While I realize I may be late to the party, I tend to get lots of questions from friends and family when it comes to issues surrounding theology and/or Rob Bell. I was apparently in “wave two” of Amazon’s shipments of Bell’s newest book, Love Wins, so I just got my copy on Wednesday. Having now read it and processed it a bit, let’s answer the questions I suspect I’ll be asked, along with a review of the book.
Additionally, I’m simultaneously posting a separate article about the nature of hell and a number of different viewpoints on the subject (and why there might be room for doubt in the study of pareschatology – the study of what happens between death and the final state).
The Short Review
First off, there is nothing really “new” in this book that you won’t find in some form in the writings of other Christian authors, whether in the early Church fathers or in famous writers like C.S. Lewis, whose The Great Divorce and The Last Battle both communicate many of the themes mentioned in Love Wins. Additionally, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary (where Bell was trained), after reading the book, notes that Bell’s theology is still within the stream of Orthodox Christianity.
Let’s start with a quick Q&A style review (You can see a transcript of one interview here) for those of you that just want the answers to the most-often asked questions about this book:
Is Rob Bell a Universalist?
No. He has reiterated this in multiple interviews since the publication of the book. In Universalism, as in Determinism, there is no room for free will, and according to Bell, one of the primary characteristics of love is the freedom to choose apart from coercion. Thus, in Universalism, Love does not Win.
Does Rob Bell believe in Hell?
Yes. In the book, and in subsequent interviews, he makes it clear that he believes that Hell truly exists, both now on earth and in the future, past death. He states, “I believe in Hell now. I believe in Hell when you die. I believe God gives people the right to say “no”, to resist, to refuse, to reject, to cling to their sins, to cling to their version of their story. There’s a whole chapter in the book on Hell, and I think we should take Hell very seriously.”
Does Rob Bell believe that Hell will be empty?
No. While he does communicate the rationale for an empty Hell that Christian Universalists give, he does not assert it as certain truth, again stating that there are people who reject God and will be in Hell. Additionally, in his November 2010 sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church on Matthew 25 (the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids), he states that each of us will have an end date, past which we can no longer join the wedding party – and that we should be urgent in being prepared. His co-pastor, Shane Hipps, also confirms this Mars Hill Church teaching in his March 6 sermon, “When the Bowl Breaks”. (You can read the MHBC FAQ on Love Wins, as well, for more of the church’s view on its’ pastor’s new book.)
Why did Bell write this book?
Many people, as they come to learn about Christ and Christianity, have questions about the afterlife – often times conflicting questions. Bell believed that these folks were being mis-served by answers that treat these questions all under an umbrella of certainty (regarding eternal, conscious punishment, and the Gospel being functionally sold as fire insurance), where there have been a multiplicity of views throughout Christian history. Thus, ultimately, voices of certainty may have done more harm than good. This interview from MSNBC has a good response from Bell on this question, as well.
Then what is the hubub about?
Bell states (similarly to first century Rabbinic Judiasm) that the Kingdom of God/Heaven exists both here and now, and then later into eternity, when God renews the earth. Similarly, Hell exists both here and now on earth, and continues into eternity. In his view, there are a number of churches who treat the Gospel as a message of relocation. It is all about getting your ticket now to avoid hell after you die, at which point you will be whisked away to some other place called “Heaven”. Instead, he says that the Kingdom of God/Heaven has already come and that it has already begun to exist today and will continue on after we die. The Gospel is about how we treat people and live now, and we trust in God to take care of what happens when we die.
No, really. What is the hubub about?
Fear and loathing. In short, a vocal group of Christians have mistaken contending for the faith with contenting for their systematic interpretations.
It is about a group of Christians who feel threatened when a position they have carved out with certainty (on a topic about which the Bible is neither explicit nor clear in terms of God’s mechanism and action) has been undermined. A popular pastor outlines a number of different possibilities that have existed throughout the history of Christianity – possibilities that mess with the systems these people have built their faith on – so they have decided to circle the wagons.
Bell’s writing is not didactic – a logical paper laid out on an orderly outline – but, rather it is a narrative, with more questions than answers, and room for uncertainty. Those who crave certainty do not find it in his writing, and therefore feel that Bell is threatening the faith of others who should be given that certainty – even if no such certainty exists in the Bible.
What if Bell is Wrong?
In the same interview as above, he states, “If there are billions and billions and billions of people – if God is going to torture them in hell forever – people who have never heard about Jesus are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of, then at that point we will have far bigger problems than a book from a pastor from Grand Rapids.”
So should I buy the book?
