Apparently, there is a new controversy brewing amongst traditional Christians, centering around a new book by evangelical pastor Rob Bell called Love Wins, in which he describes what hell is like.
Me, I'd think it'd be the world's shortest book. Page one: "Beats the hell out of me. The End." You'd think that the thesis, and the resulting argument, both being based upon no hard facts whatsoever, would devolve into a lot of shrugging of shoulders and moving on to other, more pressing issues.
You'd be wrong.
Apparently his contentions have ignited a firestorm of controversy. Bell has been labeled a heretic; one prominent pastor commented, "Satan is having a field day with this." Another pastor, who espoused Bell's ideas, has been fired. The whole thing is still being hotly debated, and probably will continue to be for some time to come.
Bell's central point is that god's love can triumph even over sins that many think would doom a person to hell, and that therefore saying that this or that act is certain to condemn someone is wrong. Of course, a lot of people don't like that idea. From the touchy-feely end of the spectrum, you have the people who don't like the idea of hell in the first place, and are uncomfortable that there might be a final judgment; for them, Bell's book is too harsh. On the other end, there are the folks who really love the ideas of the unbelievers cooking eternally on Satan's George Foreman Grill, and for them, Bell is too easygoing, too admitting of wiggle-room.
I remember a girl I knew in college, who was honestly upset that I wasn't "saved," because she thought I was nice and didn't want me to spend eternity getting tortured. Which was kind enough of her, I suppose. But I recall her saying, "Being saved from hell isn't about being nice. Being saved from hell is about accepting Jesus. You can be all the nice you want, but if you haven't accepted Jesus, you're going to hell for all eternity."
A lot of the more liberal Christians have a kneejerk reaction against this -- it just seems unfair, somehow. What about observant Jews? Or Hindus? Or Muslims? Or Buddhists? Or all the millions of people who lived and died and never even heard about Christianity? It brings to mind the thing that went around the email circles a while back -- you may have seen it. "Q: What do Socrates, Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi, Anne Frank, Lao Tse, and Chief Joseph all have in common? A: According to the fundamentalists, they're all in hell."
What's interesting is that even the bible itself isn't consistent in what it says. The Old Testament instances of the word that is often translated as "hell" is the Hebrew word sheol, which as far as I can understand from my Jewish friends, just kind of means a dreary, depressing place where everyone ultimately goes, a "place of nothingness." Sort of a New Jersey for the Spirit World. The concept of a place of torment seems limited to the New Testament, the "fiery furnace" where there'll be "weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth." In fact, several instances of that concept correspond to the New Testament writers' use of the Greek word tartaros, which makes me wonder if they borrowed the whole thing from Greek mythology. (You remember, Sisyphus and the Rock, Tantalus and the Water, etc.)
Anyhow, the whole thing comes across as rather silly to me -- to argue vehemently about the characteristics of a place that no one has any direct information about, and about which even the one source they're accepting isn't clear. Of course, it isn't the first time I've been mystified by the behavior of religious folks, and probably won't be the last; but to be fair, they probably find my lack of belief equally mystifying.