Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hell, Bell, and Christian Sales Tactics

As most people interested in the Christian universalism-vs-hellism controversy already know, Rob Bell's recent book (and the conservative backlash to it) sparked Time Magazine to do this week's cover article, "Is Hell Dead?", on the topic. As I was reading the article, I was particularly struck by journalist Jon Meacham's account of what lies behind the "traditionalist" resistance to questioning the doctrine of eternal damnation:
If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life? If, in other words, Gandhi is in heaven, then why bother with accepting Christ? If you say the Bible doesn't really say what a lot of people have said it says, then where does that stop? If the verses about hell and judgment aren't literal, what about the ones on adultery, say, or homosexuality? Taken to their logical conclusions, such questions could undermine much of conservative Christianity.
Now the second part of this account covers issues I've discussed before. I've talked quite a bit about biblical inerrancy and literalism on this blog, and my recent RD article about the conservative backlash to Bell focuses mostly on the motivations that spring from a failure to distinguish one's own beliefs about God from the truth about God--a confusion (or deliberate blurring of distinctions) that seems to underlie much of the impetus for treating critical questions as anathema.

But what struck me first when reading this passage was the first part--the part which asks why anyone should bother to accept Christ, to confess Jesus as Lord, if it isn't true that all non-Christians roast for eternity in fiery torment of the most horrific imaginable kind. I mean, why should I bother to tuck my kids in at bedtime if failing to do so doesn't mean eternal anguish in the pits of hell? Why eat breakfast if I could skip breakfast and yet still avoid unremitting agony? Clearly, everything I choose to do would be pointless if the alternative to doing it weren't damnation.

Of course I'm being sarcastic. The point is that we do all kinds of things without being threatened with damnation if we don't do them. I tuck my kids in because I love them and because I enjoy tucking them in, not because I'm trying to avoid some bad result (let alone one of eternal duration and ultimate horror). And while this shows that the rhetorical question Meacham poses is only marginally coherent, it doesn't mean that Meacham is wrong to pose it as part of what lies behind traditionalist resistance to universalism. I've heard rhetorical questions of precisely this sort often enough from Christian conservatives to know that there is something in the vicinity of these questions that truly worries them.

Of course, part of what may really worry them is that Christ is being rendered inessential for salvation--which they think undermines Christ's life and sacrifice, trivializing the Incarnation and Atonement. But this worry is clearly misguided, since Christ is hardly made inessential by supposing that the scope of His success in achieving the salvation of humanity is universal. Christian universalists do not hold that all are saved apart from Christ's saving work, but that all are saved because of it.

Perhaps, then, what is made inessential is our subjective response to Christ--what evangelicals have in mind when they speak about "accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior." But this doesn't follow from universalism either. The universalist could believe (and many Christian universalists do believe) that eventually everyone comes to make this subjective response--if not in this life, then at the moment of death or in a future state when the truth becomes clear to them in all its joyous glory (and the universalist might very well hold that this realization occurs only after a period of denial and rejection, during which they arguably suffer the natural consequences of living in alienation from God--a finite hell--and so come to see the intrinsic undesirability of such a condition).

(I won't pursue the free will arguments for eternal rejection here--if you're interested in why I find them unconvincing, buy John's and my book when it comes out, or look at a briefer version of the argument in my article in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate).

In any event, the point is this: Universalism neither entails that Christ is unnecessary for salvation nor that a subjective response of acceptance is unnecessary. It does, however, seem to entail that conversion to Christianity in this life, participation in Christian life, church attendance, etc., are unnecessary for avoiding eternal hell. If Gandhi--who had nice things to say about Jesus but remained a Hindu all his life--is not in hell, then being a Christian in this life is not necessary for avoiding hell.

But this brings me back to my original sarcastically-expressed point about the rhetorical question, "Why bother becoming a Christian if non-Christians are saved?" This question assumes that the only good reason to convert to Christianity in this life is what happens in the next, and more specifically that becoming a Christian in this life is the only way to avoid damnation in the next. But do Christians really believe that? Do they believe that there is nothing positive to be gained in this life from participation in Church life, nothing worthwhile that is gained during our earthly tenure by being a part of a Christian communion, by living with a sense of God's presence, by meditating on the gospel narrative, etc.?

Do any Christians seriously want to say that? If not, then the rhetorical question collapses on itself--because there are all sorts of reasons why someone might "bother" to embrace a Christian life even if the ultimate destiny of those who embrace a secular life, or a Hindu life, or a Buddhist life, is the same in the end.

For all these reasons, the only sense I can make of the rhetorical question so many conservatives ask is this: What they are really worried about (although they may not be fully conscious of this) is that they will be deprived of a tried-and-true sales gimmick that many Christians have been using for centuries in their efforts to swell the ranks of Christian churches. Specifically, the gimmick of making people scared of the consequences of not participating in Christian communities.

This is not a new conclusion for me--and I think I may have made the same basic point more eloquently in a post from a couple of years back, Selling Christianity. Nevertheless, it is a point worth making again. And if this is what is really going on, then Bell may have realized something that conservative evangelicals like John Piper haven't quite caught onto yet: This sales gimmick isn't working anymore.

Rather than being a selling point for participation in Christian life, the doctrine of eternal damnation is increasingly becoming a liability. In our pluralistic world, to cleave to a religion that says everyone else is going to roast is to cleave to something that is hard to see as anything but ugly. And the old theological arguments that try to paint it as something other than ugly, and that try to represent our uneasiness with the doctrine of hell as nothing more than a suspect side-effect of a demonized "enlightenment philosophy" (as if enlightenment philosophy were entirely divorced from the ethical ideas of the Christian culture in which it was born)--well, those arguments are sounding increasingly implausible.

