Who wins? Two books about heaven and hell

“Let’s you and him fight!” The old comic-book trope is good advice for bystanders as Mark Galli’s God Wins counters Rob Bell and his book Love Wins. The two are respected evangelical leaders (an editor and a pastor) who attract headlines and readerships as they debate “heaven,” “hell,” and the “good news.” Their subject is a meaningful alternative to the otherwise preoccupying evangelicals’ debates over homosexuality and abortion.

“The good news” is a debate over whether “Love wins” or “God wins,” and those who hear the biblical word that “God is Love” may have trouble telling the players without a program. Both sides agree this is all about “the ultimate fate of human beings,” a classic concern of all who believe there is an afterlife.

What follows is not a taunt but a challenge: let us have a volume two, especially from Galli. He offers soft but evangelically orthodox answers to most questions which Bell posed last year in his book. But he slights the biggest, hardest, most troubling questions about the love and justice of God. He is anthropocentric, of course, but his “anthro-” who asks questions and ponders fate tends to be someone familiar with the biblical questions with which serious apologists for centuries have dealt as they set out “to justify the ways of God to man” (and woman).

Such are perhaps the hardest questions which concern “me” and “my personal fate,” or “people who need to get motivated to evangelize others,” who worry about predestination and God’s foreknowledge and the hardness of heart the Bible says God causes. Galli is humble about what he knows and does not know, but always punts when it gets hard and interesting by saying that God is a loving judge who is smarter than we are and who told us enough to get us personally through our questioning.

But here’s the challenge: watch the evening news, as we do, showing Somali children starving, parched, dropping in the desert, in the arms of a dying mother. By the thousands upon thousands. Or walk among the poor of India, by the millions.

There is no chance. Repeat: no chance, that they or their parents can ever hear the Christian “good news,” to reject or accept it. Galli makes much of choice. Time is short: there is no way the best-intended gospellers can mobilize to reach them. No way. And staying home with books keeps gospel-recruiters from the desert sands or Indian villages.

Only a couple dozen lines in Galli’s book even bring up the question, which he then drops with some verbal sleight of hand. I’m almost embarrassed bringing this up, so ancient and worn it has become, but it’s here. About the fairness and justice of God, “let us not too sweepingly dismiss such questions.” We Christians, our club, should ask them, since this is “one of the ways” we get a deeper faith and “think more deeply about God” in our sanctuaries and libraries.

Meanwhile, hour by hour, millions by millions go to hell. Galli is sure about hell. Page 95: In the New Testament, hell is “mostly pictured as fire,” “darkness, destruction, exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” “The point is less to describe hell in detail than to suggest it is a place of torment.” In this case, for the innocent. Still: “those in hell experience torment for eternity,” say most evangelicals, and Galli does not dispute them.

I’m a reporter, columnist, bystander, and don’t claim to have credible answers to the questions Bell and Galli pose and to which they would respond. But we need a volume two from Galli on these really tough questions. Otherwise, “Bell Wins.”

Martin E. Marty is author of more than 50 books, a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago. This column was published in the August 15, 2011, Sightings, a column from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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