So finally I’ve got here with a review of the most controversial Christian book in ages, Rob Bell’s Love Wins: At the heart of Life’s Big Questions. Be warned this is quite a long post.
I’ve been wondering how to begin, how to both sum up and introduce a book that has been reviewed thousands of times already. So I’ll say this: It’s not all bad.
Is he a universalist? I’ll save that answer for a bit later on.
It raises questions and gives answers. Bell looks at heaven, hell and salvation but behind it all the big question is, ‘what is God like?’ That is his big question and it’s Bell’s contention that a ‘turn or burn’ presentation of the Gospel does not have a very good God behind it. There is, he argues, a better story than that.
It is, as you might expect, well written. It’s been said so much but this guy really does know how to communicate especially to a certain demographic. But who is he writing for? This has puzzled more than a few reviewers I’ve read and my best guess is this: a Christian (primarily an American) or someone brought up in a Christian environment who has been hurt by a grace-less church and is disillusioned with American Christianity.
Not for leaders, not for scholars, not for non-Christians, this isn’t really evangelistic, it’s for the disaffected. And for them this book is likely to hit the nail right on the head. And that’s not all good.
I’m going to pull out what I consider to be a few key quotes on some of the big issues and let them really speak for themselves with a few comments.
Life in the age to come. If this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally. (p33)
What Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what all of Jewish tradition pointed to and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one. The day when God’s will would be done on earth as it is now done in heaven. The day when earth and heaven will be the same place. (p.43 – emphasis his)
How would I summarise all that Jesus teaches [about heaven]? There’s heaven now, somewhere else. There’s heaven here, sometime else. And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place. (p.62)
Bell’s view is essentially we don’t go to heaven when we die, we get to work the new, renewed earth. This is pretty much exactly the view put forward by NT Wright and for what it’s worth I think Wright (and therefore Bell) is right on this point. And in places Bell communicates it brilliantly.
Central to their vision of human flourishing in God’s renewed world, then, was the prophet’s announcement that a number of things that can survive in this world will not be able to survive in the age to come. Like war. Rape. Greed. Injustice. Violence. Pride. Division. Exploitation. Disgrace. (p.36)
For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgements have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging decisive day when God would make those judgements. They called this day the ‘day of the LORD. (p37)
It’s important to remember this the next time we hear people say they can’t believe in a ‘God of judgement’. Yes they can. Often, we think of little else…We crave judgement, we long for it, we thirst for it. Bring it, unleash it, as the prophet Amos says, ‘Let justice roll on like a river’ (Amos 5). (p37-8)
Heaven comforts, but it also confronts…Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points. What Jesus is insisting…is that certain things will simply not survive in the age to come. Like coveting. And greed. (p49)
On God’s anger:
Same with the word ‘anger’. When we hear people saying they can’t believe in a God who gets angry – yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply?
…On behalf of everybody who’s ever been…exploited, abused, forgotten or mistreated. God puts an end to it. God says, ‘Enough’.” (p38-9)
On the implications of this:
How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age. Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world.(p45)
Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. [talking of seeing child amputees in Rwanda] (p71)
God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free. (p72)
There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. (p.79)
Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want. (p113)
On the experience of hell:
He’s alive in death, but in profound torment, because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living. [talking of the rich man and Lazarus] (p77)
To summarise, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
And for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well. Let’s keep it. (p.93)
On ‘second chances’:
And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes, in other words.
At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God. (p.107)
So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility. People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future. (p114)
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? 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. (p115)
I think this last statement is Bell answering the question of ‘will hell be empty?’ by saying, ‘Don’t know, probably not, I hope not though.’
On human freedom:
If we want hell, if we want heaven they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated or coerced. It always leaves room for the other side to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins. (p.119)
On pre-empting the controversy:
Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it. We can be honest about the warped nature of the human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracise someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now. (p.111)
On the cross and resurrection:
…Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered. (p125)
What happened on the cross is like…a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved. (p.128)
The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus himself right here in the midst of the first creation. The tomb is empty, a new day is here, a new creation is here, everything has changed, death has been conquered, the old has gone, the new has come. (p.133-4)
…Jesus is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ and that Jesus is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (p.135)
On the uniqueness of Christ:
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter any more, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe and so forth.
Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true. What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. (p.155)
So what to make of all that? There is good and there is the not so good. In terms of heaven, the call to work with God in this life now and to care about social justice and Godliness I think it’s great, I really do. Is it a book that clearly communicates the love of God? Yes it is.
Does it have some imbalances in interpretation and a fair amount of sheer speculation? Yes it has that too. The biggest amount of speculation is the endless second chances post-death but inevitably and understandably that can’t be anything other than sketchy. Does repentance in the next life work itself out in the same way as this one? If our aim is to persevere to the end, how does one do that in hell?
Yet for Bell it is almost as if he is reading back into Scriptures what he hopes will be the case rather than working out from the Scriptures.
It’s also very light on God’s judgement on sin, so hell is present but to be honest it only sounds bad because there is a better party somewhere else not because the place itself is a place to avoid.
I’m unconvinced by the treatment on hell and judgement and I’m not sure there’s warrant to think that there’ll be endless second chances and so difficult questions about justice, judgement, punishment of sin remain. Exegetical questions remain. But I’m still glad I read this book. It made me think, it made me ask good questions, it asked questions that I think the blunt nay-sayers have not yet done a sufficiently good and gracious job of answering. It made a case for the love of God.
Who should read this book? If you’re a church leader with an interest or involvement in apologetics and cultural trends you should read this. If you’re involved in any kind of student ministry you should read this. If you’re engaged in outreach to a post-modern generation of 20-30s then you should read this.
This book will be influential, it is raises big questions, it answers them with verve, wit and style even if wrongly and it’s not all bad.