There’s a Controversy Over *What*? March 16, 2011

There’s a Controversy Over *What*?

The controversy over Christian pastor Rob Bell‘s new book is still going on now that his book has finally been published — I’m sure his publishers are thrilled — but it’s a debate that will have no winners because both sides are wrong.

A quick recap: It was being reported that Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, alluded to the idea that Hell might not exist and everyone could get “saved.” Since this goes against the mainstream Christian theology that only those who accept Jesus can be “saved” — deniers are doomed to an afterlife in Hell — that’s a problem.

Is Bell a heretic? Or, worse, a Universalist?

The book is out now. People can read it for themselves. And — surprise! — the heresy is minimal. Here’s a summary of what Bell actually says, courtesy of religion reporter Kate Shellnutt:

… God’s love for us does not end at any point. He is full of grace, and there are always opportunities for reconciliation. There is hell, but the gates of heaven are open. Salvation, as referenced in the Bible and discussed by Jesus, is a paradox that we can’t fully understand.

He says he does not believe that there’s a sweeping cosmic arm to bring everybody to heaven, even those who want to live apart from God, but he says it’s a lot less exclusive than you’d think.

In other words, Bell doesn’t have any actual answers. Just slightly revised hypotheses that can never be tested. A lot of false hope to a larger group of people than before. Is that so different from the books that several other Christian leaders put out? The only differences being that Bell appeals to a younger demographic and is simply a better writer.

Kate’s post touches on another issue that’s worth discussing. It involves the topics of conversation among Christians:

… What’s notable is that this [controversy] isn’t the kind of thing discussed on such a large scale in modern-day Christianity.

Because this is a conversation that’s actually about Christianity itself — who God is, what he’s like, what he does for us, what that means for this world and how that may unfold in the future.

Our day-to-day religious discussion is typically dominated by debates over if a minister can be female, if a minister can be gay, if a minister can be gay and in a relationship, if Christians can be gay, if Christians can have abortions, if Christians can perform abortions, if Christians can drink, if Christians can do yoga, if churches can talk about politics too much, if churches manage their money well, if churches’ numbers are growing and so on.

The first questions, about God’s nature, obviously don’t have answers. But Christians make up their own and debate about who’s right. 1,000,000 Christians will have 1,000,000 different views. From the sidelines, it’s incredible to watch so many people argue over who’s right when you know they’re all wrong.

It makes as much sense as hearing people debate the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s favorite brand of sauce.

(Answer: He likes it Extra Chunky. And if you disagree, He’ll smite you.)

The rest of the questions are important, but they’re so damn petty. Christians are seriously still arguing over whether women should be in leadership positions? Whether gay people should be allowed to lead a church and have equal rights? Whether Christians should be allowed to have abortions (when we already know they do, regardless of what the church says)?

Rational people don’t have these discussions.

This is modern Christianity for you: Arguments over things the rest of us figured out a long time ago and “solutions” to hypothetical questions that can never be answered.

At some point, we need to just acknowledge that, at best, the church exists to make people feel better about their lives. That’s a noble thing to do — but instead of focusing on self-improvement and helping others, church leaders focus on how to make life worse for the people who don’t fit into their special mold. Because exclusivity makes it better for the club members.

One positive note to Rob Bell’s book — it has Christians arguing over the idea “Love Wins.” The concept isn’t a bad one and you don’t need to invoke a god to make that point, but the response from some Christians has been “Love does not win. It’s not enough. Some people are going to Hell because they don’t believe what I do.”

Keep that coming. It just makes the whole faith look as reprehensible as its worst followers.

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  • It is nice to see the church talking about god rather than my daily life. Really I would rather they sit around and discuss what color robes god wears on Tuesday. Hopefully it will take them away from poking their religion into real issues (or at least making up non-issues) that effect the rest of us. Like all issues relatingto Gay relationships. I truly believe those would go away completely now if Christians just stayed out of it all together.

