Love Wins generated heated denunciations before it was even published. It is Jesus-filled, hopeful, and inspiring – and just as the conservatives warned, it points toward a (Christocentric) universalism – without quite unequivocally endorsing it.
In typical Rob Bell style, Love Wins is a generous pastoral… ramble (in the best sense) through salvation and eschatology… or ‘heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived’. He has written this book because
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it, is in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (4)
Bell pulls apart this idea – what qualifies you to be one of the few? Does your salvation depend on having a youth pastor ‘who relates better to the kids’ when you’re a teenager? On the missionary who is coming to bring you the good news not having a flat tyre? If we grant that God might show mercy on children (because even most conservatives find it impossible to send children to hell) who die before the age of responsibility, wouldn’t the most loving thing to do be to kill every child? (8)
Bell goes on to set out his understanding of Christian hope for eternal life (‘the life of the age to come’) and the bringing of heaven to Earth. It will require judgement, the banishing of evil and injustice. He imagines heaven as a place of ‘learning how to be human all over again’ (29), a place of soil and rewarding toil as the prophets looked forward to. He writes:
It’s not about a life that begins at death;
It’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death. (33)
The flipside of this is hell, which Bell says we know is true because we see it in the world today. Examining the sayings of Jesus about hell, he says that rather than talking about hell to convert pagans, Jesus ‘talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.’ (44) Judgement, Bell says, precedes restoration; the prophet Ezekiel even has a vision of a time when God ‘will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters’ (Ezekiel 16) – the story isn’t over even for Sodom and Gomorrah (45).
Chapter 4 is called “Does God get what God wants?”, and Bell demonstrates God’s universal salvific will – ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2). He draws on the picture of God as the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep –
The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. (52)
Bell uses a similar style of teaching to Jesus – a lot of questions, which point in the direction of universalism, without insisting on it. He tells of no-one less than Martin Luther being open to the idea of a post-mortem opportunity for salvation; Bell goes on to ask:
And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes, in other words. At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. (55)
As if he hadn’t tackled enough big issues, Bell moves on to suggest that God is at work in Christ everywhere, beyond the boundaries of the church. It is an inclusivist perspective, finding God at work wherever there is truth and goodness (as opposed to exclusivism) and that God’s work is through Christ (as opposed to pluralism which would see religions as independently valid) – he calls it ‘exclusivity on the other side of inclusivism’ (78).
Bell’s most confronting words come in the context of a chapter about the prodigal son’s older brother –
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians. They don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable. (85)
This is the god, Bell says, who loves every person so much but will eternally punish someone in hell without any hope if they die in a car accident without accepting Jesus. ‘Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?’ (85) Many Christians’ conviction that God does leads them to be secretly terrified of God. He sums up the entire book well in this passage:
When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.
Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world. (87)
He goes on to say that we do not need rescuing from God and his wrath; God is the one who rescues us from death, sin and destruction (89).
Bell says in the preface that there’s nothing in his book which hasn’t been taught before; the historic, orthodox Christian faith is ‘a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years’ (6). He’s right, of course, and his book popularises ideas recently presented by Gregory MacDonald in the Evangelical Universalist as well as some (but not the universalism) from Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. But the suggestion of universal hope is not one which has been flowing in the evangelical stream, not by a long shot, and Rob Bell has become a major evangelical figure. Nineteenth century devotional writer Hannah Whitall-Smith has routinely had chapter 22 of her autobiography excised for its embrace of universalism. ‘Gregory MacDonald’ wrote under a pseudonym to protect his position at an evangelical publishing house. When conservative pastor John Piper tweeted ‘Goodbye, Rob Bell’ and sparked the pre-publication frenzy, he was surely farewelling Bell from evangelicalism. I think there are many middle of the road or slightly right of centre evangelical churches which will farewell Rob Bell, adding him to the suspicious list and no longer playing Nooma DVDs in their youth services. Of course, he is already on the suspicious list for New Calvinists, the evangelicals in the mould of John Piper. But there will also be many of Bell’s readers who have felt so blessed by his deep love of Jesus and communication of God’s love that they will stick with him, and feel both challenged and liberated by this latest book.