Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bell on Hell

Rob Bell is a pastor and an author. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, his new book published just this month, has created a lot of discussion, not only in Christian circles but in the secular world as well. The Wall Street Journal published a review of Bell’s new book in its March 18 issue, and this month he has also been interviewed on Good Morning America, Morning Joe, and other TV programs.
Bell (b. 1970), a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, is the founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. His first book, Velvet Elvis (2005) was a bestseller and his new book is already on the bestseller lists. It debuted on the USAToday Top 150 at #15 (based on sales through March 20), and on March 25 it was #4 among all books sold on
Much of the interest in, and criticism of, Bell’s book is because of what he says about hell. He thinks that there is a hell, but it is a view far different from the traditional idea held by most conservative/evangelical Christians and by most Catholics. Bell understands hell as primarily the suffering that people experience now because of the bad choices they, or others, make.
From the very beginning of his book, Bell calls into serious question the view that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (p. viii).

“Hell” is the title of Bell's third chapter, and there he acknowledges that “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it” (p. 72). This is due to “the freedom that love requires” (p. 111). (One of my seminary professors used to say that hell is “Love’s rejection of the rejection of love.”)

But the lack of love creates hells for others now. And Bell observes, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death” (pp. 78-79). Bell prefers the latter position.

Not surprisingly, some conservative/fundamentalist Christians have staunchly criticized Bell’s views on hell and related matters. And a Methodist pastor in North Carolina has even been dismissed from his pastorate because of his positive statements about Bell’s book. (You can read about the pastor and church here.)

As for me, I was favorably impressed with Bell’s book. At the very least, it gives us a lot that we need to think about seriously and to discuss. I wondered, though, why he did not deal with the position known as annihiliationism. I write about that idea and other matters related to hell in my The Limits of Liberalism (pp. 225-7), ending that section by saying that my position ”does not embrace the harshness of the traditional view, but still takes sin and its consequences much more seriously than the position held by most Christian liberals.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Nuclear Fix

Fukushima and Daiichi have, unfortunately, become household words. As you know, Fukushima Daiichi is the name of the nuclear power plant in northeast Japan dangerously damaged by the disastrous March 11 earthquake/tsunami. 

Fukushima is a common name in Japan, a family name as well as a place name. It is the name of one of the 47 prefectures in Japan as well as the name of the capital city of that prefecture, a city with a population of around 290,000—at least before the earthquake/tsunami greatly damaged much of the city. Ironically, fukushima means island of good fortune.

Daiichi simply means number one, and that is the name of the nuclear power plant with six reactors in Fukushima Prefecture. Those reactors went into commercial operation between 1971 and 1979. Fukushima Daini (number two), a nuclear power plant with four reactors, is located just a few miles away. In spite of such a huge earthquake, there seems to have no serious damage to the reactors at the Daini power plant. It was the powerful tsunami that caused most of the disastrous damage at Daiichi. 
Many years ago I wrote an article for a Japanese YMCA publication questioning the use of nuclear plants. Part of my concern was the potential danger due to accidents, and part was because of the problem of disposing of nuclear waste.

But then I was not aware of the problem of global warming, at least partly linked to the emission of greenhouse gases. So now I think that probably the long-term danger from global warming is greater than the danger of radiation due to accidents or nuclear waste.

Even though there are certainly grave results from exposure to radiation, perhaps the disastrous effects of radiation have been exaggerated. This is not to deny in any way that there were thousands and thousands of people in Japan who died of “atomic bomb disease,” radiation poisoning, after August 1945.
My parents made their first visit to Japan in 1969. When we took them to the Peace Park in Nagasaki, my father marveled at how much vegetation there was all around. He said, “They told us after the war that nothing would grow in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for 75 years.” It was Dr. Harold Jacobsen, a scientist from the Manhattan Project, who told the Washington Post after the dropping of the atomic bombs that Hiroshima “will be barren of life and nothing will grow for 75 years.”

But when June and I first visited Hiroshima in 1967, just 22 years after the war’s end, there was ample vegetation already, even in the area near the epicenter, just as there was in Nagasaki in 1969 when we visited there with my parents.  
So, we know that it is possible for local areas to overcome the effect of even atomic bombs, as terrible as they were. But the effects of global warming will be just that: global.

Certainly there needs to be every possible precaution taken to make nuclear energy safe. But in the long run, the continuing, and expanding, use of nuclear reactors is probably better for global society than continued, or expanded, use of coal- or gas-powered plants.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Third Way

Consider these words by Myron S. Augsburger: “I am neither a conservative rightist nor a leftist liberal but a follower of the Third Way, the Kingdom of God. This gives me freedom to select from right or left and to reject from right or left, seeking first of all the way of the Kingdom of God.” (Evelyn Hanneman is the Operations Coordinator of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, an organization I have belonged to for many years, and Augsburger’s words are part of her e-mail “signature.”)

Augsburger is a Mennonite churchman who has served as evangelist, pastor, and university professor; he was also president of Eastern Mennonite University from 1965-1980. He is the author of more than twenty books, including some historical novels. I have enjoyed reading (twice) I’ll See You Again! (1989), a fictionalized biography of Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr. And I have just finished watching “The Radicals” (1990), a movie based on Augsburger’s Pilgrim Aflame (1967), the story of 16th-century Anabaptists Michael and Margaretha Sattler.

