As an author that travels and speaks in evangelical circles, I read constantly. About two books a week, along with subscriptions to 10 or more magazines and the usual diet of blogs and news. It's a busy pace, but I have a good reason for it. I speak to about 100,000 evangelical Christians a year, and people are always asking me what I think about the latest book.
Over the past few months, one of the most common questions I get is what do I think about Rob Bell's book "Love Wins." Is Rob Bell right that hell is figurative and might not be forever? Or is John Piper right that everyone that hasn't personally accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will be eternally tormented in literal flames of fire?
I don't appreciate it when people duck important issues by being wishy-washy, so let me say upfront that I lean toward the belief that hell is a real place for those that reject Jesus. The nature of hell is less clear, but the reality that the scriptures teach of something very bad happening after death to those who consciously reject Christ is quite clear.
Unlike most authors who write on this site, I actually -- cue the boos! -- like John Piper. Love him or hate him, Piper is an excellent expositor of Scripture. He knows how to build his case from Scripture, and how to remain firm in his convictions. I admire that in a person.
I also appreciate what Rob Bell has done with "Love Wins." I pre-ordered the book long before the date of its actual release, so when Amazon delivered the book to my door, I ripped open the box, started reading -- and couldn't put it down. One of the things that struck me was how similar Rob Bell's approach to Scripture is to John Piper's. Both authors present diametric opposite views of hell, yet both authors rely heavily on Scripture to prove their case. John Piper relies on one set of Bible verses to prove his case. Rob Bell relies on another set. Bell's critics like to say that he doesn't believe in the authority of Scripture, but I didn't get that impression at all after reading "Love Wins." I think that Rob Bell takes the Scriptures very seriously. I don't think he's trying to sell a watered-down version of the Gospel so that he can make a name for himself, as some of his more cynical critics claim. I think that Rob Bell is as firm in his convictions as John Piper is, and for all I know, he could be right.
Actually, I hope he's right.
Something that's been troubling me lately about this whole discussion is how often Christians have come up to me and said things like, "What if Rob Bell is right? I mean. If everyone gets into heaven eventually, then what's the point in talking about Jesus to people?" Some of them even look disappointed at the possibility that hell might be empty and heaven might be full. It's almost as if they want God's grace to be limited to Christians only. My question is this: WHY does it matter? Would it actually change how I live my life if everyone is saved in the end?
I would like to think that it wouldn't.
A well-known pastor/theologian said of Rob Bell's book, "If you adopt universalism, then we no longer need the Church, we don't need Christ, or the cross."
So the only reason Jesus came is to die? Clearly Jesus died and rose again, and that's important, but is that the only thing Jesus came to do? What about his life? What about his teachings? What about the way he taught us to treat outsiders? Or how to treat the least of these? Isn't that important too? I like to ask people, "What if it turned out to be true that everyone will make it to heaven in the end, would that de-motivate you? Would you still attend your weekly Beth Moore Bible study? Would you still talk about Jesus with others? If not, then are you telling me that the only reason you're in church is because others aren't making it to heaven?"
It's true that some people are motivated by fear. I would assume that some people do begin to follow Jesus because they are afraid of going to hell. And I would guess that some of my Christian friends are motivated to share their faith so that these others will NOT go to hell. But overall, fear is a poor long-term motivational force. Love is the greatest motivator of all. I'm sure this is a controversial point, but we need to get beyond whether John Piper or Rob Bell is right. Loving God and loving people is the greatest commandment and far more important than whether or not there is a literal hell. Our motivations for wanting hell to exist (or not) might expose something inside of us that needs to become more like Jesus. After all, the one thing that Jesus clearly and always focused on were our internal motivations.
Whether people without a relationship with Jesus go to hell and burn, or go to some other place without God or simply cease to exist -- that's not good. Perhaps if we spent less time thinking about what and where that place is, and more time loving our neighbor, and even our enemies, the ones who might go "there" won't.
Carl Medearis is the author of 'Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism.'