Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived sits at number three today in Amazon’s book sales list. Love Wins will no doubt hit the New York Times bestseller list this week. Bell obviously has churned up tremendous interest in the Christian doctrines of heaven and hell, but is that what Bell intended?
If you read Bell’s book as doctrine you are missing the point Rob Bell is making. In short, Bell is taking on the evangelical establishment. And while Bell asserts ultimately that Love Wins, it remains to be seen if Rob Bell will.
In a play on the title of another of Bell’s books, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, ridiculed Bell’s book as Velvet Hell. John Piper, evangelical pastor and author, tweeted “Farewell, Rob Bell,” signifying that Bell has fallen out of favor with the silver-haired evangelical leadership. Popular blogger Tim Challies accuses Bell of “exegetical gymnastics” and “the toxic subversion of Jesus’ gospel.” Bell is not being well-received by the evangelical establishment.
Bell Raises Questions
But what does Bell’s book actually say about heaven, hell, salvation, and of course, love? That’s a good question, and questioning is where Bell excels. In Bell’s first chapter alone he asks 90 questions. Bell uses questions skillfully to open the conversation about the way in traditional evangelicalism has portrayed the gospel. He poses questions like:
“Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever?” – p. 1 (loc 88)
“Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few years of life?” – p. 2 (loc 94)
“And when people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed — and everybody else isn’t — why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s “in”?” – p. 3 (loc 109)
There are 87 more questions just like that. Bell provokes thought, and he provokes it by questioning things evangelicals have not questioned publicly. Bell might as well have burned a copy of “The Four Spiritual Laws,” evangelicalism’s gospel-in-a-booklet.
A Postmodern Perspective on Narratives
Bell says “there are millions” who don’t buy the evangelical party line now. His book addresses that audience and their concerns. Here’s how he puts it:
“This love compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story. A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” – Introduction, (loc 47)
Bell’s concern is with the “story” or narrative embraced by modern evangelicalism. Postmodernism has raised the issue of “narratives” or stories that dominate our culture. Many social scientists and philosophers believe that postmodern thinking no longer accepts at face value the “stories” that have shaped our social consciousness. Examples of these “meta-narratives” or “over-arching stories” include the stories of white European conquests — specifically that God was on the side of the white Europeans who settled the New World, and forcibly converted (or killed) native populations.
American evangelicalism created its own meta-narrative, its version of an over-arching story that gave rise to the modern missionary movement, the two Great Awakenings, revivalism, and the establishment of churches throughout the United States. It is this “story” that Rob Bell wants to replace with a new story.
Bell makes his case by appealing to history. He asserts that this conversation about what it means to follow Christ has been going on for centuries. He also notes that some significant church fathers — Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius — offered an alternative centuries ago to the modern evangelical narrative. Bell fails to mention that not all scholars agree that these were universalists, but Bell is not arguing for universalism despite the accusations of some of his critics.
Bell’s Theme is “Love Wins”
What exactly does Rob Bell say? Bell raises more questions than he answers directly. But that is the nature of this type of discussion because Bell acknowledges that ultimately we are all speculating about a subject on which we have no first-hand knowledge.
But Bell’s theme is consistent and compelling: love wins. God’s love, that is. Bell includes in the power of love the possibility of post-mortem, or after-death, encounters with God in which those who have died get a “second chance” to respond to God’s love, on either one or more occasions. Bell also suggests the possibility that persons who perpetually reject the love of God, spiraling further and further into the abyss of evil might lose the part of their humanity made in the image of God. Bell doesn’t extend this argument to the concept of “annihilation” but others who write about it do.
What Bell does do well is open the door for us to be humble in the face of questions that are difficult to answer. He contends God’s love holds out hope, is a seeking and finding love, but a love that also grants freedom to the beloved. We have a choice, in other words, and if we choose to reject God, we are choosing hell.
Bell sees familiar Bible stories with new eyes, inviting his readers to explore again the story of the prodigal son, the story of Lazarus and the rich man, some of Jesus’ parables, and the story of the cross. Bell clearly embraces these stories as Biblical and foundational to his understanding of God’s love.
Despite what his critics say, Bell doesn’t paint a picture of a “soft hell” lined with velvet. Rather, Bell contends that we must not confuse “the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.” – p. 177 (loc 2137).
Bell organizes his argument into eight chapters. Chapter 1 raises lots of questions and sets up the remaining chapters as discussion points for Bell’s argument. Chapter 2 explores the idea of heaven, which Bell says begins here because life in the kingdom of God begins here, not just after death. Bell echoes N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and other current eschatological theologians including Jurgen Moltmann, that God is making all things new including a new heaven and a new earth.
