I chose not to make any comments on Rob Bell’s new book, “Love Wins” until after I had read it myself. So after reading it, let me state from the outset that Rob Bell is not a universalist; at least, not in the popular conception of what universalism entails: the salvation of all human beings everywhere regardless of whether they were an Adolf Hitler or a Mahatma Gandhi. Most people’s concept of universalism means that eventually everyone ends up in heaven. That’s not Rob Bell’s view.
Having said that, I don’t think this is Bell’s finest book. “Velvet Elvis” was a much better book. I think every Christian living in the 21st century should read that one! This book is more polemical, written to combat an extreme fundamentalist view of the afterlife. You know, you’ve seen those people carrying signs on the street corners proclaiming hell and eternal damnation. Frankly, they do more harm than good.
The book began when Bell’s Church had an art show regarding what it meant to be a peacemaker. Someone had included a Gandhi quote in her art piece to which someone else attached a piece of paper: “Reality check: He’s in Hell.”
Really? Gandhi’s in hell? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Hence, began the book which would later cause so much controversy among Evangelicals. Some of the controversy is unjustified. As I have already stated, Bell is not a universalist, not of the popular sort.
Bell is big on asking the big questions. What happens after we die? Who gets to be saved? Who does not? Why? What saves you? And so on and on…
The problem for me isn’t really the asking of big questions–that’s great!–it’s the responses, or lack of responses, or frustratingly unclear responses throughout the book. This despite the big claim in the beginning “this isn’t just a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions.”
I find the responses unsatisfying.
Actually, reading through the book, I began to see traces of ideas that have been treated much better and more extensively elsewhere. C. S. Lewis’ concept of hell’s gates being locked from the inside plays a major part in Love Wins. Bell even recommends “The Great Divorce” for further reading. In fact, the idea of hell, as presented by Lewis, plays a major, significant part in Bell’s book. To put it simply, Lewis believes that God doesn’t send anyone to hell. This does not deny the reality of hell in the afterlife. Rather, people who do end up in hell go there because they choose it, they choose to spend eternity outside of God’s presence, and God respects and honors their choice. Yet, God’s infinite mercy and justice means the doors of hell are open to anyone who chooses to leave. The problem, of course, is the door’s are locked from the inside.
For the future “new heavens and the new earth,” I see traces of Dr. Richard Mouw’s theology as presented in his awesome, little book, “When the Kings Come Marching In.” Read it! Highly recommended! Dr. Mouw has a knack for making complicated concepts simple and accessible. And though Bell writes in much the same populist style–accessible to the every day person–Mouw’s presentation is so much more deeper, both theologically and biblically. See Dr. Mouw’s blog: “The Orthodoxy of Rob Bell.“
Another influence which may not be so obvious is Jürgen Moltmann’s “Theology of Hope.” Bell stresses the present reality of hell so much so that the future reality is minimized, if not rendered moot altogether. Moltmann is perhaps the greatest theologian of the 2nd half of the 20th century. His eschatology has had a profound influence on a great many people. To make a very basic caricature of Moltmann’s theology of hope, think of it as the future breaking into the present. That is, how we view the future–the afterlife, heaven and hell, the new heavens and the new earth–has a profound influence on how we live our lives at present. Previously, eschatology (the study of the end, quite literally) was often relegated in Systematic Theology treatments to the very end and often simply as an irrelevant appendix. But for Moltmann, eschatology actually breaks into every aspect of our Theology. It is that important!
Think of the person who believes this universe is so wicked and corrupt that God will someday utterly destroy it and bring about an entirely new creation that has nothing to do with the old one. It’s a radical break. There is no continuity between the present and the future. Such a person will obviously not care for the present earth one iota. Social justice, environmental awareness, animal cruelty, whatever else you can think of, is not that person’s concern. Instead they are concerned, almost obsessively, with how to get into the future new heavens and the new earth. Many ultra-fundamentalists are like that. It’s all about personal, individual salvation; the street corner sign carrier proclaiming eternal damnation. The future breaks into the present. How you view eschatology has a profound influence on how you live.
By contrast, the person who sees Jesus as savior, not just of individual souls (although that is included), but of the entire created order–the whole sinful, corrupted universe is being renewed in Christ–will obviously care for the environment and for social justice in the present. That’s a theology of hope. Hope that God has not abandoned his creation, but that all things are being renewed. cf. Romans 8:18-21. How you view the future informs how you live at present.
What does this have to do with Rob Bell?
Everything! Love Wins is permeated with it. More so in its one-sided emphasis on the present reality of hell. I guess one could say that the future reality of hell breaks into the present too. Injustice, oppression, wickedness, child sex trafficking, poverty … these are all the inbreaking of the future reality of hell into the present. And that is what Bell is most concerned about in his current, controversial book.
So, in conclusion, would I recommend the book?
Absolutely! You must read it. But with the hope that it will lead you to deeper and more profound presentations such as the three I have presented above: Lewis, Mouw, Moltmann.
For a defense of “Love Wins” from Rob Bell’s church, see “Love and Judgment.”
For a thorough review and critique of Bell’s book, see Scot McKnight’s blog “Exploring Love Wins.“