In my opinion, both Sex God and Velvet Elvis are his better works, though Love Wins is still pretty good, though probably written more for group discussion than solo pleasure reading. Probably the most important concept that he conveys is the importance of harboring epistemic humility – of being just as skeptical of your own interpretations of non-essential, unknowns (like pareschatology and eschatology) as you are of those who disagree with you. If you have had questions about the afterlife you were afraid to ask, or if you’ve been abused by “Turn or Burn” theology, this is probably a book for you. Even so, I would still encourage it as a group book, rather than as a solo book. Discussion is very important to any tough subject – especially one with as many unknowns and misunderstandings as the mechanics of the afterlife.
The weakest arguments in the book are around the use of aion – the linchpin of the Christian Universalist position on Hell – and some of the poor prooftexting regarding this same view. I do not think he probably gave this view the defense that its true believers would have preferred, but probably enough to get the gist of their argument. I think his use of the rockthat Moses struck in Exodus in his discussion on inclusivism is also a stretch, as well (though I understand he was using it as a metaphor, not a justification). Even so, some of his observations on invclusivist views (like with the age of accountability, and with those who have never heard Christ’s message) were still well-presented.
One thing that really annoyed me, in a departure from his previous books, was the lack of footnotes/endnotes. All of his previous books were heavily endnoted, and those notes provided a good deal of interesting, funny and insightful information – both on the sources of his material, and (for readers longing for more didactic exposition) rationale for its inclusion in the book. Love Wins has no footnoting or endnoting, and it suffers greatly for its absence, particular for readers wanting to follow up or “Bereans” wanting to test what was written. I do not know if this was Bell’s choice or that of his publisher, but it was definitely a mistake.**
The Longer Review
This book is somewhat of a Rorschach Test – if you are looking for it to confirm what you already believe about Rob Bell, it will probably supply you with the self-confirmation you seek (though if you’re purchasing a book to confirm what you already believe, perhaps you can spend your $15 on something more productive).
For the Big-R Reformed Crowd
If you are Reformed and you believe that “Not Reformed” is analogous to “Not Saved” or “Heretic”, you will hate this book.
In fact, the Reformed Crowd, dubbed “Team Hell“, jumped the starting blocks, blasting away at this book weeks before it was even published (with the Godfather of All Things Calvin helped cast Bell as Michael Servetus, dismissively tweeting “Farewell, Rob Bell”). The promotional materials from HarperOne and the promotional video (in which Bell questions the certainty of Ghandi’s being in hell – not that he claimed Ghandi was in heaven. No, Bell just had the temerity of pondering that maybe we ought to let God decide exactly who is in hell, rather than pronouncing who we believe for certain to be there) were enough to set off Team Hell. Following this, Martin Bashir, a congregant of Calvinist Tim Keller, tossed a bit of red meat to Team Hell by playing a bit of gotcha journalism, doggedly hounding Bell with number of false dichotomies in a TV interview (which Bell seemed much better prepared for in a later interview with Sally Quinn).
Basically, you could say that the Big-R Reformed crowd, in general, reacted exactly the way the public has come to expect their caricature Christians to react – intolerant, mean, and ready to eat their own young before going after yours.
Why, you might ask?
Newsflash – Bell is not a Calvinist, nor does he support systematic theology.*
In Love Wins, Bell pretty much confirms this. In fact, he probably sets himself up as an anti-Calvinist. And in the Christian blogosphere, where this 5% of Evangelical Christianity screams louder, longer and meaner than the other 95% of Christianity combined, it’s no surprise that Love Wins has been received with very little that might resemble love.
As one blogger tweeted, on seeing the trending of Rob Bell in Twitter:
“For a moment I was afraid Rob Bell had died. But then I realized that it was just a few Calvinists hating him into a trending topic.”
First and foremost, Calvinism is dependent on a hell which exists as eternal, conscious torment – the seat of sinners in the hands of an angry God. As such, any doubt about this hyper-exclusive view of the afterlife is anathema. Bell’s multiple options on how hell has been historically viewed (even though he claims none of them fully) will be one of Team Hell’s primary obstacles with Love Wins. What, they ask, is the motivation for accepting Christ, if people outside of right-thinking, right-believing Christians might still wind up escaping the flames of hell?
(In an interesting side-note, if it wasn’t so sad, it would be amusing to note all the twisted ways the theology of the accusers have to go in attacking Bell: like with the insistence that we cannot forgive others, unless we can depend on the wrath of God to punish them for us. Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like forgiveness…)
Next, and almost as important to the Big-R Reformed crowd, is Bell’s view of man as having free will to choose or reject God – because one cannot truly love if that “love” is borne of coercion. This flies in the face of the deterministic view of strict Calvinism, which has no room for human free will, insofar as it pertains to accepting or rejecting Christ.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Bell also portrays Christus Victor, Ransom Theory, and other theories of atonement as equally valid means of communicating Jesus’ sacrifice as PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) (the only Reformed view of atonement). Bell treats the different views of soteriology as metaphors used to convey the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice, rather than choosing one (PSA, of course) as the concrete, certain mechanism of atonement. And then, to add insult to injury, Bell (via the Apostle Paul) expands the view of atonement beyond the individualistic view of salvation to one of reconciliation of all creation.
