He was a prominent minister, pastoring a church with a membership in the thousands, preaching standard doctrines with a relevant twist. But then he started to doubt the concept of hell and the possibility that God would damn people who were already suffering on Earth to an afterlife of further, eternal torment. Voicing this doubt made him the target of serious, sustained criticism. Former colleagues denounced him as a heretic.
No, this isn’t the story of Rob Bell, whose latest book Love Wins remains among the top 10 bestsellers on Amazon.com. The flurry of voices condemning and congratulating him continues unabated, driving up sales and raising Bell’s profile [Listen to Rob Bell discuss hell and the controversy here].
This is the story of Carlton Pearson, an African-American minister trained by the famous Pentecostal televangelist Oral Roberts, who now preaches a “gospel of inclusion” after rejecting the concept of hell in the early 2000s. Change a few details and it could be the story of Laurentine Hamilton, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister who came to California during the Gold Rush but was excommunicated for rejecting hell in the late 1860s. Or it could be the story of Charles Chauncy, an eighteenth-century Boston Congregationalist who was so concerned about the potential reaction to his increasingly universalist beliefs that he first published them anonymously under the title Salvation for All Men in 1782.
Clearly Bell’s universalist-leaning view isn’t new. What’s surprising isn’t his posture, it’s the recurrence of controversies over hell, century after century, in such similar ways. Why is hell such a big deal in America? Or to put it more bluntly: why the hell does hell still matter?
According to a number of columnists, hell doesn’t really matter anymore—at least not to most Americans. Hell, they suggest, has been on the outs since at least 1800 in America and Bell’s critics are simply “fanatics” worried and angry about the increasing narrowness and irrelevance of their own position in the modern religious arena.
But it’s too easy to dismiss hell as irrelevant and Bell’s (and Pearson’s, Hamilton’s, and Chauncy’s) critics as fanatics. A 2008 article from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 59% of Americans continue to profess belief in hell. Granted, that’s compared to 74% who believe in heaven, but a 59% majority is hardly insignificant. It suggests that those who disagree with Bell aren’t just a narrow minority of “fanatics.” It suggests that there’s still something live in the concept of hell that touches a particularly sensitive nerve.
Hell never stopped mattering in America. It’s central to the way many Americans have thought and continue to think of themselves, each other, and their nation. The common claim that hell has been on the outs in America since at least 1800 is simply untrue.
If anything, 1800 represented a turning point in the other direction. The idea of universal salvation had appealed to both elites like Chauncy and common folk in the late-1700s. The promise that all humans would eventually be saved represented an extreme backlash against the dominant Calvinist notion that God chose only some for heaven. Universal salvation seemed a better fit with the heady atmosphere of Revolutionary optimism and the Enlightenment faith in human ability. Yet believers in universal salvation did not become a majority after 1800. Instead, the Protestant orthodoxy found new ways to argue for hell’s relevance in the fledgling nation.
It was a nation founded, after all, on the radical premise of republican virtue. Without a monarch to rule over the people, what would keep them in line?
Or so the orthodoxy argued. Protestants worried that if Universalism caught fire, the nation itself might not survive. If people did not fear that their actions might have eternal consequences, there was no telling what anarchy might ensue. “[T]he issue of such a system is that man may live as they chuse [sic], and be as wicked as they please, without fear of punishment,” one 1784 newspaper article warned. By and large, these threats of doom carried the day. The fear of anarchy in the new nation inspired the continued fear of hell.
Similar fears have continued to drive American believers in hell from the nineteenth century into the present day. Hell-talk littered the arguments of antebellum abolitionists, who warned that the failure to end slavery immediately would lead individuals to eternal hell and the nation as a whole to divine punishment. Pro-slavery activists, for their part, hurled back the threat of hell, arguing that God had sanctioned slavery in the Bible and that to oppose it was to oppose God’s will.
Today, the threat of hell is still the elephant in the room on hot-button moral and political issues like abortion and gay marriage. These issues are so very vital in conservative religious communities precisely because they are linked to the implied, but sometimes explicit, threat that eternal damnation awaits not only those who participate in but also those who fail to oppose these issues, and that punishment also awaits the nation as a whole if they fail to act.
Aside from the issues themselves, the major difference between controversies over hell today and in the past is that most recipients of the threat of hell now take it much less seriously than did their predecessors. Instead of hurling the threat back, they lob labels like “fanatic.”
But labeling is unproductive. Those who mock hell continually provide fodder for believers to damn, which in turn provokes more laughter. As a result, both end up talking past each other.
Whether or not we agree with the issues they champion, the majority of Americans who continue to believe in hell can’t simply be dismissed as fanatical relics of a bygone age. Controversies over hell keep recurring because to its believers, hell stands for more than fire, brimstone, and worms that never die. Hell also represents a backstop on the slippery slope to social chaos in a nation founded not on ethnicity or religion, but on the premise of a virtuous citizenry.
Of course, one person’s virtue is another’s vice; and for their part, hell’s believers might consider whether deploying it as a trump card in social debates is really the most productive strategy. These responses will only ensure that Bell won’t be last in the line of hellish controversies.