For millennia, people have been trying to imagine what happens after death. Is there an afterlife, a heaven? Who gets in? And what happens to those who don't?
Books trying to provide answers to these age-old questions continue to be best-sellers, and some, like "Love Wins" by Michigan megachurch pastor Rob Bell, have ignited intense debate, especially among evangelical Christians.
"A lot of people, the conception they were handed of the Christian faith is that you go around making judgments: So-and-so we know for sure is burning forever in the place," Bell told Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. "You don't know that. That's speculation."
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe in life after death. Some 74 percent believe in heaven and almost 60 percent believe in hell. The majority of Americans also believe that many religions can lead to eternal life. Evangelicals, though, are more likely to say that theirs is the one true faith that leads to eternal life.
Mary Vanden Berg, an assistant professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary here, puts it pointedly: "There is one sure way to know that you will spend eternal life with God, in the presence of God, and that is through faith in Jesus Christ."
Bell offers a more expansive view. He's pastor of the nondenominational Mars Hill Bible Church just outside Grand Rapids, which has some 10,000 weekly attendees. He's also a popular speaker whose videos have a huge international following among younger evangelicals.
"For me, interacting with countless people over the years who literally are carrying around an image, 'God is not good, and God is not good because my grandmother dies and at the funeral the pastor wanted us all to know for sure that my grandmother was burning in torment forever,"' he said.
Instead, Bell points to Scriptures where Jesus says he is restoring all things and drawing all people to himself.
"And Jesus tells stories in which the key character doesn't give up on, on whatever is lost," he said. "And I think we should take that seriously. I don't know what God has in mind, but I do know that this story that Jesus tells causes us to pause before we make any of those sorts of judgments. Be very careful because God may be up to something way, way bigger than you've ever been able to comprehend."
Heaven, according to Bell, is not a faraway place but a renewal of the earth that begins here and now. He believes the spectrum of people who will be part of it is "wide and expansive." Hell, he says, is the consequence of choosing not to be part of God's massive embrace.
"God is throwing a party and everybody's invited, but if you don't want to come, you are given that option."
- Heaven and Hell
- Pastor Rob Bell Extended Interview
"Is there a point at which a change of heart no longer means anything to God?" Watch more of our interview with pastor and author Rob Bell.
- Lisa Miller Extended Interview
"Nothing Rob Bell has said is new," says author and columnist Lisa Miller. "There has been this long conversation for twenty-five hundred years about what heaven is and who gets to go." Watch more of our interview with her about heaven and megachurch pastor Rob Bell's book "Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived."
- Mary Vanden Berg Extended Interview
"I thought he raised some really interesting questions," says Mary Vanden Berg, assistant professor of theology at Calvin Seminary, when asked about Rob Bell's book on heaven and God's judgement. "But I think Christian tradition has answered them." Watch more of our discussion with her.
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SOURCE: Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly