“So, youth, what do you want to learn about?”
“Revelation, angels, and Satan? Where do we go when we die? Okay, sure, we could do that. Oh wait, look at that shiny thing over there!’
I must confess something I am not very proud of — For years, I have been a professional controversy avoider.
It’s sad really. It’s just that I would rather stay on subjects I feel comfortable with, so for years I’ve gently sidestepped all sorts of tough subjects. You know, subjects that, if you took a theological stand on them, some parent might be calling your office on Monday to figure out what in the world you were thinking. (Or more likely, they’d be calling your boss’s office after talking to all of their friends…but that’s a different article altogether.)
So, instead of talking about potentially controversial things like what the Bible says about hell or damnation, I’ve leaned toward happier, safer things like discerning spiritual gifts and helping your neighbor. I’ve avoided Hell and Satan as topics…and even angels for that matter. Really, I’ve avoided as many confusing, tough topics as possible. (To the youth I’ve served, I apologize for that.)
I’m done avoiding the tough stuff. It’s time to take on the H word – Hell.
Enter two popular youth ministry speakers: Rob Bell and Francis Chan.
Like many youth workers, I’ve known the work of Rob Bell for years. His nooma videos have been great conversation starters. His style has almost become a household name, with people donning “Rob Bell” glasses to look hip and everything.
Last year, Rob Bell opened the door on Hell with his popular book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Basically, he proposes that, if the nature of God is love, how could this God of love condemn millions of non-Christian people to hell? Is Ghandi, as a nonChristian, condemned to hell for eternity? Bell would say no. Bell suggests a universal salvation – that every single person will embrace Jesus – if not in this life, then certainly in the next. He writes:
“At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most depraved sinners will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (Love Wins, 107)
Yet another compelling and popular speaker at youth events, Francis Chan, responds to Rob Bell’s theology in his book, “Erasing Hell.” Chan and coauthor Preston Sprinkle explore references to Hell in Scripture and try to explain what the Bible has to say about gehenna, hell.
“So I decided to write a book about hell. And honestly – I’m scared to death.
I’m scared because so much is at stake. Think about it. If I say there is no hell, and it turns out that there is a hell, I may lead people into the very place I convinced them did not exist! If I say there is a hell, and I’m wrong, I may persuade people to spend their lives frantically warning loved ones about a terrifying place that isn’t real! When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong. This is not one of those doctrines where you can toss in your two cents, shrug your shoulders, and move on. Too much is at stake. Too many people are at state. And the Bible has too much to say.” (Erasing Hell, introduction)
Chan explains that while we might not want to believe in a God that would condemn non-Christian people to eternal suffering, we might need to come to terms with God being a God whose ways we don’t fully understand. Hell is real. God’s judgment is real. Like Bell, Chan refers to Scripture to explain his conclusions.
So what does the United Methodist Church officially believe? Here’s what I found from umc.org:
Does The United Methodist Church believe in universal salvation?
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church includes a section titled Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task, which records the official theology of The United Methodist Church.
The section on Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases includes a description of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. When a Christian, by the grace of God, accepts God’s “pardoning love,” he or she enters into a transformational process whereby there is every assurance of salvation….
While these statements of doctrine state that salvation is AVAILABLE to all persons, they stop short of saying that salvation is GUARANTEED to all persons. There is the stated or implied condition that, while God’s grace is necessary for salvation and that humankind cannot in any way attain salvation without God, that there is certainly an element of awareness and cooperation on our part to order our lives after the image of Christ if we have the capacity to do so.
There are persuasive arguments that include the faithful, thoughtful, and respectful use of Scripture on both sides– affirming and denying universal salvation. The Book of Discipline, which is the only official printed voice of the UMC, does not make a statement specifically about universal salvation. This places the question in a possible gray area, but the Discipline says what it says. One must read the doctrine there and attempt to understand it as well as possible. (www.umc.org, Rev. Dr. Diana Hynson, Director of Learning and Teaching Ministries in the Congregation, General Board of Discipleship)
Do United Methodists believe that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary to go to heaven?
Yes, United Methodists do believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way the Bible gives as clearly God’s gift and way of salvation and heaven. God can save anyone that God chooses to save and we cannot decide whom God will save. We simply trust the plain teaching of scripture. See John 3:16, Acts 4:12 and many other texts.
Our belief in this unique path of salvation can never be used to put down other religions and the gifts that they have to give to the world, even to Christians. That we have a gospel to proclaim is not grounds for hurting others. We can and must be friends with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others. In dialogue with them we learn and they learn. In a time when religion is so much in the news and on our minds, we need to be vigilant against our own hostility and follow Jesus in the way of love.
Our Book of Resolutions says, “While we as Christians respond faithfully to the call to proclaim the gospel in all places, we can never presume to know the full extent of God’s work in the world, and we recognize the reality of God’s activity outside the Christian church. It is central to our faith that salvation is accomplished not by human beings, but by God. We know that judgment as to the ultimate salvation of persons from any faith community, including Christianity and Judaism, belongs to God alone.” (Rev. Dan Benedict, Center for Worship Resourcing , General Board of Discipleship)
So how do you as a youthworker, navigate through these opposing theologies about Hell? How do you answer youths’ questions about hell and salvation? Personally, I want Bell to be right. I want God to embrace all people in the end and for no one to suffer for eternity. I want “love to win” in the end. But I also want to be responsible in what beliefs I teach youth. We have but a short window to minister and teach the youth in our care…it’s time to wrestle with the tough stuff.
Where do you stand on this issue?
How do you delve into tough subjects with your youth?