I just got back from a family vacation to Disney World. The trip was a great success for several reasons, including the fact that the kids are at the optimal age and that the crowds were not quite as bad as they would have been during a school holiday. However, a significant part of what made our visit to the Disney Parks so pleasant was our full utilization of one of Disney’s most ingenious creations: the FASTPASS. FASTPASS is a mechanism that is available for the most popular rides at each park. The FASTPASS machine generates a ticket that assigns you a one hour time slot at some later point in the day. At your appointed return time, you enter the FASTPASS lane, in which you breeze by the sweaty, desperate masses standing in the endless purgatory of the regular Standby lane and rapidly arrive at the promised land of your desired ride.
It just so happened that on this vacation I also decided to read Rob Bell’s latest book: Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived. I picked this book in part because it seemed like a relatively light read compared to most of the stuff I’ve been slogging through recently (i.e. Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethic”). However, until I finished the book on the flight home I did not fully appreciate how remarkably relevant this book was for our trip.
No, it’s not because some of you may view a Disney vacation as the quintessence of Hell. Nor is it because our vacation spanned the targeted Rapture date of May 21st.
Rather, it was remarkably relevant because Rob Bell’s explanation of how people get to Heaven bears a striking resemblance to Disney’s FASTPASS. Based on my understanding of his book, he is arguing that in the end, everyone will get to Heaven. But for some folks, it’s just gonna take a whole lot longer (well past the end of their mortal lives). In other words, some folks get to take the FASTPASS lane to Heaven, while others have to wait a good long time in Standby until they take the necessary steps.
Of course I’m oversimplifying. I actually liked many parts of this book – something I did not expect given that in general I am not a big fan of evangelical authors. In fact, it is exactly because it was written by an evangelical, primarily for evangelicals, that I was so impressed by it. Bell is challenging his co-religionists to open their minds and hearts towards those who might think a bit differently. In particular, he is challenging their assumption that those who think, and believe differently, are going to Hell for an eternity of suffering. As he puts it in the book’s first chapter:
If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? How does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random selection?….God choosing you instead of others?
What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that?
Good questions. The rest of the book is dedicated to exploring these and many other issues, such as the complexities of how one should even think about Heaven and Hell (he provides theological, historical and scriptural context for why we should think of them as existing here and now just as much as later and elsewhere). However, he has to come back continuously to the questions of who gets to Heaven, and how they get there. I find Bell’s answer to these questions deeply problematic. The crux of his answer is in Chapter 6, where he lays out three different ways of thinking about this question.
The first way is ‘exclusivity’, where
Jesus is the only way. Everybody who doesn’t believe in him and follow him in the precise way that is defined by the group doing the defining isn’t saved, redeemed, going to heaven, and so on….You’re either in, or you’re going to hell.
The entire point of Bell’s book is to explain why he thinks this is the wrong way to look at things.
The second way is ‘inclusivity’, a way that
…trusts that good people will get in, that there is only one mountain, but it has many paths. This inclusivity assumes that as long as your heart is fine or your actions measure up, you’ll be OK.
So, with some slight modifications to the language and less focus on the afterlife, this is basically what I believe. And I was all excited to see Bell acknowledge this path. But then Bell continues with a third way – the one he subscribes to – which he calls ‘exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity’:
This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.
Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.
What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.
Hmm. So if I understand this right (and Bell goes on about this over the next few pages), the key is how you think about Jesus. If you think about him the way he claims you should – as God, Life, Truth, Love and Insight Into Core Aspects of The Human Condition- well, then people from all faiths can come to God through Jesus, even if they never say Christ’s name.
Right. The only problem with this is that people who are not Christian don’t view Jesus this way. And they probably wouldn’t take so well to being told “Oh, that God you’re praying to? That’s really Jesus. And hey, don’t worry – you aren’t going to Hell because thank goodness the God you are praying to is actually Jesus”.
There are a few choice words I think I remember from Hebrew School that might sum up the way Non-Christians would respond to this attitude.
So it is really sad, because I truly think Bell has the best of intentions. And a whole lot of cojones to stand up for what he thinks is right. But in the end, his position goes just far enough to piss off other evangelicals, while not going far enough to avoid being condescending towards other faiths.
It seems to me that until Christians are willing to acknowledge that we do not have a monopoly on God, we are continuing to leave the door open for intolerance. And that’s coming from a secular Jew who now is an active and devout churchgoer. Yes, I personally follow Jesus because for me that has been the path to God. But I have Catholic friends who have found God in Judaism. And Jewish friends who have found God in Buddhism. And many other friends who have found that the greatest path to Peace and Love is to get as far away from organized religion as they can. I don’t secretly hope that these other friends will some day come around and embrace Jesus the way I have. Nor do I think all of these other friends are in some mystical way actually following Jesus. Either view would completely disrespect the careful thought and consideration they have put into their worldview, and the positive impact they make on the world around them. What I do think is that all of us are struggling to find our own compelling path to make the world a better place – to make God’s Kingdom Come, if you will. Those paths are not all the same, but they all are aiming for the same place.
I understand that one of the biggest critiques of the position I am taking is that it isn’t supported by Scripture. My own concern about this was further exacerbated when I reread chapter 11 of Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity, in which Borg writes beautifully about this subject but cites only verses in scripture that challenge the open view I am advocating. So the other night, I prayed to God for guidance and turned to the New Testament. And ya know what I turned to? Luke 10:29 – in which a Samaritan (a type of pagan in Jesus’ time) does the right thing for a person in need, while the two supposed paragons of orthodox religious virtue (a priest and a Levite) utterly fail to show compassion. Jesus tells this parable in direct response to the question “Who is my neighbor”. But do you know what question started off this man’s conversation with Jesus?
“Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Maybe if we all spent a little more time trying to be like that Samaritan, and a little less time judging each other, we all could get in the Fast Pass lane. Hope to see you at Space Mountain….