Monday, March 28, 2011

Winning! (some thoughts about Rob Bell, not Charlie Sheen)

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.

While I am sure the folks at Harper One relish in it, much of the debate about Love Wins is regrettable yet unavoidable. Two things drive the inevitability of the debate: the intentional misreading of the book by some and the intentional vagueness of Rob Bell’s writing.

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.



Kevin McCullough said...


Maybe you've already given yourself away on this point, but a question for you.

Do you care AT ALL about the context of scripture that is used in Bell's book?

About the accuracy of history?

I thought you emergent types really cared about the "intellectual" honesty of the faith.

The crimes committed by Bell on the mere use of Martin Luther, and John 3:17 in the book alone. Make the text laughable.

If this is the minimum bar for those seeking truth to find answers to... than emergent theology is about as comforting to those in genuine need as a pat on the arm is to a person who has not eaten in four days.

Would be interested in your answers.

Robb Ryerse said...


Welcome to the Grenz.

Of course I care about the context of Scripture. Of course I would have preferred Rob to slow down and explore more of the background and context of the passages he cited. He did that with some passages and does it in his preaching. Stylistically, however, I think he was going for a different effect. Obviously, you don't agree; I'm ok with that.

I tend to agree with you that the Luther quote felt forced. His use of John 3.17 didn't raise a red flag for me. But maybe I need to go back and reread it.

Jasmine said...


Thanks for being "an emergent type"... my life was changed because of it.

Liked your review :)

Ron Krumpos said...

Which Afterlife?

In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say 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 reexamine 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."

The Shade Shop, Inc. said...

I enjoyed your commentary on Bell's book and respect all the comments posted in this ongoing dialogue. There are a lot of questions......there seem to be a lot of answers......anyone who thinks they have it all figured out...cast the first stone! I, for one, rather error on the side of love. Peace.

Ken Silva said...

"These are important conversations because the gospel story we’ve been telling ourselves might be wrong."

No, they're not; the modern liberals already asked these questions.

And the church has the right Gospel.

Robb Ryerse said...

Ken, sometimes the church needs to reform it's understanding of the gospel. You don't strike me as an anti-reformation kind of guy.

Anonymous said...

Re: Ken
What church? I find it laughable that even a Christian can use the word 'church' and hope it to mean some unified body that has one corporate opinion about anything. I mean, that'd be nice, but...that's just not the case. Call me a cynic...

Robb, I liked your review. Thanks!


I'm quite amazed that "Universalist" seems to be considered such a dirty word!