Is Gandhi really in hell?

Popular Christian pastor Rob Bell's provocative new book has evangelicals renewing an old debate about hell and salvation.

Foreign tourists walk past a bust of Mahatma Gandhi in Mani Bhavan, the residence where Gandhi planned political activities between 1917 and 1934, in Mumbai on November 4, 2010.

If you’re a Christian, do you believe that billions of the world’s non-Christians will go to hell? Do you think the question even matters?

Pastor Rob Bell thinks it does matter. The founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, Mr. Bell is a young and influential Christian speaker who's ruffling feathers with his latest book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” It challenges some of Christianity’s most fundamental beliefs about salvation.

According to the publisher’s description, Mr. Bell argues “that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” And in his own promotional video, Bell puts adherents of traditional teachings on the defensive with a stark question about Gandhi, India's Hindu hero of nonviolent resistance: “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?”

Here’s the YouTube video:

The backlash to his book and video has been intense, resulting in charges of heresy and a robust defense of hell from leading conservative evangelicals. Those who rebut Bell with Scripture have plenty of verses to choose from, as this blog illustrates.

But debates over hell are as old as the Bible itself and the near-unanimous belief in eternal punishment has been giving way to kinder, gentler views (including universal salvation) about the afterlife since at least the 19th century, so why is Bell’s book causing such controversy today?

In part, it’s because defenders of traditional doctrine may have reached a statistical tipping point, making the perceived defection of one of their own on such a core, sensitive point seem all the more significant. Indeed, the fault line is no longer between evangelicals and mainstream culture; it’s between a core group of traditionalists and the rest of evangelicals (especially younger ones) who are increasingly uncomfortable with “my way or the highway” doctrine.

According to a 2007 Pew survey, a full 57 percent of evangelicals believe that many religions can lead to eternal life, while only 24 percent of evangelicals agree that “my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.” And more than half agree that “there is more than one way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

What the Pew poll suggests is that pluralism (there are many paths to salvation) and universalism (everyone gets saved) have grown from outlier concepts into mainstream Christian thinking.

That’s why Bell’s “to hell with hell” message feels like a Rubicon to conservative evangelicals. Take away hell, the thinking goes, and you might as well take away God’s wrath and our inescapable need for His saving grace.

Bell, for his part, may see another factor at work in the controversy: insecurity. Explaining criticism of his past views, he once said: "When people say that the authority of Scripture or the centrality of Jesus is in question, actually it's their social, economic and political system that has been built in the name of Jesus that's being threatened. Generally lurking below some of the more venomous, vitriolic criticism is somebody who's created a facade that's not working.... But I love everybody and you're next!"

And what would Gandhi think of his newfound role as Rorschach test for Christian teachings about hell? Perhaps the bumper sticker seen on many VW Beetles gives an answer: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” – Gandhi

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