Alex Beam

A heck of a theological debate

Religious figures offer some interesting theories about hell and who goes — or doesn’t go — there

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / March 18, 2011

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The big noise on the God front this week comes from Rob Bell, the evangelical Christian pastor of the 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible megachurch in Grandville, Mich. Bell, who is nothing if not social-media-savvy, is pushing a new book, and pushing it hard. His co-pastors informed congregants a few days ago that Bell was out-trending Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber on Twitter, whatever that means, and that his book is outselling Pope Benedict’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth,’’ on

I see that Benedict’s book has its own headline-worthy revelation, absolving the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. I wonder how that’s trending on Twitter. But I digress.

Happily for Rob Bell’s book sales, conservative divines across the country are denouncing him as a heretic for his core message: “Love Wins,’’ also the title of his book. There is even a modestly populated Facebook site called “People against Rob Bell’s (and Mars Hill’s) heresy!’’ “The purpose of this group is not to attack this man personally, but to attack his false teachings,’’ we read.

One big heresy that Bell has been blasting on YouTube and elsewhere is that non-Christians may not be condemned to burn in hell. “[Mahatma] Gandhi is in hell?’’ Bell asks. “He is? And someone knows this for sure? Will only a few religious people make it to heaven?’’ Ix-nay, quoth Bell, who must have the inside scoop on this. He is after all, the author of “Sex God,’’ another book with enviable sales figures.

For obvious reasons, I take a personal interest in news of the underworld. I will be packing my flame-retardant pajamas for my final journey, and I am counting on a long stay, surrounded by lifelong friends and many, many fascinating writers and journalists. To say nothing of all those Wall Street types and corporate lawyers, with their clever one-liners and acerbic sense of humor. What was Mark Twain’s famous line? Heaven for the climate, hell for the company.

So moving the goal osts of hell makes me nervous. The Vatican did something similar a few years ago, redefining the Catholic idea of limbo. For centuries, the church — I mean the real church, not some converted warehouse where two interstates meet — taught that babies unlucky enough to die before they were baptized were relegated to an afterlife that was neither heaven, hell, nor purgatory.

Thanks in part to the current pope, that teaching has changed, allowing for the “hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision,’’ according to a 2007 Vatican document. “Limbo is in limbo,’’ the Rev. William Neenan, Boston College’s vice president, drily observes.

I think we can agree that doctrinal change was a Good Thing, from many points of view. But what about Bell’s so-called universalist heresy, which would allow for all manner of the unwashed getting into heaven? “The Bible is very diverse in its voice on this question,’’ says Matthew Boulton, an associate professor at the Harvard Divinity School. “If God is not going to save everyone, that gives you some sort of hell. But some theologians are expressing the hope that hell may be empty.’’

Neenan echoes this view. “There’s nobody in hell as far as we know. That is a decision that God makes. That’s not up to any earthly being. Is Judas in hell? No one knows. That’s basic mainline Catholic doctrine.

“So it follows that Gandhi is not in hell,’’ Neenan continues. “If he’s in hell, all is lost. Hell is going to be a very overcrowded place.’’

So there is hope for us all! I am feeling better already.

Same church, different pew Going somewhere? Why not go in style? A start-up company in Old Saybrook, Conn., called Golden Casket has started marketing handcrafted coffins finished in 24-karat gold. “A casket is the only purchase you ever get to keep,’’ cofounder Edward Balfour explains in a release. “Gold is forever. It is immune to physical destruction, and does not oxidize, rust, or tarnish. Therefore what more appropriate material to use on a casket?’’

GC’s prices range from $20,000 to $40,000; they have yet to sell one. In a tawdry — but successful — publicity stunt, they offered a free casket to the ailing Zsa Zsa Gabor, who has yet to take them up on their generous offer. But Balfour seems quite confident that forward-thinking, narcissistic baby boomers looking “to make an original statement’’ will find their way to Golden Casket’s door. Stranger things have happened.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is