2011: the Year of the Hell Debate

2011 was a turbulent year for American evangelical Christian identity. A major lightning rod within our identity crisis was the publication of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Under the surface of the fierce debate about heaven and hell that flared up with his book’s publication have been conflicting views about the implications of believing that the Christian gospel is important and beautiful enough to share with everyone, which is one presumption upon which all evangelicals agree. I’m hopeful that the end result of our year of debating hell will be greater insights in how to proclaim the gospel in a way that reaches people in today’s world (assuming we agree that’s important).

Evangelical identity is rooted in a tension between an uncompromising commitment to Biblical truth (dogmatics) and a zeal to explain the gospel in terms that people today can understand (apologetics). Evangelicalism loses its soul when it loses either its dogmatic or apologetic side. You can’t evangelize effectively unless you reach out to people using language and values they can understand, but if along the way you lose the dogmatic core of the gospel, you’re no longer preaching Christianity.

In recent decades, the apologetic side of evangelicalism has taken a beating. This is because the post-60’s culture wars have crystalized America into two partisan parallel universes in which neither side is interested in making sense to the other, since the other side does not consist in reasonable, partly mistaken people who need to be respectfully negotiated with, but pure enemies who must be defeated and destroyed. Since apologetics depends on trying to understand where other people are coming from, our cultural context misreads apologetics as “taking the enemy’s side” and thus heresy or betrayal.

So what does the Bible say about apologetics? I see a helpful description of it in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 where Paul describes his ideological flexibility as a tactic for sharing the gospel:

Though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win some of them. To Jews I became like a Jew in order to win the Jews. To those under the law, I became like one under the law… To those outside of the law, I became like one outside the law… To the weak, I became weak so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all means I might win some. I do it all for the gospel.

What does it mean to “become all things to all people”? Certainly Paul wouldn’t have smoked crack with crackheads in order to share Christ with them. But I do think that he would affirm the truths he could affirm in the values of every person he shared the gospel with in order to get them excited about Jesus. And I think he would be alarmed at the way too many evangelical Christians today aren’t interested enough in sharing the gospel with people of opposing ideologies to try to understand them and appeal to their values. Paul would probably be branded a heretic or traitor if he tried to be “all things to all people” in our anti-apologetic age.

Half a century ago, the well-respected evangelical author C.S. Lewis published a book called the Great Divorce, which provided an apologetic presentation of heaven and hell, since it’s a topic that turns many people off to Christianity. This book had a profound influence on me as it offered an explanation for why some people choose to reject an infinitely loving God and spend eternity in hell. Lewis presents hell as being our mistaken choice to reject God rather than God’s choice to reject us.

Fast forward to 2011. Rob Bell’s book didn’t make any claims that C.S. Lewis didn’t make (his book cites Lewis as a major influence), but for some reason C.S. Lewis’s apologetics are “grandfathered in” by today’s evangelicals, while Rob Bell’s apologetics represent betrayal and heresy. Of course, to be fair, Bell wrote from a more strident polemical perspective rather than couching his claims in an allegory like Lewis did.

In any case, whatever Rob Bell is right or wrong about, I really hope that evangelicals will accept the challenge to seriously engage the critiques of our theology by both non-believers and disillusioned ex-evangelicals. If Christian apologists do this, they will sometimes fall outside the bounds of sound Biblical theology and need to be reined back in, but I think this is less of a problem than evangelicals assuming that their religious piety is measured in direct proportion to how disagreeable their ideology is to people on the “other side.” Being deliberately disagreeable is not an evangelical attitude to have because it’s the opposite of evangelism.

So I hope that whatever debates we face in 2012, the result will be an increase in our ability to reach people with the gospel. This will need to involve a willingness to follow the model of the great evangelist who was willing to be all things to all people.

3 thoughts on “2011: the Year of the Hell Debate

  1. Brilliant post, especially the bit about C.S. Lewis being guilty of the same “heresy” as Rob Bell. Hell as “our mistaken choice to reject God rather than God’s choice to reject us.” Amen.

  2. Amen. I hope that I’ll do a good job in 2012 of viewing things with an open mind and recognizing that people on opposing political sides can have different pieces of God’s truth. I am probably going to try to ignore the presidential election as much as possible though. My main hope is to win Democrats and Republicans for Jesus Christ (and perhaps even some who think they’ve already got Jesus).

  3. Smart post. I hope for the best in 2012, though I fear the presidential election will provide a black and white only lens for religious discussion (Obama’s “faith” vs. Romney’s “Cult” with no room for dialogue allowed). Perhaps my fears are misguided, and there will be fruitful conversations about the importance of faith. Maybe people will accept Obama at his word about his beliefs as well as Romney at his, but I’m not confident this will be the outcome. Here’s to finding out and trying to listen before speaking!

    -Jeremy

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