Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, continues to stir controversy and provoke debate in many religious circles. Whether Bell is correct or not about who gets into heaven and who will go to Hell is not something which anyone can know.
Both Bell’s theories and those of the people who dispute him about what a loving God would do are simply mirrors of both his and their pre-existing definitions about love, God, and the afterlife. More importantly, those beliefs are great predictors of how people behave in this life and since that is the one we all share, it’s the one upon which we ought to focus.
Tell me a person’s beliefs about the afterlife, including the absence of such belief, and I’ll tell you how they function in this life, for better or for worse. Notions of the afterlife reflect our most deeply held values about this life, which because they are not always realized here, are deferred to the next life. Like all ideals, they represent that to which we aspire, and if we are serious about our aspirations, those conceptions of the hereafter impact how we live in the here and now.
Debates about what will “really” occur in the future are best left to the future. But the implications of the beliefs that people hold, have enormous impact not only on their own lives, but on the lives of all the people around them – especially those who don’t share their beliefs.
Whether there is an afterlife, how important its existence is to any individual or group, their belief about who gets in, who doesn’t, and why – all of these shape how they live and how they relate to others, especially to those who do not share their beliefs. Ultimately, it is this last issue which is the most important.
At the end of the day, it is far easier to hurt and even to destroy another human being whom one already believes is cursed by God. After all, the hurt done to them in this life is nothing compared to the suffering they will endure in the next life and, so the argument goes, reflects God’s ultimate will and may even cause them to repent of whatever sins they are supposedly guilty.
Over the centuries, millions of people have been subjected to everything from regular degradation to the most horrendous suffering, including mass murder, all because they were outside of some other group’s salvation scheme. That tragic behavior continues to this very day in more places and ways than we can name.
Unfortunately, even those who are well-intentioned, including Rob Bell, may be guilty of perpetuating this problem. While not necessarily as toxic as consigning people with whom he disagrees to Hell, Bell’s description of them as “truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation” is not much better. Am I in that category because I am a non-Christian? Are atheists in that category because they don’t believe in the existence of God?
While Bell argues for love, he does so in a way which embraces a belief in the still real spiritual failings of what I am sure equals billions of people. While his approach is a big deal within Christian theological circles, and is certainly an upgrade on those beliefs which regard many of us not only as damaged but as eternally cursed, it’s far from where I think such beliefs need to be.
Personally, it strikes me as arrogant to imagine that when we are done in this life, there is nothing that comes after. But it strikes me as both arrogant t and dangerous to believe that whatever is coming will be measured by any one set of beliefs that obtain in this word, and certainly not that people will be measured by the rules of those communities to which they did not belong when they were here.