Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rob Bell, Dorothy Sayers, and Hell*

By now, most, if not all, people who have an interest in theology and who follow various ongoing theological debates and conversations are probably aware of the current dust-up over the new book "Love Wins" by well-known mega-church pastor Rob Bell. The controversy revolves around whether Bell's new book promotes universalism, whether universalism is a belief that falls within the acceptable limits of historic Christian orthodoxy (that is, whether or not it is heretical), and whether those limits any longer matter in our current cultural setting.

For those unfamiliar with the doctrine of universalism, it is basically the belief that, in the end, all people will be saved, no matter how they have lived or what they have believed in this life. It is a rejection of the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment for those who have not embraced Christ as savior in this life and who have rejected living by God's revealed moral standards. In the end, somehow, God will save every person and all will enjoy the blessedness of life in the kingdom of heaven. Even if universalism is not heretical, it is a belief that has not been widely embraced in the history of the church.

It is easy to see the appeal of universalism. The doctrine of hell is nothing if not unpleasant. The thought of people enduring suffering without end is deeply disturbing to many people; it also raises a host of moral questions, which often seem to have no easy answers. How could a loving God sentence people to be tortured for all eternity? What about those who never hear about Jesus? What about those who have devoted their lives to doing good but who do not embrace Christian beliefs? What about all the jerks who claim to be Christians? The list of objections and questions could no doubt go on. My purpose here today, however, is not to try to answer all of these questions and objections, one way or the other.

I would like to take a slightly different tack on the issue than any I have heard so far. My approach to the issue comes from two different sources. One is my own concern about our reasons for accepting or rejecting any particular aspect of Christian belief. The other is from the writings of Dorothy Sayers.In a recent conversation with a friend concerning this issue and Bell's new book, I expressed a concern that many people seem to be rejecting the doctrine of hell based on the notion that because a belief offends us or makes us uncomfortable, therefore it should be discarded or changed. I noted that there often seems to be a mindset in our times that automatically says, "I have trouble with X, therefore X is wrong or should be rejected by all people of good faith," rather than one that begins with accepting the possibility that even when I have trouble with something, that doesn't mean it can't be (or shouldn't be) true. This view reduces the scope of acceptable beliefs and reality to that which makes sense to my own limited understanding of things. This, despite its obvious initial appeal, is ultimately a view of life and reality that I find rather small and constricting.

In her essay "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged," written over 50 years ago, Dorothy Sayers argues that,

Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as "a bad press." We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine -- "dull dogma," as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man -- and the dogma is the drama.

Sayers goes on to note that "Possibly we might prefer not to take this tale too seriously -- there are disquieting points about it." She then goes on to observe that in downplaying or dismissing the traditional dogmas of the church that, "We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him 'meek and mild,' and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies."

Though Sayers never directly addresses the doctrine of hell, her observations still ring true and seem relevant to me in our own times. Though the issue now has less to do with dogma being perceived as dull, and more to do with it being perceived as offensive, the general gist of Sayers point remains, I believe, salient. Those who are eager to do away with the doctrine of hell assure us that one of the reasons many people, especially younger people, cannot accept the Christian faith, is because the doctrine of hell is simply too, to use Sayers term, "disquieting" to them. But isn't it possible that in abandoning this doctrine, we are simply attempting to fit God into a narrative that makes life comfortable for us by demanding that God fit into our own limited understanding of reality and that reduces God to the equivalent of a house pet?

The Nobel Prize winning poet Czelaw Milosz observed that in contradistinction to the traditional Marxist observation that religion was like opium used to make people more at ease with their earthly situation, that in our time "we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death -- the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged."

The doctrine of hell, it seems to me, offers an assurance that our choices ultimately matter. What we do in this life has consequences that extend into eternity. Or as Milosz observed "All religions recognize that our deeds are imperishable . . ." The idea that our choices really matter is also a part of what makes good drama compelling. It is the belief that in choosing this path instead of that one or this action instead of that one, the character's life and the lives of those around him or her are affected and move towards certain destinations and that some destinations are preferable to others. If all choices lead to the same outcome, however, or no particular outcome is really preferable to any others, then no choice really matters and any action the character takes is ultimately meaningless. There is no drama. This, it seems to me, is at least a risk for those who embrace universalism. If, in the end, everyone will be saved no matter they have done or believed, then why does it matter what anyone does or believes? Life is robbed of its drama.

The Christian faith, by contrast, is one that has always called its adherents out of our own narrow perceptions and preferences. Instead, it has called us to lay aside those things and enter into a drama that is far larger than ourselves and our limited comprehension of reality. I recognize that this observation does not answer every difficulty raised by the doctrine of hell. I wonder, however, if at the very least, we can begin by admitting that God and reality are much larger than the limited scope of our personal preferences and understandings and that we might have to accept some things that initially seem offensive or that don’t make sense to us in order to enter into and participate in the larger reality that Jesus invites us into. Otherwise, it seems to me, we risk being left with nothing but the small and constricting world of our own choices and preferences, a world without drama, in which nothing we do ultimately matters.

*For those concerned, I am aware that Bell has explicitly stated that he is not promoting universalism. Though the controversy over Bell's book is one of the sources of inspiration for this post, I still think the issues I have addressed here are relevant apart from that specific controversy.