In other reviews of Love Wins, I have read the accusation that it is hard to pin Rob Bell down on what he believes. And that is somewhat true if you are trying to discover if Bell believes in universalism. I hate to tell you, but if you are looking for Bell to say “I believe . . . ” you won’t find it up to this point.
Chapter Four is, it seems from various reviews, the big one. It is the chapter that talks about reconciliation. It is the first chapter that has shades of universalism. And yet, nowhere in this chapter does Bell affirm reconciliation. He talks about it, certainly. Much of the chapter discusses it. But he also talks of another theory of hell in which our humanity is burned away as we choose a life apart from God. This idea is present in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Rather than an explicit statement of belief, Bell delivers an attack against presumption. He asks questions about eternal, conscious torment and whether it can be loving. He asks whether or not people have a choice if there is reconciliation. He asks if life really is the only chance we have to choose God or if there may be another chance later. Then, he delivers what I believe to be the most concise statement of why he wrote the book:
“Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” (Love Wins, pg 115)
I take this to mean that we shouldn’t presume to know the details of how God will judge the dead. We should be willing to say we are unsure but trust that God will allow us the freedom of choosing existence with Him or without Him. As Bell states on page 116, a “better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future, which no one has been to and then returned with hard empirical evidence…is not ‘does God get what God wants?’ but ‘Do we get what we want?'”
Basically, Bell concludes, if we want existence with God, God welcomes us. If we want existence without God, He grants that as well. Love is the freedom God gives us to choose what we want and He grants that choice “because love wins.”
I believe, in his own way, Bell is telling us to lay off the speculation, to not be so willing and eager to die on our theological swords regarding the exact nature of Hell and God’s judgment.
One thing that saddened me in the critiques of Love Wins was the insistence of the reviewers that Bell leaves out the work of the cross and how it relates to the overall subject of the book. Imagine my surprise when I read chapter five and found that the entire chapter is about the cross and the metaphors early church writers used to communicate their understanding of Christ’s sacrifice to the cultures in which they lived. Perhaps I misread the critiques, but this seems to be a massive oversight. Now, I can understand that Bell may not have interpreted the cross the way they wished. Indeed, he likens what many would term the facets of the cross to mere metaphors, both truthful but still analogy. The cross was a sacrificial atonement. The cross was a justification for our sins. On the cross, we were redeemed. These are all true, and they are all metaphors. He suggests we need to find metaphors that will convey the same image to our current culture, which has little to know real understanding of the sacrificial system. I tend to agree.
Between reading chapters 4 and 5, chapters that I felt would be the most controversial in the book, I found myself quite shocked that I agreed with Bell’s premise and intention, if not necessarily specific details. From the pre-release reviews, I expected to find a book in which Rob Bell went so far afield as to undermine some basic tenants of scripture. To a degree, I don’t think he has. But at the same time, I can see why some people think he did.