I'm not suggesting that Rob Bell is just a salesman with a better marketing campaign. Rather, I am suggesting that Bell may better represent the values of the emerging generation of evangelicals--a point that finds support in a great recent essay by Rachel Held Evans. If so, then when the conservative establishment rails against Bell with cries of heresy and excommunications by Tweet, what we may be witnessing is a once-privileged group scrambling desperately to cling to a position of authority that is steadily slipping from their grasp.

I don't know if that is true, but I really think it might be.


  1. It makes me wonder about the person who asks the question, whether it is a journalist or conservative evangelical. If Christianity is really only about eternal bliss or damnation after a person dies, then what a sad religion it is. All a person has to do is read the Bible to see that Christianity is about far more than that, and truncating its point to just being about life after death is an awful mistake. If conservatives learned that they did not need to "accept Jesus" to one day experience eternity with God, would they then regret their decision? What does this say about their beliefs and motivation?

  2. It sounds like Gandhi is in hell and will remain there until the torture breaks him and he accepts Christianity... which you seem confident will happen eventually, perhaps with good reason!

    This all goes to the proposition that theology attempts to put a totem, enforcer & rationale behind normal humanist morals, without mapping to them (or anything else) coherently when you get down to the details, leaving this discussion prepetually flapping in the wind. ... Between those dedicated foremost to the theology, (devil take the reasonable and nice), and those dedicated to the relevant values foremost, willing to trim and adjust the theology to make a bit more (humanistic) sense, at the expense of a coherent theological story. Don't be surprised that these groups can't agree, since the theology never made any sense to start with.

    And the evolution of the Christian sales tactics, or theology, or whatever else you want to call it, points in the same direction.. that the whole edifice is not built on anything more solid than a myth/fantasy yoked to a social power structure, whether temporally reinforcing a status quo or revolutionary and progressive. At any rate, it is a creature of its people and their values, rather than some kind of greater or esoteric knowledge. Just ask the Mormons!

  3. C.P.O: I agree.

    Burk: Um, while your disdain for religion is clear, the rest of what is going on in this comment is less so. The basic gist SEEMS to be the assertion that since theology isn't empirical science, anything goes.

    I would claim that good theology is constrained in a number of ways--ways I've sketched out in numerous places on this blog, in my University of Tulsa Lecture, in my book, etc. But I think one of the most important restraints on theology is imposed by morality.

    Of course, morality can impose constraints only if it's not the case that anything goes in morality--which gets us back to the topic we've been exploring in other posts recently.

    In fact, I'm growing increasingly convinced that religious fundamentalists really see morality in something like the way that logical positivists do--as nothing but expressions of personal sentiment--which is why they can so readily embrace not only biblical inerrancy and doctrines of eternal punishment, but also the astonishing claims about God that pour out in the wake of natural disasters. For example, the idea that God would punish the Japanese with devastating earthquakes/tsunamis/nuclear catastrophes because their Christian population is too small--well, it's an horrific idea. But if our horror is nothing but a free-floating subjective attitude, no more fitting than delight, then it can be set aside as irrelevant, and the horrifying doctrine happily embraced.

    In short, I'm suggesting that your idea that theology has NO standards presupposes your conviction (with which I humbly disagree) that morality is at root nothing more than subjective attitude and preference. And this leads me to think about Kant, who would concede immediately your view that "pure reason" has nothing to say about religious doctrines--but who thought that "practical reason" (which he thought provides the foundation for morality) has a great deal to say about religious doctrine. In fact, his Religion with the Bounds of Reason Alone is a brilliant enlightenment reworking of the theological enterprise USING MORALITY AS THE STANDARD for developing and assessing religious claims. While I'm not sure I agree that morality offers the only standard for theology, I do agree with Kant that it is an essential one--but morality cannot possibly serve this function if it is utterly subjectivized.

    In that sense, then, my entire critical approach to traditional theological ideas is premises on understanding morality as having a more substantive foundation than many modern empiricists are prepared to give it--which is all the more reason to devote more attention to moral theory on this blog.

  4. well written and wonderfully done. thanks for the post!

  5. I think the human condition is such that God is actually sensible; it seems like our cognitive faculties are such that we have an in-built notion of God. We may well come to the conclusion that God does not exist, but I think everybody sees in some basic way how God would be if God existed. Thus, even atheists understand the force of the argument from evil. Moreover I suppose that in most people, and not even particularly religious people, that sense is so strong that one can call it a sense of perception.

    In the context of the human condition then I find it then incredible and indeed upsetting how serious theists can embrace the dogma of hell even as a possibility, for it contradicts God’s perfection as much as anything possibly can. I don’t consider this an intellectual matter, but a matter of direct God-sense, a God-sense that as far as I can see even most atheists have. From where I stand it is sobering to consider how one can be a theist in the head and so very lost in the heart. And it’s not only that so many people believe, or at least say they believe, in hell; it’s that they apparently approve of it or at least intellectualize it, calling it “holy justice” or something like that.

    I believe that the typical atheist will immediately recognize the truth of the proposition “If God, the greatest conceivable being, exists then God will not send a conscious being to eternal torture”. I suppose here the typical atheist reveals the natural state of being a human. The fact that so many theists not only fail to recognize this truth, but actually strongly believe the opposite, or perhaps are too afraid of saying anything but that they strongly believe in the opposite – only evidences that there is something serious wrong with the state of religion today. That as a practical matter religion may worsen instead of improve the fallen state we are in, fill it with dread instead of hope, fill it with alienation instead of love. If the Devil existed I would say that the dogma of hell was his greatest achievement, for I can’t imagine any other deception which so effectively hides the truth and beauty and love of God.