Heaven, Hell, and a guy named Bell

Ok, so there’s a lot of commotion around the recent book from Rob Bell called “Love Wins.”  Rightly so.  Rob wanted to influence the dialogue surrounding questions of heaven, hell, and the fate of everyone who has ever lived.  I have received a fair amount of questions asking about my thoughts regarding this, so I will offer a few.  But, before I get to commenting about the book (which I have read in its entirety), allow me to note a few things.

First, I really don’t have any question that Rob Bell loves Jesus.  Nor do I have any question that Rob loves people and wants them to know Jesus.  As well, I can appreciate Rob’s artistry in writing, and his willingness to ask questions about our faith.  We need to be in touch with the questions that do arise in our faith, and no Christ follower should be afraid of the pursuit of truth.

Second, I want to affirm my love for Rob.  Though I don’t know him personally, he is a brother and should be treated with respect and love (even if I choose to disagree with him – even disagree strongly).  And, no, this is not the requisite preparatory statement to make sure I say the right things by saying I love him, just to spew hate later on in this commentary.  That’s a waste of time, and very disingenuous.

Third, many have attempted to frame Rob’s book, and his theology, through the lens of his “art.”  No doubt, Rob writes creatively and poetically, but I can’t yield to the “I’m an artist, so let me just be creative” mantra.  We must call this book what it is – it is an attempt (creatively and artistically) to paint a different portrait of the fate of humanity than what has been so widely established by the majority of orthodox Christianity for 2,000 years.  This is a theology book, and should be treated as such.  In addition, Rob has made it a mainstream topic, so it can and should be interacted with on a public level.

Finally, in the way of introduction, should you want to reflect on some teaching that has been done here at The Chapel at CrossPoint relative to the subject of hell, and what happens after we die, you can access these: http://theater.thechapel.com/play/?p=1022&title=The_Burning_Elephant, and http://theater.thechapel.com/play/?p=244&title=What_Happens_the_Moment_After_I_Die?.

Now, let’s move ahead.  “Love Wins” is the title of the book, and in the way of summary, Rob makes the case that given enough time, everyone, whether in this life or the next, will succumb to the love of God and so will ultimately be reconciled to God.  He perceives of hell as the consequence of choices to reject Jesus in this life, and then the “pruning” that will happen in the afterlife until such a time as that person can no longer withstand the love of God.  In other words, he leaves open the possibility that everyone who has ever lived will be rightly reconciled to God at some point, either in this life or in the one to come.  Though he doesn’t affirm that outright, he does intimate that this will be the case (obviously, the name of the book is “Love Wins”), and his view is what some would define as “universalism” (the idea that everyone will ultimately come to God and live with him in peace, security, and joy forever).  To be fair, Rob would deny he is a universalist, but if he isn’t, his position is either a slight mutation of universalism or is standing right outside the door. The goal of my thoughts in this piece is not to do a summary review of the book – that has been handled very responsibly in other places (for an excellent review of the book, see: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/lovewins.html, or http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/  - but please note these are long reviews, so be warned).

As I read through the book, the truth is that I thought “there is nothing new here to see.”  Even when Rob was describing what borders on the idea of universalistic theology, there have been a few theologians in the past that have had some of the same thoughts (Origen of the early church fathers, and more recent theologians like Schleiermacher and Tillich).  They are not in the majority (not even close), and don’t express what orthodox Christianity has affirmed en masse for the last two millennia.  When Rob was talking about heaven (which I think was his best chapter), he was simply reframing the thoughts of many before him (not the least of which is N.T. Wright in his book Surprised by Hope).  Rob credibly acknowledges as much in the back of the book.  I found myself saying “yes” a number of times when reading the chapter on heaven and the reality of heaven’s “already/not yet” tension.  Rob also borrows from, or is influenced by, C.S. Lewis (and who hasn’t been influenced by Lewis?).  But Rob takes some of Lewis’s thoughts from The Great Divorce, and extends them even further out – even Lewis had the wherewithal to write in the preface to his book that he was in no way trying to create or do theology, but was writing a piece of fiction creatively and fantastically (yet Biblically informed).

So, what are my thoughts on the book?  Well, let’s just say that a “tug of war” would be a good metaphor to describe my thoughts – both in how I feel, and in what I read.

Tug of War #1 – Biblically justifiable vs. Biblically indefensible.  Some of what Rob does is solid, it seems to me.  But it is so intermingled with out of context Scripture that it could cause a great deal of confusion.  At times, I felt humbled by the greatness of God when reading, and at other times was very frustrated with the truncation of the greatness of God.  When there is no consistency of hermeneutic (manner of interpreting the Scripture), it is really difficult to follow (as well as creating the space to make the Scripture say whatever you want it to say – which, by the way, the reviews I linked you to do a good job of giving examples of this).  Further, Rob uses only the Scripture that attempts to make his point (and, sometimes, doesn’t use it well), while leaving vast passages of Scripture about the reality and eternality of hell completely untouched (see John 3:18-19, 36; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Revelation 22:14-15, to just scratch the surface).  And what of the mission of the Church?  Rob’s position on hell and his thought that love wins, either in this life or in the life to come, effectively neuters the mission of the Church.  At very best, his position (it seems to me) makes the mission of the Church nothing more than a band-aid manufacturer for the ills of society (which is NOT to say that the Church ought not be involved in meeting the social ills of our culture – but that is not all of what we do – the Church must demonstrate and declare the gospel of Jesus).

Tug of War #2 – Evangelical vs. Liberal theology.  There are parts of this book that would be classified as evangelical in the truest sense.  There are others (like the doctrine of hell presented here) that are classical, liberal Protestantism.  Obviously, liberal Protestantism doesn’t resonate with me because my conviction is that it doesn’t resonate with the Scripture.

Tug of War #3 – Rob Bell vs. Rob Bell.  I seemed to pick up, on a variety of occasions, that Rob is trying to take the evangelical faith handed down to him at a young age, deconstruct it, and put it back together again.  You can read the tensions that he seems to feel about that.  On one hand, I totally understand where he is coming from, and the truth is that good questions need to be asked about some of these issues.  I just struggle a bit with where he is landing (again, predominately on his perspective of hell which comes from his overemphasis of one attribute of God).  I don’t fault his process at all (many of us have walked, or are walking, the same road), I just disagree with his conclusions.

Tug of War #4 – God vs. God.  Yep, you read that right.  What I am getting at is this – Rob emphasizes the love of God as the controlling characteristic of who God is.  Let me first say that I could not believe more heartily in the reality of the Scripture’s affirmation that “God is love.”  There simply is no definition of love outside of God, because God is love.  Rob helps flesh that out in a number of ways, and lifts our spirits as he writes of the indescribable love of God.  But we cannot, Biblically, speak of God in only that fashion (at least in the way we understand love).  God IS holy.  God IS truth.  God IS life.  God IS just.  God IS good.  And, certainly, God IS love.  Holding these all together is imperative, and that is where I think the problem of this book lies – it holds love alone as the attribute of God that “wins”, thus, it leads to Rob’s (mistaken) conclusion.

In this book, God’s love is allowed to win the tug of war of God’s characteristics, instead of living with the tensions and realities and beauty of all God is. It seems to me that in Rob’s efforts to teach us to live with the tensions (which I commend), he actually overwhelms the tensions by letting “love” win.  Love does win.  So does truth.  So does justice.  So does holiness.  And these aren’t pitted against each other – they live happily with one another in the heart and actions of God.