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.
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.
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.
At 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.
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.
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.
That’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.
This 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?