There’s a kerfuffle in Christian circles about a book that hasn’t even come out yet — Rob Bell’s Love Wins. As its subtitle states, the book is “about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Most of the book’s critics thus far — and there are many, from the prominent Christian blogger Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition to the evangelical leader John Piper, who tweeted “Farwell, Rob Bell” — have by their own admission not yet read the book. The New York Times has taken notice of the controversy, which has propelled the book to #13 on Amazon’s Top 100.
We have both read the book. (Ben got an advance copy through work.) Our thoughts are many.
The controversy, in a nutshell, is whether hell is real, and whether or not people who do not believe in God or call Jesus their personal savior or who commit evil and unspeakable acts end up there. There are many Christians who believe hell is eternal separation from God; others subscribe to annihilationism, the belief that sinners are destroyed rather than suffer eternally (the corollary of this belief being that the human soul is not immortal unless someone, or something, endows it with eternal life). On the other end of that spectrum is universalism, the notion that everyone will be reconciled to God and saved in some way from eternal torment — i.e., there is no hell. This is a decidedly less mainstream view in Christian orthodoxy but it has its proponents as well. (Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, provides a nice overview of the many competing theologies at play here, along with which leading Christian thinkers and theologians down through the centuries have subscribed to them.)
Bell’s critics accuse him of “moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity” (Justin Taylor); Denny Burk takes some of the questions we quoted above and answers them “from a biblical point of view” — implying, not so subtly, that Bell has arrived at his theology without so much as cracking his Bible.
What struck us reading the book is just how rooted in scripture it is. Of course, Christians have hotly debated the Bible for millennia — untold denominations have split open over the meaning of single words in the scriptures, to say nothing of whole verses. So it’s not at all shocking that prominent Christians would find different conclusions about hell and go to battle over them. The question is whose reading of the Bible seems more faithful to the character of God as revealed in Jesus, whom Christians believe was not only a prophet but in fact the Son of God, both wholly human and wholly divine.
Bell begins Love Wins with an anecdote about an art show at his church. Bell is the pastor of a 10,000 member congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Mars Hill Bible Church. The theme of the show was peacemaking, and one of the artists included a quote from Gandhi. Next to that quote someone added this handwritten note: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
Really? Bell wonders. We know for sure what another person’s eternal salvation is? Bell shares another anecdote about a Christian who, upon learning that a self-described atheist died in a car accident, responds that there was “no hope.” Is this the best message Christians have to offer?, Bell asks. This is good news? “No hope”?
When I (Ben) spent my first summer at a Christian sports camp — a camp I loved dearly, in what I still think of as possibly the best summer of my life — I sat next to one of the head counselors during lunch one day. He asked what I studied and I told him English. I said I had studied Thoreau and Emerson the past semester, and that I had brought Walden with me and had been reading it that morning. He pursed his lips and gave an almost imperceptible head shake. “It’s too bad they never got it,” he said. “Excuse me?” I replied. “It’s too bad they never knew the Truth,” he said. “They could’ve done a lot more good.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. It was clear he was provoking me — something he would do many times that summer. I have grown to appreciate provocation as a teaching style — Jesus himself was fond of it — but I had no stomach for it at that mess hall dining table. His was a type of thinking to which I was completely foreign. It was also a type of thinking I wanted nothing to do with. It was the mind of a fundamentalist. There was only black and white. If I was to navigate my way to a responsible Christian belief — and I was determined to do so — I would get there only if there was another path than this man’s.
But I worried: What if proper belief was fundamentalism? What if the closer I came to God the more black and white everything became? What if one day I saw a quote from Gandhi and my first thought was not, “What a profound statement” or “What an example of nonviolence,” but rather, “Too bad he’s in hell”?
One prominent evangelical who has come to Bell’s defense is Greg Boyd. (We’ve previously written about Greg Boyd here.) He, unlike Bell’s most outspoken critics thus far, has actually read the book. (He also got an advance copy.)
“I enthusiastically recommend Love Wins because of the way it empowers readers to question old perspectives and consider new ones,” Boyd writes. “Rob’s book really isn’t about the population or duration of heaven or hell. It’s mainly about the unfathomably beautiful character of God revealed in Jesus Christ and therefore about the unfathomably good nature of the Good News.”
What does Boyd make of Bell’s detractors? “I sometimes wonder if the animosity some express toward Universalists [or toward those some assume are Universalists] is motivated by the fear that the case for Universalism might turn out to be more compelling than they can handle,” Boyd says. Boyd finishes his post with a refreshing sentiment, something we’ve never heard said by anyone who has spoken definitively of another person’s salvation: “Then again, I could be wrong.” (“Which is why,” he adds, “this is a good conversation worth having … but not on Twitter … and not by accusing and labeling and bidding a brother ‘farewell’ before you’ve even read the book!”)
We agree with Boyd that Love Wins is, despite its subtitle, not actually a book about heaven and hell. If this was an intentional misdirection on Bell’s (or perhaps his publisher’s) part, it’s a shrewd one, and not simply from a marketing standpoint. Those who vehemently disagree with what they perceive as Bell’s argument may be surprised when they actually read the book to find that he’s not making the argument they expect (or, even, to find that they agree with him). Others — we’re thinking of people who aren’t Christians — may pick up the book because it’s the first time that the Good News really and truly sounds like good news to them.
This upending of expectations is something Jesus did constantly. To the religious, observant Jews of his day — the Pharisees, the rule-keepers, the ones who kept close tabs on who was (and sometimes more importantly was not) in God’s good favor — Jesus reserved his harshest rebukes, telling stories about people who missed the banquet feast. (That deeply unsettling passage from Matthew: “On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.'”)
But the people who were otherwise outcasts — the sick and lame, the “sinners” and prostitutes, the tax collectors and the thief on the cross — were the ones who somehow kept finding favor with Jesus. The church in 21st century America doesn’t seem to feel the same way about these people that Jesus did. We Christians often suffer from what a friend of ours called “the curse of older brotherism,” a reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son and the stingy, self-righteous spirit of the older brother who cannot bring himself to rejoice at the return of his lost brother. If any of us can read Bell’s book and recover a little humility about being what Paul calls “imitators of Christ,” then we’ll all be the better for it.
The fears that I had when I was a 19-year-old camp counselor — that true belief would lead to the closing of my mind and the rigidity of dogma — were unfounded. As a believer of close to fifty years said to me the other day, “The longer I’ve been a Christian, the less I seem to know for sure.” We haven’t been on the path as long as this friend of ours has, but we’ve found this to be true for ourselves. Surprisingly, this is not discouraging. It is, if anything, exciting.
What Bell does in Love Wins is repeatedly ask questions, over and over, sometimes this way and sometimes that way, adding an inflection here or there. (We’ll save our harshest criticism of the book for Bell’s writing style, which is too often disjointed and clunky. He may be a good communicator from stage but his prose leaves much to be desired.) The answers are, at least to us, far less interesting right now than the questions. What’s indisputable — what we think Bell’s critics miss — is not Bell’s theology, which is at best alluded to and hinted at more than declared straight out. It’s who Bell says Jesus is, and was, and what that means to us today.
There are only a handful of “Christian” books that come out every year that we’d ever want to recommend to someone who’s not a Christian. Love Wins may not be at the top of that list, but it’s on there, if only as a great conversation starter. The question now is whether people can see past the irony of the title when they look at what Christians are saying about each other before they’ve even read the book. To which we say: Forgive us. We all need it on a daily basis.
For more on the debate, here’s the Rev. Jonathan Weyer at The Huffington Post.
And here’s the promotional video for the book.