Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood


What Evangelicals Might Learn from Mormons … and Mormons Should Learn from Rob Bell

posted by Jana Riess

Rob Bell is my kind of heretic.

His new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived has been loudly branded as heresy by fellow evangelicals Mark Driscoll and John Piper. That made me inclined to like it already, as Driscoll in particular has never been known for especially thoughtful or loving ideas.

Many Christians (including some who have not actually done Bell the courtesy of reading the book) have called for Bell to recant or further explain his views—because apparently, putting your ideas in a 224-page book is not yet clear enough.1

Even Relevant magazine, in a balanced, tender and exemplary review, came away stating that Bell’s views on hell are based on “shaky foundations.”

Of course they are shaky foundations—at least to those evangelicals who have been steeped in the notion that a loving God is fully capable of consigning the vast majority of the human race to eternal damnation. (Plenty of evangelicals, like Bell, do not believe this.)

But to Mormons, many of Bell’s ideas about hell will sound quite familiar.

The Mormon emphasis on universalism is one of the points of LDS theology that many outsiders don’t realize or understand. (One of my few criticisms of the new Book of Mormon musical, for example, was its inaccurate portrayal of Mormon views of hell; see here for my review of the show and here for my interview with one of its creators, in which I ask about the “Spooky Mormon Hell” song from the musical score.)

Mormons have always believed in a God who refuses to dispatch anyone to an everlasting hell, which is a critique Bell makes again and again of traditional evangelical views. (Bell asks us which is “more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?”) In this way, Mormon universalism is not unlike the universalist views that swept the early American nation in the generation before Joseph Smith. Clearly, Smith imbibed the waters that had also nurtured earlier New England universalists like Charles Chauncy and Benjamin Rush.

Like some of that generation, Mormon theology also embraces the idea that this short human life is not our only chance to make decisions that may affect eternity. After this life, people who never got the chance to hear God’s good news, or who rejected God for reasons that made perfect sense at the time, will have the opportunity. And in Mormonism, everyone means everyone, from serial killers to soccer moms. The Mormon God is a god of second, third, and fourth chances . . . unto eternity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that punishment for sin does not exist—the 18th-century Universalists entertained the idea of a temporary “hell” that would purge evil and purify a person to dwell with God, and Mormons speak of a comparably short-lived “spirit prison” in which individuals may learn, repent, and eventually cross over into paradise.

Bell arrives at a similar place when he speaks of the possibility that all people have the chance to move from “judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life,” even after death. No one is cast off forever, and God, says Bell, is prepared to work on human hearts for “as long as it takes.”

I hope that plenty of Mormons read Bell’s book. It’s accessible and concise, and truly funny in places. At times, it’s even prophetic, calling people of faith to repent of one of the greatest idols of the age: religious complacency. Here Mormons might stop patting themselves on the back that an evangelical megachurch pastor has come around to “their” POV about hell and take a long, hard look at their simplistic ideas of heaven.

It’s critical to scrutinize beliefs about the afterlife—in the end, what we believe about heaven and hell reflects what we believe about God. Where Mormons have gotten it right, I think, is that the plan of salvation is “God’s plan for happiness,” and that heaven will resemble life here, only better. We will enjoy the continuation of family ties and friendships; the earth will be made new; we will have resurrected bodies. As Bell points out, a worldly approach to heaven is surprisingly biblical; the prophets speak of the coming age as one filled with feasts and homes and grain for all. It is, literally, heaven on earth.

Where Mormons have erred, and erred egregiously, is in blindly failing to realize that God did not only intend heaven to resemble life here—but for life here to resemble heaven. Our task as Mormon Christians is not to ensure that we and all other human beings “go to heaven,” as though heaven were entirely removed and far off. Instead, it’s about dragging the heavenly future into the earthy present. We follow the commandments not because doing so will earn us frequent flyer miles for a nonstop postmortem evacuation flight to heaven, but because doing so equips us to serve God’s children right here, right now, in the refugee camp that is this world. Bell writes:

It’s very common to hear talk about heaven framed in terms of who “gets in” or how to “get in.” What we find Jesus teaching, over and over and over again, is that he’s interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven.

Bell’s book presents an unwavering emphasis on the kingdom of heaven as something that begins in the here and now. This is something that Joseph Smith understood intimately but that contemporary Mormons, whose pastel imaginings of heaven sometimes appear to stop with the blissful reunions of their own eternal families, have largely forgotten. The kingdom of heaven is not a vacation spa located somewhere else in a future, postmortem time. It is to be built here and now, brick by brick, by people committed to God’s justice. Some of those people will be Mormons, and many more will not.

 

1 To be fair to the critics, Bell’s book, for all its strengths, is not particularly thorough on the idea of hell in the Bible, church history, or theological traditions. Evangelical readers who want more in-depth theological and biblical explanations of hell by two of their own should look to Sharon Baker’s excellent recent book Razing Hell and N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.


