An internet controversy is percolating around a soon-to-be-published book by well-known evangelical preacher Rob Bell. In this text, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell apparently advocates the “universalist” position on salvation, according to which everyone in the end is saved and that Hell, accordingly, is empty. Many of his evangelical co-religionists are arguing that this doctrine runs counter to classical biblical Christianity and is designed to appeal to a trendy post-modern audience for whom the only unforgiveable sin is to be “exclusive.” This dust-up over Hell made the main page of the CNN website the other day and has prompted tens of thousands of responses and questions. Obviously Hell is still (forgive the pun) a burning question among both believers and non-believers.
Time and again, as I go about the work of evangelization, I encounter from both believers and non-believers, a fierce objection to the doctrine of Hell. In its most radical form, it runs something like this: how could a God who is described as infinitely good create, sustain, and send people to a place of everlasting torment? Many people have directed my attention to a video done some years ago by the comedian George Carlin, a former Catholic. In front of a deeply sympathetic audience, Carlin exposes what he takes to be the silly inconsistency of Catholic belief: “for one mortal sin (usually having to do with sex), God will condemn you to a place where you will suffer forever in unbearable pain…but yet,” the comedian goes on in a mocking voice, “He looooves you!” Judging from their hysterical reaction, the audience can’t get enough of this. One wonders whether Carlin doesn’t have a point. Perhaps we ought simply to jettison this horrifying and apparently illogical doctrine, this superstitious holdover from a primitive time.