The Sound of Silence
Just yesterday someone told me of a sincere and well-meaning Christian family who forbid
their children from reading Harry Potter books and who buy them Rob Bell's Nooma Videos to watch instead. What is particularly galling about that is that Harry Potter is relatively harmless to the discerning child while the Nooma videos' influence is frankly toxic.
The videos are culturally cool, technically competent, visually stunning and (apparantly) intellectually thoughtful pieces fronted by an equally cool Rob Bell. Bell along with Brian MacLaren are much beloved of the Evangelical Alliance in the UK (the equivalent of the NAE who promoted their recent tours), and University and Church groups.
His latest release is in fact a promo for his upcoming book, Love Wins, which addresses the issue of hell, but not as you know it! Suddenly everyone feels the need to talk about the subject and, in one case, to thank the aforementioned for thoughtfully raising the issue for us. In the words of one commentator, he has done us all a service in bringing to our attention the growing number of evangelical (???) pluralists and universalists in our midst. What his particular take on hell will end up being only time will tell, but the promo doesn't sound too encouraging and he isthe one who said that it doesn't really matter if the virgin birth happened or not, or whether Adam ever existed or actually did what the bible says he did; whose assessment of Scripture is that it is not the result of 'divine fiat' but a 'human product' reflecting people's experience of God; who thinks Christianity is more about putting things right here and now than it is about eternal life in the future; who flat out said that Peter's problem, when he started sinking in the water where he'd been walking, was not that he didn't believe in Jesus but that he didn't really believe enough in Peter! Rob Bell is a great communicator but he's been communicating stuff that will seriously damage your spiritual health.
Now that the subject has been raised we will be told how best to respond to it, how to talk about it in a 'seeker' or 'listener' friendly way that will allow us to air it in polite society and let people to walk away with the idea that all this talk about hell is much ado about nothing and that we are not the religious loonies they felt sure we were.
Of course there's been a problem with hell for some time. We've had Roman Catholic universalism since Vatican II with anonymous Christians and all that. Then there's been the annhilationism so beloved by mostly English Evangelicals who privately speculate that eternal punishment won't be eternal after all. Recently there has been the euphemistic reference to hell as mere (?) 'separation' from God and all that's good - a hell that's noted for what's not there rather than what is, (eternal exposure to the wrath of an angry God). But above all there has been the sound of silence from evangelical pulpits (or platforms) on the theme.
Ever since that pesky Jonathan Edwards preached that sermon in Northampton Mass. we've been feeling uncomfortable about the subject. After all, how does one make hell sound cool? What ubitquitous joke could possibly introduce a sermon on the subject? How does one write lyrics about eternal flames that fits the genre of soft rock (Eternal Flame by the Bangles doesn't count)? So what have we done? We have simply muted it. Hell has become noted for its absence. We don't tell people there is a hell to shun. Hence our people struggle to understand the 'penal' in penal substitution; they fail to grasp why God would need to be propitiated; the idea that we might be able to pass the final judgment on the basis of the whole life lived suddenly becomes a possibility, and consequently sin becomes less serious, less horrific, less something to be abhorred and avoided.