Yes, the subtitle suggests that the book is "about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived"… And yes, many people have become especially worked up about Rob Bell's elusive construct of Hell… But after reading the book today, I think that all of this is his intentional, subtle ploy. I think the book is ultimately about something else… and Bell has actually caught us in his trap.
The critique of Bell's opinions about Hell have revolved around the idea that he is messing with some timeless doctrines in order to make Christianity "palatable". (Watch Martin Bashir's impatience while pressing Bell during a CNN interview… and then imagine thousands of tweets, blogs, comments, sermons, etc all jumping on Bell for popularizing and contextualizing Christianity as "palatable"… in many cases even before the book was published.)
And yet, isn't that a curious critique?
If I've read my Bible correctly, I recall Jesus urging us –
Take and Eat.
Maybe I'm all confused. I think "eating" is a palatable experience, is it not? Or perhaps I have it all wrong and eating is actually supposed to produce a horrible, gagging suffication? I'm not saying the meal is never bitter. But neither am I saying that Communion with Jesus is supposed to make me throw up. In fact, I believe the Christian message might just nourish me. I think I read Jesus saying something like that somewhere… along with something about an invitation to a feast or two.
So here's what I think about Love Wins and why it is not really a book about Heaven and Hell…
I think Rob Bell's real purpose for the book is to confront American Christians with our tendency to misuse "Hell" as a motivator for conversion. Hell as a primary motivator, Bell would say, is a prideful misemphasis of evangelism that creates a stumbling block keeping people from the love of Jesus.
At the end of it all (irony intended), Rob Bell indicates that he doesn't really care if people agree or disagree with his ideas about eternity. And that's the subtle, if not a bit twisted, irony here. From my reading of the book, I think Bell cares that people practice a more loving witness of the Gospel. I really don't think the book is supposed to be much more profound than that simple idea. (Is the material in this book controversial? Yes. And it is meant to be. There is no hidden agenda. Bell clearly wants Christians to exhibit more love and less damnation in the way they share the Gospel.)
Though he doesn't name any group or person in his book, he questions the Westboro-Baptist types who condemn people to Hell in the name of witnessing for Christ. Bell suggests that some Christians have assumed an arrogance of truth proclamation that misemphasizes their own permitted entrance into Heaven while virtually celebrating everyone else into Hell. So ultimately, even more than the goal of deciphering propositional definitions of Heaven and Hell, I suspect that Bell's real concern is addressing North American Christians who are Hellbent on presenting Jesus as the key to avoiding future damnation. Salvation through Jesus (and Bell does say it is only through Jesus- though you should read his ideas on this for yourself) is much more rich than that. He writes:
"I've written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, 'I would never be a part of that." (viii)
I've had that experience. I know many others who have also had that experience. Angry, Hellish Christians present in unpalatable gospel.
– Now does Bell use all the biblical passages correctly? Many, but not all.
– Now does he push logic too far in some paragraphs? Yes, in some paragraphs he does.
– Now does he state things that will get people bent out of shape theologically? Yes. Some of things he says are traditionally unorthodox and will disturb and frustrate people.
– But does this book warrant such vehement reactions? No. That gives Bell far too much credit. But, yes, I do strongly think that this book warrants compassionate dialogue.
And here's why:
Rob Bell states that he wants what God wants: that none should perish. This is a compelling desire. And it is a compelling prayer. And it is a compelling truth. And we must agree! And so we need to wrestle with it.
Christians should stop championing Hell and start championing the Kingdom of Heaven. Those are my words. Not Bell's… though I think he would agree.
And all while Bell discusses this and as I dare enter the fray, several Christians are dropping their coats at Saul's feet, collecting their stones, and getting all fired up about Hell's Bells… or Bell's Hells…
And thus his point is proven.
North American Christians are obsessed with Hell.
And that obsession is keeping people from looking to Heaven.
