God So Loved the World, can you handle it?

2 Lent, March 20, 2011 St. Paul's Bellingham

John 3:16  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17  "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I want to speak to you about hell today, but please don't get up and leave just yet. Hear me out.

In case you don't know, a man named Rob Bell, who cares a lot about Jesus and wants people to know the love of Jesus, published a book recently. It is called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived.

In this book, Bell – who pastors a large evangelical church in the Midwest – makes the following statement, as quoted in an article in USA Today:

"A staggering number of people have been taught that a few select 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. It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."


Here's another quote:

"When people say they're tired of hearing about "sin" and "judgment" and "condemnation," it's often because those have been confused for them with the nature of God. God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone."

Here's one more, for good measure:

"None of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will."

This may seem reasonable to you, as it does to me.

Nevertheless, Bell's book provoked a firestorm in the blogosphere recently among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

Bell's views, says one commentator, are “dangerous and contrary to the word of God. ... If Bell doesn't believe in eternal punishment, then he doesn't think sin is an offense against a holy God." Another prominent Midwest pastor accused Bell of false doctrine by promoting universalism, the idea that there is no hell and that all people go to heaven.

Jumping to Bell's defense was the president of the world's largest evangelical seminary, who opined that Rob Bell was no universalist, but rather one who “is calling us away from a stingy orthodoxy to a generous orthodoxy”.

This whole discussion struck a big nerve. Over the last couple of days I read some of the comments submitted to various blog and news sites in response to this whole debate. Predictably, there are many posts out there from those who find the whole debate exasperating. They use the moment to cast a pox on all religious believers and the whole kit and caboodle of religion.

In response to one such opinion another poster agreed, saying

“I wish I could get back all of those hours I wasted in church.”

I must say I have a great deal of sympathy with those who – having heard in their early life the threat of hell hanging over them and internalized this threat as the very essence of God - flee the church scene.

There is a version of Christian proclamation that goes something like this: “God loves you very much, but if you don't believe the right way you're going to suffer eternal torment.”

Lutheran pastor David Lose tells us that the great theologian Karl Barth, having heard such a message from an American evangelist, remarked that it sounded like the Gospel at gunpoint.

That's how it felt to me when I heard that message repeatedly when I was younger. It was terrifying, to say the least.

The problems with this version of the Gospel are myriad, but let's just start with this passage we read today from John's Gospel.

Rob Bell's book is called “Love Wins.”

I'm against building theological positions solely on one passage of Scripture, but if I were forced to come up with one Scripture passage to support Rob Bell's assertion in that title, John 3:16-17 would do just fine. Listen to it again.

16  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17  "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You'll find nothing in this passage to suggest that God sends anyone to hell. God loves the world and does not condemn it, according to this passage of Scripture. And the world that God loves is the very world that is referred to many more times in John's Gospel, the world that is opposed to Jesus and his mission. This affirmation will be made again in John's Gospel. The very world that opposed Jesus is the world for which God pours out mercy, and will always pour out mercy. All one need to do to access this mercy is to trust it.

Far from condemning a world that opposed Jesus and his mission, God intends the world's salvation. Rather than condemn the world, God is willing – in the person of Jesus, to suffer the condemnation of human beings, and the agony of the Cross, and then return in Resurrection glory to proclaim a Gospel of reconciliation.

Hell is a condition to which we consign ourselves. The major branches of Christendom teach this. It is not God who condemns: we condemn ourselves if we refuse to be reconciled to God, if we refuse contrition, if we refuse the amazing grace of God. The question for us to consider is whether or not God's mercy can be fully and finally rejected. The fact seems to be that none of us has any information to let us in on the answer.

Rob Bell is claiming that death itself is no end to the process of our redemption. He's holding out hope that our process of becoming reconciled to the amazing love of God for us and for others – and we do need to be reconciled – doesn't end at death. In making this claim he's upset many evangelical Christians, but he has lots of company in the major branches of Christian faith – Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and he has lots of support in Scripture and in the great conversation about God to his fundamental proposition, which is that “Love Wins.”

I don't have to know who is in and who is out. Billy Graham, who called so many to the altar, is speaking generously in his elder days. When asked by Newsweek Magazine in 2006 about the eternal destiny of “good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people,” Billy Graham said this:

“Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won't... I don't want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”

Speaking of God's mercy, I like what the Methodist Will Willimon wrote back in 1982:

“In the midst of our trivial moralizing, our scolding, supererogation, and scrambling for a few penitential brownie points, John reminds us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone but because of what God has done. The cross is not simply one more piece of damaging evidence that seals shut the case against guilty humanity.

"The goriest work of human sin gets sidetracked into glorious divine redemption. The prophet is sent not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love.
Oh yes, says the church at mid-Lent. Yes. Now we remember. It was for this that we began the journey. It was not for sackcloth and ashes, whips, the sacrifice of a before-dinner martini and empty stomachs that we are here. It was love that put us in this parade. We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found.”

That is the God I've come to love and to seek. This is the God, whom to know is everlasting life. And everlasting life is to turn from preoccupation with who is in and who is out to God's main work for us to do. God calls us to partnership with Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, to show mercy and pity. The Church calls us – in continuity with the God of Israel, the God of the patriarchs and matriarchs; the God and Father of our Savior Jesus Christ – to seek the welfare of this world, the relief of suffering, the establishment of justice, and the grateful acceptance of all the good gifts of God's Creation.

In this regard, hear the words of the poet Langston Hughes:


In the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved,
The desperate, the tired,
All the scum of our weary city
...Gather up in the arms of your pity.
Gather up
In the arms of your love
Those who expect
No love from above.


That sounds like a Gospel-shaped prayer. So be it, Amen.


Image: Study for Nicodemus and Jesus by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Wikimedia Commons