Love Wins - A Review

Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven and Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived doesn't really break new ground on the topics of Heaven, Hell, Salvation, Grace and Jesus---but Bell does his best to make the dirt look more appealing.

Bell, who is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (a 10,000 member "megachurch") has been one of the creative and innovative voices in the evangelical Christian movement for the past 10 years.  He's also been the target of a great deal of criticism from the conservative wing of the aforementioned movement.

In fact, it's rare to not find protesters at the events where Bell is speaking.  I encountered several at a National Youthworker's Convention in Anaheim, CA a few years ago, including one who was wearing a Satan mask.  When a video promoting Love Wins was posted on the internet, which featured Bell asking questions, like "Will only a select people make it to heaven?" and "How do you become one of the few?"  and "What is God like?" it created a firestorm of controversy.

Immediately Bell was branded a "universalist" by conservative Christians and conservative Christian leaders.  The current definition of a "universalist" among conservative Christians seems to be someone who believes that God actually loves God's Creation (including people) and has gone and continues to go to great lengths in order to redeem all of Creation and "reconcile it to Himself" (Apostle Paul's words, not mine).  I say this because that's essentially what Bell is proposing.

That last bit was a tad snarky, but sort of true.  Universalists basically believe that it is God's desire to save everyone, and that everyone who has ever lived, is living and will live is safe from eternal retribution---because there is no eternal retribution.  Or, to put it another way, there is no hell.

It was the assertion that Bell had declared the concept of hell null and void (made mostly by Bell's critics who hadn't read the book) that caused such a furor from right wing Christian bloggers, leaders and pastors.  And here's the honest truth:  Reading Love Wins isn't going to make any of the right-wing Christian bloggers, leaders and pastors feel any better.  Is Rob Bell a universalist?  No.  Does he believe in hell?  Yes.  Does he believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life? Yes.

Does he declare this in a triumphal, smugly certain, arrogant, fashion that leaves no room whatsoever for the mysterious plans of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God?  No.  Emphatically no.

Bell gives two reasons for writing Love Wins neither of which is an address to triumphal, smugly certain, arrogant Christian-types who cannot live between the tension of the known and the unknown.
"I've written this book," he writes, "for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, 'I would never be a part of that.'"
Further, he asserts
"I've written this book because of the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn't skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them."
Love Wins begins with questions about the nature of who is "in" and who is "out" when it comes to God and God's love.  Bell comes out of a faith tradition, not unlike the one in which I was raised where "salvation" and by extension God's love was fairly conditional.   In these Christian traditions salvation depends upon individual actions, like what you say, do, who you are, who your friends are, upon the actions of others, what prayers you pray and how you act.  There doesn't seem to be a lot of God's desire, will and action involved in the salvation story in these faith traditions--it is almost entirely humanistic.  And this is Bell's point as he moves into questions about heaven. What exactly do we mean when we say that we are "saved" and "going to heaven?"

It is here that Bell owes a great deal to N.T. Wright's work on heaven, hell and resurrection.  Like Wright, Bell asserts that heaven isn't exactly a place that is somewhere else.  Heaven is closer to us than we think.  It's not God's desire to destroy the Creation that he called "good."  In fact, it is his desire that it be made new, that heaven and earth will be one.  This prompts Bell to write,
"How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.  Jesus teaches how to live now in such a way that we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world."
When Bell takes on the topic of hell, he does so with Scripture as a conversation partner.  Each of the Old Testament references of "hell" (Sheol) or the realms of the dead is turned into an "affirmation of God's enduring and sustaining power over life and death" even though "very little is given in the way of actual details regarding individual destinies."  When Jesus mentions the word "hell" he uses the words "Gehenna" or "Hades."  Gehenna was the city dump outside Jerusalem where people dumped their garbage and where there was a constant fire burning to destroy it.  "Hades" is essentially the Greek word for "Sheol" the realm of the dead, and Jesus affirms that even Hades has no power in God's realm or against the Church (Matthew 16).

