A sermon I preached last Sunday which includes material on Rob Bell's New Book, "Love Wins."
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This verse from our Gospel reading today is John 3:16, probably the best marketed verse in the Bible. You see the citation plastered on bumper stickers, screen-printed on t-shirts, and held up on signs at sporting events. But I often wonder if anyone is actually paying attention to the verse and what it is claiming. Listen to the verbs in those sentences: “Love.” “Gave” “Believe” “Not Perish” “Have.” God loves, God gives, We believe, We do not perish. We have eternal live.” And then in the next verse, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the World.” I actually think these are excellent verses to sum up what we believe as Christians about the role of Jesus. But that message is not what you often hear from those who claim to follow Christ.
Outside the situation in Japan, The big story in religious circles this last week has been the release of the book “Love Wins: A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person” by Evangelical pastor Rob Bell. Amazon is sold out of the hardcover, but luckily I read on Kindle these days. It has caused quite a stir in Evangelical circles because Bell makes some claims that strike at the very heart of traditional evangelical culture. His argument is this: The evidence of an eternal hell from both the old testament and new testament is spotty at best. Jesus is the only one to have returned from the realm of the dead and the post-ressurection Jesus didn’t seem interested in those questions at all. Therefore, the existence of an eternal realm outside the control of God where the creatures he purports to love are tormented for all eternity because they made bad choices in life or never heard the Gospel or heard it in the context of an abuse of power is suspect at best, and a twisting of the Gospel at worst. Bell is really an agnostic on the afterlife. He points out that Jesus doesn’t seem obsessed with it and asks why his followers are. For further support, he points out that the early church fathers Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa all held views similar to his.
Of course, the reaction has been quick and fierce. Many attacks were penned weeks before the book was released, based on the abstract from the editor. They are strident and almost hysterical in some cases. “How” they ask, “can you claim to be a follower of Jesus without a belief in eternal Hell? How can there be justice without punishment for the wicked? Without hell there is no sin, and without sin there is no need for God!”
Of course, this is patently ridiculous. God's existence does not hinge on our sin or even our belief in him. Sin is separation from God and is something humans innately feel no matter what their views of the afterlife are. And does justice really demand eternal punishment for temporal transgressions?
One of the most common criticisms I hear from Atheists about religion is one that Karl Marx first coined, that it is the “Opiate of the masses.” Marx observed that throughout history, religion had been used as a way to control people. While I think it is unfair to judge religion solely by this criteria, the arguments heard from these opponents of Bell pretty much play into that critique. For them, following Christ is a way to make sure that they and those like them get rewarded, while the people unlike them get punished. There is a real selfish dimension to this kind of religion, which really IS about control. Bell observes, “Have you ever heard people make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not part of that group?” Is this really anything more than an adult version of primary school playground politics writ large and attributed to God?
But Jesus during his earthly ministry was not part of the so-called “in-crowd.” To those in power he was considered a rustic teacher from the backwater of Israel - at best a curiosity. To those in charge of the temple, he was a harsh critic of their pride in their rituals. To those in charge of the synagogues, he was a fervent judge of their hypocrisy. To the ruling Romans, he was just another threat to their authority that they intended to squash, just as they had done to thousands before. The religion Jesus taught and practiced was not one of control, but of scandalous equality. Unlike the empire, The kingdom Jesus taught of was not one where everyone knew their place in the hierarchy. It was - uppity. It was, as Paul put it, one where human social distinctions slackened. As he wrote to the Galatians, “ There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It is for this reason that the Gospel of Jesus was such a threat to the establishment of his day. Roman society relied on strict social divisions between classes and making sure everyone stayed in their proper place. Saying that there was no difference between a free man and a slave or a woman struck at the very foundation of that society. And it’s for that reason that authentic faith in Jesus is a threat to society today, even Christian society, which still relies on it’s careful distinctions between who is in and who is out.
Maybe there is an eternal hell. Maybe there isn't. We don't have firsthand accounts. But what should be clear is that many people live in hells that are sometimes made for themselves and sometimes thrust upon them. Whether it's the Japanese nuclear worker continuing despite grave risk, or the Libiyan dissident in a torture chamber - the child raised in grinding poverty or the woman trapped in an abusive relationship who doesn't know where to turn. These are the hells that we as those who follow Jesus are called to help alleviate.
What is also clear is that in many cases the need for some people to believe in an eternal hell has less to do with concerns about God and has more to do with control - control of themselves and others. It is a use of fear as a method of control. Not the holy fear the psalms speak of, which is a recognition of the awesomeness and otherness of God, but the same kind of animal fear that makes rabbits freeze before predators and humans submit to slavery. The use of the holy name of Jesus to justify this human need for control is a misuse of the Gospel.
So if the religion we seek is not as Marx claimed it is, then what is it? If we are not to be about defining who is in and who is out and discerning everyone’s place in the heavenly pecking order, what are we to be doing? We are to be about what John 3:16 states. God did not send his Son in order to condemn the world - to make it perish. God did not send his Son in order to convince us we are separated from God - we already knew that. God sent his only-begotten Son so that the world might be saved through him.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated here as “Saved” is also translated as “Healed,” “Made Right” or “Made Well” in other contexts. Jesus is not talking about saving us from punishment in the afterlife, but the healing of the world we currently live in. In Jesus’ terms we are not all waiting to be taken to a different, eternal world, leaving this one behind. We are working with God, as God’s beloved, empowered agents, to transform this world into a “New Heaven” and a “New Earth," although the final transformation belongs to God. When we are “Saved,” we are “Made Well.” We are restored to right relationship with God, which has eternal consequences. As far as the afterlife, we are simply to trust that in God, death is not the final word and that we will all be part of the kingdom of God forever.
In the meantime, we are meant to work to build that kingdom. We are to live in joy, not fear. We are to examine our lives and bend them to kingdom values, not obsess about the afterlife. We are to treat every moment as a God-given gift, proclaiming the love of God for the world - not undercutting that message by focussing on some “Other world,” whether divine or infernal that is more “Real” than this one.
In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis writes, “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” That, in my experience, describes an awful lot of churches. Perhaps Jesus came to save us from hell after all. Perhaps, as Julian of Norwich once observed, God became human not to save us from himself, but from ourselves.