I am preaching at the services tomorrow and my intention had been to focus on the Epistle reading from Romans 4, which fits nicely with what I plan to say on Wednesday at the next Lenten Bible Study. However, when I sat down to write the sermon (I am still one of those who write his sermons out by long-hand), it became obvious that there was only one reading that I could focus on and one verse in it, that is, the Gospel Reading and John 3:16:
'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.'
I have preached on this verse many times, but what gives preaching on it added significance this week is Rob Bell's book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and the furore surrounding it that some are calling Hellgate! I have already mentioned it in the blog this week. As I have said, I am surprised that people are surprised that this is where Rob Bell is coming from. Perhaps they are just annoyed that he has raised the issue at all.
One of my favourite TV series at the moment is Outnumbered. There is something of a running joke in it about the 'elephant in the room': something large and significant, but about which we do not speak. Universalism, and more particularly a rejection of hell or any idea of it, is the 'elephant in the room' of the Church. We don't talk about it, but it is there, and universalism and a rejection of anything that passes for hell is the default position of most pastors, priests, and preachers regardless of their particular brand label. Even if we prefer, for whatever reason, not to talk about it.
(A Question for Anglican Vicars: have you ever told anyone who has asked you about what has happened to their loved ones who have died that they haven't just slipped away and that they might not just be waiting for them in the room next door?)
Rob Bell's book, even if this was not his intention, is making people come out of their own particular closets. Me included. A lot depends, of course, on what you mean by hell. For some it is a place and for others, a metaphor, but even a metaphor must be a metaphor of something, and, even on the most benign, understanding it cannot be something very nice. Certainly, it must mean that for some people the future is not one of heavenly bliss, but of hellish consequences.
Now Rob Bell is very clever. He asks whether we think Gandhi is in hell. But Gandhi is one of those nice non-Christians that we all like. What about Hitler and Stalin and Mao? The fact is we can all play this game and we would be wrong to do so. The question of who is in hell, wherever or whatever it is, is not for us to judge. After all, we may be going there ourselves.
But because we shouldn't speculate on its occupants, doesn't mean it doesn't exist (whether literally or metaphorically).
I personally deplore those who have labelled Rob Bell a heretic and a false teacher. (How many people have you brought to faith in Christ this week?) But that doesn't mean he is right. In fact, I believe he is seriously wrong, not in the questions he asks, but in the answers he implies.
It would be lovely to think that, ultimately, we were all going to cuddle one another in heaven rather burn in hell, but if cuddling each other is our destiny, then rather than appealing to those parts of the Bible we like, we should just get rid of it altogether, and admit we are making the Christian faith up as we go along and hoping we get it right.
However, for anyone who wants the Bible to play an authoritative role in what they believe, there is no escaping the consequences of God loving us, consequences which, because the set reading tomorrow stops at John 3:17, we won't be told of in our services, but which can be spoken of in places like this:
'Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.' (John 3:18)
God's unconditional love for all of us has very serious consequences. It is that some of us will be won and also that some of us will be lost.