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.

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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.

—-
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at www.twitter.com/maguyton.

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About the Author

Morgan Guyton

Morgan GuytonMorgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at www.twitter.com/maguyton.View all posts by Morgan Guyton →

  • Fivedills

    Very nicely written. If anything can be learned from the Love Wins debacle it is this: be fair, kind, and loving. Honor the Lord with our speech.

  • Fivedills

    Very nicely written. If anything can be learned from the Love Wins debacle it is this: be fair, kind, and loving. Honor the Lord with our speech.

  • Benmanben

    As I see it, the only way I think we can ever truly convert someone to Christianity is by preaching and following the Bible. Of course we can also reach out to those in need, and following the Bible means treating them well, but I do not think we ever need leave the Bible in attempt to convert people, for only God converts, and God does not need advice.

    • benmanben

      Of course we need to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which we must not confuse with our selfish feelings and wants.

    • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

      But in your schema there is no room for apologetics because you only see in black and white terms of following the Bible or not following the Bible. You also seem to have a lot of confidence in your ability to interpret the Bible flawlessly. Whether you explain the Bible in the terms of early 20th century modernism (which is what many evangelicals call “Biblical” today) or present the gospel in ways that acknowledge the issues within postmodern consciousness is not the same issue as whether you’re following the Bible. Many evangelicals are really defending modernity against postmodernity instead of defending the Bible, when modernity itself is far more atheistic than postmodernity is.

      • benmanben

        Where did I show confidence in MY interpretation?
        Why do you think I mentioned the Holy Spirit?

        • Jennifer A. Nolan

          You seem overconfident because you keep citing “sound Biblical beliefs” without explanation and without appreciating that other believers think differently.  And you mentioned the Holy Spirit the day before you wrote this comment; it’s only a few column inches up from here.  This snubbing of heretics (real AND imagined) has resulted in enormous tragedy for the Christian endeavor: it has made far too many of us bullies, dictators, and murderers.  Surely this cannot be the will of our Lord!!

    • Anonymous

      We follow Jesus, a Living Person.

      • benmanben

        Is not the Bible FROM God?

        • Anonymous

          The point of the Bible is that it points us to the Living Word, Jesus Christ. It is the manger that contains the Christ. What matters is the Living Word, who was in the beginning, created all things, is with God, and is the Word made flesh who pitched his tent among us. Jesus is the ultimate Word.

      • benmanben

        Is not the Bible FROM God?

    • Guest

      So I assume you preach out of the hebrew and greek text of the bible so as to not “leave” it…sorry but in as much of a christianly way possible, you are a fool.

      • Anonymous

        You are trying to make a good point in a bad way. Christ, as I listen to Him, instructs us not to call each other fool. And, yes, we cannot idealize any English translation or think that Biblevreading is simple and obvious

        • Jennifer A. Nolan

          Thanks, Duh.  By the way, where’s your picture??  I miss it!

          • Anonymous

            I don’t know why it disappeared from my profile. How’s this? I think it captures my “duh” character :)

          • Jennifer A. Nolan

            Thanks for your answer, Duh. At least you’re trying to fix it. I don’t see it “capturing your character,” but it is adorable!

            ________________________________

      • benmanben

        That sounds judgmental to me.
        .Please explain what is foolish about what I say.

      • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

        Wait a minute! King James wrote the Bible. What are you talking about?

        • Jennifer A. Nolan

          King James wrote the Bible??   This looks facetious, I know, but with so much ignorance out there, you may be leading someone up the garden path — never a good idea in the conversion business!

      • Jennifer A. Nolan

        Ouch!!  I don’t like this guy’s comments, either, but the labeling puts us on the same intellectual level as his “sound beliefs” talk, and on a lower level of personal behavior.  At least he’s right about the need to try to discern God’s will.  We should do better than these playground insults.

    • Andy J. Funk

      Christians follow Jesus of Nazareth, not the bible. That would be to make the bible an idol…not good :D Sorry, I just read your last line benmanben: “…for only God converts, and God does not need advice”. Though, I don’t think you were trying to be funny with that last part ;)

  • benmanben

    I do NOT think it is OK to fall out of sound Biblical beliefs.
    God cannot have made a mistake, he knows all and makes perfect decisions,
    so do not pretend as if you know better a way to convert a man.

    • Anonymous

      >>
      I do NOT think it is OK to fall out of sound Biblical beliefs.

      But what are “sound Biblical beliefs?”

      My denomination’s?  Or yours? Or that guy’s over there?

      now, as to “so do not pretend as if you know better a way to convert a man….”
      My denomination’s?  Or yours? Or that guy’s over there?

      • benmanben

        The Bible’s beliefs are sound biblical beliefs. 

        • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

          But yours and mine aren’t because we will never understand God’s word perfectly.

    • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

      True. That’s why we have a tension between a zeal for finding ways to explain the gospel in accessible language and staying within the bounds of sound Biblical beliefs. The problem is when we deliberately make the gospel unpalatable to others in order to “earn” our salvation by believing a difficult gospel. Doctrinal works-righteousness is the most common heresy in evangelicalism today.

      • benmanben

        I cannot change the gospel. 

        • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

          So what you’re implying is that your interpretation of the gospel IS the same thing as the gospel. That’s a bit arrogant, don’t you think?

