Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has certainly caused a stir among Christians. A pastor in North Carolina lost his job over affirming it. There have been angry blog responses and glowing confessions of affinity. It is at best confusing.
Luke states in his gospel to Theophilus, 1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us. So it is with this issue. Much has been written by those who have read the book and reviewed it or commented on it. I would refer you to Jerry Gillis’ comments, which also includes links to some good reviews: http://www.jerrygillis.com/emusings/ This emusing is entitled “Heaven, Hell and a guy named Bell.”
Now I will add a few thoughts regarding this book from a slightly different angle. I have not only read this work by Rob Bell, but also other things he has written and taught through the Nooma videos. I also did several years of coaching pastors and churches in the Grand Rapids, MI area. They live with Rob Bell and Mars Hill. They have had people who at one time attended Mars Hill come to their churches. None of this makes me an expert, but I have heard and seen some consistent patterns through the years.
First, it seems evident to me that Bell writes and preaches in reaction to a distorted view of Christianity which he either experienced or interacted with in his formative years. I get that. Throughout this work, the extreme portrayals he gives about Christians and faith communities would be held in equal contempt by me and others who are seeking to tell a biblical view of the grace of God.
Second, when addressing perceived or real injustices, we as humans can tend to go to the exact reverse extreme to counteract the injustice. I affirm that there are parts of Rob Bell’s artistic descriptions of heaven or the life to which God’s love has called us that are beautiful. They are sound. But then there are other sections that lay out the arguments or stories he uses to counteract his described injustices. Those distortions, which are troubling, are therefore couched among the good things that make sense.
Third, I find that there are many things in this book that are contradictory ramblings. The final chapter is an example. He emphasizes the need for and benefit of taking “our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can imagine.” Why? If we can simply make the choice to respond to the love of God after we die, why would there be any sense of urgency in this life? I may miss out on a little of the party now (to use his terms), but I won’t miss anything eternally.
And herein lies my challenge. Rob Bell has been known through the years for raising questions as discussion points and dialogue starters. That’s fine. But I have found that there are some times, and I believe this book reflects it, where question after question about some key or core issue is raised but not given a full treatment. As many have pointed out, Bell so focuses on one aspect of the character of God that he fails to include the many other traits, including justice and holiness.
Bell states early on that “the ancient sages said the words of the sacred text were black letters on a white page — there’s all that white space, waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and debates and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights.” Wow. I could read this so many ways. He goes on to talk about being freed so we can have our discussions. Let’s have the discussions. But I would rather we extensively study ALL the texts about the issues and not select just the ones (or in several cases parts of some) that support the point being made.
Hell is real. Jesus gave it a physical or metaphysical description. Hebrews states it is appointed for us once to die and after that is judgment (Hebrews 9:27). These and other truths are not addressed in the book.
While never using the words “universal salvation”, Bell states his conclusion that God will and in essence already has, saved all, everyone, the whole world. His love wins over every rebellious heart, if not in this life, later in eternity, after a person dies. There are some who just don’t know it yet. And that is a clear Universalist position. And that does not represent a sound treatment of the Biblical revelation.
The mission of the Church today is to share the Good News about the availability of the kind of life Bell describes in the good parts of this book because the God of love and Who is love is ready to write a new story for them. But our mission carries urgency because it is also true that Scripture indicates that the decisions we make in this life do determine our eternal destiny. If I followed Rob Bell’s conclusions to their logical end, I would agree with the hedonistic philosophy described in Ecclesiates, “Eat, drink and be merry.” Then when I die I can respond to the love of God.
But nowhere do I find that this is an option given in the black letters on the white pages.