Of late, few books on Christianity have been as polarizing as Rob Bell's Love Wins.
Released all of two weeks ago, conservative theologians have already pilloried the work in pages-long rebuttals, while other evangelical figures dismissed Bell as a wayward universalist before the book was even released (viz., before they had actually read the book).
The controversy is impressive, really. It took C.S. Lewis nearly five books before he earned the title of heretic. It took Rob Bell only one.
And yes, the situation must be particularly dire when the Christian Broadcasting Network, felt the need to launch a preemptive-strike 'debunking' the book days before it hit shelves.
Being the contrarian that I am, naturally, the hoopla only made me even more keen to read Bell's work. I expect this has been the case for many thousands of others. As of this date (04/05/11), Bell's book is ranked #7 on Amazon's Bestseller List, and #3 in books on Christian Living.
Notes on Style
Bell's publisher, HarperOne describes the work as "calling out the biggest elephant in the room - the divisive issue of heaven and hell...Bell directly addresses whether a loving God would send people to a place of eternal suffering."
In truth, Bell's work does exactly this. But, more fundamentally, it asks questions about the nature of God, enquiring whether an all-powerful God who wants everyone to be 'saved' would send people to hell because they rejected Him - in effect resulting in God not getting what God wants. Suffice it to say, the book asks a lot of questions. In fact, if there is one annoying aspect of the book it is that it asks so many questions, while following up on them in a discursive fashion. The problem with this approach, of course, is that all concepts are subject to the rule of the infinite regress. Bell stops the avalanche of regression effectively by providing explanations for the reader to consider. And by the end of the work, it is easy to read Bell's questions in anticipation of a meaningful discussion of the subject.
The above is perhaps a laborious, theoretical introduction to Bell's work. But in my view it is a necessary one. Of the critiques I have read, and there are many, most of the authors take aim at Bell's writing style. As a trained (and training) legal academic, the style is not offensive to me because so much of legal education in the United States uses the question as a tool to reach deeper understanding. In essence, this is what Bell does. But among Christian, and evangelical circles there is a very different style of writing embedded in the milieu, so I can understand why Bell's writing would be a splash of cold water to the literary sensibilities.
In practice, however, it amounts to little more than the use of a perfectly fine pedagogical tool that is used in many professions including law. Consist with this usage, Bell asks questions throughout the first chapter to unpack the different perceptions of Christian orthodoxy regarding heaven and hell. His point is to demonstrate some of the philosophical/theological problems associated with those beliefs. These issues are then explored in the chapters that follow.
Bell on Heaven
After the introduction in the first chapter, Bell begins his discussion with heaven. This isn't especially surprising. Most Christians do not have a problem with heaven per se - except for the odd Calvinist who views the entire matter as being too inclusive. Bell's heaven is one that is "deeply connected with what he [Jesus] called 'this age.'" (Love Wins, p.30). Drawing from Matthew 19, and Jesus's conversation with the rich young man, Bell argues that heaven is really a heaven on earth - where God redeems the world, and things on earth are finally "as they currently are in heaven." (Love Wins, p.47). This leads Bell to emphasize the need for "honest business, redemptive art, honorable law, sustainable living, medicine, education, making a home, tending a garden - they're all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with God now, because they will all go on in the age to come." (Love Wins, p.46). For Bell, then, "eternal life doesn't start when we die; it starts now" with heaven being the actual experience of life as God intended it - both in the present, after death, and in the eventual world that God will redeem. (Love Wins, p.59).
Bell on Hell
I suppose Bell's thoughts on Heaven are likely to be controversial enough. But the real lightening rod of the piece has to be Rob Bell's thoughts on hell. To start, Bell walks through "every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word "hell". (Love Wins, p.64). After a survey of the Hebrew Bible, Bell concludes that the texts simply aren't clear about what happens after a person dies. (Love wins, p.67). This strikes me as reasonable enough. Most of our theology of hell comes from the New Testament, but in the Hebrew Bible "who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long" simply isn't clear. (Love Wins, p.67). Bell then surveys the New Testament. His interpretation of hell there is etymological, concluding that references to hell by Jesus refer to the Greek word Gehenna, referencing an actual garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem in Jesus's day. Other Biblical references in the New Testament are said to refer to hades a mysterious underworld from Greek mythology, or the Hebrew equivalent of sheol. (Love Wins, p.69).
Bell's summary of the references is really more profound than it seems. Functionally, it amounts to nothing less than a direct challenge to the traditional, idea of hell as a place of punishment, "somewhere down below the earth's crust," run by a "crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages." (Love Wins, p.70). Of the actual hell, Bell likens it to the atrocities man commits against man - from butcherings in Rwanda, to rape and child molestation, to anger expressed through racism. (Love Wins, p.72). Such evil, Bell argues, is hell on earth, and the "very real" consequence of rejecting God's love. The end product is a view of hell gleaned from Jesus that is indeed evil, full of agony, destruction, and torment. (Love Wins, p.72 - 73). But Bell's hell is about a living reality of evil that one endures when one rejects God. (Love Wins, p.79). To wit, there are "all kinds of hells," that we create for ourselves, adding to our own misery, and resulting from our rejection of the "good and true and beautiful life" that Christ offers. (Love Wins, p.79, 93).
