Speaking of Hell…

Hell’s the hot topic in evangelical circles these days. Theological heavyweights, including Albert Mohler, Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung have been provoked by Rob Bell’s new book and promo video to revisit the doctrine of hell.  (Book review here, and DeYoung notes that “the book is a sustained attack on the idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins. This is the traditional Christianity he finds ‘misguided and toxic'”.) I don’t have comments on the doctrine itself, except to say that I agree with Mohler, Taylor and DeYoung.

But in the same week I criticized street preachers counter-protesters for their heavy-handed use of the topic, I also criticized Rob Bell’s casual dismissal of the idea that Gandhi is in hell. (Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?) To me, that looks like I think it’s okay to suggest someone’s in hell after the fact, but I think it’s out of bounds to suggest someone might be going there while they still have an opportunity to change their status. That isn’t at all what I meant, and I want to clarify the difference as I see it.

The difference between the counterprotesters’ use of hell and my comment on Gandhi is the difference between the general and the specific.  Carrying a sign with a blanket condemnation is not the same thing as comparing what a person says they believe to biblical doctrine, and concluding that they are not saved.

My experience with the counter-protester variety of “street preacher” is that they are self-focused, provoking opposition as a method of affirming themselves – the more the sinners oppose them, then the more correct the sign-carriers feel.  I’ve heard them brag about how they were screamed at, spat on, and abused.  That is obviously not true of all these people – and it’s a safe bet that some, maybe even most of them, mean well. But regardless of anyone’s intentions, this sign repels people:

On the other hand, this guy attracts people and engages them. He’s an example of effective street preaching, and much more in line with biblical accounts of how John the Baptist and Jesus behaved.

Hell is a serious topic and we should treat it seriously. Culturally, we’re not particularly sensitive to the concepts of sin and hell anymore. When Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” his congregation was terrified. Today, hell is a punchline. That’s something we need to keep in mind as we discuss it with people, and that’s probably why, until Bell poked the hornet’s nest, it’s been so rarely discussed lately.