This week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine examines preacher Rob Bell, author of the controversial Love Wins. The article, written by Kelefa Sanneh, examines Bell’s life as “hell-raiser” and evangelical provocateur, setting his questioning of the doctrine of hell in context. Most interesting to me was the sight of this very secular magazine posing the question of why evangelical theology would want to go in this direction.

Sanneh puts Bell in historical context of Christian thought on hell, from Origen to Jonathan Edwards to D. L. Moody. He notes Bell’s crisis of faith and redirection toward questioning Christian orthodoxy on eternal judgment. But the journalist writes, as an aside, that “the doctrine of hell doesn’t necessarily hamper recruitment, despite the fears of liberals.”

“From a certain perspective the idea of a punitive Hell can seem oddly comforting,” Sanneh writes. “An affirmation that suffering is real, and that God is good enough to save you from it.”

The New Yorker recognizes Bell’s apologetic motive in this “strategic project” of Bell’s, “designed to make Christianity more inviting to people who might reject it out of repugnance for the doctrine of hell.”

But the journalist identifies a major problem here:

“When Bell talks this way, he can sound an awful lot like the theological liberals of the twentieth century: scholarly reformers, idealistic but slightly smug, who were shown up by the preachers they derided as ‘extreme fundamentalists.'”

“Given the recent history of mainline Protestants, it’s unclear that a more liberal theology would be healthy for the evangelical movement,” The New Yorker article concludes, noting the vibrancy of Pentecostalism and other forms of supernatural gospel religion. “Throughout American history, the most successful church movements have not been the ones that kept up with contemporary culture, but the ones that were confident enough to tug hard against it.”

The New Yorker and we may have different concepts of what “success” ought to look like, but that’s a perceptive observation.

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