This post is a followup to my thoughts on the controversy that preceded the release of this book. You can read those thought on the wandering road here, and on YAR here. This post is also on the MWR blog here.
An artist is, first and foremost, someone who sees the world differently than other people and helps others to see the world in that way.
Rob Bell is not a theologian; he’s an artist.
Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of every person who ever lived should be first and foremost understood as a work of art. From the vivid imagery and stories that he uses, down to the careful arrangement of words on the page for visual effect, Bell does a masterful job of evoking questions, providing insights and causing the reader to see age-old questions in new ways.
That said, Love Wins contains theology, most of which isn’t particularly new. Bell even says as much in the preface. The theology that is included, while worded differently, often resonates with many Anabaptist understandings of faith.
One of Rob’s central theses is that heaven and hell are real, but that they are more of a state of being than a physical place — heaven and hell are not reserved for some time in the future but have already begun.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of the Anabaptist understanding of the kingdom of heaven — that the kingdom of heaven has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that it has not yet fully been completed. Bell’s understanding and the Anabaptist understanding necessitate participation on the part of humans. Overall, many of the core theological concepts that Bell raises or alludes to can be found within various Anabaptist scholars and leaders and have, at some point, been taught at all of our church colleges.
Controversy has surrounded this book, even before it was released, and has mainly centered on the doctrine of hell. However, what seemed more challenging to me was the chapter on different biblical images of atonement.
Bell describes the plethora of images found in the New Testament to describe and understand Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Bell challenges the idea that there is one clean, simple way to understand the atonement of Jesus. This seems far more controversial and important than whether or not we have a precise understanding of hell — yet it feels as though this has been overshadowed in the controversy about the book.
Ultimately, Bell provides a provocative book that is adding fuel to an age-old fire. So if you’re looking for a well-footnoted, systematic theological treatise, this isn’t it. It is, however, biblically-based and rooted in scripture.
The book challenges certain understandings of the doctrine of hell, heaven and atonement. But I think these doctrines are more human constructs than biblical truth and rightly should be questioned. Even if Bell challenges beliefs that are seen as “orthodox,” this should not scare off Anabaptists. If it were not for challenging the orthodox doctrines of infant baptism, church and state relationships and faith-based violence, we Anabaptists would not be here today.
For those of us who grew up singing I John 4:7-8 at a church camp, and have grown to have a deep, tested, and sincere belief that these words are true, then Love Wins should be familiar territory for us. At the very least, it raises deeply important questions to our existence as humans and causes us to see ourselves and God in a new way. But then again, great art always does that.
For the first and best response to his critics, see Bell’s interview from March 14 here. P.S. Nothing happens until about 10 minutes in so skip ahead.