By my count, there are two ways you can end up in hell.
The first way is that God predestined for you to be there. In the second way, in contrast to the first, God wants you to be in heaven but you reject God's offer of grace. That is, you're in hell because that was your choice.
(There's actually a third way of going to hell involving Las Vegas, three chickens and a circus clown. But it's a rare that anybody goes this route.)
I grew up believing in the second way of going to hell. Specifically, I believed (and still do!) that God "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2.4). If this is so, it stood to reason that if you ended up in hell you had rebelled and rejected God during your life. God wanted to save you, extended the gift of grace, and you rejected it.
When I was young, this explanation seemed perfectly cogent and reasonable. God makes a gracious offer. You refuse. You reap the consequences. Sure, hell is bad. But we shouldn't blame God. Everyone had their chance.
Or did they?
From time to time at ACU I've led a chapel where I've asked students the following question: If you had one question you could ask God what would it be? What question of faith keeps you up at night?
Overwhelmingly, having done this with hundreds and hundreds of college students, the responses fall into one of two groups: The problem of suffering and the problem of moral luck. Based upon my sampling, I'd wager that these are the two biggest stumbling blocks to faith: The problem of suffering and the problem of moral luck.
The title of Chapter 1 of Rob Bell's Love Wins is a question about moral luck: "What about the Flat Tire?" This question is associated with a discussion in the chapter about how we can expect people to accept Jesus if they have never heard the good news or if the "news" brought to them is messed up (i.e., a distortion of the gospel) or delivered by a faulty messenger (e.g., some huckster faith healer or hypocritical preacher). Basically, Bell is highlighting the contingencies inherent in the process of evangelism. So he writes:
If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us--what happens if they don't do their part?This is the flat tire of the title. It's not the only issue, problem or question Bell raises in this ramble of a chapter where he asks question after question. But the tire functions as a sort of metaphor, a metaphor for moral luck.
What if the missionary gets a flat tire?
Moral luck is a termed coined by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Moral luck refers to how we extend moral approbation and disapprobation to people, thinking people "good" or "bad", when many of the factors affecting our judgements these people fall outside of their control. Some people are perceived as "good" when, in fact, they are simply very fortunate. Others are deemed "bad" when, in fact, they are mainly very unlucky.
"Who sinned, this man or his parents?"
Some of this is fairly straightforward. I might accidentally hit a child playing in the street with my car. Wrong time. Wrong place. And that death hangs over my head. Sometimes accidents happen and sometimes those accidents have a moral cloud.
That's unfair of course. If it was an accident there should be no moral blame involved. And yet, we aren't very good at keeping that distinction clear. Ever feel guilty for something that was out of your control?
And the picture gets even more complicated when start to think about accidents of birth. Some of us are raised in Christian, flag-waving, American homes. Some of us are born to devout and patriotic Muslim families in Iran. How quickly do the kids from those two homes make their way to Jesus? Not to say that radical change and conversion isn't possible. Biographies of this sort do exist (e.g., Saul's conversion to Paul). But conversions of this magnitude are atypical and rare. Most of us go along with the god of our culture and/or family. Few Christians ponder how resistant they are to Muslim evangelism to note how it would be the same if the shoe were on the other foot.
In short, should I get "credit" for being a Christian? Or am I merely lucky?
What about that flat tire?
All this is to say that I was very pleased to see Rob Bell raising the issue of moral luck at the start of Love Wins. As I said, I think moral luck is one of the two biggest stumbling blocks to faith. And as best I can tell, few young people feel that they are getting honest, direct, and substantive answers to their questions on this issue. I've seen very little popular (or academic for that matter) engagement with this issue. That's a problem. You have this huge stumbling block to faith with every little by way of recognition, engagement and response. No wonder young people are getting fed up with church.
Of course, if you're a regular reader here, you know I've cobbled together my answer to the question of moral luck. Not saying I'm right, but at least I recognize the problem and have struggled to find something substantive to say on the subject. I think it's time for the church to catch up. And for that, I appreciate Love Wins for pushing the question.