The primary reason that I became a Christian as a kid was because the church gave me candy, and a very close second was because I didn't want to go to hell. One Sunday, the Sunday School teacher told her class that if we didn't have Jesus in our hearts then when we die we would go to a place called hell where we would burn everyday...forever...without a break. And worms would eat our skin and eyes. And we’d be really, really thirsty, but could never have water. And worst of all, there would be no TV! To a seven year old, that is the absolute worst scenario one could imagine. It took about .26 seconds for me to raise my hand to “accept Jesus into my heart.”
For many Christians, the concept of a literal, physical place of torment is a vital component of their belief system, right next to the extremely important 12 noon worship service ending time. Hell is an expression of God’s holiness and justice. God is holy, and therefore he cannot coexist with sin. God is also just and sin must be punished. To this group of Christians, hell is the eternal destination for all who refuse to accept Christ as their rescuer and redeemer. Hell is a place of physical and emotional punishment.
But for other Christians, this concept doesn't line up with a God who is loving, forgiving, and compassionate. Author Rob Bell is one of the latter Christians. In his recent book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person, Bell introduces his readers to an ancient understanding of the biblical concept of hell in which it is not a literal place where non-believers spend eternity. Instead, hell is a state of being in which humans exist apart from the way God has intended for humans to exist. In this view, hell can be on the streets of Atlanta where young boys and girls are "rented out" for sexual exploits, or where civil unrest dominates the culture of the Democratic Republic of Congo and where many people die daily from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. To Bell, hell is here and now, not another place at the end of time.
This is what I want to engage you with: what is heresy? Many in Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, have condemned Bell’s view as heretical, and have been pretty vocal about opposing his view. All of this drama has caused me to ask a few questions. Not questions about particular views of hell - I already know where I stand on that issue - but questions about heresy. I am simply using the Rob Bell situation as an example. Heresy is “an opinion or doctrine contrary to church dogma” (Merriam-Webster). That’s pretty vague, and according to that definition almost every Christian could be considered a heretic on some level. Wikipedia says that “Christian heresy is non-orthodox practices and beliefs that were deemed to be heretical by one or more of the Christian churches.” Again, not as helpful as I would like.
So I throw it out to the great minds who read patch.com. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions.
- What is heresy?
- Who decides what heresy is?
See you in the comments.