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). Continue reading

Five Disappointments with Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell

I want so badly to transcend the tribalism of the Rob Bell vs. Team Hell battle, but I have to say that I’m frustrated Francis Chan only gave himself three months to write Erasing Hell, his response book to Love Wins. I guess I should start by saying nice things about his book. I did appreciate the way that Chan was trying to be confessional and vulnerable and sympathetic (22, 163, other places). I also saw that he was trying hard to find ways that his presuppositions had changed over the course of his three-month writing blitz (e.g. maybe annhilationism isn’t heresy, 86). He also acknowledges very importantly (121-122) the way that it’s abominable to proof-text Matthew 25 for “eternal punishment” but then dismiss what Jesus says we have to do to avoid hell. Continue reading

Learning to Love God’s Judgment

[This is a repost of an article I wrote for Ministry Matters on the two sides of God’s judgment and the way that Christ’s atonement converts us into loving God’s judgment.]

Many have misinterpreted this year’s battle between Rob Bell and the neo-Reformed bloggers who have dogged him for the claims that Bell makes in his book Love Wins. It’s actually not a debate about whether or not hell exists; there’s a deeper question whose answer shapes how we understand the nature of hell and what we are saved from by the cross: Why does God judge us? Continue reading

Anathematical: A New Category of Christian?

Along with fellow bloggers Kurt Willems and Carson Clark, I have been contemplating my identity as an evangelical who is at odds with many other Christians that identify themselves as evangelical. I’m sure someone is snickering that this is the sort of thing that a privileged white Jesus nerd with too much time on his hands would pontificate about. Anyway, I’ve decided not to call the Christians I’ve been beefing with all my life evangelicals anymore. Since the word fundamentalist has apparently gone out of circulation, I’ve decided to rename them anathematicals. Let me explain. Continue reading

It’s Henri Nouwen’s Fault

My family is staying at my wife’s cousin Kent’s ranch in Texas. Kent has the kind of library you might expect from a Lutheran pastor including quite a selection of Henri Nouwen books. I grabbed Creative Ministry and started flipping through last night. Then it hit me: Nouwen was the one who first made me a “heretic.”

Long before Rob Bell got big, I was an emotionally troubled 24-year old kid in Toledo, Ohio who stumbled into the mostly lesbian congregation of Central Avenue United Methodist Church. There was a Bible study offered for people who were struggling with depression. It was based on Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved. It was through that Bible study in the safe shared vulnerability of a circle of fragile, rejected people that I got saved for the fourth and (thus far) final time.

Nouwen’s central claim in the book is that our fallen human condition results from our failure to recognize (in a holistic and not just cognitive propositional way) how much God loves us. To Nouwen, accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ amounts to embracing God’s love as the basis for our identity. Prior to our liberation, we are imprisoned by the need to prove our worth to others (what I have come to call self-justification) which either causes us to despair and fall into depression or to take refuge in a nihilistic hedonism or to develop an artificial shell of self-assurance that makes us cold, ungracious people.

Nouwen’s gospel was the first viable alternative I had found to the predominant evangelical gospel I was raised with: that God is (literally) mad as hell at humanity and will spare you from His wrath if you somehow prove to Him that you believe that Jesus “died for your sins” and/or that He’s the “Lord of your life” (depending on which Romans verse you give the most weight to). God’s primary concern is not reaching out to us in love but defending His honor which is the underlying purpose of His grace. For many of my teenage and young adult years, I assumed that this was the only possible gospel and the reason I couldn’t accept it was because I was a sinful rebel who would repent when it finally made sense to me, which I begged God to help me with.

Nouwen gave me a positive alternative to the wrath-centered gospel which basically involved a shift from understanding salvation as God’s change of mind about whether or not to punish me to viewing salvation as my liberation from a self-imprisoning state of mind which was punishment enough in itself. I really think this distinction is the major fault-line in the present American evangelical identity crisis, which is not really a debate between those who defend the doctrine of hell and those who reject it, but between those who need for hell to be God’s juridical punishment and those who see it as a self-imposed eternal exile that we choose when we refuse God’s advances.

After reading Nouwen, I got further corrupted by John Wesley, Karl Barth, Gustavo Gutierrez, Elsa Tamez, and Jurgen Moltmann, among many others. But Nouwen is probably the reason why when I read Rob Bell’s infamous “heretical” work Love Wins, I said, “Yeah, I already knew that.”

What makes Nouwen an especially insidious “heretic” is that the Christlike gentleness of his nature oozes out over all of his writing. He’s basically about as opposite you could be from Mark Driscoll and still be a man. So if you’re trying to come up with a personal blacklist of writers who might corrupt you from the dominant gospel of pop-evangelicalism, then definitely put Nouwen’s name on that list. If on the other hand, you’ve come to a point where what you learned in Sunday school just doesn’t add up for you and you’re starving for an account of the gospel that really is good enough news to give your life to spreading it, then definitely check out Life of the Beloved, the Wounded Healer, Return of the Prodigal Son, Reaching Out, and Creative Ministry (which I’ll probably blog about tomorrow), or anything else with Nouwen’s name on it.