Love Wins by Rob Bell
As of this morning, I finished reading the highly-controversial book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived”. To pick a few short phrases to sum it up, on the positive I’d say: insightful, honest, hits on a lot of good questions that people are afraid to ask. On the negative: historically and sometimes biblically sloppy, and uses straw man arguments instead of actually addressing his opposition. Of course the other question you’re probably looking for on this blog is whether Rob Bell is a universalist. The short answer: kind of, depending on your precise definition of universalist. If you’re looking for more on the topic, check out my post entitled Rob Bell: A Universalist?! written before the book actually came out in response to the Christian hate that was flying around, a blog from The Rabbit Room primarily focused on the Christian hate, and a review from RELEVANT Magazine which I thought did a great job. Two of those also reference “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis which had some similar controversial thoughts on the idea of Hell, but I haven’t read it myself.
One thing you can never fault Rob Bell for is that he knows how to ask the important questions. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, I think it is vital that you be honest about the types of questions that he regularly brings up in all of his work. Be honest about your questions and work through them. I bet all thoughtful Christians have wondered at a lot of them already. Don’t run away from them because “you’re just supposed to have faith” in all the specific doctrines as dictated by your church. Maybe you’ll end up opposed to Bell and maybe you’ll end up agreeing, but you won’t know unless you actually ask the questions, and Bell’s strength in all of his work isn’t as much in his answers as in his questions.
The overarching theological themes are well put together and probably wouldn’t be argued with (just some of the specifics of what those mean). As the title says, Love Wins. Christians aren’t really going to argue with the position that God is love and that God knows what he’s doing. People also probably wouldn’t argue that we can choose Hell or Heaven on earth by doing bad or good things. They maybe wouldn’t emphasize it as he does as one of the central points of the book, but they’d agree. In terms of real, life-changing messages, I think this is the one he was driving at and he does a great job of it. Bell, as he usually does, paints a beautiful picture that really draws you to God as you consider these truths of choosing Heaven instead of Hell right now.
Rob Bell is not an academic, and at least he’s honest about that fact. Regardless, you definitely do need to be cautious about the way he structures his arguments. He makes very broad claims about many in Christian history who have been universalists. Some were, to be sure, especially in the first few centuries, but he is a master of exaggeration in making it sound like the church has always been about 50/50 and that it is only our last couple generations that has gone away from that. It is a position that has been held at various points, but it has always been a minority except possibly in the first couple centuries. Bell also focuses only on Scripture texts that support his point, and does not do anything at all with texts that would oppose it – doesn’t even bother with a defence. He talks about some translation issues of Greek, but once stating that something is an issue, he picks a side and then speaks the rest of the way as if his side is definitely correct. In some parts, if you reject his translation, a big chunk of the argument falls apart.
On top of exaggerating his own arguments, he turns his opponents into straw men. He dismisses things offhand by making caricatures instead of the more fleshed-out versions that his opponents would actually say. For example, as I said, he doesn’t provide any Scripture that might seem to oppose him. It’s a brilliant writing style, of course, but if you rely solely on one book for deciding your opinion, you are not nearly getting an accurate view. And as I said in The Good, asking questions is important. Some might be tempted to accept his answers as blindly as others might be tempted to accept the answers of his opponents. Just be warned that you aren’t really hearing other opinions.
Is Bell a universalist or isn’t he? Both. Maybe. Sort of. Depending on your definition. As I mentioned above, his primary point about the nature of Heaven and Hell is what that means right now on earth. Hell is very real and not empty, he’d say, but he’d be referring to the things on earth which could only rightfully be called Hell. In terms of the traditional Heaven and Hell of the afterlife, it’s there but it isn’t a focus. Bell argues that as most Christians would say, God will bring justice on evil. As most Christians would say, those evils, those “Hells”, will not be present in the future Heaven. So those who commit those evils obviously also cannot be a part of Heaven. Stop there and he’s not a universalist, completely in agreement with the standard evangelical view.
The big thing Bell challenges then is the idea of eternal punishment with no choice to repent. He references the heavenly city in Revelation which noticeably has its gates open. So are people who went to Hell stuck there or do they have the opportunity to repent still? He argues that it would not be a just god who would eternally punish for not knowing better in this relatively-short (in the span of eternity) lifetime. I don’t think Bell directly said it at any point, but he seemed to hint pretty strongly that eventually everybody would learn better and eventually everybody would be in Heaven. Hence, universalist. I’ve heard this view before, as a minority position, but usually not with as much optimism that every single person will change their minds. Ridding yourself of the Hells in your life is hard and painful work after all, and how many times in our world now do we see people simply give up fighting to get rid of their bad choices or the bad choices of others that they’re stuck with? Bell is optimistic that eventually all will fight and will win. Because love wins in the end, not Hell.
Ultimately God gets what she wants, which is everybody in relationship with her. But she also won’t take away our free will to do it, so Bell rejects another version of universalism – the one most commonly used as the definition of universalism – which says that ultimately nobody has a choice because God loves them too much for them to resist. That’s why I say that Bell is sort of universalist, depending on the definition. Furthermore, he firmly holds onto Jesus as central to salvation, so he is also not universalist in the sense of all religions being equal.
Read It… With a Grain of Salt
So to wrap it all up, I simply say that you should read it yourself. You should take on his questions, and consider his answers. But as he models with giving us so many questions, ask those same kind of tough questions of his answers. Engage in other books, or sermons, or just simple discussions with friends, too. You will be challenged to choose Heaven over Hell, in this life and not just the next. You will be challenged with just how amazing this love of God is and what it means for love to win in the end. You will be challenged that the Gospel is far far bigger than just staying out of eternal torment by saying the right prayer or believing the right doctrine. I think if you take an honest and critical look at this book, you will come out a better person.