Love Wins

Is Gandhi in hell?  What’s more, what is hell?  Or heaven, for that matter?

These are some of the questions that have sparked a bit of a firestorm around Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: a book about heaven hell and the fate of everyone who ever lived.  This first came across my radar screen when I read a post on Tony Jones’s blog late last week about the growing attention and criticism about this book.  Then I did some searching and saw that it has even made a splash on the national news scene from CNN to ABC.

Here’s the book promo video:

Controversy in and of itself isn’t surprising with Rob Bell.  That’s happened before.  What is striking is that judgment has been leveled by a number of people who haven’t even read the book yet because it has not yet been released!

Ultimately the controversy stems from the fact that Bell is raising core questions about issues that are central to the Christian faith.  He has posed the questions in ways that have led some to conclude that Bell is promoting something called Universalism; a doctrine where everyone gets saved, no matter what.  Again, these are all assumptions because none of his critics have actually read the book yet.  The only worthwhile critique I’ve read so far is Greg Boyd’s, namely because he actually has read the book.  (As a side note, as an Anabaptist, it’s worth paying attention to Boyd partly because he’s grown very close to Mennonites in recent years, even flirting with the idea of joining MCUSA.)

What is most intriguing and frustrating to me is not the discussion about universalism, but rather the controversy itself and the way this has been discussed and argued about in the last couple of weeks.

It has been astounding to see the speed with which he has been denounced as a heretic and the forceful unwillingness to even raise the questions he poses.  For me this is a red flag.  Why are so many vigorously defending a relatively specific doctrine of hell?

When you look at the Bible, there is no one consistent understanding of hell.  For that matter, the concept of an afterlife in much of the Old Testament was non-existent.  God blesses and curses you through your descendants, not in an afterlife (See the 10 commandments).  There is no consistent version of hell in the Bible, and what is there most certainly doesn’t look like what most people today envision.  The image of a red guy with a pitchfork and horns comes from Dante’s Inferno, not the Bible.

I think that the reason that many have had such a knee jerk reaction is because the doctrine of hell is a powerful weapon.  Hell scares the…well..hell out of people.  Combined with a select few leaders who determine who’s in and who’s out, this fear fuels enormous power and control.  Even raising the question, as Bell has done, challenges the enormous power that many have enjoyed for centuries.

To be clear, I’m not defending Bell.  I haven’t read his book so I can’t say one way or another.  What I do know is that these questions are deeply important to an enormous number of people, both inside and outside the church.  It is critical for the church to pay attention to this.  It’s time that we learned to have these discussions, openly and honestly and in front of the watching eyes of the world.  Because as Bell says “what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.”

This post is cross-posted from thewanderingroad.  It’s also available in a more edited form at the Mennonite Weekly Review blog.

Comments (14)

  1. PeterG

    Thanks for a great post, Alan. I just came across this as well (via Greg Boyd’s blog). It’s definitely an important discussion, and I hope we allow the Holy Spirit to bless us with an added measure of grace as we talk about it in our faith communities. (Hopefully we’ll also include cool ideas like God’s Reign, New Creation, Resurrection, and New Jerusalem in the conversation.)

    I’m continually perplexed at how quickly we use dogmatics to draw lines in the sand for who’s in and who’s out: Believe in eternal conscious hell (or alternately universalism); believe in this or that meaning of the cross; believe in salvation by grace alone; believe in the Bible; or, one of my personal tendencies, believe in pacifism.

    I hold a number of convictions very closely, but ultimately, I hope, I don’t believe in a particular doctrine, ideology, or book. Ultimately, I hope, I believe in/entrust myself to/seek to follow Jesus in life. Not that systematic theology isn’t important — I just hope I put my faith in Jesus first.

    Maybe that changes the way I view not only the biblically ambiguous doctrinal stuff like heaven and hell, but also the stuff I think the Bible is pretty clear on. Maybe it makes me hold even more tightly to what I believe about Jesus, his teachings, and the Kingdom, but in a more relational and less dogmatic way. Maybe that’s a little part of how come two groups (“Jews”/”Gentiles”) with significant theological, cultural, and ideological differences could start to find reconciliation and unity in Christ.

  2. tim b

    First off, let’s be clear about what people are all in a fuss about. It’s the product description which reads as follows:

    Millions of Christians have struggled with how to reconcile God’s love and God’s judgment: Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to select a few to go to heaven and everyone else to suffer forever in hell? Is this acceptable to God? How is this “good news”?

    Troubling questions–so troubling that many have lost their faith because of them. Others only whisper the questions to themselves, fearing or being taught that they might lose their faith and their church if they ask them out loud.

    But what if these questions trouble us for good reason? What if the story of heaven and hell we have been taught is not, in fact, what the Bible teaches? What if what Jesus meant by heaven, hell, and salvation are very different from how we have come to understand them?

    What if it is God who wants us to face these questions?

    Author, pastor, and innovative teacher Rob Bell presents a deeply biblical vision for rediscovering a richer, grander, truer, and more spiritually satisfying way of understanding heaven, hell, God, Jesus, salvation, and repentance. The result is the discovery that the “good news” is much, much better than we ever imagined.

