Americans may have thought that cracks in the façade and framework of evangelicalism would show up most visibly when serious evangelicals argued whether Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee would be the better presidential candidate. But now we have a chance to see that other divisive issues among evangelicals beg for attention. When one of these, a theological argument, no less, makes its way to the New York Times and other papers plus many blogs, it’s time to pay attention. Bystanders who think they have nothing at stake in the non-political arguments, and who have never heard of Pastor Bob Bell of Grand Rapids, Michigan, or his critic, neo-Calvinist John Piper, may stand by in fascination, but they are likely to be reached this time. The topic? Hell, and a punishing God’s use thereof.
Bell, featured in the Times story, is a star of the emergent middle among evangelicals. He is seen by his enemies as baiting those to his right by writing too kindly about God and the billions of mortals destined for hell, and they insist that softness has to stop. Pastor Bell is soon to publish Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. His publisher and others have tantalized the public with clips from the book, but the critics did not need to have read it and do not need to know more than that Bell is not so sure that a God of love will condemn those billions who never heard of Jesus Christ, or those millions who have heard but did not recognize him as their Savior, in order for them to fire up their own condemnations of Bell.
The Michigan pastor-author is not alone; Bell’s hell is paralleled in treatments of a whole wing of evangelicals. Some of this group “out” themselves, while others are in a kind of purgatory of inference that they are not quite orthodox on the subject. What this second wing keeps pondering and sometimes proclaiming is that there are ways to witness to the fact that God is holy and just, other than saying that he takes delight in punishing those ignorant of the stakes or those who are players of other salvation games. It is one thing to agree with sophisticated evangelical theologians and their artful articulators who semi-dodge the issue by saying that no one is ever sent to hell and suggesting that she or he chooses to go there.
Read on… This is hot… like hell.