With Easter and Passover, this week is central in the religious lives of observant Christians and Jews. Both occasions commemorate stories of deliverance – of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt, and, in Christian terms, of humankind from sin and death through the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.I don’t like using the term “countless,” because in most cases things being described can be counted, but in these cases it fits: these ancient narratives shaped, and are shaping, countless lives. Whether one believes or not, religion is as real a force in the life of the world as economics or politics, and it demands fair-minded attention. Even if you think the entire religious enterprise is at best misguided and at worst counterproductive, it remains vital, inspiring great good and, sometimes, great evil. Understanding religious impulses and their applications then is essential. I agree with William James, who once said, “God is real since he produces real effects.”
And the best-selling book of the moment in Christian circles is provoking real – and intense – conversations. It is a small but intriguing work by an unconventional evangelical pastor asking an unconventional question: Does hell exist? Written by Rob Bell of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., the book is entitled “Love Wins.” It suggests that what Christians believe to be the atoning work of Jesus’s death and resurrection is not particular to Christians, but for everyone, in Bell’s words, “who ever lived.” In other words, a central claim of evangelical Christianity – that individuals must accept Jesus as savior – is being questioned by one of the faith’s own, a pastor with a young and growing congregation.
Though the hell of popular imagination was not part of either pagan or Hebrew tradition, Christians can make a biblical case for either view. In some passages it is clearly stated that there is a hell, and that some will be condemned to eternal torment. Others seem to suggest that, in an image John the Divine borrowed from Isaiah, God shall at the last wipe away every tear from every face. The answer? No one knows.
But here’s what we do know. Bell is working within an important tradition of the church in which believers approach the creeds and scriptures and messages with a historical and critical sensibility. Scriptures are the products of human hands and hearts; literalism is for the weak, and fundamentalism for the insecure.
On this Easter and Passover, amid stories of deliverance, we could do worse than to remember that religious belief, like history itself, is a story that is always unfolding, always subject to inquiry and ripe for questioning. For without doubt there is no faith.