Isn’t the whole point of religion to teach us morals and to love and care for each other no matter what age, gender, sexual preference, religion or race we are?
The question was one among many comments posted on a recent YouTube video by Lady Gaga. In one segment of the video, titled “Gagavision No.41”, Lady Gaga sits in the back of her limo on the way to give a performance. She sees a Christian street preacher standing outside, protesting her show. He is carrying a large sign that reads, “Trust in Christ or End in Hell”. Rolling down her window, she cheerfully introduces herself, “Hi, I’m Lady Gaga”, to which the man promptly replies, “So?”
The man hands her a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, and says, “It’s gonna happen one day, darling”. She retorts, “Well, they better open up the gate”. In the further brief exchange, the man comes across as condescending and hostile. Gaga tells him that she and her fans believe in God and that she went to Catholic school for 13 years. He replies that growing up in that screwed-up religion is probably the source of her problems. Later in the video, Gaga reflects on her encounter with the man her video identifies as a “fundamentalist preacher”.
“What I’m trying to understand is, there’s 3000 people standing in my line and no one standing in your line. Who’s going to hell?”, Gaga says, laughing. “But I think what’s mostly confusing is why he printed up these things (referring to the man’s “Get Out of Hell Free” cards). If it was so easy to get out of hell, why don’t we just print up a bunch of these guys?” Becoming more serious, Gaga continues, “It just makes me sad that my fans have to see that. But I know that’s just part of what I’m supposed to do.” At that point in the video, words flash on the screen in black, ALL CAP letters against a red backdrop: IF YOU HAVE REVOLUTIONARY POTENTIAL, THAN YOU HAVE A MORAL IMPERATIVE TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
As I began writing this blog article, Gaga’s video had already garnered more than 420,000 views and 5,000 comments. Since then, the video has racked up 950,000+ views and 7000 comments and counting. From such numbers, it would seem Lady Gaga is accurate in observing that her way of looking at life resonates with a lot of people. On the other hand, the Christian message has never claimed to be a popular one:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV)
But I want to respond in this article to the question posed by the person who asked, “Isn’t the whole point of religion to teach us morals and to love and care for each other no matter what age, gender, sexual preference, religion or race we are?” I think the question reflects a quite common conception of what religion is supposed to accomplish. This view sees all religions, including Christianity, as basically a means of inculcating morals and helping people strive to be better, more loving persons. All paths to God are equally valid. This popular view is one held not only by non-religious people, but even by many who identify themselves as Christians. Before I discuss this further, I want to sidetrack for a moment.
In terms of “media time” it is already ages ago, but a firestorm erupted in the Christian blogosphere just 2 months back, when Justin Taylor posted an article titled, Rob Bell: Universalist? that strongly criticized Rob Bell’s theological message. The article focused, not on Bell’s soon to be released book, “Love Wins”, but rather, on the publisher’s description and video promo for the book .
The piece got thousands of views and elicited hundreds of comments (maybe not Gaga’s kind of numbers, but for a reformed blog, it was lots of attention). Many who commented complained that it was quite unfair to criticize Bell’s book and its ideas, since at that point, the book was not yet released. Others brought out the old, tiresome “we should never judge other Christians, it’s not loving” speech. But many recognized that Taylor’s article was on target and helpful in identifying, in advance of its release, the controversial ideas that Bell has been espousing for some time now.
In the wake of the March 17 release of Love Wins, well-known Reformed writers, Michael Horton and Kevin DeYoung, each wrote thoughtful, detailed critiques. Southern Seminary president Al Mohler posted excellent articles engaging the discussion on Bell, and recorded and posted a panel discussion held at the seminary. Pastor John MacArthur has now written a series of articles strongly critical of Bell and his work, boldly calling out Bell as a false teacher (for these resources and more, see the links below).
But some will ask, why all the hoopla? Is it really that important that Christians focus so much attention on a book one does not agree with theologically?
Well, in a word, YES.
Because Christians have got a revealed message to proclaim, not a story that may be altered to suit one’s own fancies, or re-fashioned to make it a better sell. Yes, the doctrine of hell is a turn-off. No one likes to think mankind is so sinful that all people deserve hell, and that apart from Christ, all of us are by nature “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Such a thought pricks against human pride– we protest: we’re not that bad!
But the question we ought to be asking, especially if we claim to believe the Bible, and claim that we believe in the Jesus of the Bible, is not, “Why doesn’t God save everybody?, or “How can a loving God send people to hell?” Rather we should ask, is Jesus telling the truth when He states that unless we believe in Him, we already stand condemned and the wrath of God remains on us? Everybody loves John 3:16-17. But what about John 3:18 and John 3:36?