  • Anonymous

    >>
    but if along the way you lose the dogmatic core of the gospel, you’re no longer preaching Christianity.

    Maybe you lose your evangelic identity, but it seems to me that Christianity and evangelical dogmatism are not necessarily the same thing.

    I have come to believe that the Holy Spirit teaches each of us in the way and at the level we are best able to comprehend and grasp God’s glory.

    Thus, two people might disagree as to what a particular bit of scripture means, and yet both be right.

    Extending this idea, it could be said that denying another’s understanding of scripture is a form of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit

    • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

      Biblical truth is a symphonic phenomenon, meaning that we can hear multiple harmonics from the same Word which are not the same but do not clash with one another either. “Dogmatic” was perhaps the wrong word choice, because it necessarily refers to a secondary level of interpretation. Orthodox is probably a better word. We do need a canon to bind us and some respect for the interpretive tradition of that canon even though we may have new interpretive insights. Otherwise we don’t have a coherent gospel.

  • Tjfleming60

    Grace and Truth are not in conflict with one another or competitors but they provide an important balance. Often in our discussions because we are so defensive about our own perspectives we are not open to the perspectives of others. After reading some of Mr. Bell’s comments I understood his approach. To me the major media helped create the conflict by trying to present Mr. Bell’s book as an attempt to correct church doctrine and re-interpret scripture.

    • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

      Many conflicts are instigated by the media since hysteria gets more hits.

  • Andy J. Funk

    Bell, I thought, raised many of the questions we ought to be asking in our churches. One problem I had with “Love Wins”, is that Bell has placed every “answer” to the questions in neat little packages. He has come up with the one answer in order to deal, once and for all, with the problematic issues facing Evangelicals who live within Modernity still. I am, of course, possibly overstating it. He also seems to “create” a god of his choosing, with statements such as, “I wouldn’t follow a God like this, or that…”, loosely quoted :D These are the weakest points of his book, in my perspective. 

    The thing I HATED about the “conversations” which transpired with the publishing of the book, was the simple fact that the most fervent haters of this “grace preacher” didn’t even read the damn book! I had countless talks with people bashing Bell and making all sorts of claims as to what he was and what he wasn’t…all the while refusing to read him. Truly frustrating and ultimately futile. I truly felt for Rob Bell due to this unfair treatment/reaction.
    Peace!

    • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

      Bell oversimplified and caricatured his opposition, certainly. Some of his exegesis was atrocious. I would have been pissed off if I self-identified with the people he was dissing. But he was trying to engage in apologetics, which is a key part of evangelism that has become unimaginable to people who live in the ideological tribalism of today. Apologetics is the opposite of being a troll. An apologist actually tries to win the other person over to his/her perspective while a troll simply disses and ridicules in a way that has no practical purpose other than self-satisfaction.

      • taichi

        I’ve heard from pastors that Bell’s exegesis isn’t great, but where can I find trustworthy counters to his exegesis? By what standard is one person’s good and another’s “atrocious”?

        • Jennifer A. Nolan

          Easy:  You go to divinity school and study hard; you read every word of the Bible carefully, making it all a part of your blood and marrow; you also read Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and the other great intellectual saints, especially on eschatology and the nature of humanity’s relationship with its Creator.  You make of this a lifelong project.  I don’t read much Bell; but apparently, Rev. Guyton isn’t impressed with the depth of Bell’s Biblical learning.

          • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

            My biggest complaint is with his use of Paul’s midrash on the rock of Horeb. Paul says that Moses struck the rock and the rock was Christ. And Bell wants to say, see that means Christ is EVERYWHERE. Buddhists and Hindus believe in Jesus; they just don’t know it. That’s a whole lot of claims out of one little verse.

          • Jennifer A. Nolan

            This is going to be sooo teeny-tiny narrow, but here goes: I hope you don’t think I’m as sloppy as Bell, and I must say, that interpretation of the Horeb symbology is laughable.  Thank you for pointing that out.

        • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

          Part of the problem is that Bell was trying to write a popular book rather than a scholarly one. I think he probably thought that supporting himself with a lot of footnotes would make the book a dry read. But he made some claims that went beyond what was supportable from the Biblical text. See my response to Jennifer below.

  • Jonathan Roberts

    I completely disagree with Morgan and I highly recommend he 1. Reread the Great Divorce, 2. Read the Christian Research Institutes defense of C.S. Lewis by  Louis Markos in Vol. 34 No. 5 2011. C.S. Lewis did not agree with Rob Bell’s view of universalism and while agree that Bell has started a great debate on this topic. If anything people now need to be more clear on what the Bible actually says, read Francis Chan’s new book “Erasing Hell” for a truly Biblical view on Hell. Thanks for the article. 

  • Jennifer A. Nolan

    This is the most wonderful reflection on Hell that I have ever read.  “Why some people choose to reject an infinitely loving God.”  It’s a point worth making, because quite a bit of this rejecting is happening right here on this comments page!  And along with the bullies, there are a lot of misery-mongering pity-trippers (you know who you are!!).  All of this is a turning away from the Creator and His Son, and toward the emptiness of Hell.  As Greg Lake sang in a more secualr context, “Hallelujah, Noel, be it Heaven or Hell — the Christmas we get, we deserve.”

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