Recently I had an epiphany while reading the latest book from David Bentley Hart called That All Shall be Saved (see: Amazon link). Before I explain my epiphany, a bit of context on the book itself would be helpful. In this book, Hart methodically dismantles the traditional view of hell. In case you are unaware, there are at least three (although with numerous other variations) traditional Christian ways of understanding the concept of hell.
Not only does Hart go after the most common view today, but he doesn’t even blush a little while he does it. One of the funniest sections in the entire book comes in his final remarks. That’s when Hart drops this little beauty:
Custom dictates and prudence advises that here, in closing, I wax gracefully disingenuous and declare that I am uncertain in my conclusions, that I offer them only hesitantly, that I entirely understand the views of those that take the opposite side of the argument, and that I fully respect contrary opinions on these matters. I find, however, whether on account of principle or of pride, that I am simply unable to do this.
I’d love to see his publisher’s reaction to seeing that for the first time. It would be merely funny if he stopped at this, but he clarifies why:
I believe I am obeying my conscience in refusing to lie about my convictions; more to the point, though, I believe that I am obeying my conscience with a special rigor in rejecting the majority view that there is a hell of eternal torment, since I am fairly sure that it must be a wicked thing to give one’s intellectual assent to something one cannot help but find morally repugnant.
For anyone who has been in the church-world for long, you know that discussing alternative Christian views of hell is a dangerous subject. Just ask Rob Bell.
For years now I’ve had issues with the traditional view of hell (often referred to as either “Infernalism” or “Eternal Conscious Torment”). But I haven’t felt comfortable landing squarely with any other view. It hasn’t been for lack of trying or lack of exposure to the ideas.
In reading Hart’s latest book on the subject, what surprised me most was not the way he portrays the Christian understanding of hell, or even how he challenges the traditional thoughts on it. What surprised me the most was my reaction to it. I realized there are often two conversations happening when we explore new ideas. And one of them is largely taking place unnoticed.
Perhaps due to the fact that I’m currently dreaming about my next steps in life from a less tethered point of view, or due to the fact that for the first time in seventeen years I’m not currently on staff at a church, but I was able to notice myself reading this book differently than normal. And here were the two conversations I noticed happening in my head:
- Do I see merit in these ideas? Why or why not?
- What are the personal implications if I agree with these ideas?
The first is the conversation we think we are having when we consider new ideas. We often assume we can be fully rational and logical in where we land with our opinions. But what I recently noticed is the significance of the second conversation, mainly because I didn’t care about this one as much as I normally do.
Consider how much #2 shapes our response to a new idea. In the Church today, one’s views on hell, gay marriage, Trump, immigration, or systemic racism (to name but a few of the landmines) will each come with significant reactions from others. If you challenge yourself to read new ideas on any of these topics you may find yourself asking the following questions:
- Will I have to officially change my mind on this topic?
- How will I look if I change my mind?
- Will I lose support from my current tribe?
- Will I have to find a new tribe?
- Will I lose support or respect from friends?
- Could I lose my job over this?
- Will I enter into conflict over this?
Here’s my theory: The longer you’ve been a Christian the more the implications of ideas play a factor in how you process new ideas.
If true, this puts Christians at a major disadvantage when it comes to experiencing truth. The implications of an idea do not determine the truth of an idea. You may indeed need to change your mind about something. And it may absolutely cost you to do so.
For us to grow we must constantly process ideas that are new to us (or ideas we still don’t fully understand). Fear will suggest the implications of a change of thought cannot be worth it. But Jesus is on the other side of that fear. It was the resurrected Jesus who, when meeting His own disciples after His death, “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45). Didn’t they already have a fairly strong grasp on the Scriptures from their three years with Jesus? Yet, they weren’t done. May the same thing happen for each of us today.
What’s that idea you’ve been hesitant to explore more about? What would happen if you stopped worrying about the implications and pursued Jesus in the midst of it?The longer you've been a Christian the more the implications of ideas play a factor in how you process new ideas. Click To Tweet