As an admirer of the Swiss Brethren, the first Anabaptists in Zurich, I am appreciative of the work of the Mennonites who have carried on much of the spirit of that group which was a part of the “radical Reformation.” And I like Augsburger’s statement, although I struggle to grasp all its implications.

As you who read this blog know, recently I have written about what’s wrong with both conservatism and liberalism and have touted what I call the “radical center.” But perhaps what is needed in the political arena, especially for those of us who are Christians, is commitment to a Third Way, a path that is neither politically right, left, or center.

Perhaps many Christians, including myself, have become too greatly interested in politics and too little interested in promoting the Third Way, the way of Jesus and the way of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps one of the major problems of many Christians in the U.S. today is that they have allowed their political views to shape their understanding of Christianity rather than allowing the Christian faith to shape their political views.

In their attempt to influence the political order, many Christians have ended up being used by politicians or a political party. That certainly seems to be true with the Christian Right which sought to influence the Republican Party—and succeeded to a certain extent.  
It seems now, though, that the conservative wing of Christianity has been largely co-opted by the Republican Party for its own benefit. Consequently, it seems that some Christians’ views of social issues are shaped more by the stance of the Republican Party than by the teachings of Jesus.

But the same seems to be true for many who are liberal Democrats. The commitment of some Christians to the agenda of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party skews their understanding of the Christian faith. That is a concern raised by Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, and one reason he is criticized by some (or many) liberal Christians.

I want to give more serious thought to the implications of Augsburger’s emphasis on the Third Way, and I invite you to join me in that endeavor.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tsunami and Cherry Blossoms

The destruction wreaked by the earthquake/tsunami in Japan last week is almost unfathomable. Our hearts go out to the millions of people who have been directly affected by this terrible tragedy. Yet in spite of the large number of causalities, it is remarkable that there were not more, given the magnitude of the earthquake. 

From 1968 to 2004 we lived in southwest Japan, far from the area devastated by this natural catastrophe in northeast Japan. But we have close friends (and former students) who live in the area hardest hit. We have received word, indirectly, that they have survived, but we imagine they are suffering in many ways.

In spite of all the loss of life and property, Japan will overcome. The Japanese people have a remarkable resiliency. The Great Hanshin Earthquake (near Kobe) occurred in 1995. There was almost unimaginable damage to the buildings and roads in the region; more than 6,000 people were killed. Just a few years later when I was in Kobe for the first time after the earthquake, I saw little evidence of there having been a major catastrophe. It was almost unbelievable that the city could have recovered so quickly.

The Japanese are resilient partly because of their high level of energy, their ability to work long and hard, and their concentration on what needs to be done. Their resiliency is also due to a view of life expressed by the Japanese word hakanasa, which means ephemeral or transitory.

The Japanese love cherry blossoms so much partly because of their widespread awareness of hakanasa. Again this spring as the cherry trees bloom across Japan, where they can people will gather for parties under the trees, eating, singing and drinking sake—enjoying life while they can.

The cherry trees bloom in all their glory, but then quite quickly the blossoms begin to fall. The parties are held under the trees with the blossoms gently falling, and with greater or lesser levels of awareness, the Japanese tend to see the falling blossoms as indication of the transitory nature of life.

Part of the Japanese sense of hakanasa undoubtedly comes from the frequency of natural disasters across the nation. In addition to earthquakes and tsunami, the country often suffers from typhoons also, and historically fires have been common calamities in cities crowded with wooden houses.

Rebuilding seems to be a part of the Japanese mindset. The Ise Grand Shrine, dedicated to the Sun Goddess, is one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan. The major buildings of Ise Jinju are dismantled and new ones built on an adjacent site every twenty years. (The present buildings, dating from 1993, are scheduled for rebuilding in 2013.)

To be sure, it will take enormous effort to rebuild from last week’s catastrophe in Japan. There is need for massive assistance from individuals, organizations, and countries from around the world. But over the next few weeks the Japanese people will once again gaze upon the cherry blossoms, perhaps thinking about the transient nature of life even more than before—and then continue determinedly to overcome the vast devastation caused by the tsunami last week.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Role of Government