    Love wins.

    Secondly, it’s unlikely that Rob Bell wrote this. It is likely that the publisher wrote it. And it is likely that it was written to stir interest in the book. And it is likely that it was written to sell the book. What is not likely is that it sums up the book. Does it ask questions? Sure. But nothing is declared there.

    So why the fury? Prolly bacause it sounds controversial., which it was meant to do.

    I’m continually perplexed at how quickly we use dogmatics to draw lines in the sand for who’s in and who’s out: Believe in eternal conscious hell (or alternately universalism); believe in this or that meaning of the cross; believe in salvation by grace alone; believe in the Bible; or, one of my personal tendencies, believe in pacifism.

    The Bible is clear that only Christ gets to judge this. I hope I forgive enough in this lifetime to be forgiven in the next.

  3. TimN

    It’s fascinating how big a controversy this has become. Even CNN and ABC news are covering it. I’m sure that part of it is calculated by the publishers, but the frenzy also has a whiff of a cornered old guard, desperate to hold on to the Evangelical mega church mainstream they see slipping away from them as a new generation turns to folks like Bell.

  4. tim b

    @Tim N,

    I don’t think you can say that the “Evangelical mega Church mainstream” is seeing anything or anyone slip away from them. Rob Bell is THE Mega Church mainstream. Theologically, Bell may be different in a couple aspects, but he’s still highly Evangelical. Even Jay Baker, who may be pro-queer (look I can’t keep track of LGB, or LGBTL, or LGTQI or whatever. My lack of political correctness is an attempt to keep it. Apologies tenfold to the sensitive.) is still extremely evangelical. These people pull weight in Evangelical circles and get a seat at the table. HOWEVER that seat comes with some expectations. For instance, if others at that table disagree, they speak up. And that may be happening here. More likely, people seem like they are speaking up because of the 24/7 news cycle which loves to glorify and magnify conflict. It’s prolly not nearly as big a deal as it seems.

    If Rob Bell believes in Universalism then let him make his case. He’s a bright guy. He wouldn’t write a book that some would write that would take 200 pages to say “God doesn’t send people to hell because that makes me feel sad.” Nah, if he believes it it’s because he has a Biblical reason for it. And, as I’ve stated here on more than one occasion, if you have a Biblical reason, I’ll listen to it, even if I disagree.

  5. TimN

    Tim B,

    I think we agree on this one. You may have misread my comment. It’s precisely because Rob Bell is (or is becoming) the “Evangelical mega Church mainstream” (EmCm) that folks like Albert Mohler (old guard link) are so upset.

    Regardless, I’ll trust your judgement on this one since you’re clearly more familiar with this area then I am. I haven’t even heard of Jay Baker before, let alone his stance on anything. My comment was based more on speculating then research on detailed knowledge of the EmCm.

  6. Tim B

    Here’s Rob on MSNBC looking like he’s ducking questions again. Perhaps he wants to discuss this in depth, but the host seems unwilling and confrontational (I don’t watch MSNBC at all so am unfamiliar with this host).

    I wish I knew where Bell is coming from, though I don’t care enough to purchase his book.

    I have to say, if Bell is preaching universalism or something close to it, he’s going to pay a steep penalty for it. If he can’t make a Biblical case for whatever he is (or “is not”, as the case seems) saying then I can’t support him.

  7. AlanS (Post author)

    Generally speaking, I’m with you on things being Biblically based. That being said the “unbiblical” charge is increasingly just a shield to hide behind to throw arrows and dodge dealing with the questions that are being raised. There’s a whole lot of horrible things that have been justified as “Biblical” while at the same time lots of truly unbiblical beliefs have been baptized by the church and taught as unquestionable truth.

  8. Tim B

    @Alan, I think that is true of nearly anything, not just the Bible.

    If Bell wants to ask questions I’m behind him 100%. If he wants to examine and interpret the Book, I’m for that 100%. Again, I haven’t read Love Wins so I think it’s unfair to judge him.

  9. AlanS (Post author)

    Sorry I hit the wrong button, here’s the other half of my thought.

    Your comment above is very telling of the response that I’ve heard from many: namely dismissal of the questions as unbiblical yet without a willingness to even read the dang book. That means the real issue is something other than what Bell is raising.

  10. Tim B

    Here is a lengthy review and critique of Love Wins. It will take you about 20 minutes to read through it all. I have yet to pick up the book though I have read several reviews on the book. All of them seem to point to what was suspected last week. That is, Bell believes in some sort of universalism. All of the reviews I have read mention that Bell does not seem to openly proclaim what he believes in regards to heaven and hell, only that he believes in some sort of postmortem repentance and salvation.

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  14. Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D.

    God gave us brains. Let’s not cover them up with Bibles, in shame, like a fig leaf, forever concealing the brain’s bare naked questions.

    The worst thing Rob Bell can be accused of with this book (and I have read it), is having a desire “that none should perish,” and revealing that desire with such passionate as to proclaim that none will, in fact, perish.

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