It was very interesting to me that Love Wins devotes almost as much attention to Heaven as it does Hell. Why hasn't there been a fire-and-brimstone-storm about that? After all, Bell approaches the traditional perspectives of Heaven with the same inquisition given to his treatment of the traditional views of Hell. I wonder, where is the debate about Heaven? Why have so many people become so concerned about his view of Hell but neglected to speak to his concepts of Heaven?
And so this reactionary Hellgate is ironic. In Love Wins, Bell is concerned that the Christian tradition has become a "rescue-from-Hell" message more than a "reconciliation-with-God" message. The Good News, he says, has been largely limited to a reactionary salvation from Hell concept. Bell would say that's a gospel of goats, not sheep (178). So, he asks, shouldn't the Gospel actually be about our response to Jesus rather than our avoidance of Hell? Great question. Nothing wrong with that question at all.
Reality check: I'm certain that those who are over-eager for propositional truth and levitical systems are wondering where to throw their stones… perhaps even at me. And even though most stone throwers might be surprised to find themselves in agreement with my rather systematic J.I. Packer-style views of Heaven and Hell, it is my willingness to dialogue on Bell's perspectives that somehow makes me a questionable follower of Jesus in the eyes of some Christians. So even though I think Bell manipulated some Scriptures, and even though I think some of his conclusions are non-sequitor arguments, and even though I think some of his opinions are reactionary… the way I have written this post will cause some people to wonder about my pedigree of salvation.
So the debate can rage on… and it probably will. After Bell there will be another who questions dogma and doctrine and practice and more people will come to throw grease on the fiery heretic. Rob Bell is just another person in a long line of people who question the party line. Just because the questions are asked doesn't mean that Christianity itself is threatened. Think Psalms. Think Job. Think Ecclesiasties. Questions, and I mean real questions, deep heart-struggle questions (e.g. Is my Grandfather in Heaven with Jesus? What must I do to be saved? God, how can you be all-loving and let people suffer forever in Hell?), can actually be used by the Holy Spirit to draw people to God.
Look, let's be honest, part of the uproar over Bell right now is that he hasn't spoken in power-point language and so people struggle to aim the rocks at something concrete. His answers seem uncrisp and narrative in style. He appears non-committal, elusive, parabolic, and, yes, non-propositional. And yet few are willing to admit that in this book Bell asks great questions and that he affirms the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection, the exclusivity (see his definition) of Christ for salvation, the consequence of sin, as well as the reality of "Hell" (a non-propositional definition) and the reality of Heaven (an "Already/Not-Yet" Kingdom). Bell also affirms the eventual and actual recreation of Heaven and Earth, along with the need for repentance and a high view of Scripture.
Oh, and Bell also dares to say that the Love of Jesus will reconcile all things to God…
Oh, man, what a heathen. And quoting Scripture even!
And the problem with Bell and the book is that he says things in a way that many Christians don't like…
And that's the point of the book.
Yes, such a response has proven the ultimate purpose of the book…
… That perhaps many Christians are more concerned about doctrinal debates of Hell than they are about loving their neighbor (and enemy) and sharing the Kingdom of Heaven with the world. I think this is Bell's concern. Bell wants Christians to start loving people into the Kingdom rather than scaring them away from it. In actuality, Bell wants LOVE to WIN Christians over to Jesus… and then to have the Love of Jesus spill over in our world. Now. In this age. And also in the age to come.
I don't agree with his view of Hell. There I said it. I think he has some wrong constructs of Hell. But Rob Bell doesn't really care what my conclusion is. And ultimately, I don't care about his.
Because whether Christians agree with the particulars of his view of Hell isn't the ultimate goal of Love Wins. It's the fact that God so loves the world and it is the fact that how we respond to Jesus is of ultimate concern. Does that make me a liberal? Or does that actually make me more truly evangelical in the "Good News" sense of the label?
Here's something from the book with which I do agree: "Let's be very clear, then," Bell writes, "we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer." (182).
Amen. I can live that truth for eternity.