    Oh and your wrong its a light pesto sauce. (Smiting)

  • Naomi

    As a fan of reddit, I had a wee peek into r/islam once, to see what they talked about. I came across a serious discussion of the worrying issue of whether it was ok to use alcoholic mouthwash. Couldn’t help a snigger…

  • I agree with you, Kid Kaos, but I just feel sorry for the human capacity and intellect go wasted. I know, many would not agree with me, that people who believe in nonsense are intellectual, but still, if people can think, and if they write books, spend time figuring things out, it’s just a waste having them thinking about nonsense instead of science, for example.
    What a waste is thinking about imaginary heaven and hell, god and angels, demons… It’s like thinking what a ruler Cindarella’s prince was.

    There’s so many more things waiting to be solved. Focus on that instead of useless imagination.

  • Fett101

    To be fair, who doesn’t prefer it extra chunky?

  • Laura

    I read one of Rob Bell’s preveious books, Velvet Elvis, which actually DID assert that there was no Hell. It was one of the MANY books I read that year that lead to my disbelief, but at the time I read it, it felt as though it strengthened my “faith”. It answered a lot of questions I had been having at the time. It was just so rational and reasonable. I wish I still had the book but I gave it to another christian struggling with doubt. Never heard from her again. meh.

  • TychaBrahe

    Brand of spaghetti sauce? Seriously?

    I’m not Italian, but I have never in my life used jarred or canned spaghetti sauce when it’s so easy to make from canned or fresh tomatoes.

    And what sort of followers dress their deity in Ragu or Chef Boyardee when the other deities are wearing samite or silk robes? It’s embarrassing.

  • Claudia

    Hemant, I get where you’re coming from, but I believe your position leads to an inaccurate evaluation of the situation. I’m going to try to explain:

    We must work at two levels; the level of reality and the level of percieved reality. You dismiss the second level as irrelevant but I believe you are mistaken because percieved reality affects actual reality in the end.

    On actual reality you are correct of course. Given that there is no evidence for the existence of a god, discussing what that god does and does not want is like discussing the grazing habits of unicorns. In that sense, your bemusement and dismissal is fine.

    However the problem is that the fact that real people really believe in this pretend reality has real, tangible effects in what we can all agree is the real world. The examples are easy to come by:

    – Whether or not the faithful believe God disapproves of homosexuality can determine the political position of millions of voters on the subject of the civil rights of their fellow humans. If the vast majority of American Christians were UU Christians we’d long since legalized gay marriage.

    – Whether or not hell exists, or whether or not it exists as an eternal place of torment or it’s a place that can be escaped from in favor of salvation (as seems to be suggested above) can have real tangible effects on the psyches of the faithful, particularly those of children. If a majority of the faithful didn’t believe in hell, how many fewer children would grow up with deep psychological trauma and fear? How many would more easily come to rationalism because of not being hindered by a fear of Hell (something I’m sure the faithful are aware of, hence their efforts to conserve Hell as a concept).

    – Whether or not God consideres women equal to men and capable of the same tasks can have real tangible effects on the lives and wellbeing of women. Do you really think that if Muslims in Afghanistan believed in a God that considered a woman the equal to a man conditions for women in that country would not be different?

    It’s very easy to say “These debates are silly, because they’re based on the flawed premise that god is real”. That’s nice and all, but it skips over the fact that these debates have real-life consequences for real-life people. Would it be better if all these people abandoned faith-based thinking in favor of skepticism? Sure. Is hoping that the more compassionate and equality-loving theists get the upper hand in the meantime worthwhile? I think so.

  • Totentanz

    Elaborating on that last point, I have argued within the christian paradigm with christians on many occasions. If you get them to question the concepts within their own religion, such as “How can God be ever-loving if he dooms people to hell?” and get them to decide that the majority of christianity is wrong, that is at least a step in the right direction.
    At least in this instance, they are discussing the nature of their beliefs and establishing a pattern of actually thinking about stuff instead of blinding accepting what they are told.

    I have a 19 year old boy at work who likes to talk religion with me. He still believes in god but I can tell he is on the long road to atheism or at the very least agnosticism.

  • MathMike

    At some point, we need to just acknowledge that, at best, the church exists to make people feel better about their lives. That’s a noble thing to do — but instead of focusing on self-improvement and helping others, church leaders focus on how to make life worse for the people who don’t fit into their special mold. Because exclusivity makes it better for the club members.

    Great distillation of thought here. I may quote that, with your permission of course.

  • NewEnglandBob

    I alway am amused at the nonsense that theists and theologists dream up in their house of cards, known as apologetics.

