Those of you not living in a cave, or to be fair not tuned into to either publishing or evangelicalism, are probably aware of the whole phenomenon surrounding Love Wins by Rob Bell. I never posted a review here because it was such a complex and constantly moving debate that I never managed to spend the time and focus I felt necessary to give it justice.
Nevertheless, I read the book several times and even spoke at my church about it (you can read my initial take at Goodreads). I also read some other books that grew out of that larger debate on the doctrine of hell. And so when I heard about Why be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)? I was intrigued. I wanted to see how someone from a Reformed perspective tackled and framed this issue (Calvinists/Reformed were amongst the most negative and vitriolic of Bell’s critics).
Why Be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)? is a warm and friendly tour through the peaceful and positive features of the Christian faith, without judgment of other religions. The book is a practical and down-to-earth introduction for the curious, the inquirer, and anyone who wants to discover Christianity in a new light. It confidently clears away the ever-present and negative motivation for being a Christian: the fear of going to hell. The book argues that the conventional view of people suffering in hell is not part of the original Biblical faith, and that belief in hell is not required of a Christian today. Accessible, readable, and smart, this is the book to consult if you are shopping for a religion, want to develop your spirituality, or just want to know more about Christianity. Chapters include: To Be Spiritual, To Save Your Soul, To Be a Human Being, To Deal with Guilt, To Know God’s Story, To Love Your Neighbor, and many others.
It turned out to be a well done, even inspirational, book that only focused on hell as a sort of hook for a wider focus.
The “controversial” aspect of this book centers on belief in hell, and the author takes a less orthodox approach on the subject, but the meat of the book is really focused on Christian spirituality and faith. And while it is certainly non-judgmental, and written largely for the non-believer or unchurched, it is deeply rooted in orthodox faith and practice (not surprising given the author’s Calvinist perspective).
If you are looking for an in-depth and fully developed theological argument regarding hell, this is not it. Meeter sketches out why he believes the concept of hell and eternal torment is not Biblical and why such a belief is not necessary to orthodox Christian faith. He offers a good explanation of his views, and outlines how the conventional view of hell came to dominate the church, but I am sure there are many who will wish for a deeper explanation and will want to dig further.
The basic concept Meeter offers is that the doctrine of hell (i.e. eternal physical torment) comes from a misinterpretation of Biblical imagery and language in combination with Greek philosophy influencing the Western Church.
Meeter’s view develops out of Paul’s claim that the wages of sin is death – spiritual and physical death, i.e. ceasing to exist. He argues that the early church shared this view and conception but that Greek dualism began to influence the church and change the way hell was understood.
In essence, if you understand the physical and the spiritual to be two entirely separate things, and view the soul as immortal, then you begin to see both heaven and hell developed as places where these souls go after physical death. The saved go to heaven, the lost to hell. Dualism creates the need for, and influences the development of, these terms as they have developed in the West.
But in Meeter’s view eternal life is a gift of God and not the natural state of fallen man. As a result, the lost don’t suffer eternal torment but rather cease to exist and do not participate in the age to come with the new heaven and new earth. The saved are given eternal life and inhabit the new heaven and the new earth in fellowship with the creator.
In the end. Meeter’s understanding is basically what is known as an annihilationist view of hell. I have only sketched this out in basic terms and probably not all that clearly. But that should give you a taste of where Meeter is coming from. And if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, it is the position I myself would use to describe my own.
Meeter then moves on to discuss what it means to be a Christian; why be a Christian if the motivation to avoid hell is gone. And this section is really well done. The tone is respectful and non-judgmental, it is not dogmatic nor insistent but explorative and curious. But again this is not relativism nor is it particularly unorthodox theology (with the exceptions of the sections on heaven and hell to some degree) but rather an open and honest tone focused on those without a background in theology or even the church.
I really like how Meeter focused on how Christianity is different from other faiths and what that means both philosophically and in practice. I also liked how he focused faith on connecting with the creator of the universe and how that relationship allows us to become fully human and participate in the redemption of the universe. It really does echo Jesus’ command to love God and love your neighbor but Meeter builds an understandable structure and coherent philosophy around this command. It results in a deep and attractive faith that gives meaning to life and purpose to faith besides avoiding hell.
As noted, his views on heaven are also somewhat unconventional – or at least different from the average church goer in conception. I am not sure how unorthodox these views are among theologians. They will not be new to you if you have read any NT Wright but I won’t sketch them out here.
I would encourage those put off by the debate over hell (or heaven for that matter) to not get caught up on that aspect and instead focus instead on how Meeter communicates orthodox faith to those from outside of that worldview and does so in a humble and gracious way.
(I received a free copy of this book from Speakeasy)