A Fitting Prophet for our Age?

When Time Magazine features a Christian book on the cover and its author as the lead story, one may be excused for thinking that a shift is perhaps underway in our mostly secular culture.

Michigan pastor Rob Bell -- the subject of the cover story which Time ran in its Monday's print edition -- is not, however, your typical Christian minister. The author of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell holds some views that are raising few eyebrows.

The startling thesis of his briskly-selling book is that every person who has ever lived could eventually end up in heaven. This is truly an extraordinary position for a Christian preacher to take, since hell has been an axiom of Christian orthodoxy for nearly two thousand years. And for a good reason. After all, Jesus himself spoke about hell on a number of occasions in vivid and chilling terms. Among other things, he referred to it as a place where the "worm does not die, and the fire is never quenched." It may indeed surprise many that during his ministry Jesus spoke more about hell than he did about heaven.

It should be noted, however, that hell is not an exclusively Christian concept. Even many among the non-religious seem to believe that those who lead especially egregious lives -- people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolf Hitler, for example -- will get their just deserts after death. This conviction seems to be grounded in a near-universal intuition of higher justice which demands that sooner or later things be set right. But since this obviously does not always happen in this life, most people feel that a reckoning will take place in the beyond.

It could not be more paradoxical that the existence of hell should be called into question by a pastor of the religion whose founder taught about it in very explicit terms. Needless to say, Bell's ideas are being enthusiastically received by our culture which is bestowing upon him the highest trappings of popular approbation -- a place on the New York Times bestseller list and a flattering profile in Time.

The adulation is only too understandable when we consider Bell's claims in the context of these times. We happen to live in an era of moral relativism whose foundational claim is that there is really no transcendent right and wrong. Public schools teach children today that pretty much everything goes, because there is no objective standard by which to judge the moral content of human actions.

The societal transformation that this worldview has engendered is striking: sexual looseness, lying, vulgarity, various forms of substance abuse and such are not considered nearly as abject as they were only a generation or two ago. Instead of being subject of shame, excesses of these kinds are seen in many circles as something to be proud of.

But there is a problem. Regardless of what our culture says, we all know deep down that certain things are wrong. Every violation of that inner sense breeds guilt, no matter how much we may pretend otherwise. It is this experience of guilt that gives rise to the premonition that there will eventually come an hour of reckoning when our deeds will be judged. And it is precisely this fear that Bell seeks to assuage by telling people that regardless of what they do or what they believe, they will still likely end up in heaven.

This is decidedly pleasant news to hear, especially if we are plagued by a sense of culpability that accrues from the everything-goes mindset of our postmodern era. Revealingly, the Bible anticipated long ago the coming on the scene of ministers of false comfort. In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul warned that a time would come "when people will no longer listen to sound doctrine. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear."

Rob Bell seems to fit this description. He is indeed a fitting prophet for our relativist age, as his message meshes perfectly with its prevailing tenor: Do whatever you like and then go off to your eternal reward.

But we should think carefully about whom we listen to. Should we give heed to the musings of a liberal pastor or to the warnings of the one who claimed to be from above and then validated those claims by his apparent return from the dead?

This is not a decision that should be made lightly, since it is our eternal destiny that is at stake.
When Time Magazine features a Christian book on the cover and its author as the lead story, one may be excused for thinking that a shift is perhaps underway in our mostly secular culture.

Michigan pastor Rob Bell -- the subject of the cover story which Time ran in its Monday's print edition -- is not, however, your typical Christian minister. The author of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell holds some views that are raising few eyebrows.

The startling thesis of his briskly-selling book is that every person who has ever lived could eventually end up in heaven. This is truly an extraordinary position for a Christian preacher to take, since hell has been an axiom of Christian orthodoxy for nearly two thousand years. And for a good reason. After all, Jesus himself spoke about hell on a number of occasions in vivid and chilling terms. Among other things, he referred to it as a place where the "worm does not die, and the fire is never quenched." It may indeed surprise many that during his ministry Jesus spoke more about hell than he did about heaven.

It should be noted, however, that hell is not an exclusively Christian concept. Even many among the non-religious seem to believe that those who lead especially egregious lives -- people like Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolf Hitler, for example -- will get their just deserts after death. This conviction seems to be grounded in a near-universal intuition of higher justice which demands that sooner or later things be set right. But since this obviously does not always happen in this life, most people feel that a reckoning will take place in the beyond.

It could not be more paradoxical that the existence of hell should be called into question by a pastor of the religion whose founder taught about it in very explicit terms. Needless to say, Bell's ideas are being enthusiastically received by our culture which is bestowing upon him the highest trappings of popular approbation -- a place on the New York Times bestseller list and a flattering profile in Time.

The adulation is only too understandable when we consider Bell's claims in the context of these times. We happen to live in an era of moral relativism whose foundational claim is that there is really no transcendent right and wrong. Public schools teach children today that pretty much everything goes, because there is no objective standard by which to judge the moral content of human actions.

The societal transformation that this worldview has engendered is striking: sexual looseness, lying, vulgarity, various forms of substance abuse and such are not considered nearly as abject as they were only a generation or two ago. Instead of being subject of shame, excesses of these kinds are seen in many circles as something to be proud of.

But there is a problem. Regardless of what our culture says, we all know deep down that certain things are wrong. Every violation of that inner sense breeds guilt, no matter how much we may pretend otherwise. It is this experience of guilt that gives rise to the premonition that there will eventually come an hour of reckoning when our deeds will be judged. And it is precisely this fear that Bell seeks to assuage by telling people that regardless of what they do or what they believe, they will still likely end up in heaven.

This is decidedly pleasant news to hear, especially if we are plagued by a sense of culpability that accrues from the everything-goes mindset of our postmodern era. Revealingly, the Bible anticipated long ago the coming on the scene of ministers of false comfort. In his first letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul warned that a time would come "when people will no longer listen to sound doctrine. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear."

Rob Bell seems to fit this description. He is indeed a fitting prophet for our relativist age, as his message meshes perfectly with its prevailing tenor: Do whatever you like and then go off to your eternal reward.

But we should think carefully about whom we listen to. Should we give heed to the musings of a liberal pastor or to the warnings of the one who claimed to be from above and then validated those claims by his apparent return from the dead?

This is not a decision that should be made lightly, since it is our eternal destiny that is at stake.