And finally, Bell gives voice to a belief that most Christians hold to some degree – that of a limited inclusivism. This is a view that people who have never had an opportunity to hear about Christ, or understand his message, still might have a place in the world to come. If you believe in the “age of accountability”, you already hold to a form of inclusivism. If you believe that it is possible for God to show mercy to an indigenous inhabitant of a distant island, who has never even met or heard of a Christian, you already hold to a form of inclusivism. This view runs counter to Reformed Christianity, as well, though it also runs afoul in broader Evangelical circles, if their impetus for missionaries is to “save people” who would otherwise (in their view) be certainly damned if they were never ministered to.
What it comes down to, Bell argues, is in living the Gospel (as a set of actions – not works that save, but as acts of gratitude) rather than teaching the idea of Gospel (as concept/belief with required assent). We have the choice of bringing about heaven or hell in our lives here on earth by living or rejecting the Gospel, and when we die, we will continue on in those choices we’ve made.
So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will “get to heaven”, that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer into the club.
The good news is better than that.
This is why Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.(178)
For the Rest of Us
So, if you’re not in the Big-R Reformed crowd, and you can accept a little bit of mystery in Scripture, you very well may enjoy this book. Realize, as I noted earlier, it is not didactic – so if you’re looking for a structured set of apologetics, you will be sorely disappointed. Additionally, you need to realize that one of Bell’s aims is simply to expose the readers to some other views from the history of Orthodox Christianity, not to claim one specific view as the “correct one”. As he noted in his pre-publication interview:
I’d say it’s very important when you’re bumping up against [mystery], to not turn your speculation into dogma. And I think we’ve seen a lot of that, which is people saying, “This person’s there, this person’s there, this is how this will unfold.” But we have no available video evidence. So I think it’s very important for people of faith to say, yes, I believe in heaven. Yes, I believe it’s real. Yes I believe it’s somehow intermingled with this reality, and yet somehow separate from this reality. How exactly all of that works out, I don’t know… And beyond that, there is a point where we are firmly into mystery and speculation. Let’s enjoy that speculation, but when someone drives their stake into the ground and says, “No it’s this.” Well, great, that’s what you think.
The realm of pareschatology is very much the realm of speculation. Yes, we have some Biblical direction on that speculation, but it is not explicit in its descriptions of the mechanics of the afterlife, but it is rich with symbolism and metaphor and light on logistics. Love Wins attempts to create room for this uncertainty from the standpoint that the ambiguity we have been given by God is intentional, because our actions today matter and what comes tomorrow – in life or in death – is God’s.
Probably the best chapter of the book is the second to last, “The Good News is Better than That”, which uses the parable of the Prodigal Son as the underlying metaphor for how those inside and outside the church can fail to see the good news presented by Christ. In this chapter, Bell tackles the “theology of evacuation” that has permeated much of American Christianity. In it, he also tackles the subject of self-appointed “watchmen” and their poisoned keyboards:
Inquisitions, persecutions, trials, book burnings, blacklisting – when religious people become violent, it is because they have been shaped by their God, who is violent. We see this destructive shaping alive and well in the toxic, venomous nature of certain discussions and debates on the Internet. For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do. (183)
The book is not without its faults. I cannot express strongly enough how disappointed I am in its lack of footnoting (as above). In his previous books, the footnotes have been very helpful in group discussions, and knowing where Bell pulled various Scriptures or ideas from. They were far more helpful than those in most books. Additionally, Bell probably tries too hard when he lays out the Universal Reconciliation position on hell by pulling some Scriptures which are obviously out of context, or by quoting Augustine selectively. Even so, he does a commendable job of weaving in the Eastern Orthodox view in the chapter on Heaven and with hints in subsequent chapters. Truthfully, this may be because the latter has more logical Biblical and cultural support than the former.
All in all, Love Wins is a good book. Not necessarily a great one (a category in which I would include his previous works, Sex God and Velvet Elvis), both for its brevity and its shortcomings noted above. Even so, it raises a number of questions that ought to be honestly discussed. The optimist in me hopes that pastors and their followers will actually have those honest discussions, leaving room for disagreement. The realist in me, though, suggests that there are churches and tribes who will use these questions (and their “correct” answers) as tests of faith, thus instituting their own versions of hell on earth.
*-Whether you see this as an indication of heresy or sanity may be another Rorschach Test, in and of itself.
**- I tend to believe it was probably HarperOne’s decision, as mass-market book readers do not tend to like footnoting/endnoting, because it breaks the flow of the text and interrupts the reader. Even so, it should have been included in the book, somehow