Forget Hell: A Rebirth of Christianity
Editor’s Note: Some supposedly devout Christians (especially on the Right) have condemned Islam and its holy book, the Koran, as uniquely violent influences in history, a claim that suggests these people have never actually read the Bible or studied the history of Christendom.
The merger of Christianity and the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century A.D. marked the transformation of a fledgling religion based on Jesus’s peaceful teachings into a political powerhouse that justified all manners of inhumanity and terrorized people with threats of Hell, a betrayal of first principles that is now being challenged, as the Rev. Howard Bess notes in this guest essay:
A few days ago, I received my copy of Time magazine and found that the Rev. Rob Bell, a pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a graduate of my alma mater, Wheaton College, had made the front cover.
My attention was further piqued when Time mentioned Bell in its next edition as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. What had my fellow alumnus done?
Bell, who just turned 40, founded Mars Hill Bible Church, which now claims over 7,000 members. But he also wrote a book, entitled Love Wins!, which questions the existence of Hell. He finds a Hell of eternal punishment as incompatible with a God of love.
The book would have drawn little attention had it been written by a theologian with a liberal reputation. Instead, it was written by Bell, a greatly admired leader in the Evangelical world, a graduate of Wheaton (of Billy Graham fame) and of Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the centers of Evangelical thinking.
As a a pastor of an Evangelical megachurch, his book was like dropping a tank of ice cold water on a crowd of Evangelical worshippers while they were deep in prayer for persons headed for Hell. It is getting their attention.
As I read the articles about Rob Bell, my reaction was that he is not a voice that has arisen out of nowhere. He is not the creator of a product; he himself is a product of a new strain of Christian thought.
Previously, I have reported on the appearance of the Emergent Church, which is not a monolithic institution but rather has a profile that identifies it as a movement.
Some of the markings of participants in the Emergent Church are 1) they are not Bible literalists, 2) they are Jesus centered, 3) they are this-world centered, and 4) they are open to real discussions about real theological issues.
Emergents have been difficult to study because much of the movement is under the radar. However, it is estimated that as many as ten percent of American Christian worshipers meet in home churches, which are loaded with emergents who are leaving traditional congregations in droves.
But emergents are not religious dropouts. They are devout believers, who are searching for a faith that is intellectually honest and vital to modern living. Emergent congregations love to discuss religion and worship is led by lay persons.
Rob Bell is a part of the Emergent Church generation, but he stands out because he is daring to do his thinking openly in a setting where his voice was entirely unexpected. A part of the profile of Mars Hill Bible Church is the encouragement of open discussion.
New Testament scholar William Herzog Jr. has effectively made the case for the existence of two distinct religious traditions in the Bible. He refers to one as the great tradition and the other as the small tradition.
The great tradition is that of the religious institution, controlled by a religious hierarchy. The small tradition is that of reformers and critics.
Herzog argues that Jesus was part of the small tradition. In that framework of understanding, the Emergent Church -- and a preacher/pastor/writer like Rob Bell -- are a part of a vital and cherished Bible tradition. They are the small tradition in a modern world.
Just as Emergent churches of the 21st century have markings by which they are identified, so also the great and small traditions of the Bible have distinguishing marks.
The great tradition placed an emphasis on the Holiness of God. The small tradition centered on God’s compassion. The great tradition emphasized order. The small tradition focused on grace. The great tradition tended to be exclusive. The small tradition was more inclusive of neighbors.
The great tradition emphasized correct worship. The small tradition saw purity of heart as more important. The great tradition was defensive of self and property. The small tradition was welcoming and sharing.
The great tradition laid emphasis on Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The small tradition was more likely to make reference to Genesis and to the prophets.
(Unless the Bible reader recognizes these conflicting opinions, the richness of the Bible material is missed. It is the discussions and the arguments that make Bible-related faith intellectually exciting and relevant to living everyday life.)
The work of Rob Bell is an important milestone in a powerful remaking of Christian churches. He is a part of a movement that is now in its second decade.
The influence of Emergent churches and ministers like Rob Bell is only beginning. I suspect traditional churches will continue to stagnate and shrink. In the coming decades, I fully expect American Christianity to be revitalized.
I have no crystal ball that tells me what American Christianity will look like in the future. But it will not look like the traditional denominational churches or like late 20th century Evangelical churches.
I believe the changes will make the heart of the rabbi from Nazareth glad.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
To comment at Consortiumblog, click here. (To make a blog comment about this or other stories, you can use your normal e-mail address and password. Ignore the prompt for a Google account.) To comment to us by e-mail, click here. To donate so we can continue reporting and publishing stories like the one you just read, click here.
Back to Home Page