Chapter 3 is simply titled “Hell” and Bell explores the Bible texts and unpacks the meanings of words like hades, gehenna, and sheol. If heaven begins here, Bell contends then hell does, too. Hell is embodied in our own inhumanity and violence. Many, Bell argues, live in their own hells, some of their own choosing, some in the hells created for them by others. Hell is the rejection of God’s love, the resistance to God’s seeking, the refusal to see God’s redemptive plan for creation.
Chapter 4 raises the question “Does God Get What God Wants?” which Bell believes is the salvation and the redemption of creation. Obviously, Calvinists will have a problem with this because of the doctrines of election, predestination, limited atonement, and so on. But Arminians (free-willers) may also have problems with Bell’s assertion that God wins because love wins, which seems to limit humanity’s free will. Bell is an equal opportunity offender because he is speaking in categories that the Calvinist/Arminian arguments do not have room for.
In Chapter 5 Bell explores the cross and resurrection. Here he asserts about the Gospel of John that “John is telling a huge story, one about God rescuing all of creation.” Crucifixion and resurrection are God’s way from death to life, to redemption, to atonement, to satisfaction, to all the metaphorical roles that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection play in the story of God’s redemptive love. Bell situates us, human beings, not at the center of the story, but within the story of God’s overarching redemption of everything. When John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world…” it means just that. God loves the entire world, the cosmos, and will redeem it all. Bell expands the Gospel story because “A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small.” – p. 135 (loc 1653).
Chapter 6 is Bell’s chapter on Christology. It’s here that Bell soars. He talks about people whose lives God has touched and redeemed in marvelous and mystical ways. Christ, Bell says, “is bigger than any one religion.” p. 150 (loc 1824). And, Christ is not God’s Plan B, but God’s always-present plan to demonstrate his love, and incarnate his presence among people.
In Chapter 7, Bell appeals to the reader to examine again the story of the prodigal son, the father, and the older brother. Bell ties together his thesis by discussing the three stories being told in this parable. First, the younger son, the prodigal, tells a story about himself. His story is one of failure, or desperation, but also of contrition. But even after his repentance, the younger son thinks himself unworthy to be called “son” anymore. The father’s story, however, says that the younger son has always been and will always be his son. The father has been waiting for this day, which is a day of celebration because his son has come home.
The older brother’s story is one of duty without love. He is just as alienated from the father as the younger son is, and Bell writes that our goodness and striving can also separate us from the father, just like our sin and failure can. But Bell believes it is the father’s story that is the true story. Both sons are loved, and both are received with affection. The younger son returns to the father’s house; but, for the older son, it was always his anyway. Neither son’s telling of their own stories is true, only the father’s story is the true story for all of them.
Chapter 7 is the chapter that ties Bell’s argument together, and makes a compelling case for choosing the story of love rather than estrangement.
Finally, in Chapter 8, Bell returns to his childhood. As if to say, “Although I am critiquing modern evangelicalism’s story, I am one of you,” Bell recounts the night he knelt by his bed, and with his parents on either side of him, he prayed to receive Jesus into his heart. Bell clearly has affection for his Christian evangelical upbringing, even while questioning its theological perspective. Bell is one of the millions who have been told a story that may be wearing thin, but whose life was changed by it nevertheless.
There is much in Bell’s book with which I agree. He approaches familiar scripture with fresh eyes and insights; he expands the gospel so that it is good news for all creation; he moves beyond the heaven-and-hell debate to engage the greater work of God’s redemptive love; and, he does all this with humility that is refreshing. This is not an apologetic for postmodernism or universalism, or a polemic against the establishment.
Rather, I believe Bell is inviting us all into a “divine” discussion about these issues. He’s inviting us to re-examine the “escape from earth” spirituality of another era, and to involve ourselves in following Christ in tangible expressions of God’s love now. Bell’s story is not a new story, but a new look at the Old Story. Jesus is central, God is love, the Spirit is moving, the Kingdom is coming, and we’re invited. There’s not much there to disagree with, in my opinion.
Disclaimer: I purchased the ebook version of Love Wins from Amazon. I did receive a review copy, but it arrived three days after I posted this review. I was not given any inducement to review this book either positively or negatively. The opinions expressed are mine, and mine alone. I have noted both page numbers and ebook location numbers in the citations above.