LOVE WINS: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. San Francisco: Harper One, 2011. Xi +201 pages.
The trailer for Rob Bell’s Love Wins set Twitter afire even before the book was released, but why all the furor? The answer can be found in the responses offered by the defenders of evangelical orthodoxy. Because Bell raised questions as to whether the Hindu Gandhi might not be in hell that was sufficient proof that the young evangelical mega-church pastor had gone off the deep end and embraced the universalism of liberal Christianity. Further proof of the author’s unorthodox ways could be found in the fact that the book was being published by Harper One and not Zondervan (forgetting that Zondervan is a division of Harper-Collins and that by moving the book to Harper One, Bell’s book would get a bigger audience – especially among non-evangelicals).
The problem with Bell’s position was that in affirming the premise that Love Wins, he was somehow undermining the justice of God, not to mention the atonement, evangelism, perhaps even the church. With all the clamor over the book, it’s no surprise that Time Magazine deemed Bell worthy of its annual Holy Week cover story. They even reached back four decades to the famous “God is Dead” cover story for inspiration, entitling the story: “Is Hell Dead?” Over night the relatively obscure pastor from Grand Rapids had become a media sensation.
I’ve read a number of Bell’s other books, all published by Zondervan, including Velvet Elvis and Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and have enjoyed them, so the furor surrounding the book’s merits made me all the more eager to read this volume. I wanted to see why the critics thought he had fallen off the cliff into the abyss of liberalism, and besides that, Bell is a fellow alumnus of Fuller Seminary, and I wanted to see if what he was saying reflected ideas planted at an earlier time (likely back when I was teaching adjunctively at Fuller). As I read the book, I did find signs that his Fuller education did show up in the way he deals with issues, such as the nature of God and eschatology, which are the primary topics of this book.
So why the furor? Besides raising important questions that many are afraid to tackle, Bell is a very talented communicator. He knows how to bring seemingly dense topics alive, inviting the reader into the conversation. He writes with a very light touch – often in short sentences and even sentence-paragraphs. He is more apt to raise questions than resolve them, provocatively offering the reader biblical texts to ponder. He’s a teller of stories, though not in the same way that a Fred Craddock tells them. He’s more urban and GenX, whereas Craddock is rural and speaks from an earlier era. Both styles work powerfully, which is why both men have been successful as preachers.
As for the charges – the critics claim that Bell is a universalist, which means that in the end everyone gets into heaven, and that doesn’t sit well with the guardians of the gateways into heaven. Bell and his universalist friends make it too easy to get in, and that undermines Christian theology and even Christian morality. In fact, if God lets everyone in, why did Jesus need to come to earth? The whole house of cards begins to crumble if “love wins!”
So, what do we make of the evidence? Having read the book, I can say that I didn’t find any signs of universalism, at least not of a pluralistic sense. I did, however, find in this book a strong commitment to the principle that God’s love for the creation is absolute and everlasting. He speaks of a love that feeds God’s desire to reconcile everyone to God’s self, even if that means pursuing them after death’s doors close. What needs to be said here is that for Rob Bell, God’s love compels God to pursue us, but at the same time God doesn’t necessarily get what God wants. We have the freedom to say no.
What is clear is that Bell doesn’t believe in a God who punishes humanity eternally in fire for simply not saying yes to Jesus. We may sin, but these sins, committed in this life, don’t merit such treatment, and besides that, to define God in such terms is to demean God. Although Bell isn’t a universalist, I would say that he’s a Christocentric inclusivist. He allows for God to work through other religions, but in the end God is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self (2 Cor. 5). Does the death of Jesus matter? Very much so, it’s just that God doesn’t necessarily put the fate of humanity and the creation in the hands of Christians!
The book is full of wisdom, and even though Bell doesn’t resolve all the questions, there is much to chew on. Regarding the questions, although the book’s subtitle lifts up the issues of heaven, hell, and salvation, the real issue under discussion is the nature of God. Who do we believe God to be?
Readers may find different chapters to be of greatest interest – perhaps dwelling on the chapter on heaven or maybe the one on hell, which follows it. Or maybe it will be the one that wrestles with other religions. In light of the critiques, I found his discussion of the Parable of the Prodigal Son most intriguing (ch. 7). In discussing the parable, he focuses on the older brother, who gets angry when his father unexpectedly welcomes the prodigal home with open arms, even throwing a party for him. The older brother doesn’t think that this is fair, after all he’d stayed home, worked hard, did what the father asked, and the father never threw a party for him. The father responds by reminding the older brother that everything that was his belongs to the older son, and that he could have had a party any time he wanted.
The key to this story, as Bell unfolds it, is the charge the older son makes against his father. He accuses the Father of being a slave driver and of being cheap. That is, this older son, had a rather negative view of his father, and that fed his disdain for the way the father received the younger prodigal. The older brother didn’t recognize in the father, any sense of love, grace, or generosity – not because it wasn’t there, but because this son refused to see it, and it affected the way he lived. In the parable, Bell says, the father tells a different story about both sons, and Bell suggests provocatively -- this is the difference between heaven and hell. That is, the older brother is experiencing a hell of his own making, by separating himself from the father’s love. Bell writes:
Hell is being at the party.That’s what makes it so hellish.It’s not an image of separation,by one of integration. (pp. 169-170).
That is, heaven and hell are intertwined, and we decide where we want to stand -- “hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (p. 170). Here is the story of one who just can’t stand it that the other is in a sense getting away with it! And therefore, he has a tantrum.
But back to the nature of God and how God deals with us – Bell notes the biblical story that speaks of God loving the world so much that the Father sends the son into the world so that the world might be saved. It’s a beautiful sight, but what of the other side of the story that so often gets told – and here’s where it gets controversial, at least in some circles. We’ve been taught that there are millions who, for whatever reason, don’t make that choice, perhaps dying before having that chance to say yes to God, and thus God must “punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.” If this is true:
God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death. A different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony (pp. 173-174).
Such a vision doesn’t make sense to Bell and to many others, including me. He’s right, an earthly father that took such a turn would be reported to the authorities. There might be those who find such a vision appropriate, but not many.
So, my take on this book is this: It’s a gentle pastoral response to the kinds of questions that people are asking. He recognizes that many of the answers traditionally offered don’t make sense and turn people away from God. Although they may hear that God loves them, the flip side of this story makes no sense. How can God love us, and then if we spurn that offer, torture us for eternity? Bell suggests that such an image speaks poorly of God and misrepresents the teaching of Scripture. Not everyone will agree with the author’s perspective, but I found it to be appropriate and compelling. Yes, he raises more questions than he answers, but he gives the reader enough guidance that they will, I think, discover that the God of Jesus is a God of grace and love, who will do everything and anything to reconcile them to God’s self. And in my estimation – that’s a winning message! That makes it the kind of book that I, as a pastor, would share with the person wrestling with God!