In my lifetime, how ever short it may be, I cannot remember a book being as controversial, and as highly discussed, as Love Wins by Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell. Days leading up to the book’s release by HarperCollins, the book had already started a firestorm over concerns that it promoted heretical ideas about heaven and hell. At the forefront of the controversy stood two individuals – John Piper and Justin Taylor, both Calvinist Reform leaders, who argued that Bell was promoting heresy before the book even came out.
It is with this controversy in mind that I bought a book that, in normal circumstances I probably would not have bought. Perhaps Bell and HarperCollins can thank Piper and Taylor for what will, undoubtedly, be increased first week sales that is destined to put Love Wins as a New York Times bestseller.
The book, itself, is a quick read, even for this self-admitted slow reader. The 198-pages of text is mostly a conglomeration of questions and answers that includes a heavy use of poem narrative to convey Bell’s main point. There are parts of the book that are worth praising, parts of the book that are worth questioning, but taken as a whole it is not a horrible book, but it is a weakly argued book, as well.
However, I do not believe Bell is writing with the theologian in mind. As you read the book, it is clear that Bell’s heart is with those who have been turned off from the Christian message because of pastors and religious leaders who come off more judging than loving in their interactions with the world. This is an important critique of the method of some religious groups and leaders have undertaken in promoting the faith. If our actions are unloving to the world, then how do we ever expect them to recognize the God who is, by definition, the source of all love?
But, in writing this book, and taking on the subjects that he does, Bell is essentially stepping in the deep end of a theological debate that has been ongoing for centuries about the nature of heaven and hell. His basic argument is that we are called to experience heaven now, in our lives today, and that a loving God would not punish someone for eternity. The entire argument is wrapped around this questioning the notion of eternal punishment for those who failed to recognize God, claiming that how can someone be eternally punished for what amounts to a very short time on this planet.
This conversation is one many are having, and continue to have. What is hell? What does it look like? Am I going?
About the conversation on heaven and hell, Bell writes:
Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death (78-79).
He writes in a way that conflicts with Calvinism and Reformed theology, which argues that God has elected some to eternal salvation, and others to eternal damnation. This idea of soft determinism is what Bell spends most of his time debating, with the idea of how do we know who is going to hell and who is not going to hell?
It is an interesting question, and one that should not be taken lightly. However, Bell main critique of Calvinism comes at the expense of his own argument. He writes that, in hell, people will be given an opportunity to experience God and come into relationship with God for all eternity. The argument goes that a loving God will offer people an opportunity to be reconciled to him even in hell, because a loving God does not stop loving. Where the argument fails is that it allows for the argument that one can live their life however they want in the here and now, and have no consequences for their actions. Thus, this life does not matter if we are ultimately going to get another shot at seeing God when we die. By making the case for a loving God, Bell discredits the life we live today and the implications of our lives here, and especially with whether we recognize the face of the Risen Lord today.
God’s love as author Frank Viola points out also includes judgment and wrath, which is at the heart of the Old Testament. There will come a time when we are judged for how we lived this life, and the opportunities and blessings that we were given, in this life.
Bell’s argument, then, is that hell is disbelief – yes, true – but that it is only for a moment, and we live in our hells today.
Bell also argues, and perhaps rightly so, that this life does matter. We are called to live the fullness of how God has called us to live, and embrace the love of Christ. It is the idea that heaven can be experienced in the here and now, and also the eternal. It is an argument that depends heavily on the arguments made by N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It is an important point, and perhaps the strongest and best that Bell makes in the entire book.
Had Bell only written about experiencing heaven on earth, and critiquing those who argue that some are elected to heaven and some elected to hell, the book would have been strong. I recognize that Bell also depends on C.S. Lewis for his views on hell, especially The Great Divorce.
One of the weakest, if not the most disheartening, aspects of Bell’s book is that it argues that Jesus Christ can be found in all religions. He writes:
And then there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum (155).
Yes, Jesus is relevant to various cultures, and we should immerse ourselves into the cultures to present a indgenious portrayal of the Christian message that is appropriate for that culture and people. This isimilar to the efforts of St. Patrick and what he did in Ireland. However, the argument can be extended to argue, from his idea of inclusivity, that you can be a Buddhist and believe in Christ. That is not Scriptural. There is a call to respond to Christ and to understand what that message means. We cannot follow Christ, and sill worship our chosen gods. While God redeems all the world, there is an importance in understand how that redemption takes place. One must be careful to not go too far in arguing love that it ignores truth and the importance of belief.
In all, Bell’s book is one that should be read if only to understand the views of a highly popular pastor. While he makes some strong points, his arguments fall ontop of itself based on his poor reasoning and inability to think through his beliefs.