 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God…  Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:16-18, 36 ESV)
Christians gladly partake of the blessing of receiving Christ as Savior by believing what He says about going to the cross for our sins is true. But then we must also listen to and receive what He says about hell, for He spoke of it often. As John Yenchko has written,
This is the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God. The One who held children tenderly in His arms spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible; and I, for one, am glad that it was He. If you will not hear Jesus on hell, then don’t pretend to hear Him on anything else. Let’s have integrity, shall we?
Jesus says in the parable of the weeds, Matthew 13, that all who do evil will be thrown into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. He quotes the above sentence in Mark 9:48 where He describes hell as “the place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” He says of those who did not take in a stranger or provide for the needy: “They will go away to eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus that Jesus told, the rich man is in hell and looks up to see Abraham far away in heaven, with Lazarus beside him. The rich man cries out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue because I am in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24). Abraham’s negative reply comes back, Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26). So Jesus says in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
In contrast to the Jesus of Scripture, whose continual theme is telling people to repent of their sins and escape the wrath of God in hell, there is the sentimental conception that Christian love is all about God unconditionally, uncritically loving all people, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors. In this view, true Christ-likeness is to be non-judgmental and “loving” towards all others, no matter what they do. Those who label certain behavior as morally wrong or sinful, have strayed from the original message of unconditional love that Christ meant us to emulate. Thus they become “haters”, “fundamentalists” and “judgmental” people who distort the “loving” message of Christ and give Christianity a bad name.
Now I understand that non-believers might believe this fluff– they usually don’t believe that the Bible is accurate, or they may question how faithfully it represents what Jesus really said. But those who claim to know Christ as revealed in Scripture must see that the same Bible that reveals Jesus as a gentle and meek in some ways, also shows Him issuing the sternest warnings about the hell that awaits those who reject Him. Jesus loved people enough to tell them the truth about hell.
Interestingly, Rob Bell’s book seems to paint a similar picture of God’s love as the view described above. Bell downplays the traditional understanding that God is angry towards sin and that the sinfulness of mankind is our biggest problem. Now Rob Bell has a huge, young evangelical audience, and is recognized as a gifted communicator, even by those who don’t agree with his theology. This is why many well-known reformed teachers have worked overtime to present strong rebuttals to his teaching. They see the spiritual peril in the ideas Bell is spreading, the deadly consequences for those who might be swayed to adopt his views.
Bell’s new work pointedly questions the traditional understanding of hell, and attempts to clarify what he thinks is the true nature of the gospel message. He argues that the primary message of Christianity, the prime characteristic of God Himself, is “God is love”. “Love Wins” says Bell, because in the end God wants everyone saved, and He is powerful enough to get what He wants. In Bell’s view, hell is not a literal place where unbelieving rebels will be eternally and justly punished by God. Instead those who reject God and don’t live in relationship to Him are already experiencing their “hell” in this life. If there is a hell in the next life, Bell surmises that it will not be eternal, because those who don’t accept and profess Christ consciously while on earth will no doubt get a second chance. Hell thus becomes a kind of purgatory.
Bell writes, [There will be] “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. 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.”
Now what should be said in response to this? Is Bell’s version of the Christian story superior because it will appeal to and be embraced by those who’ve really wanted to be Christians, but just didn’t like all the stuff about hell and sin? Yes, Bell’s version of Christianity probably will be received happily by those who have a difficult time accepting the more traditional view. The problem, is what Bell gives them as a substitute is a lie and a mirage. Hell is real and literal. We don’t have the luxury of “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time” to either accept or reject Christ. There is no biblical warrant to believe that those who do not consciously choose Christ in this life will get another chance to do so in the afterlife. In my next article, I will examine in greater detail the biblical evidence for hell and what happens after we die.
It’s ironic, but sometimes we can get a true message even from a not-so-good messenger. The street preacher who spoke so condescendingly to Lady Gaga was not an accurate reflection of our Lord’s compassion towards lost sinners. Yet his “Trust in Christ or End in Hell” message is much more accurate than a message that teaches that God doesn’t punish evildoers in an eternal hell for their sins committed in this life, of which the greatest is to reject Christ.
From the beginning, there have always been competing versions of Christianity. Thus it remains always our responsibility as believers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).” False gospels and false Christs don’t save. The world has its many gospels, but Christianity has but one faith and one message to give: Jesus Christ shed His blood to save sinners.
Articles by John MacArthur: