A few years ago my small group started watching this video series called Nooma. It was a series designed to foster discussion in a small group setting and ask questions and get people thinking. Everyone in the group liked them and got a lot out of them. The series was put out by the Mars Hill Bible Church and their pastor, Rob Bell. After the video series, we also ended up reading a book of his, Velvet Elvis. It was nothing really revolutionary or anything, but it was a pretty accessible read and made some good points. We also watched a lecture DVD he had done called “The Gods Aren’t Angry” which was also pretty good. On my own, I read his book Jesus Wants To Save Christians which I thought was a good idea for a book, but was actually a little disappointed with it in its execution. Short of actually attending his church in Michigan, I’ve had pretty significant exposure to Rob Bell, his style, and his substance in the last few years.
I was a little surprised back in February when all of a sudden a big storm started to brew about an upcoming book by Rob Bell that was stirring the pot. At the same time, I wasn’t that surprised, because I knew from his previous material that he had a tendency of sometimes saying intentionally provocative things intended to tweak certain stuffy Christians. I also knew that sometimes he was a bit too vague and broad for his own good and sometimes he writing lacked focus, asking more questions than he was prepared to answer. So I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. A friend of mine on Facebook had posted a link to a blog that was decreeing that Rob Bell was now a Universalist and that he was finally showing his true colors in this new book. I checked out the link, and, much to my surprise, the internet screed against Bell and his book was simply about the description of the book and not from anything that the blog writer had actually read. I cautioned my friend to reserve judgment until the book was actually released and read before coming to ay conclusions about it.
As it turns out, all of this was the tip of the iceberg. This book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, has becoming the biggest trending topic relating to Christianity since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released back in 2004. The book, for better or worse, has opened up a huge can of worms in the Christian community concerning Church teaching on heaven and hell. Pastors have been talking to their congregations about it, directly or indirectly (For what it’s worth, my pastor, Travis Bush gave a… “hell” of a sermon on the subject a few weeks ago). Sadly, I think the discussion itself has overtaken and outpaced the book in some ways and become its own entity. Needless to say, I was eager to read the book.
I almost bought it at Borders in South Portland, but it was $22+ in price, and I knew I could get it for less than half of that on Amazon, so I waited a few days before finally getting a chance to dig into it starting April 1st. I devoured the first two chapters of the book on Friday, read the next two chapters over the course of Saturday and Sunday, and then finished off the remaining four chapters on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning while at work. It’s a brisk 198 pages.
Going into it, I had my questions and concerns. And it was also very hard to divorce the book from the controversy and discussion surrounding it and to merely read the book on its own merits. I found myself getting fairly upset about halfway through the book at one point and then saying, “I’m not judging the book based on its own merits, but on the expectations of the criticisms and controversy around the book.” So I had to force myself to shut that out.
I thought the first two chapters were some of the best stuff that I’ve ever read from Rob Bell. He does a good job of raising interesting questions to get you thinking and pondering things. The second chapter deals with heaven, and I thought it was terrific. We always seem to think of heaven as some “away, up there” kind of place, but we also need to keep in mind that Jesus prays for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” Bell uses this as a spring-board to say that we need to be working on making heaven on earth now. He also brings up an interesting point about how the early Christians and Jewish people in Jesus’ time viewed time itself. They viewed time in terms of a present age and an age to come, which reminded me a bit of how time is viewed in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
What Bell rails against most is the mindset of Christians being so heavenly minded that they’re of no earthly good. If Christians view heaven as some place we will someday escape to, the temptation then is to do nothing of real significance in our world. Instead, he frame the discussion in terms of renewal and God reconciling the world to himself. I think this is a mindset that Christians would do well to adopt.
Framing the discussion, I think, is the biggest difficulty most people will have with this book and it is where the controversy about it stems from. I think a big part of the issue at its heart is the disconnect in communication. Words can have significant meaning, and to different people they can also mean slightly different things. I think this is a barrier that has been the cause of a lot of division in the Church throughout history. I think it again rears its ugly head here, because I don’t think Bell is saying what a lot of people think he is saying, necessarily.
In his chapter on hell, he says that hell is a real thing that exists (similar to heaven), both now and in the future. A lot of people are living in their own personal or communal hells every day. And some people choose to reject love and goodness and those things that find their source in God. In essence, what he says is a slightly nuanced/different way of saying that God does not send people to hell, but rather that people choose hell. This is discussed in his chapter on whether God gets what God wants. Bell posits the question that if God is all-powerful and is wishing that all would come to repentance, does God get what he wants in reconciling to himself everyone who has ever lived? Ultimately, he says that is an unanswerable question, but that a better one exists: Do we get what we want? And to this, his answer is a resounding “yes.” And it is because of God’s love that we get what we want, even if it is not what he wants for us. “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option.” This is nothing controversial or revolutionary. But because people have thrown out the “Universalist” label at him, basically a four-letter word in Christianity, people have taken up arms against Bell.
