Sunday, April 24, 2011

Heaven in Multicultural America

My problems with Christianity started with heaven; it never made any sense to me. I dislike perfection, and I believe that it is the difficulties of life as much as the successes that make it worth living. Even as a child I could not imagine what it meant to find rest in a state of perfect bliss. When I tired of this world and imagined another, I tended to fantasize about Middle Earth sort of places where the good battle against evil in stark terms. Who wants to rest forever?

As I have grown older I have come to believe that change is fundamental to what it means to be human, or even to be alive. We live along a fixed path that carries us from birth through childhood and adulthood to old age and death, and for me walking this path that is the definition of living. If we stopped changing we would, I believe, cease to be human, and therefore cease to be ourselves. Seen in this way, we really cannot live forever. I also think that we are very different people at different stages of our lives, even in different situations; which of us would live on?

I also dislike the formulation that this world, with its astonishing variety of life and myriad other wonders, is just some sort of testing place. I refuse to believe that the meaning of this world is found somewhere else. I find it crazy to think that all this wonder around us is just a stage where we find out who deserves to go on to some other kind of life.

I especially hate the notion of hell; if anything would ruin perfect bliss for me it would be knowing that many other people were enduring torment. It seems to me that anyone who likes the idea of sinners suffering forever has a nasty mean streak, and anyone who believes that only a small, select band of saints will be saved has much worse problems.

Because I find the notion of heaven so strange, I enjoy asking believers what they imagine about it, and I sometimes read articles and book reviews on the subject. Thus I just found myself reading this essay by Lauren Winner, which focuses on a new book about heaven by evangelical pastor Rob Bell called Love Wins.
Love Wins was starting arguments even before anyone had read it, thanks to a promotional video asking a question guaranteed to inflame some evangelicals: “Will only a select few people make it to heaven, and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?” (Or, more succinctly: “Gandhi’s in hell? He is?”) Bell’s answer: “The good news is that love wins.” The video, in other words, hinted at universalism — the idea that God saves everyone, not just those who profess faith in Jesus, or a chosen few whom God has elected for salvation. . . . .

So what does the actual book say? First, Bell challenges the notion that heaven is just an ethereal spiritual state we anticipate during our earthly lives. Heaven, Bell argues, is both the “age to come,” when God will dwell with people and injustice will be eradicated, and our present experience of peace and love: “There’s heaven now, somewhere else. There’s heaven here, sometime else. And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment in this place.” Bell urges readers to cultivate “the life of heaven now,” pursuing “sacred tasks” like eradicating nuclear weapons and ending sex trafficking.

As for the future heaven, Bell does indeed question the teaching that only a select few will get there. . . .

“Jesus is the way,” he writes, but “the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. . . . What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.”
This is very interesting, and I suspect it will make Bell even more popular. The polls I have seen suggest that most American Christians, even evangelicals, think that non-Christians can be saved. On the other hand it goes against what has always been the orthodox teaching about the subject, not to mention the plain words of the Gospel. For example:
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)
On the other hand there is this:
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Which suggests that doing the right thing is more important than proclaiming faith.

Winner argues in the essay that universalism is gaining strength among American Christians because our society is increasingly multicultural:
Rob Bell is articulating the concerns of a generation of Christians schooled in toleration, whose neighbors and coworkers and siblings are Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic, a generation whose pluralist social commitments are at odds with theological commitments to limited salvation. . . it offers them a way to hold on to Jesus’ particularity in a pluralist world, a world in which wondering about the eternal fate of, say, a Hindu is not an abstract question but a question about your college roommate.
As sociology, Winner's idea is probably correct. As theology, I wonder if it means something much more important: a fading of the need to see one's enemies punished. I hope so.

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