The bottom line is that much of our doctrines of hell were formed in the Middle Ages and romanticized by Dante.  Like N.T. Wright, Bell doesn't believe that hell is a place, even though he does believe in a "literal" hell.
"So when people say they don't believe in hell and they don't like the word 'sin,' my first response is to ask, 'Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?'"
Unlike Wright, Bell doesn't venture into theories about what happens to those who experience hell in the life after life.  He simply states, "there is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously."  Bell also addresses the moments in Scripture that are translated as "eternal punishment," pointing out that "eternal" and "forever" are English words that limit the meaning of the Biblical texts.  What we may translate "eternal punishment" could also be translated as "a time of trimming," or "an intense period of correction."

Bell then goes on to ask some other serious questions, beginning with "Does God Get What God Wants?" or specifically, "If what God really and truly wants is to redeem all of Creation, then does God get what God wants?"  Here Bell affirms the hope that God's love is not limited to this side of eternity--that if God truly wants to "save" someone he shouldn't let a little thing like death get in the way.  He also affirms that free will exists beyond this life as well, and that there is the possibility that people who reject God in this life, will do so in the next. He asks, "Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?"  And this is where Bell leaves the answers on the table, and chooses to live in the tension that exists within the possibilities. 

Borrowing heavily from N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope Bell addresses the meaning of the resurrection in a chapter aptly entitled, "Dying to Live."  Wright asserts that in the early Church if the Nativity narratives had been left out, it would not have changed their beliefs hardly at all.  It's not that the Incarnation wasn't important, mind you.  It was.  But if the Resurrection was removed, that would have been an altogether different story.  The Resurrection defined who they had become and what they were called to do.  The Resurrection, according to Bell, places us in the midst of a cosmic story that God is telling about rescuing all of creation, and we are invited to join in that story each and every day.  A story about how the old is made new, and death turns into life. 

The last two chapters deal with the centrality of Christ in redemption and Christian freedom respectively.  Bell paints with some fairly broad brush strokes when he discusses the importance of Jesus to "salvation."  But these brush strokes are ones that C.S. Lewis used over half a century ago describing the same thing.   If we believe what the author of the Gospel of John says, Bell asserts, then we believe that Jesus was present throughout the Old Testament as well as the New.  Christ has been revealed in any number of ways to those who may not necessarily know they are witnessing him.  A  friend of mine once said, "I believe that there will be some surprising people who will recognize Jesus when they die."  Or as Bell puts it,
"These are signs, glimpses, and tastes of what is true for all people in all places at all times--[Christians] simply name the mystery present in all the world, the gospel already announced to every creature under heaven."
In closing Bell exegetes the parable of the Prodigal Son in an imaginative way that speaks right in to the heart of Christian freedom, and how most Christians have no concept of it.  This great story that God is telling about redemption, Bell posits, is one that so many of refuse to accept---especially when the story lands on us.  We may think that we are too bad, too far gone, too cynical, too depraved to ever be made right with God.  And in so doing we distance ourselves from God.  Or we think that we have kept the faith, the rules, the law, and have been "good."  And so, our "goodness" creates distance from God because we come to see him as a slave driver and we grow resentful and proud.   In both cases we expect so little.  Bell asserts that "the Good News is better than that."  The story God is telling us is expansive and beautiful and so much more. 

I recommend this book for anyone who has been stung by the grace-lessness of legalistic Christianity, and who has longed to know that the god of legalistic Chritianity is a false one.
I recommend this book for anyone who has felt that the whole concept of God's "universal" love is something they hope for even though they have been taught it doesn't exist. 
I recommend this book for anyone who believes that God's love doesn't have boundaries. 
I recommend this book to conservative Christians, who have secretly believed that there is more to the gospel than just "fire insurance" but have been afraid to say just that. 
I recommend this book to liberal Christians who secretly think that Jesus is the center of life, faith, the church and their life, but are afraid they'll be ridiculed by their "intelligent" friends. 
I recommend this book to pastors because you shouldn't not read something just because John Piper doesn't like it.
I recommend this book to people who have been thinking about becoming a Christian, but have been afraid to sign on to something that wasn't big enough.
It is big enough. 


Comments

  1. In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell says he believes that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to rethink the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."

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