Love Wins is not a chapter by chapter analysis of specific, individual concepts. It is a book that builds a case, an argument, and as stated before, the argument is that we should refrain from speculating too much (or more accurately, allow freedom for different interpretations) on God’s judgment and the afterlife. Bell seems to be saying that he thinks we have given too much time to talking about Hell as eternal, conscious torment and not enough time talking about God’s desire to be reconciled to all mankind and all of creation. This is God’s love for us, that he set in motion a plan which would allow all of creation to be redeemed, yet still allows humanity the freedom to choose otherwise. If we choose the reconciliation, we are welcomed home and can find a life that is more in line with God’s plan for creation. If we do not choose God, well, we don’t know for sure. We know that life apart from God is not true life, but we are given that freedom and many different people have interpreted the consequences in different ways. This seems to be the message Bell is attempting to convey. However, I don’t know if many of the critiques are seeing this message because so many people are reading the book with an agenda, and that agenda is to find out, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” And every statement in the book that supports the agenda is processed and every statement that doesn’t may be glossed over. Due to the controversy surrounding the book and Rob Bell as an individual, I would only personally recommend the book to people I knew were very discerning and willing to engage with Love Wins in a thoughtful way, cross-referencing scripture where necessary. In our society we have very short attention spans and we tend to process in sound bytes, and make no mistake, Rob Bell tends to write in sound bytes. But, if you put aside reactionary emotion and try to follow his arguments, some admittedly stronger than others, you may be surprised that he does indeed toe the evangelical line in many of his conclusions. The difficulty is figuring out what his conclusions are. This is where that discernment kicks in. Yes, he spends much of chapter four detailing ideas and arguments for reconciliation, but his bottom line at the end of the chapter is that this is one view that some in the church have had (and yes, I think he may overstate the case a bit, but he is, technically, correct that some have had and still do believe in reconciliation). He may spend so much time writing about reconciliation because he personally hopes for it, or he may spend so much time on it because he knows it is directly opposed to the interpretation many people have of Hell and God’s judgment. In the end, he asks that we let this remain a mystery and focus on what we do know: That God allows us to choose our fate and that choice directly influences our life and the world around us. If we choose to align with God, we will find life. If we choose against God, we create Hell for ourselves and our life wanes. And when we die . . . who knows for sure but God.
Chapter six is a bit more troubling, however. I must admit that either I’m not following Bell’s arguments well or he isn’t making them clearly and concisely. Chapter six deals with the idea that people who do not share our specific view of Jesus may, in fact, go to heaven. The basic premise is twofold. First, Jesus can be distorted through cultural misrepresentation. Fair enough. Second, Bell seems to conclude that there are people in other religions that may find Christ by being devout and following the Christ-like qualities inherent in their culture or religion. And while I’m certainly open to this discussion, I wouldn’t say that this is the same as knowing Christ. The very concept of missions set forth in the New Testament is predicated on the preaching and explanation of the specific person of Christ. Even people who come to Christ through visions have specific visions that point to Christ. It is the Christian’s responsibility to explain and interpret, to point people toward Christ. Like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that all myths, in some way, point to the True Myth, the story of God and the redemption of creation and mankind. However, all myths have competing ideas that distort or obscure the truth in them, and often they must be explained and reinterpreted in light of Christ. This is what Paul did in Athens in Acts 17:22-31. The Gospel is something that must be proclaimed. Christ is someone who must be known. Now, I doubt that Rob Bell would disagree with this, but Chapter Six does seem to give the impression that maybe people can find their own ways to Christ. And truly, Jesus does appear to people and call to them in dreams and other methods to this day. But at times the chapter seems to suggest that perhaps people may not find Jesus but will still find the saving love of Jesus. Again, I want to give Bell the benefit of the doubt, but because of how he wrote this chapter, I can easily see how people would come away from it with the wrong impression, that people will take away from this chapter the idea that as long as you have Christ-like qualities, you will be united to Christ and a part of His Kingdom no matter what you believe.
Chapter Seven, the final chapter before the conclusion, is a bit of an enigma and one that is difficult to deal with. I say difficult because Bell appears to make an analysis of heaven and hell from the parable of the Prodigal Son, and if this is any type of statement of truth beyond artistic interpretation, I think it is the most disturbing piece of scriptural exegesis in the book.
Bell recounts the parable and draws conclusions that each son in the parable interprets their personal story (or substitute the word “identity”) different from that of the father. The younger son sees himself as a shameful sinner unworthy of the love of the father. The father refutes this by accepting the son as an heir. The older brother sees himself as a man who worked all his life and has not been given the riches and celebratory status his younger brother is now receiving. The father says that you have always been mine but we must celebrate your brother who has found his way home. And while I don’t necessarily have a problem with the analysis thus far, Bell goes on to say that the party is heaven for the younger son but hell for the older son. Heaven and hell are together in the same place. So I have to ask myself, in this chapter, is Bell talking of the Earthly possibilities of life being heaven and hell, or is he talking at all about the afterlife?
