Suddenly we were talking about hell. Last night after the PM, it came up again, like it often does, because that is what everybody seems to have been taught about Christianity: it is heaven or hell. People don’t really believe in heaven or hell. But they would love to be Christians.
My friend brought up Rob Bell. He’s reading Love Wins and he thinks that his guilty pleasure in the book might put him outside the faith. No it won’t. This is what Rob Bell says in Relevant magazine:
“I believe…people choose hell now. I assume people, when you die, you can choose hell. So there is no denial of hell here. There is a very real awareness that this is a clear and present reality that extends on into the future. But the real question is essentially if millions and millions of people who have never heard of Jesus are going to be tormented forever by God because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they’d never heard of, then at that point we will have far larger problems than a book by a pastor from Grand Rapids.”
I haven’t really kept up with arguments about Rob Bell. Who is it that quibbles with him about what he is thinking? It sounds like he is just like my friend, getting his head out and realizing that people have been speculating about the afterlife for a long time. These days, people are recognizing that the Renaissance/modern views that have dominated theology for 500 years may not be all they’re cracked up to be – like those views probably aren’t nearly as serious about the Bible as they claim to be.
Before I got to the PM it was hell on NPR, of all places! On Snap Judgment a twentysomething woman was telling her lack-of-faith story. It was not as if she had closed the book, she just had other things to do. I am much more interested in what this woman says about heaven and hell than what Rob Bell wrote. I’d love to introduce her to the Jesus she’s never met.
She talks about her ten year old self realizing that everyone is going to die. Her mom tells her that she imagines death as a curtain opening to a white light. But then she goes to the store to pick up dish soap and that is about it from Mom.
This is the character of the piece. Afterlife would be nice, but the necessities and allure of the present: the mundane responsibilities and the boyfriends, are occupying most of the space where faith might reside.
But she gives faith a try. After seeing a painting of hell in Florence, she imagines an afterlife and decides she has more goodness than sin and will make it to heaven. She learns a prayer from her friend and makes a container for holy water in her bedroom complete with a toothpick cross taped to it.
Ten year old faith is about as far as most of us get, unfortunately, and it proves about as sturdy as you might expect — or maybe as sturdy as your faith has proven to be. I guess whole denominations kind of practice ten-year-old faith, but none of them would say that’s all there is to Jesus.
So back to this woman on Snap Judgment. For a week she prays, until a boy puts a love note in her locker. Then she forgets to pray. Love affairs continue to come and go. In high school she learns nihilism and existentialism. Post college she learns insurance claims, automatic bill pay, and how to move your car on certain days so you don’t get towed.
She is so vividly making a commitment all the time. But she is acting like she isn’t! Doesn’t that resemble a lot of people you know? They collect a bunch of thoughts that contradict and confuse them and leave it at that, as if automatic bill pay were real and Jesus a pleasant irrationality they can get to later, maybe. Like Bell protests, people choose the hell of submitting to the latest oppression and succumbing to the mundanity of whether to have a beer or not as their big choice. That’s hell enough.
But sometimes she still misses something to pray to. People die. The piece ends with her at work on a Saturday wondering what to do that night. She no longer believes in hell, maybe not heaven, maybe another dimension, maybe ghosts. But like her mom was with her, when she asked her about things at ten, she hasn’t gotten far enough to make a choice. The end of her story is clever: “Then I feel a cold familiar feeling run through me, a knot in my stomach that gets tighter and tighter by the minute. ‘Damn,’ I think, ‘I really have to register my car.’”
I groaned out loud as I motored down Washington Ave. Jesus will knock on her door again and she will think He’s from some horrendous painting from Florence. Jesus will knock on her door and she will not even hear it because she fell asleep in front to the TV when she was finishing up The Wire. Jesus will knock on her door and she won’t even be home in her own life because she’s occupied with her list of little demands the system is making on her — as if that were her life. It is a poor worship she is choosing. Her little dish of holy water, as absurd as it was, made more sense than bending the knee to the DMV! At least she hasn’t gotten too far, yet.