TUPELO – Love wins. What a nice thought. Perhaps too nice, say some area pastors.
Rob Bell has rekindled an old tug of war among evangelicals, pulling between the poles of God’s infinite mercy and eternal damnation.
In his book “Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” Bell claims that salvation isn’t just for Christians.
He also flirts with the theological concept of universalism, the belief that in the end, all humans will be saved.
While they might not agree with everything Bell says, some pastors around Northeast Mississippi say they find his optimism refreshing. Those who think he’s gone too far often side with Bell’s contemporary and another young evangelical phenom, David Platt, author of the book “Radical.” Platt implores people not to ignore the reality of an eternal hell.
Just before sundown on Good Friday, members of The Church at Trace Crossing gathered in their sanctuary in the West Main Shopping Center in Tupelo.
The members of the Southern Baptist congregation were settling in for a six-hour marathon known as “Secret Church.”
At 6 p.m. a live video feed was pumped in from The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Ala. The spotlight emerged on David Platt, who sat on a bare stage with a lectern and a Bible.
The idea of intellectual universalism is wrong, Bell told viewers, in an exasperated, almost desperate voice. Evangelicals around the country watched on giant video screens. Functional universalism is even worse, he added.
Throughout the evening, Platt seemed at times on the verge of tears as he implored listeners to waste no time in taking the Christian gospel to those who would be damned without it.
“Platt is just taking this and explaining it,” said the Rev. Chad Grayson, months later, as he held up a copy of the Bible.
“He’s bringing the church back to fundamentals.” For Grayson as with Platt, scripture is clear about hell.
Sitting in his office at Tupelo First Baptist Church, Grayson clicked off a list of Bible verses, including Matthew 5: 22, where Jesus speaks specifically of damnation.
“The only thing Jesus talks about more than hell is money,” said Grayson.
Fifty-nine percent of adults in the U.S. agree with Grayson. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum, that percentage climbs to 85 percent among evangelical Christians.
Three weeks ago at their annual conference in Phoenix, Southern Baptists passed a resolution reaffirming their belief in hell as “an eternal, conscious punishment” for those who do not accept Jesus Christ.
Hell is real for Southern pastors, even for those far left of Grayson on the theological spectrum.
“I have the best job in the world, but each Sunday night, when I go home, I know that some people will choose fundamentally to reject God,” said the Rev. Jason McAnally, pastor of Origins, a Tupelo congregation of mostly young believers from various religious backgrounds.
As a long-time admirer of Bell’s, McAnally said he shares the pastor’s desire to proclaim a radically loving God, but he can’t agree with the idea that, as Bell’s detractors have put it, everything will be OK in the end.
As Grayson said, “If I really believe this, then I have to believe that there are relatives and friends of mine who are in hell, too, and that’s awfully hard.”
The secret in “Secret Church” means that evangelical missionaries are busy in foreign countries desperately trying to save souls. Their work demonstrates the compassionate in what is otherwise a rather draconian point of theological departure.
A YouTube video of Platt shows him standing in front of a giant, golden Buddha in northern India.
He takes a shot at Bell, then, without flinching, explains that just shy of 600 million people around him, “worshipping endless false gods,” will burn in hell if they don’t receive Jesus Christ.
According to the Religious Landscape Survey, not much of the religious world outside Christianity believes in hell, including most of those belonging to much older belief systems.
Only 22 percent of U.S. Jews, 35 percent of Hindus and 26 percent of Buddhists believe in eternal punishment.
Besides Christians, Muslims are the most likely to believe in hell. Eighty percent of the followers of Islam believe never-ending torment awaits those who reject the love and mercy of Allah.
According to Ali Almasri, the Muslim universe is crowded with benevolent and evil spirits, including humans, devils and angels. Allah’s majesty and dominion over creation dictate that the just be rewarded and wicked punished.
“The Koran makes this very clear, as does the New Testament,” said Almasri, a prayer leader at the Tupelo Islamic Center.
“There are so many doors for the mercy of God, but for those who consistently defy God, there is hell fire.”
A critic might argue that, despite their rock star statuses and millions of books sold, neither Platt nor Bell is really saying anything new.
Grayson believes that Platt is truly a man of God, but he concedes that the architect of “Secret Church” is really just a young Baptist preacher reworking an old Baptist preacher’s fire and brimstone sermon.
If there were an intellectual copyright on Bell’s message of universal redemption, it would belong to the third century theologian Origen. More recently, both Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Barth taught versions of it as well.
While only 59 percent of Americans believe in hell, 74 percent say they believe in heaven.
Perhaps, some say, Bell is simply expressing the optimistic sentiments of his day.
“God bless his heart. I understand where this man is coming from,” said Almasri. “There is a desire for goodness and brotherhood here, and I agree with him, as pertains to People of the Book,’ he said, referring to Jews, Christians and Muslims, who share a common lineage in the faith beginning with Abraham.
“I hope Bell is right, and that everyone does end up in heaven with God, even if that means I’m wrong,” said McAnally. “If we’re spending too much time talking about hell, then our theology is probably backwards,” he added.
According to Grayson, the intellectual acrobatics Bell has to perform to reach the conclusion that all are saved pales in comparison to the straightforward power of scripture, and to personal experience.
“I’ve been there, man,” said Grayson, setting down his Bible and shaking his head. “Thirteen and a half years ago I was lost and headed for hell, and I know what that felt like, and I know what Jesus did for me.”
Grayson smiled, and laughed. “It would have been nice to believe that I was going to be OK, and that everybody in the world was going to be OK, but brother, that just wasn’t so.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal