“You sure as hell can’t talk about hell unless you use the word hell.” Thus saith Bart Simpson (or something like it) in the car, explaining to his mother why he used the word hell. You know the episode – Bart is in Sunday school learning about hell, when he takes it upon himself to use the word liberally. Rob Bell has made the word popular again as hell has become a “hot” topic in certain circles. (I’m sorry.) This semester I’m teaching the Senior Seminar class for theology students which bestows upon me the responsibility of imparting a final word to the departing seniors. Earlier this semester we read Julian of Norwich (Revelations of Divine Love) followed by some John Calvin and Jurgen Moltmann. Last week we started reading Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo’s After the Death of God. Needless to say the question of hell and universalism has popped up quite often. It started with Julian’s reluctance to give hell a reality – she would rather talk about sin and the love of God that brings restoration and healing. Then we discussed Calvin’s pastoral writings, and while no one can accuse Calvin of being a universalist, we did talk about the doctrine of election and the possibility that, if pushed far enough, one could arrive at a very generous understanding of God’s redemptive grace. (I know it messes a bit with the “L” in Tulip – some people are quite surprised when I tell them we don’t talk much about TULIP at Dordt. Maybe it’s because of the name – “Dordt”?) Lately the discussion has focused upon Moltmann’s understanding of justification as liberation and justice for both the oppressed and the oppressor – followed closely by Vattimo’s articulation of secularization and the posture of “charity.”
As I tell my students – it’s not that I want everyone to be a universalist. I can’t say that I’m a universalist. I just don’t get why some Christians get so fired up about “hell.” I’m not talking about the hell found in the forsakenness of Christ on the cross. Nor am I referring to the “hell” of human sin that leads to de-humanization and the violence unleashed upon God’s good creation – all the result of the broken relationship between God and humanity. I’m talking about being giddy over eternal damnation – fire and brimstone – Dante’s little minions kicking certain evil popes in the face for all eternity. If someone tuned in to some of the recent discourse taking place in mainstream Christian circles it might seem that the entire focus of Christianity is making sure some people get sent to hell.
Recently a student, who thought he should disagree with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins spent some time reading the book. “I’m a bit surprised,” he said, “Not quite what I expected.” “What do you mean?” I responded. “I just don’t get what the big deal is. He doesn’t even really deny hell, he just thinks our focus should be on God’s love,” the student answered. Interesting. Maybe our focus should be on something else? I have to admit I’m fond of Barth’s theology. Part of what I like about it is the interplay between the “yes” and the “no” of God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I may be grossly overstating it, but it seems Barth would say, while there certainly is a divine “no,” the “yes” wins in the end. The divine “yes” is louder. Shouldn’t that be the business of the Christianity community? Proclaiming the divine “yes”? Resurrection, charity, hope, and love – to talk about such things does not make a person a universalist, but it might just make them a Christian.