One more post on chapter 1, looking again at complaints about Bell’s ‘orthodoxy.’ The chapter begins with a story that Bell told in the promotional video, and which has therefore become famous. An art exhibition at church included an exhibit with a quotation from Gandhi; someone attached a post-it note reading ‘Reality check: he’s in hell.’ Bell writes:
Gandhi’s in hell?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without any doubt?
And his pre-publication detractors once again took him to task. And again, they were badly wrong – in my view, and in the view of (here) virtually the entire Christian tradition.
Remember Johann Heidegger from a couple of posts back? He was the Reformed writer who held that the number of the saved would indeed be small. Shedd and Warfield condemn him for being far too conservative in his theology. Heidegger wrote about precisely this question, and said this:
No one except those who sin unto death ought to or can determine anything certain before the end of life, concerning the eternal reprobation of himself or of others. Of others indeed we must have good hopes by the judgement of love, 1. Cor.13:7 (beareth, believeth, hopeth, endureth all things)… (q. ET from Heppe, p. 188, with error silently corrected).
Let’s do a kind of scale of theological conservatism here, shall we? Shedd and Warfield are conservative – I believe that will be generally granted. They reprove Heidegger for being far too conservative. That makes him, what? Ultra-conservative? Heidegger then rejects as far too conservative the position that we can know for certain that any other human being is damned. We’re somewhere off the scale now, in the company of those who think the Taliban are dangerously liberal. I have thought hard about anyone in the Christian tradition who held to this position, that we can know for certain that a particular person is in hell. There were, to be fair, some Landmarkian Baptists. And Dante, I suppose, although he might claim his allegory was not meant to be taken like that. Certainly, there are not many.
And yet when Bell doesn’t even say that this is wrong, but merely questions whether it is right, we are told that he has committed an error so grave that he must be publicly castigated.
I can’t quite decide whether this is simply brilliant debating work from Bell, enticing his opponents to defend a position so extreme that no one in their right mind would touch it, or whether his opponents really, genuinely, don’t realise just how far behind they have left anything resembling historic orthodoxy.
This is not mere theological hair-splitting. This point is pastorally vital. Bell’s other example concerns an atheist teenager, killed in a car crash. ‘There’s no hope, then,’ comes the comment, reflecting this ridiculously extreme position. All of us who are Christian pastors have performed funeral services for those with no visible faith, and have been offered care and counsel to those, actively Christian or not, who have lost an apparently-unbelieving family member or friend. The first rule of such pastoral engagement has always been not to speculate about the fate of the dead person. One speaks with confidence the promises of Jesus, proclaims the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead, announces with utter conviction the defeat of death and sin and hell in the cross, and invites, implicitly or explicitly, the hearers to place their own faith and trust in these realities. The one who has died is in God’s hands, and it is not for us to judge. The gospel of Jesus is never, ever, ‘there’s no hope, then.’
This point is utterly vital, and Bell is simply right.