You see, throughout the book, Bell has made a case for heaven and hell being present in our earthly choices, that in our choices and actions we either shine heaven on the world or we bring hell to the world. In this, I would agree. But when he speaks of heaven and hell in Chapter Seven, which version of heaven does he speak of, the earthly one or the spiritual one? Which version of hell? This is a point of confusion and contention, and while it may make these words, heaven, hell, and love, more palatable to an unbelieving generation, it does cause the water to be muddied. I hear your words, but I’m not sure what you mean. Beyond that, I rather think Bell is taking too much meaning from the parable itself, which has all sorts of contextual meanings from the audience Jesus told it to. I’m not sure, in this particular case, Jesus was trying to convey information about Heaven and Hell, but about how God sees His chosen and those who find Him. I think Bell is well within his interpretation to talk of the stories each person tells about who they are and to insist that God has a different story. This is true of humanity. But the parable is also meant to illustrate how much God longs for us to return. It is not meant to give an interpretation of Heaven and Hell.
Later in the chapter, Bell talks about the danger of viewing the gospel as a mere destination ticket. Essentially, if your view of the gospel is nothing more than a ticket out of Hell, it is, quite frankly, incomplete. This is an interpretation rooted in nothing more than fear, and while I believe people can grow beyond this limited understanding (because, truth be told, I did), to maintain this view can lead to a life of fear and slow-burning resentment of God and those who seem to be enjoying life more than you.
Like the chapter before it, I think that this one can mislead, it can create an incomplete picture. I think Bell is following his pastoral heart, trying to lead people to a better, more full life with God, but at the same time, I think his poetic, artistic flair is giving more of the emotion than the theology. As it is, this chapter is powerful, but it isn’t entirely clear at best, or downright unorthodox at worst.
This isn’t a book you can skip around in, it isn’t a book you can just skip to the final chapter and try to get Bell’s opinion. In truth, this is a book in which Bell truly does attempt to get around preconceived notions about God, Heaven, and Hell and attempt to get his readers to see from a perspective they may not have yet considered. In this way, read from this light, Love Wins can be a powerful and moving book. And yet, there are times when the emotional heart from which these words flowed missed some key ideas and facets of God’s nature. Bell, I believe, has truly felt the love of God in his life and wants others to experience that love. But I think his poetic heart sung the praises of his love much like many poets wrote sonnets about their lovers. They were not systematic theologies, they were expressions of emotion. And throughout, I think this method of interpretation needs to be maintained. It is a book that has many helpful ideas and images, but it must be read with prayer and discernment. And while Bell may or may not have shades of universalism in his eschatology, judgment is something spoken of in the New Testament. Our choices do make a difference both now and later. But there is little point in focusing exclusively on the later when we can bring the light of Heaven, the light of Christ, to the world with our choices, actions, and attitudes right now.
A final word, especially to those who read the book and disagree strongly with Rob Bell’s assertions, perceived or real. This is a book that uses poetic language and poetic language, by definition, attempts to convey images and emotions. Thus, there are many people for whom Love Wins will make a new understanding of God’s love and the work of Jesus. This may prompt them to delve further into orthodox Christianity, or they may stop short and accept the book at face value. Either way, there will be an emotional reaction to the book. If you disagree, in part or in whole, with Love Wins, I caution you to discuss the book with gentleness and discernment. Before standing tall and loudly proclaiming every statement Bell makes that you believe to be incorrect, I urge you to keep silent and listen to why the book impacts someone. There is a time to denounce false teachings but keep in mind that many people connect with Rob Bell’s writings because they have had difficult times with other churches, either perceived or out-right abusive situations. If we rush out to defend Christianity with the swords of our tongues (or fingers in the case of the internet), we may well cause more people to struggle or hide. You don’t speak to an abused child by yelling.