Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, the highly-publicized book by megachurch superstar/pastor Rob Bell, arrived on my doorstep in the same Amazon delivery as Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. The heft of the books and the size of the type on their pages led me to an initial comparison: Peterson’s is 320 pages of thick prose that tells the story of a lifetime in the pastorate. Bell may have higher celebrity status than Peterson, but he is at least a generation younger, with far fewer years of experience. His book barely reaches 200 small pages, and that’s only because the type is so big. I’ve long been a fan of Bell’s Nooma video series, but this was my first foray into his written work, and I have to admit that I judged the book by the cover (or, by the font size).
Peterson’s own endorsement on the front flap of Love Wins was my first clue that there is much more depth to this little book than its word count lets on.
There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding Love Wins, which challenges a classical Christian understanding that anyone who does not confess a faith in Jesus Christ is doomed to eternal damnation in hell. Even before its release, the blogosphere exploded with both criticism and support, most responding to a publicity video in which Bell raised the questions: Could it really be that Mahatma Ghandi is in hell? If we need Jesus to rescue us from God’s wrath, what does that say about the character of God? Why would we want anything to do with that God? The Good News, Bell concludes, is actually better than that.
Some cried heresy, while others pointed out that Bell was echoing sentiments that have been contemplated for centuries. The uproar has not died down since the book’s release late last month, and has now reached the point of parody.
Now that the book is here, we can finally evaluate Bell’s main thesis. He suggests that heaven and hell are not places somewhere else – in some far off place and time – but that heaven and hell exist concurrently, here and now, as well as “in the age to come.” God’s love for us necessarily includes the freedom of choice, and we can choose to join in God’s new creation, or we can choose to reject God’s love and live in the hell we have created for ourselves. Always, though, God waits with open arms to welcome us back home.
Though Bell acknowledges that these debates are hardly new, he delves only briefly into the history and theology behind them. Love Wins is not a scholarly account, but that is one of its strengths. Bell appears equally comfortable talking about Paul, Augustine and Eminem. I suspect this familiarity with both Christian tradition and contemporary culture has something to do with why he is so wildly popular as a speaker. It’s also what makes this book so accessible to his readers.
I was curious to see how Bell would handle the question of the Cross, because that’s the key to most arguments about Christian particularity: if God’s love ultimately wins, what does Jesus have to do with anything? Among the loudest accusations leveled against Bell has been of universalism, the belief that God saves everyone, no matter what we believe, choose, or do. Bell denies this, maintaining a place for our choices, even the bad ones. As United Methodist pastor Magrey Devega put it “Just because one believes that God never quits loving us doesn’t make one a universalist. It just means we really believe in God’s love.”
Bell provides, in lieu of universalism, a particularly accessible and succinct review of atonement theology that nonetheless challenges the notion that any theological model is complete.
“The point, then, isn’t to narrow it down to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a ‘correct’ or ‘right’ one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors” (pg. 129). The point is to be part of the new life, the new creation, Christ offers.
Therein lie the two greatest gifts Bell offers his readers. The first is the permission to leave some questions unanswered, the acknowledgement that ambiguity exists in the life of faith, and that it’s okay. Bell models trust that the truth is ultimately unknowable and beyond our understanding.
The other gift is to use the language of story and metaphor to describe the Christian life. While, for example, Bell doesn’t wade too deeply into the murky waters of whether or not the resurrection actually, historically, happened, he does dip his toe in, and one gets the sense that he realizes these are unanswerable and unimportant questions: what is important is the Truth that lies in the story. In some ways, this is the most shocking – and perhaps the most promising – of Bell’s revelations.
I don’t doubt Bell’s orthodoxy and, honestly, I’m not really bothered by alleged heresies. But I did finish his book wanting a little bit more. One of the glaring omissions, it seems to me, is the question of what all this means for how we actually live our lives. Early in the book, he mentions specific instances of hell on earth, often caused by the things we humans do to one another, but he never returns to that theme or suggests what we might do about it. Isn’t it possible that in our choosing God’s version of the story – heaven – that we are still, even inadvertently, creating hell for somebody else?
To put it differently: I can see how God’s version of our story – that there is nothing we can do that will keep God from welcoming us back home – is very good news indeed to someone who has known nothing but hurt from the world and suspects she has brought it on herself, like the abused woman Bell describes who continues to struggle with cutting herself. But what does it look like for a healthy, privileged, educated, middle-class, white North American whose story is already pretty good? I’m well aware that my own abundant life – the one I’m currently living now – is made possible in some part by the suffering of others. I think of my sweat-shop made shoes, my dependence on gasoline and my desire for inexpensive food, and I wonder: Can I be living in heaven if I’m still creating hell for somebody else? And how in the world do I stop?
Clearly, the threat of eternal punishment is not good incentive here, and Bell does talk about God looking for partners in building the new world in the age to come, but I wish he had fleshed this out a little more. If we accept God’s version of our story, how do we live?
Bell has opened a can of worms that needed to be opened, revived a discussion that just might breathe new life into the body of Christ. If Bell can survive the controversy – and all indications say he can – his congregation, his supporters, and even his critics will be better off for his attempt to open up the conversation.