In 1515, Albrecht Dürer produced a woodcut of a rhinoceros based merely on descriptions of the animal, having never seen one himself. He gave it a suit of armour and a small horn on its neck. In subsequent years, despite the increasing ability to paint from life of rhinos at first hand, many artists continued to paint an armoured creature because the armoured rhino of Dürer's woodcut had become the standard, the definitive image. In spite of the evidence - actual rhinos, not wearing armour - the general populace continued to be presented with images of a beast laden with metal plating, a fearsome semi-mechanical creature of war. And that was what many assumed a rhino to look like.
In many ways, hell suffers from the same problem. After hundreds of years of preachers, popular culture, analogy, metaphor and fictional devices - nay, factual devices - we have become blinkered to what the source actually says. In the Bible, there is no such thing as the fiery abyss we call hell. A place of eternal torment and everlasting damnation? Well that's not very compatible with the notion of an all-loving God, who seeks the salvation of each and every one of us, sinners and all. Such are the challenges tackled by Bell in Love Wins, which I've just finished reading.
Bell is a Christian pastor at Mars Hill Church in Michigan. He is renowned for his creative and abstract approaches to conveying his sermons and messages. He probably has as many foes as he does fans, adopting a questioning, arguably liberal view of Christianity and faith. This book has courted much controversy, as for fundamentalist and conservative Christians his take on hell - that it's not a fire-filled abyss of torment and eternal damnation - is a bit difficult to stomach. For everybody else it's a breath of fresh air. Heaven and hell are not the sole topics of the book, and all in all little else is controversial.
I really enjoyed the first couple of chapters. In them Bell asks lots of questions - chapter 1 is essentially written entirely of questions - paving the way for an open discussion in which dogma are challenged. What I found frustrating, however, was that upon completion of the book I was not entirely sure whether he had answered any of them. The book succeeds as one to open some space for fundamental and conservative Christians to think, but for others its arguments are less revolutionary, rather comforting. I found Bell's arguments circuitous and non sequitur, yet enjoyable. When I got to the end of Love Wins I wasn't entirely sure what I had been told, but I was pleased that others were being encouraged to be more open. Especially encouraging was his call for us to act for the benefit of all to create a 'heaven' - to fight poverty, to fight injustice - here and now, not to assume that some are 'in' and some are 'out' and that a lucky few will reap the rewards of an exclusive club in another life having put in no effort now.
In the introduction Bell claims that he has written the book for "all those who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words: 'I would never be a part of that.'" If you have ever been put off of church because of talk of fire and brimstone, this is the book for you. I can say that, because I can't stand the anti-gay, anti-science, self-preserving, self-congratulating 'Christian' crowd either. This book exists to challenge the baggage we've come to know as Christian teaching, when really it isn't. There's a lot of good teaching out there too, of course, but sometimes it's buried beneath teaching that serves only to push people away.
The analogy made me wonder: where else do people assume they know what a rhino looks like? Where else do people conform to a model presented by another, when the data do not fit? All those on their soapboxes - do they speak from experience or conformity?
I worry that it's more widespread than we might think.
Some quotes from Love Wins, to end:
In the Genesis poem that begins the Bible, life is a pulsing, progressing, evolving, dynamic reality in which tomorrow will not be a repeat of today, because things are, at the most fundamental level of existence, going somewhere....
He [Jesus] didn't come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called "Christianity".