    Their time would be so much more productive if they just wrote straight fiction or science fiction.

    Religion is such a waste of time, energy, money and real estate that could be put to much better use.

  • I normally dislike comments that could be reduced to ‘LOL’, but I think I will say that the stuff about thr FSM is really funny.

  • The Flying Spaghetti Monster would rather that you dress him in homemade sauce and anyone who thinks otherwise is obviously a heretic who has never been touched by his noodly love.

    I agree that with Claudia that the debates that seem silly to nontheists really do have a bearing on our lives. There really isn’t any serious, nonreligious reason why two people of the same sex can’t marry. Yet, the reason that we still restrict marriage to two people of the opposite gender is mainly because of religion. I have known of women who were counseled by their pastors to remain in abusive marriages because of their religious believes. Any sane person would have told them to leave.

  • Kevin S.

    The rest of the questions are important, but they’re so damn petty. Christians are seriously still arguing over whether women should be in leadership positions? Whether gay people should be allowed to lead a church and have equal rights? Whether Christians should be allowed to have abortions (when we already know they do, regardless of what the church says)?

    Rational people don’t have these discussions.

    This is modern Christianity for you: Arguments over things the rest of us figured out a long time ago and “solutions” to hypothetical questions that can never be answered.

    I think this is off the mark a bit. “We” as in non-theists (and some more progressive theists) have figured this out and aren’t having these discussions internally, but we’re still having these discussions on a national level, usually with the same people the less dogmatic Christians are debating. The leftish side of Christianity has more or less made up it’s mind on the issues, just as the leftish side of America has. Looking at either group as a whole, however, and you still see the debates.

  • One contributing factor to the Bell controversy is that the more traditional churches are afraid that Bell is making Christianity somewhat irrelevant by taking away or minimizing the fear element. If unrepentant sinners (or even atheists) can still eventually make it to heaven by eventually accepting Jesus after they die, then religion loses its importance while we are still alive. That is the real threat to traditional Christianity. The decrease of power and relevance. Can’t have that…

    Personally I would like for them all to trade a relevant lie for an irrelevant lie.

  • Jamssx

    Growing up CoE they never really push the whole hell concept. “Cake or Death?” as Eddie Izzard puts it. But I remember a TV drama from a way back with a supposed catholic priest discussing it with a child. The child was scared and his response was something like “Don’t you think that he looks for any little good in the person and grabs them with that.” For some reason that has stuck with me, maybe because it undermines the whole threat piece. In any case so does purgatory with the whole death bed confession lark.

    When I debate with people I also like to point out that it’s only John that really requires the whole devotion thing. The other three really concentrate on doing good for admission. After all if all you had to do was do good things to get into Heaven why would you need a church?

  • Based on the history of Untarianism and Universalism in North America, I would suggest that getting rid of Hell in religion is an important first step for having freedom of belief within a religion.

    As long as the threat of eternal torment in Hell was a possibility, it would be hard for those who concerned for the well-being of others to let them have freedom of belief.

    Sam Harris talks about the problem that Hell in religion poses for freedom of belief in his book The End of Faith:

    Many religious moderates have taken the apparent high road of pluralism, asserting the equal validity of all faiths, but in doing so they neglect the irredeemably sectarian truth claims of each. As long as a Christian believes that only his baptized brethen will be saved on the Day of Judgment, he cannot possibly “respect” the beliefs of others, for he knows that the flames of hell have been stoked by these various ideas and await their adherents even now.

    Unfortunately, so many folks find the idea of Hell and punishment in the afterlife very attractive. A conservative Episcopal priest in my town was bemoaning the fact that the national Episcopal convention endorsed liberal theological positions and the conservatives lost all of the votes. The only solace that he had was he had read the book and he knew in the end he would be on the winning side.

  • Erp

    Following up on Claudia, Christians who accept universal salvation or almost universal salvation may be less willing to divide humanity into us versus them (e.g., elect versus damned or saved versus unsaved[1]). In other words less exclusivity.

    [1] Some Christians think that God has predetermined who will be saved [the elect] and everyone else is damned and nothing anyone can do can change this. Other Christians think that anyone can be saved if and only if they accept God’s offer. Oddly enough many universalists come from the first mindset; they just think everyone is elected.

    ps. the IPU prefers eating the FSM with pesto.