That last piece of the book that I think is controversial is what Bell says in his chapter about Jesus being the rock. Of Jesus being the only way to God Bell says that “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.” His argument in this chapter is a bit convoluted, as he talks about exclusivity, inclusivness, and then an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivness. All of that is a bit muddled. But what I took away from that and other statements throughout the book is that Bells says we need to allow for the mystery of God. We need to be ok with the idea that we do not know the full plans of God nor the entirety of how he may be at work in the world. And when it comes to the afterlife, we do know some things, based on what Jesus said and in other passages of the Bible. But there is a lot about it that we don’t know. And since no one has been to the future or the “beyond” and come back with hard, empirical evidence we shouldn’t be making hard, fast judgments about the eternal destinations of people.
One smaller things that I loved in the book were comments that he made about objections people have with God. “So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word ‘sin,’ my first response is to ask, ‘Have you sat and talked to a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?’ Some words are strong for a reason.”
Any criticisms I have with the book have more to do with Bell’s style and only a little to do with his substance. I find that he is apt to occasionally throw in one or two things that I think are either playful or intended to tweak a hardcore Christians audience. In listing things off, at one point he mentions in passing “the woman who wrote the book of Hebrews.” Now, the authorship of the book of Hebrews is unknown. There is a lot of scholarly work out there as to who the potential author is, and one strand of thought suggests that the author is a woman, and that is why we do not know the author of the book; certain people in the early church suppressed that information. Honestly, I don’t know whether Rob Bell genuinely believes that or not. I’m sure he doesn’t think that the authorship of the book is as important as what the book of Hebrews actually says. But because some people would very vehemently argue against the author being a woman, he throws it in there to tweak them. Probably innocently, but, like in a few other instances, it’s unnecessarily antagonizing some of his audience.
One problem I had with the book is that Bell offers up far more questions than he is willing to actually answer. Now, it’s not a huge problem, because that is his style. But sometimes it leaves you wanting more and wishing that he would come out with a definite position or answer. As I said, at one point, I became very frustrated with the book because he said in answer to a question that he himself posed, that it was one we do not need to answer and can be content to leave it and its potential contradictions in tact. It felt like a cop-out. He recovered after that to finish the chapter nicely, but in that moment, I felt very perturbed. Part of the problem with Rob Bell’s writing is that sometimes he is too vague and you would like him to be a little clearer about what he is saying. However, when it comes to asking more questions than he intends to answer, I also realize that it is his style. He asks questions in order to get the reader thinking.
My biggest criticism is that he deals a bit too much in the realm of speculation. He points out, correctly, that no one has been to the future/heaven and been back to report about it with concrete, tangible evidence. In the grand scheme of things, there is scant little to go on. As such, he says (again, correctly), that we shouldn’t make hard, fast judgments about people’s destinies, because ultimately none of us really know. But if that is the case, he himself should not spend so much time in the book elaborating on what he thinks or hopes might be the case. At the very least, say “I don’t have any more of an idea than the guy on the corner, but here is what I hope based on what I know of God…” In his letters, Paul would often say something to the effect, “This is just me talking, not God…” A simple preface like that would have been more than sufficient. But instead, he leaves himself open to wrong interpretation of his words.
So, what exactly has happened? Now that the dust has settled a bit, where do we stand? And where do we go from here?
I think, ultimately, the intent of the book and the message the book was intended to convey was co-opted by people who then took the course of the discussion off in a way that Bell was not prepared for. Before the book was even released, people were attacking the book. They threw out the term “Universalist” and really charged the atmosphere surrounding the book and divided the audience. I’m pretty sure that most of the people who are critical of the book have not actually read the book and are basing what they are saying upon what they have read and heard from others talking about the book.
I think a healthy discussion of heaven and hell is good for the Church. The Church is strong enough to stand up to any and all scrutiny, and to change if necessary. How we present these things to the world around us should be at the forefront of our minds and how we go about integrating them into everyday life should be discussed. Jesus never spoke about hell in order to lead sinners to God. He preached good news. The condemnations and the warnings were always for the religious leaders who were making things so difficult for the people.
We should have a healthy appreciation for the mystery of God and acknowledge the unknown in God that has not been revealed to us. We should not make hard and fast statements of people’s eternal destinies, because we don’t have all of the facts. We should be focused on making God’s will real and present in the world today; “heaven on earth.” We should realize that God’s love allows us to choose to reject it, to reject humanity, and to live a life apart from him.
We should also make room for nuance and grace in our dealings with fellow believers. So much of the barriers that come up between Christians is in misunderstanding and miscommunication. We should bear with one another patiently. Seek out what the person is really trying to say instead of rushing to judgment or assuming that they are defining things the same way you are.
Finally, read the book. If you are a believer, you owe it to yourself to know what you believe and why you believe it. You should have a firm foundation. A controversial book is not something to shy away from. You can judge what it is saying on its own merits. And you don’t have to accept the whole. There can be some aspects of it that you disagree with. But there may also be something valuable that you can take away from it.
Read what other people have to say about it too. There are some great reviews of varying opinions here, here, here, and here. Read more about or by Rob Bell. The book is not a standalone piece; nothing ever really is. Read the book in context of the bigger picture of what else Rob Bell has written or spoken about. Test it for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the hard questions.