Rob Bell, pastor and author of Love Wins, I would predict is the future of Christianity. He has reinterpreted hell to be on earth and in our current lives according to this Fox News interview. He doesn’t appear to believe in a literal Hell. From a review of the book by Baptist Press who is concerned that Bell is simply using a form of liberal protestantism, “He [Bell] says the Gospel is exclusive — but also inclusive in that people worldwide will be saved even if they have not professed Christ. He affirms heaven — but says that Scripture sometimes defines it as the present day. He says he believes in hell — but then says it’s not a literal place but simply a synonym for suffering in the modern world.”
And Baptists should be concerned because Rob Bell is one of many voices trying to take on traditional Christianity and his voice isn’t small. Per Wiki, “In the January 2007 issue of the magazine TheChurchReport.com, Bell was named No. 10 in their list of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America” as chosen by their readers and online visitors.”
This liberal interpretation of hell has been around for quite some time but has never gone away. It persists. The reason is because it is more in sync with our modern times than the Looney Tunes imagery of a guy with a pitchfork presiding over the torture of individuals who couldn’t figure out if God existed or not. It is what I might call a humanistic version of Christianity that, while showing a desire for God, doesn’t demand you need God. People don’t want to believe in a literal hell and consider that their nonChristian friends, who are perfectly nice people, are going to be tortured for all eternity for what? An ignorance of truth that was hidden from them? The punishment hardly fits the crime. Put Hitler and Stalin in hell, sure, but how about a slap on the wrist for the rest us whose biggest crimes involve speeding tickets and occasional porn (that includes you women too, I know some of you are just as perverted as men).
There is another interpretation of hell maintaining it is a literal place that does not focus on physical torture and that is separation from God. Or rather a place of separation (though if God is omnipresent wouldn’t he be in Hell as a result of his own nature?) Some Christians believe that our earthly existence is only tolerable because God surrounds us, even the unbelievers. If God separated himself completely, removing all that is good, you would be in spiritual pain which I guess translates to possibly physical pain–no one has ever successfully explained how the torture of the soul feels. This how some Christians view hell when a nonChristian dies. They put the blame on the individual and not on God’s selection process. I once believed this myself. You choose to go to hell, you aren’t sent there by God. Except…no one chooses what they know will be painful.
The afterlife is intended as a guessing game. Guess the right version of god and you’ll end up in heaven. Guess wrong and you’re in hell.
I really don’t mind Rob Bell’s interpretation of scripture since everyone is interpreting scripture according to various biases. Even traditional scripture came about as a result of certain biases (get rid of those gnostics!). Now I would say The Baptists have precedence based on historical Christianity and based on the wrath of God in the Old Testament–he’s not beyond being vengeful enough to throw people in hell if he previously committed genocide. As a freethinker, I’m more concerned with truth though. If Bell’s Christianity helps people similar in same ways psychology does so be it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with verifiable truth except maybe disputes on the translation of scripture. I think a good argument could be made that Bell is concentrating on niceties when The Bible is very dark in nature from original sin to blood atonement to the end times.
I still want to make the prediction though that his version of Christianity is slowly what we’re headed towards. Yes, I’m being an optimist. I’ll have to update this post in 10-20 years and see how we’re doing. In the meantime, I’ll look out for more recent examples.