Although I have been the most utter atheist for all of my adult life, I cannot rid myself of an interest in theology, or more precisely, exegesis -- so I am reproducing the article below. I would normally have nothing but contempt for an "evangelical" equivalent of Episcopalian Bishop Spong but I think that there are good Biblical grounds for some of the more unorthodox views described below and I will add my reasoning on that at the foot of the reproduced article -- JR
A new book by one of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors, challenging traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation, has created an uproar among evangelical leaders, with the most ancient of questions being argued in a biblical hailstorm of Twitter messages and blog posts.
Rob Bell addressed the issue of heaven and hell in a video about his book, “A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”
Such statements are hardly radical among more liberal theologians, who for centuries have wrestled with the seeming contradiction between an all-loving God and the consignment of the billions of non-Christians to eternal suffering. But to traditionalists they border on heresy, and they have come just at a time when conservative evangelicals fear that a younger generation is straying from unbendable biblical truths.
Mr. Bell, 40, whose Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has 10,000 members, is a Christian celebrity and something of a hipster in the pulpit, with engaging videos that sell by the hundreds of thousands and appearances to rapt, youthful crowds in rock-music arenas.
His book comes as the evangelical community has embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has instead erupted at electronic speed.
The furor was touched off last Saturday by a widely read Christian blogger, Justin Taylor, based on promotional summaries of the book and a video produced by Mr. Bell. In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Mr. Taylor said that the pastor “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”
“It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine,” wrote Mr. Taylor, who is vice president of Crossway, a Christian publisher in Wheaton, Ill.
By that same evening, “Rob Bell” was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Mr. Taylor’s original blog had been viewed 250,000 times. Dozens of other Christian leaders and bloggers jumped into the fray and thousands of their readers posted comments on both sides of the debate, though few had yet seen the entire book.
One leading evangelical, John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, wrote, “Farewell Rob Bell.” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in a blog post that by suggesting that people who do not embrace Jesus may still be saved, Mr. Bell was at best toying with heresy. He called the promotional video, in which Mr. Bell pointedly asks whether it can be true that Gandhi, a non-Christian, is burning in hell, “the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.”
Others such as Scot McKnight, a professor of theology at North Park University in Chicago, said they welcomed the renewed discussion of one of the hardest issues in Christianity — can a loving God really be so wrathful toward people who faltered, or never were exposed to Jesus? In an interview and on his blog, he said that the thunder emanating from the right this week was not representative of American Christians, even evangelicals. According to surveys and his experience with students, Mr. McKnight said, a large majority of evangelical Christians “more or less believe that people of other faiths will go to heaven,” whatever their churches and theologians may argue.
“Rob Bell is tapping into a younger generation that really wants to open up these questions,” he said. “He is also tapping into the fear of the traditionalists — that these differing views of heaven and hell will compromise the Christian message.”
Mr. Bell, who through his publisher declined to comment on the book or the debate, has resisted labels, but he is often described as part of the so-called emerging church movement, which caters to younger believers and has challenged theological boundaries as well as pastoral involvement in conservative politics.
As the controversy exploded last week, HarperOne moved up to March 15 the publication date of Mr. Bell’s book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
Judging from an advance copy, the 200-page book is unlikely to assuage Mr. Bell’s critics. In an elliptical style, he throws out probing questions about traditional biblical interpretations, mixing real-life stories with scripture.
Much of the book is a sometimes obscure discussion of the meaning of heaven and hell that tears away at the standard ideas. In his version, heaven is something that begins here on earth, in a life of goodness, and hell seems more a condition than an eternal fate — “the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”
While sliding close to what critics consider the heresy of “universalism” — that all humans will eventually be saved — he never uses the term.
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, called in an article on the magazine's Web site for all sides to temper their rhetoric and welcome more debate.
“We won’t be able to discern where the Spirit is leading if we don’t listen and respond respectfully to one another,” he wrote.
“God once used a donkey to make his will known,” he added, “so surely he is able to speak through both traditionalists and gadflies.”
I think Pastor ring-a-ding is right for the wrong reasons. He is clearly motivated mainly by the current Leftist "prizes for all" mentality, which in turn emanates from their totally counterfactual belief that "all men are equal". So his is a secular rather than a religious gospel. I may be wrong but I rather doubt that he would be able to give a straight answer to the question: "Do you believe in God?" Spong just ridicules the question.
But orthodox Christianity is unbiblical too. It is still largely mired in the pagan add-ons that the church absorbed in its first thousand years of existence. And the heaven/hell story is one of the pagan add-ons. Why else is the supposedly "immortal" soul repeatedly referred to in the Bible as dying? (e.g. Ezekiel 18:4).
The original Jewish hope of an afterlife (as recorded in the OT) was of being resurrected to life on this earth after the coming of the Messiah. They believed that when you are dead you are dead, with no mention of some part of you flitting off to heaven or elsewhere. I give you an excerpt from Ecclesiastes chapter 9:
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.... Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest
And Jesus looked forward to a resurrection on earth too. Do I need to repeat: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven"?
St Paul, however muddied the waters somewhat with his proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15:
"So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.... Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."
So Paul was also perfectly clear that nothing happened until the resurrection and that we are mortal, not immortal. What he changed was WHAT we are raised as. Instead of being recreated as flesh and blood persons on this earth, he saw us as being transformed into spirit beings after the manner of God and the angels. And he said NOTHING about Hell. The good guys were brought back to life and the rest of the dead stayed dead.
So what the Bible says is just ignored by orthodox Christianity. It should be a huge theological puzzle as to whether we accept the OT or the Pauline account of the afterlife. Who is right? Jesus or Paul? Yet there seems to be almost no awareness that the question even exists.
And there also seems to be no awareness that there is no Biblical basis for the doctrine of hellfire. There is no mention of such a thing in the Bible. The words translated in most English Bibles as "hell" are in the original Hebrew and Greek "sheol" and "hades", which simply mean "grave".
There is on one occasion a reference to burning in the fires of Gehenna but Gehenna was simply the municipal incinerator of ancient Jersusalem -- a place where the bodies of criminals were thrown. It is NOT any kind of spirit realm.
So I agree with pastor ring-a-ding that the hellfire doctrine is repulsive -- but you can't pin that doctrine onto the Bible. The original Bible doctrine DOES fit with a loving God: The faithful are resurrected and the sinners are simply forgotten.
For more details on the above matters see my scripture blog -- e.g. my post of 3.14.2005.