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What if there’s no hell? One pastor’s controversial question

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.

Watch more “In Perspective” essays by Jon Meacham.

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  • Michael Kitchen

    “The answer? No one knows.” Are you kidding? Where do these crazy comments come from? I’m afraid they come from ignorance. And an amazing closed-mindedness.

    The real answer is “Of course some people know!”

    And here’s another doozy: “Scriptures are the products of human hands and hearts; literalism is for the weak, and fundamentalism for the insecure.” That’s not what God’s word says; that’s what man’s words say. The Scriptures say that holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. That is a far cry from your perspective.

    And you finish your statement of misunderstanding with “For without doubt there is no faith.”. What? Faith is trust in God. It is the antithesis of doubt. In fact, it leaves no room for doubt. Jesus (God) loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Let’s not forget to use the facts of the Scriptures instead of falsehood when we desire to pontificate on things we don’t understand. Someone might actually believe your words, and be led astray.

  • None

    You’re missing the point. Clearly as dat.

  • Beth

    If doubt is the antithesis of faith, then how could faith exist without doubt? God has given us free will to choose between believing (faith) and not believing (doubt). Without the existence of doubt, there would be no choice to make, as we would all believe one thing. The need for debate would not even enter our minds.

  • Aesculapius,

    You state that “faith leaves no room for doubt”. Yet humans rely upon faith whenever factual or sensory evidence is lacking, i.e., whenever doubt exists. Faith is used when certainty of proof is missing!!!! Your ‘certainty’ that the Scriptures are facts ironically smacks of the very thing Jon Meacham claims: that literalism is for the weak, fundamentalism for the fearful. If you want to talk of facts and truth, frame your argument with 21C knowledge, not ‘faith”. If faith is your link between you and the modern world at large, you are likely to be very mistaken. You who is so certain, in a sea of mystery.

  • Michael Kitchen

    There is a particular double meaning to the use of the word “faith” in the Bible. In some cases, it is a replacement for the word trust. We all trust in something or someone; we trust our banker to keep our money safe, we trust our teachers to teach our children correctly. But more important is to trust in Diety. To think that we know better is laughable at the least. Relying upon our exceedingly finite base of knowledge to date is truly presumptious. I much prefer to rely upon the infinite knowledge of the Creator. There can be no doubt when dealing with the statements of a loving Diety. Only ignorace of the Creator will bring about fear and weakness.

  • Michael Kitchen

    The concept that there are always opposites may not even be true, but even when there is, those opposites may still be figments of our imagination.

    Not accepting something Diety tells us is a choice, not a doubt. We can be sure He is correct and still choose to do something else or go another way.

  • Bill

    Seems I remember some guy who claimed to be the son of god who, by many Biblical accounts, exhibited doubt. If someone purportedly that close to the source was able to have doubts, why are they any more onerous and unacceptable in his followers? Please….. your words simply serve to illustrate the truth of Mr. Meacham’s word. Absolutism is acceptable only to the closed-minded.

  • Leticia Cortez

    It is frightening to read the sheer blindness and stupidity of people who believe in god and hell/the devil without doubt simply because a book tells them so. a book written & re-written by men. The bible is a great piece of literature, to take it literally is to embrace ignorance. To doubt is the best thing for any thinking human being. I respect people’s beliefs, whatever makes you happy, just don’t push your beliefs on others. I’m agnostic, I simply don’t know whether ther is a god or goddess or multiple gods. I’m sprirityual and truly love nature. religion has been the cause of too many wars and destruction/

  • onewayup

    Literalism is for the weak?  By that comment are you suggesting that the entire Bible is some sort of amalgamation of interpretive stories that we are left with to apply in each generation?  If that is the case then the all basis for Christian truth is gone and all our forefathers in the faith, going back to Jesus, were weak due to the fact they literally believed Jesus taught about hell.  Trying to appear as a rational intellectual by appeasing all with a diluted opinion that stands for nothing except that “we don’t know” helps no one and adds to the confusion that so many people have in regards to the truth of Christ and His teachings on a right relationship with God and the penalty for rejecting our Creator.  I suggest reading “The Reason for God” by Timothy Keller if you truly are open minded and want to understand the rationale for God and how He relates to us in this life and the one to come.