I devoured Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins as soon as it hit my iBook shelves. I was tremendously excited about this book for myriad reasons: I’m a big Rob Bell fan who has read all of his books and really appreciate his style. Also, the controversy that erupted even before Love Wins came out made it a must-read for anyone engaging in contemporary theological discussion.
And … not the least of these, the topic has been of interest to me for more than 5 years now. As I wrote about previously, Vintage Fellowship was birthed in part by a question rising within me that challenged the traditional parameters of heaven and hell. Wouldn’t it be just like God to let everyone in? That’s a question I’ve been asking for a while now. Love Wins is a significant contribution to the answer.
Our church gives out free copies of Rob’s first book, Velvet Elvis, to people in Northwest Arkansas. We have been criticized for doing so by those claiming that in Velvet Elvis, Rob denies the virgin birth. This criticism is an intentional misreading of Velvet Elvis. I am fairly confident that people reading it with an agenda would proffer much of the criticism of Love Wins. Readers who are looking to label Rob a Universalist will find passages to further their cause.
The presence of those passages, however, can be attributed to Rob’s intentionally vague writing style. It seems to me that Rob is going more for artistic impact that theological precision. While such an approach makes for a well-written and easy-to-read book, it also leaves Rob open to criticism and mis-labeling. In fact, the vagueness and open-endedness made it very difficult for me to discuss Love Wins with people who haven’t read it.
So, is Rob Bell a Universalist?
Uh, I don’t think so.
What does he say about what the afterlife will be like?
Uh, he doesn’t really get into that.
Does he believe in hell?
Uh, yeah. But not like you might think.
Basically, here is my understanding of Rob’s position: God loves us so much that he gives us complete and total freedom. If there is no such freedom, love would not exist. In that freedom, we all choose heavens and hells everyday. These heavens are hells are both present now in life and present later in the afterlife. Hell is the natural consequence of those who pull away from God, but ultimately, God’s love will win the day. Ultimately, all people will be reconciled to God and each other because love wins.
(As an aside, Rob’s strong dependence on the idea of human freedom doesn’t resonate that well with me. I’m a Calvinist, predestined to de-emphasize human freedom. But … I’m not a neo-Calvinist who insists that everyone else see the world the way I do, so I didn’t get too hung up on it in Love Wins.)
Certainly, Rob is under no obligation to answer all the questions his readers have or to package his beliefs in such a way that makes it easy for me to explain them. So, it’s taken me some time to digest Love Wins. And now that I’ve done that, here are some of my thoughts about the strengths of Love Wins and its impact on the debate about heaven and hell.
One of the best things about Love Wins is its corrective of the all-too-common idea that heaven and hell are far off and someday places. For too long, our mental images of what heaven and hell are like have been derived from Dante’s Inferno, folk art, and tradition. Seeking different sources, Rob roots his position in an almost mind-numbing barrage of Bible references coupled with his now trademark reliance on Hebrew thought patterns. In the Hebrew mind, questions of heaven and hell are far less important than questions about life here and now.
Christian theologians talk about the “already-not yet” nature of God’s kingdom. Even so, most of the time when we think of it, we think in terms of the “not yet” part. Rob swings the pendulum to the “already,” forcing us to consider the ways in which heaven and hell are here and now. There is a distinctive earthiness to his descriptions of heaven and hell that break our comfortable theological categories and thrust us into new levels of understanding.
Another really important aspect of Love Wins is its embrace of the divine surprise on the day of reckoning. We tend to have it all figured out. We know who’s in and who’s out; who is going to make it and who is not. I joke about churches who think that they will be on the first bus to heaven. (At Vintage, I’m pretty sure that our bus is a Volkswagen … and I hope Jesus will be our designated driver.)
Jesus describes the day of reckoning as a day of surprises. Some who expect to make it, won’t: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” And some who make it can’t figure out why: “When did we see you naked and clothed you?” It will be a day that people are dumbfounded and shocked.
I am sure that Rob’s chapter on how Jesus can be found in unexpected places will raise the red flags of the discernment websites. I can hear the blog chatter now, “Does Rob Bell believe that Buddists will be in heaven?” Or worse, “Does Rob Bell believe that Muslims will be in heaven?” These questions may miss the point. A better question is “Will Baptists be in hell?”
I personally have lost confidence in all of the very assured answers I was taught about who is in and who is out. When it comes to the eschaton, judgment, and eternity, there are only a few things about which I remain confident. One of them is that the whole thing is going to be one big surprise.
The best chapter in Love Wins is the one about the good news. Rob details how a gospel message that is merely a get-out-of-hell free card is woefully inadequate. If we merely view God as some kind of comic bouncer, we are completely missing the point of the story. Heaven is a party, a feast, a banquet, a blast. The good news is so much better than we think!
What is so dangerous about hoping that God is even more gracious than we could have ever imagined? Why are so many Christians threatened by the idea that more people would get to experience God’s eternal love than they had expected? Do any of us get heaven because we deserve it? If I don’t deserve it, what do I care if God shares it with someone other than me? Isn’t that even more a reason to celebrate? What’s so bad about hoping that the good news is even better than that?
Love Wins has already resonated profoundly in the Christian community. And I expect that resonance to continue. The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren was an important book in this ongoing debate, but it will probably never have the reach of Love Wins. Many people like me have wondered to ourselves and questioned the traditional answers silently. Rob has put controversial and thought-provoking words on a page and invited people to enter into the white space with their own thoughts and reflections.
At the very least, Love Wins furthers the conversation about heaven and hell, the relationship between Christianity and other religions, the nature of judgment, and ultimately, the character and nature of God. These are important conversations.
These are important conversations because “heretic” is a powerful word that shouldn’t be thrown around lightly.
These are important conversations because beliefs matter, especially for pastors whose jobs can depend on whether or not they ask the question in the right way and frame the answer in a manner that won’t offend too many people.
These are important conversations because much of the planet is engulfed in wars that have alarmingly religious undertones.
These are important conversations because the gospel story we’ve been telling ourselves might be wrong.
These are important conversations because the fate of billions of people may hang in the balance.