Bell on Salvation
Bell's construct of hell and heaven can be fairly criticized for being a bit too ephemeral. Of course, we are dealing with the notion of God, which is arguably the most ephemeral concept of all, so such potshots can only go so far. The real question at the root of Christianity is how salvation and redemption operate, making hell in whatever form a moot point. On this score, Bell cites 1 Timothy 2.3-4 which reads, It is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Bell's response to the text is the very simple question of whether an omnipotent God is "great enough to achieve what God sets out to do"; or put the matter simply, "does God get what God wants?" (Love Wins, p.97). The question that follows, quite naturally, is whether "all people will be saved, or will God not get what God wants." (Love Wins, p.98). Bell then draws from passages of scripture across the Bible, making the case that God is not helpless, powerless, or impotent (Love Wins, p.101), and that indeed (spoiler alert) "love wins." (Love Wins, p.119).
To be clear, Bell is a bit cagey on answering the questions above. He goes to great pains to present his view of salvation as an iteration of a long line of theologians dating back to Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nysa, and Eusebius. (Love Wins, p. 107). Bell even goes to great lengths not to offend his inevitable detractors, noting that "not all Christians have believed this" and that such a belief is not essential to being a Christian. (Love Wins, p.110). Ultimately, Bell's point is that the questions he raises are "tensions we are free to leave fully intact." (Love Wins, p.115).
But such platitudes toward indecision really only a mask the important point the book makes about the nature of God's forgiveness. Toward the end of the text, Bell reveals a bit more of his theology, quoting Luke 23.11 where Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Bell takes this statement by Jesus at its face value. Our forgiveness is "Done. Taken care of." (Love Wins, p.189). More importantly, it is a unilateral event, "God isn't waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up - God has already done it." (Love Wins, p.189). The implication of this salvation is that it is better than the "cheap view of God" relegating salvation to an issue of entrance, placing Jesus in the role of heaven's bouncer. Heaven, salvation, and God are simply better than this, and in the end God's love is powerful enough to redeem everyone. (Love Wins, p. 179).
Given my lengthy attempt at reconstructing Rob Bell's theology in Love Wins, it should be fairly obvious that I believe the questions raised are important ones to consider. The strength of the work is its direct challenge to conventional notions of heaven and hell, and the dogma that many Believers profess. The Book of Common Prayer calls these things "holy mysteries," and this is really the crux of the matter. Rob Bell reminds us how little we actually know, vis-à-vis what we think we know.
If there is a basic theme of Bell's work it is one of hope. The hope for redemption. The hope for God's powerful love to eventually subsume all of His creation. The hope for a world that functions exactly as God intended. Whatever the answer to Bell's questions, we can all hope that love wins, and would that it had already won.
Regarding Bell's critics, my simple observation is that these theological questions have been explored for centuries. Given their pervasiveness, and their consistent reincarnation (how's that for loaded terms?), it is safe to say that no one has cornered the market on exactly how the holy mysteries actually work. And at the end of the day, no one needs to corner the market. The lot of the faithful is simply to obey the commandments, to love others, and to strive to emulate Jesus's life and example. There is simply nothing controversial about this.
Finally, Bell's view of hell leaves me awfully sympathetic. As a Believer, I want to believe in a God that is powerful enough to redeem everyone in due course. I want love to win. Admittedly, though, his version of hell is one that cuts against every grain of theology that I have developed over the entire course of my life.
But maybe this is the point? Traditional conceptions of hell as a place of eternal punishment might well be overly simplistic. Life is nuanced. We live in shades of grey. And even the teachings of Jesus himself are far from clear on what exactly happens when we die. What if Bell's right? What if unbelievers, suicide victims, the mentally incapacitated, the 'lost' among other cultures and religions, and those whose lives were cut far too short - what if they are all more than firewood for the flames of hell? What if love really does win?
I don't know if Rob Bell is right, but I want him to be.
Update: Love Wins Discussion Questions
A number of visitors have come to the site not only to read the review above, but also in search of discussion questions, either for Bible studies, bookclubs, etc...
Below is a list of questions, in no particular order, that I found compelling about the book, and that may generation conversation.
- Is it fair to call Rob Bell a 'universalist' as some conservative Christians did before the book was released?
- Even if Rob Bell is a 'universalist' does this mean he is a heretic?
- If the essence of the Gospel message is to have a relationship with with Jesus and God, how important are heaven and hell as doctrines anyway?
- Let's say Rob Bell is wrong, and both heaven and hell exist as they have traditionally been conceptualized by theologians. Shouldn't Believers want God's love to 'win' the hearts and minds of the lost?
- It's easy to think about God's love winning when the context is someone who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, or who attempted to live a 'good' life without being very religious. But what about when the context is someone who is abjectly evil? Take the recent death of Osama Bin Laden as an example. Will God's love ultimately prevail and melt the heart of Osama Bin Laden? Can you imagine Osama Bin Laden worshipping God in heaven, or the afterlife?
- Are Rob Bell's theological reflections an empowering, and positive change in thought for Christianity? Or a change that is dangerous, and distorted? Why?
- Being honest with yourself, how would it make you feel to know that even the most brash sinner will enjoy heaven and eternity with you?
- Is Rob Bell's book supported by your understanding of the scriptures? Why or why not?
- Was your faith challenged when you read Rob Bell's book? Or did you read it with the intent of refuting it?
- Did Rob Bell's book confuse you? If so, what were the deepest questions you took away from the book?