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Hell and Human Dignity: Our Choices

Unless you’ve been on vacation in the Himalayas, you have no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Arguably, Bell’s tome is the first controversial Evangelical book of the Internet age: It was promoted by a “trailer” that appeared on many websites and dissected and condemned on countless more. Bell may enjoy the distinction of being the first person ever excommunicated via Twitter: one well-known writer tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

There are certainly important theological questions raised by Bell’s book, including whether anyone goes to hell forever.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat understands this well. In a recent column Douthat, a devout Catholic, writes that doing away with eternal punishment “is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane.”

The impetus behind this impulse is understandable: In the wake of incalculable human suffering, talking about hell seems cruel and the idea of eternal punishment for wrong beliefs doubly so.

The problem, Douthat reminds us, is that attempts to make God seem more “humane” also “threaten to make human life less fully human.” That’s because, he writes, “to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices.” If we can’t say “no” to God’s offer of heaven, none of the other choices we make in life have any real meaning, either.

Douthat’s point is reminiscent of something James Schall, a professor at Georgetown, wrote in his book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs. Schall began by noting that C. S. Lewis once said that “we have never met a mere mortal.”

Schall continued, human “lives are not insignificant. They are risks... We like to be optimistic and suggest that no one loses his soul. But if this is so, it is hard to see how anything is of much importance. If nothing we do, say, or believe can really make any difference, what is [the source] our dignity? We may do what we want with impunity. Surely this is not the order of God for our good.”

And it’s not. And that’s the problem with efforts to dull the hard edges of the Christian message. Attempts to justify the ways of God to men often only wind up interfering with God’s plan for man.

It’s hard to square our belief in free will with the belief that, ultimately, nothing we do when we’re able to exercise it has any bearing on our eternal destiny. In some way we become like the denizens of an ant farm: no matter how much we burrow, it doesn’t change where we’re going or not going, for that matter.

It may make us feel better to believe that everyone goes to heaven. But what happens to the concept of justice? Is not God a God of justice?

Like Douthat, I understand Bell’s objection to the presumptuousness of some Christians. Instead of making declarations about the eternal destiny of people we’ve never met, we ought to be working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

Folks, beware. This book is high on the New York Times bestseller list. Books like this are obviously appealing. But that doesn’t make them true.

This article published on May 16, 2011. Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. 

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