I’ve been thinking about heaven and hell a lot lately, thanks to Rob Bell and his new book Love Wins. Have you heard of it? I haven’t read it yet, but this post really isn’t about what he says in the book. It’s more about why I have a hard time jumping into a discussion about hell.
I read somewhere once that theology grows out of autobiography. That is, our life story shapes our theological views. This is true of my position on hell. There was a time when I had no trouble giving my opinion about who was going to hell. I grew up in a church that taught me that all but a very few, very faithful, very obedient Christians were “lost.” We believed that Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and every other stripe of so-called “Christians” were facing eternal damnation. We even believed that those who believed everything we did about baptism, communion, and the Holy Spirit, but used a piano when they sang songs to Jesus were also without hope. Our confidence was bolstered by a stack of proof-texts that seemed to validate our points and condemn anyone who disagreed with us. I used to thank God I was born into the “Lord’s Church” and not some other church full of sincere, but mistaken people going to hell.
When I was in college I was exposed to a different way of reading the Bible and therefore a different understanding of the Gospel. One day a gear slipped in my mind and I found myself open to the possibility that those who worshiped with instruments were not going to hell. Before long I had come to the conclusion that the Baptists probably weren’t going to hell either. I eventually flung wide the pearly gates to everyone who called Jesus “Lord” and trusted him for salvation.
Now I look back with shame at how I judged and condemned other Christians who were following the same Jesus I was, many times with greater passion and piety and than I. Once I let go of my certainty that my little group was the only one being saved, I was reticent to pass judgement on anyone else’s eternal destiny. I had been so cocksure and so very wrong. Now I find it hard to mount up and ride against those whose theology is different from mine. My experience has taught me that God is always bigger than we think he is and matters of faith (and the heart) are always more complicated than they appear on paper. No matter how right we think you are, we can still be wrong.
There was a time when I was consumed with the question, “Can a Baptist go to heaven?” That question eventually gave way to “Can a Buddhist be saved?” When you start out with a version of the gospel that was as exclusive as mine, the distance between these two questions are surprisingly close. At least they were in my mind. My answers to these questions are more open and generous than they used to be. If pressed, I can marshal a few proof-texts in support of my positions and opinions. Just as those who disagree with me can marshal theirs. I’m still curious as to what the Bible really says, and doesn’t say, about hell, so I’ll eventually buy Bell’s book and see what he has to say.
My theological autobiography has left me with neither the energy nor the nerve to engage in a good old fashioned “Who’s in and who’s out?” debate. My position, or lack thereof, is open to assault from those so inclined to attack. I’ll be the first to admit that what they’re attacking is not a well-thought out theological position. It is a story. A story of an arrogant, judgmental young man who learned his lesson and is now trying to avoid making the same mistake twice. Yes, I realize I run the risk of making a mistake in the opposite direction. I decided a few years ago that I’d rather God judge me for being to gracious than too judgmental.
Others have learned similar lessons and managed to broaden the boundaries of God’s grace without doing away with them altogether. They’ve still got some fight left in them. My intellectual and emotional reactions to my judgmental religious heritage has led me in a different direction. I have no idea where hell is, how hot it will be, or who all will be in it. Nor do I know how many surprises will be waiting for us in heaven. I just know that these are things I am no longer willing to fight over. I’m not saying everyone will be saved. I’m not saying most will be condemned. I’m just saying I’m completely content to let God sort it all out in the end.