  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Andrew

    Where Mormons have erred, and erred egregiously, is in blindly failing to realize that God did not only intend heaven to resemble life here—but for life here to resemble heaven. Our task as Mormon Christians is not to ensure that we and all other human beings “go to heaven,” as though heaven were entirely removed and far off. Instead, it’s about dragging the heavenly future into the earthy present.

    Beautifully written. My Mormon-ness explains why I don’t feel entirely comfortable in mainstream Christianity; this understanding of the kingdom is why I’m not entirely comfortable in Mormonism.

  • Kevin Barney

    Great post, Jana. I also commented on this at The Seeker, the religion blog of the Chicago Tribune, here:

    http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/religion_theseeker/2011/04/hell-hath-no-fury-for-mormons.html

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Timothy Dalrymple

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Driscoll or Piper actually called Bell’s views “heresy.” At least, if they have, I am not aware of it. Driscoll strongly criticized Bell’s views, and Piper’s “Farewell, Rob Bell” can certainly be interpreted as a severing of communion (or a recognition that another person has walked out of fellowship with him), but the word “heresy” is so loaded that I wouldn’t say a person condemned X as heresy unless they actually directly said that.

    But I could be wrong. Perhaps they said it somewhere and I’ve missed it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Larry Ogan

    I’m almost finished reading “Love Wins”. The book’s message aligns perfectly with my personally held belief in a unconditionally loving God.

    Will justice be served? Yes! Does it rain on the heads of good people and not so good people? Yes! Did our Savior Jesus Christ willingly make a loving sacrifice of his earthly life to atone for the sins of the World? Yes! Will everyone live in the presences of God? I can’t speak for Him but I have faith in his Goodness, Grace and Charity.

  • http://www.lauralarkins.com laura

    What I love about Rob Bell is that he starts up important conversations. I love that I found this essay on your site, which I was already following because you do the same thing.

    Some people freak me out with their worries about 666 and end times, and in the same way, “hell”. I am a believer in hell. Hell is God’s vengeance, which is like his justice, and which provides a fair amount of hope, peace and strength for those of us who have been victims of evil in others. So, I don’t like it when people who take God’s promises of vindication and rewards for right and wrong away.

    But, on the flip side, I love that we can embody heaven here and now.

    I really don’t want you or anybody to miss this: Heaven is not heaven without God’s presence in life. He set the rules in love, and for his glory, of how that is managed. We experience continual access to his person through the Holy Spirit, which is given when we stop being enemies of God, and that is through humbly accepting that he made his perfect Son, Jesus, the perfect sacrifice for our sin against him.

    I want to go to heaven because I want to continue my amazing relationship with God. I don’t understand people who want heaven without God in it whom they have rejected their entire lives. I also don’t understand people who don’t recognize that hell is just this world without all of God’s graces.

    I love that Rob Bell leaves the possibilities for those who have never heard back at the throne of a loving God. I’ve always disliked militant religions who act like they have all these mysteries wrapped up. Love, Laura

  • http://nakedtheology.net Francine

    “Where Mormons have erred, and erred egregiously, is in blindly failing to realize that God did not only intend heaven to resemble life here—but for life here to resemble heaven.”
    I’ve been LDS for 28 years and one of the reasons I joined was the fact that life here could and should resemble life in heaven. It was the basis for all I did for my family…to have a bit of heaven on earth in our home. I have left the church to try to reconcile some things that bothered me (doctrines)… there are things that need to change. I like Bell too and consider him brave.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lynn

    Well, it’s about time somebody got it right! That’s one book I will put on my “must read” list. It’s good to see an evangelical Christian take the “hell is for Mormons,and everybody else” crowd to task. It’s also good for him to call Mormons on the carpet for thinking too much of heaven “out there” and not enough of bringing it to earth.

    I’ve been LDS for a good share of my life, but have been inactive for close to a year. Not sure I’ll be going back, because I have some major disagreements with some of the doctrines and policies of the Church. I’m really going back to my New Age beliefs, which includes “as above, so below”, which ties in with the idea that heaven isn’t just a place of eternal bliss in the afterlife. It is a concept which should be brought to earth.

    By the same token, evangelicals have it wrong when they go around condemning everyone to hell. I honestly think they will be surprised when they get to heaven, to see all the people of other religions, and even of no religion, there. I really feel that God is much more merciful and forgiving, and understanding, than they give him credit. After all, God is Love.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment jade

    Hm I find this inaccurate. I am a Mormon and trust me, we don’t really view heaven as a luxurious spa. We sort of view it as more important works to be done for God. We view this life and this work as preparation for the next life and the next work, and are told often by our leaders to find happiness and joy in the journey. We intend not to relax in heaven. We are taught everything in this life about ourselves besides worldly goods will carry over. If we still haven’t controlled our tempers we will still have a temper when we die, and that may hold us back in that life just as in this life. So the goal is preparation, preparation, preparation. And through our efforts, to better ourselves and serve others we are at peace.

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