Some people whose opinions I value greatly took exception to my posting about what’s wrong with liberalism. They raised good questions and made some legitimate criticisms in their comments. There were also some debatable statements made. For example, one person saw a problem with my “reinforcing of a simplistic dichotomy” between conservatives and liberals and presenting the two sides as caricatures. is a non-profit current events website for high school students. Most who read this blog have been out of high school for a long time, but let me share how that website describes a major difference between liberals and conservatives. To me this seems to be a fair and helpful description of opposing positions, one which is simple but not simplistic as well as one which depicts real differences and not just caricatures.
According to their analysis, conservatives “believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense.” They also believe that “the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals.”
On the other hand, liberals “believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all,” and that it is “the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights.” They also believe that “the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need.”
In the political sphere, people have to come down on one side of this divide or the other. It is not really possible to be in the middle—unless that is a rather broad position encompassing various viewpoints, which it can and probably should be.
The conservative position was clearly articulated by President Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address. He declared that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” It seems that Reagan’s statement is now widely supported by the majority of the current members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Yet, the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, as I have previously emphasized, speaks of that document being drafted in order to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, [and] promote the general Welfare.” (The latter phrase refers to the “well-being” of people, not just what is popularly called welfare today.) If, or when, people are in need, discriminated against, exploited, etc., how could government action to correct those ills be a problem—except for those causing such problems?
So while I do believe liberals and conservatives need each other and need to work together for a broad and radiant center, I have to come down on the side that seems to be most concerned for the general welfare of the most people. And while liberals must be careful not to think they can or will be able to solve all social problems, shouldn’t one major role of the government be “to alleviate social ills” to the greatest extent possible?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

We Need Each Other

Recently I have written both about what’s wrong with conservatism and what’s wrong with liberalism. There were no doubt conservatives who disagreed with my posting about conservatism and liberals who disagreed with my posting about liberalism. And there may well have been some who disagreed with both.

It is certainly all right to disagree with ideas that you think are wrong. At the same time, there needs to be careful consideration as to what is being said, and then when there is disagreement, that needs to be expressed in a respectful manner. I am grateful that those who post comments on this blog do it respectfully.
Now I am writing to emphasize that we need each other. I am not talking about the way that is portrayed in a song with that title by Sanctus Real, the Christian rock band. Their song was quite popular in some circles in 2008, and the lyrics are actually quite good.
Rather, I am emphasizing here how conservatives need liberals and liberals need conservatives. That is true whether we are speaking of theology or politics. Some of you may agree in general with this idea, but you may also wish there weren't so many on the other side.
My father used to tell about a man he knew who complained about there being so many Democrats in Worth County where he lived. When someone asked the man, “Don’t you think there ought to be Democrats?” he replied, “Sure, there should some Democrats. There just shouldn’t be so d*** many of them!”
Probably some of you think there shouldn’t be so d*** many liberals or so d*** many conservatives. But we need each other. And we need to listen to each other. We need each other in order to realize that issues are seldom as simple as we too often think.
We all have a tendency to believe that our ideas are completely right and the ideas of those who hold differing views are completely wrong. But it is only fundamentalists, whether on the right or the left, who think they are absolutely right and those who have differing views are absolutely wrong. And it is fundamentalism on both sides that is polarizing (and paralyzing) our country.
Everyone realizes, of course, that a bird or an airplane needs two wings to fly. Can we take that as a hint about how in both theology and politics there needs to be both right-wingers and left-wingers?
It is also true, of course, that for a bird or an airplane most of the weight is in the middle, between the wings. Is that also a hint about how in both theology and politics there needs to be more emphasis on the “radiant center” rather than on one wing or the other?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Land of the Free

It was Francis Scott Key, as most of you know, who penned the words to “The Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. What you may not know is that it was eighty years ago this week, on March 3, 1931, that Key’s composition officially became the national anthem.
Key (1779-1843) was a lawyer and amateur poet, and his poem written in 1814 was first titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” (It is interesting to note that the British spelling of defense was still used.)
During the War of 1812, which did not end until February 1815, Key watched the bombarding of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The next morning, September 14, 1814, Key was able to see a large American flag still flying above the besieged fort. That was his inspiration for the poem. (It is also interesting to note that Key’s poem was set to the tune of a British drinking song, which was popular in the United States at the time.)
It was on March 3, 1931, then, that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Key’s re-named poem, was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution and subsequently signed by President Herbert Hoover.
Although we don’t usually hear more than the first verse of the national anthem, all four verses end with the words about the flag flying “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Those are words that most Americans like, and for good reason.
It recently dawned on me, however, that at the time Key wrote those words, there was a large segment of the people living in the United States who were not free. In 1810 there were more than one million (!) slaves in the United States and more than 110,000 in Maryland where Key wrote his famous words about the “land of the free.”
At that time in American history, women did not have complete political freedom either, as they did not have the right to vote. And even though Key extolled the “land of the free” it was more than a century later before women were free to vote.
Of course, by 1931, thankfully, slavery had become a thing of the past (even though racism was still deeply embedded in the country) and women had gained the right to vote (a whole 10½ years earlier).
But is this the land of the free now? Certainly, for most of us. But still there are problems.
The well-known words on the Statue of Liberty contain this appealing invitation, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Probably most of those who came to this country from Europe, as did the ancestors of many of us, came for economic freedom rather than for political or religious freedom. That was the case for the Neigers and the Abplanalps from Switzerland, my ancestors who most recently came to this country.
But now within our society there is considerable animosity toward people who recently came to this country for economic reasons, especially, of course, toward those who came "without papers." But that animosity extends even to their children who had no choice in the matter, as seen in the defeat of the DREAM act in the U.S. Senate last December. 
The next time we sing about the land of the free, perhaps that should help us to be more sympathetic towards others who now want to enjoy the same freedom that so many of our ancestors came to this country to have.