"Hell no," says Rev. Rob Bell.
"Hell yes," replies Rev. Albert Mohler.
These Christian brothers are arguing over the existence of hell. Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is, like most of his brethren, firm in his adherence to the longstanding heaven-hell afterlife divide. Bell, an evangelical superstar and the author of the bestselling Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, is all for heaven but not so sure about hell. Go to your corners, holy warriors. It's on!
It's about time this debate took place. After all, it's been raging among laypersons for centuries, not just out loud in coffee houses, living rooms and school cafeterias, but in the silent recesses of individual minds. In their solitary moments, even the staunchest believers entertain the occasional doubt about the whole eternal damnation thing. How can they not in a pluralistic world in which their friend at the office or the nice kid sitting next to them class is, presumably, doomed for eternity because they belong to the wrong tribe? As a recent Time cover story on this issue points out, the Gospel of John promises "eternal life" to "whosoever believeth in Him" -- meaning Jesus, of course -- a formula that leaves out a whole lot of decent people and welcomes reprobates who would give any heaven a bad name.
Many Christians, it should be noted, have a different understanding of who gets into paradise and who gets turned away -- a more open admissions policy, if you will -- but the believers-are-in, the-rest-are-doomed standard has been widespread and consequential. I did more than 300 interviews for my book American Veda, and that bit of cognitive dissonance -- as in, "How could a loving God condemn a good person like so-and-so to eternal torment" -- was the most common reason I heard for why people, especially young ones, turned their backs on their churches. It was, in fact, the assertion that Mahatma Gandhi is burning in hell for being a Hindu that launched Rev. Bell on the path to his controversial book.
It would seem, then, that hell might go the way of stoning adulterers, shopping bans on Sunday and other outmoded customs and beliefs. But that prospect has raised interesting questions, mainly "What then happens to heaven?" Without its fiery counterpart, paradise may be as hard to conceive of as day without night or warm without cold. If everyone gets to spend eternity in a celestial retirement community, does life on earth become like one of those athletic events for kids where everyone gets the same prize? You can expect fierce resistance to that notion from people who believe humans need the threat of harsh sanctions to behave themselves. The heaven-hell model may be irrational, but at least it gives believers some sense that the universe has rules. If hell becomes a theological dinosaur, what happens to the possibility of cosmic justice?
Materialists will say there is no cosmic justice. Good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. Get used to it. Life isn't fair. And, they would add, there are plenty of earth-bound, rational incentives for doing the right thing.
True enough, but others sense that there is cosmic justice, and they'll shift to another model, like karma. The concept of karma has been on the ascendant ever since offshoots of Hinduism and Buddhism began to take root in America a couple of hundred years ago, and its acceptance has accelerated in the past few decades. Since it does not depend on the judgment of an anthropomorphic (and apparently inconsistent and whimsical) deity, and because it sounds more like a scientific law than a religious doctrine, karma is seen by many as a fairer and more rational system of justice. When combined with reincarnation -- which, when you think about it, is a logically necessary companion -- the system suggests an ongoing curriculum, something akin to matriculating from grade to grade rather than having your fate sealed for all time on the basis of a single test.
Exactly how many Americans ascribe to karma I can't say. I am not aware of any rigorous studies. But a full 24 percent believe in reincarnation, and anecdotal evidence suggests that karma has become a ubiquitous shorthand for reap-what-you-sow justice. The term crops up increasingly in song lyrics, sitcoms, news reports and casual conversation. The fact that you've read this far without thinking, "What is this karma thing he's talking about?" is proof in itself. I didn't have to define it because it's already seeped into the national bloodstream, even in the pop-est of pop culture. On a recent episode of Glee, Finn and Rachel are engaged in some heavy teenage reflection. "Do you believe in that thing called karma?" he asks.
Rachel says yes, she does. Finn asks her to explain it.
"Well, it's the law of physics," she says, "whereby, for example, if you do something to hurt someone, well then the laws of the universe will work against you until you get hurt."
Simplistic, yes. Incomplete, definitely. But not too bad, considering the source, and no more facile than the sportswriter who chalked up the Lakers' collapse in the playoffs to team karma. As elucidated in Hindu and Buddhist texts, karma is a complex and nuanced concept. But I suspect it will become increasingly clear to Americans in the coming years, as those who intuit that the universe is fair -- or hope that it is -- turn to it as an alternative to the traditional heaven and hell model, which more and more people have come to see as a cosmic kangaroo court, unworthy of a tradition that equates God with love.
Visit the American Veda website.