  • Jane Smith

    “At some point, we need to just acknowledge that, at best, the church exists to make people feel better about their lives. That’s a noble thing to do — but instead of focusing on self-improvement and helping others, church leaders focus on how to make life worse for the people who don’t fit into their special mold. Because exclusivity makes it better for the club members.”

    This is 100% correct, and is the precise reason why I will never again have anything to do with churches.

    The Anglican Church is not just tearing itself apart over gay people – it’s still in anguish over the “schismatic” decision to ordain women priests. And make no mistake – many, many Christians are convinced that this was a horrible decision and have denounced the Anglican Church accordingly.

  • The debate on the kind of sauce required by the FSM can tear families apart. I always make my own sauce from scratch, garlic, onions, fresh tomatoes (roughly chopped) , basil, all the basics. My unwife uses sauce from a jar (too smooth and watery). I’ve tried to get her to change and have told her that His Noodly Appendage will not touch her but she scoffs at me and says I’m being daft.

    What am I to do?

    On reality and perceived reality I must say that if a person’s perceived reality is that far away from actual reality then they have a problem. I’m happy to help them out and point them in the right direction (towards the beer volcano) but if they are that divorced from reality then a comfy room with soft walls and a special jacket with sleeves that do up at the back might be in order.

    It isn’t normal to be so concerned about the opinions of your imaginary friend. It isn’t even funny.

  • I was looking for Bell’s book the other day while in the airport because I had read the NYT piece on it. Not having the book in the store, I decided to buy Hitch 22.

    I’m happy with my purchase.

  • acn

    all of this talk of homemade pasta sauces is making me visibly salivate.

  • martha

    Religion changes. As it is, the bible is mostly irrelevant and not followed by Christians. The Torah is nearly totally irrelevant to most Jews. It is no big deal giving up hell. My guess is that in the heart of hearts of most run of the mill Christians they do not believe all non-Christians are going to hell.

  • Ham Nox

    What a silly argument. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is not one type of pasta and pasta sauce–he is the pasta perfecta from which all other kinds flow. Duuuuh.

  • Andrew

    Regardless of the validity of the argument this “friendly aesthetic” is making, I find it rather ironic for him to be drawing conclusions about Bell’s book simply based on another person’s interpretation of it and seemingly without him having read it! Now, who exactly is the one favoring faith over skepticism?

  • Kristi

    I always thought the FSM (ode to Ramen) liked the tomato and garlic….

    I read this story on USA Today’s website… their commentors on there were plentiful… most were Christian who disagreed… the ones who did agree were primarily those who believed in god, but were not very religious. It was a pretty interesting forum… check it out. Of course there are also the atheists there who tell them they are all nuts anyway lol.

  • Kristi

    Ham Nox Says:
    March 16th, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    What a silly argument. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is not one type of pasta and pasta sauce–he is the pasta perfecta from which all other kinds flow. Duuuuh.

    lol

  • Tizzle

    I second what Claudia says. I left my church because of their stance on women/feminism/domestic violence. I didn’t immediately become an atheist; first I tried out other religions (altho not Christianity-lite).

    I needed baby steps.

  • Anonymous

    In other words, Bell doesn’t have any actual answers.

    I bet he’s got a nice house and a few nice cars, though.

  • DaveS

    I think Claudia has it exactly right:

    “Is hoping that the more compassionate and equality-loving theists get the upper hand in the meantime worthwhile? I think so.”

    I think so too.

  • Secular Stu

    Is hoping that the more compassionate and equality-loving theists get the upper hand in the meantime worthwhile? I think so.

    They enable the extremists.

    What a silly argument. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is not one type of pasta and pasta sauce–he is the pasta perfecta from which all other kinds flow. Duuuuh.

    He is the First among pasta. He is the Pasta Primavera. Long be his noodles and reign.

  • Anonymous

    Very impressive interview segment from Martin Bashir. Wow.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vg-qgmJ7nzA

  • Hemant,

    I think you’re a smart guy and am always flattered that you read my blog when I see my post linked up on Friendly Athiest from time to time.

    Which reminds me, I owe you an email…

    Thanks for posting!