee shop,” but that seemed, to me, to be appropriate to his purpose and audience). On the other hand, I didn’t really find the book all that compelling, either. While I appreciated the way he raised the questions, I kept looking, thereafter, for a more substantive discussion of those issues that never materialized. I walked away from the book feeling rather let down and unsatisfied.

    That said, I have found myself recommending the book a lot lately, not so much because I think it’s a particularly great book but because I keep running into people who have not read it and yet seem to feel perfectly comfortable saying some very unkind–not to mention flatly untrue–things about Bell and _Love Wins_, simply because they heard from some secondhand source that it was “heretical” (which doesn’t track to me–since, at the very least, I would think that to be heretical one would actually have to assert something, and Bell goes out of his way to avoid assertion). I’ve read a few pieces online that seem to see the book as part of some kind of nefarious conspiracy to undermine Christianity altogether (lumped in, in some cases, with other apparently horrid, apostate phenomena, like Bethel’s Interreligious Symposium!). Hence I’ve found myself suggesting, on several occasions, that it might be worth reading the darned thing for one’s self before passing judgment.

    1. Thanks, Mark! I have a feeling that I’ll probably come around to reading Love Wins once we’re a couple of years out from the controversy. My brother-in-law was reading it earlier this year, and it helped spark one of those great conversations that lasted until two in the morning.

  3. Chris,
    Although brought up in the church, like you, I was not raised no to put too much emphasis on either heaven or hell. Frankly, both were confusing to me as what I was taught in church and school (parochial) didn’t seem to gel with what I found in my own reading of scripture. In the past few years, my priorities and understanding of why we are called to yearn for heaven has changed. I have never experienced true prejudice, insurmountable poverty, or violent oppression. In short, life (although certainly not totally heartache free) has been pretty good. However, overseas travel, exposure to the inequity in this world, considering what my life would look like as a 33 year old mother in almost any other part of the world, and
    re-reading the Prophets in the OT have all contributed to a shift in my thinking about heaven that is making it less about me and more about being reconciled to my fellow Christians in suffering whose daily challenges are beyond my comprehension. As a person of privilege, I must work to determine my role in relieving the burdens of those to whom I am called to help, but surely I must start with praying for the mother who struggles each day to find food for her child while I am praying for God to restore my patience after a day at the pool with my little ones. For that mother, Heaven means the end of suffering and the arrival of justice in a way I may never comprehend. Yearning for heaven still
    doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m working hard to make it a habit. Thanks for the post.
    the OT this summer have all contributed to a stronger conviction to long to be re-united with our Savior.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Amy! Looking back over the post, I hope I didn’t sound too flip about the importance of heaven. The kind of yearning you express I find deeply moving; I meant more that I never yearned for heaven in the sense of a place “up there” that took us away from the concerns of this world. Hope to hear from you again!

      1. Your assessment that too much focus on what is to come takes us away from the reality of the here and now really resonates with me. Weren’t we supposed to be done with this earthly existence back in May? Or is it October now? This is a large part of the reason I never gave heaven much consideration growing up. It seemed very selfish in a way. I guess we can agree that yearning for “up there” remains an important part of the Christian responsibility towards the valid concerns of this world. It can serve to help take the focus off of self and develop a heart towards others. I especially appreciate your balanced take on the Bell controversy. I have not read it either. I think I will wait for you to do so (even if it takes years) and you can fill me in. I can reciprocate by filling you in on the nuance of Amish romance should your tastes ever shift:)

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