Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
Evangelical pastor Rob Bell raises this rhetorical question of whether Gandhi is in Hell in promos for his new book, Love Wins. Bell, the pastor of a 10,000 member church, has built a career as a charismatic young preacher in what is called the “Emerging church” movement of evangelical Christianity. He comes at this provocative question in a way that my Universalist forebears did more than 200 years ago. (The first meeting of Universalists in the Auburn area took place in 1812, and our faith has evolved considerably since that time.) So, if Bell is really “preaching Universalism,” as some of his accusers say, I want to welcome him to a position that James Relly first described in his book, Union, which was published in 1759. In that book, Relly argued ‘Since all sin had come from Adam (Original Sin), all were saved through the sacrificial death of Jesus.’ Relly’s ideas were revolutionary for his time. They were carried across the sea to the colonies by John Murray, who served as a chaplain in George Washington’s army during the American Revolution.
Both Relly and Murray preached the idea that an all-loving God would not condemn anyone to an eternity in Hell. In the generation after Murray, Hosea Ballou would preach the idea that a person’s sin ended when they died, and so should their suffering. Again, it was based on the belief that through the death and sacrifice of Jesus, all would be saved.
The position that only those who personally accept Jesus as their lord and savior will escape eternal suffering is one that Universalists (and now Unitarian Universalists, since the faiths merged in 1961) have opposed because it imposes limits on God’s capacity to forgive. I believe that it is tribal because it assumes that there is a god whose compassion is limited to one group of people. It also portrays God as narcissistic—i.e., “unless you believe in Me, you’re going to spend eternity in Hell.” This is precisely the point that Bell seems to make when he asks whether anyone seriously believes that Gandhi is spending eternity in Hell because he remained a Hindu, rather than accepting Jesus as lord and savior.
Some of my Evangelical Christian friends have pointed out that heaven is the automatic destination for all “confessing Christians” who accept Jesus. This makes Jesus sound like the gatekeeper at a clubhouse, rather than the revolutionary religious teacher that he was. Using this logic, Hitler and his henchmen (most members of his inner circle, including those most responsible for carrying out the Holocaust grew up as Catholic altar boys, and remained practicing Catholics in good standing throughout their lives) are listening to the proverbial harp music in Heaven. They were never denied communion, and, even after the full extent of the Holocaust was known, none were excommunicated. A rabbi friend told me that this was precisely why he believed in an after-life, because he had to know that the Nazi leaders were suffering for their crimes against humanity. Even today, priests who have been convicted of abusing children may still receive communion and expect to go to Heaven when they die, while women who use the birth control pill may be denied communion, and are treated as sinners. Meanwhile, Gandhi, who knew about Jesus and followed his pacifist teachings, could be suffering in Hell. (I am capitalizing Heaven and Hell to emphasize just how much some people view them as literal places. I know that many others explain them as “states of being” instead.)
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not presume to know the limits of God’s capacity for forgiveness. Our Universalist forebears believed in a god of “all-conquering love,” one that could forgive far more than any of us could. To be honest, we spend little time speaking about the hereafter. What matters more is how we treat one another in the here and now. To return to Rob Bell’s question of whether anyone really believes that Gandhi is enduring eternal suffering, I, like everyone else, can only provide my own heartfelt and reasoned position. That is, “No.” That is what our faith teaches, and that is what I preach on Sunday mornings.
Ask yourselves: If there is some type of life after death, would you rather be with Gandhi or Hitler?