I am not a Rob Bell fanboy; however, I do have a generally positive opinion of the little exposure I’ve had to his ministry. When Love Wins was first being reviewed and its author was being held up in many quarters as satan’s chief apostle my first instinct was ignore it. (There are only so many books one can read.) Finally, the clamor reached so close to home that I had to give in and read it for myself. I don’t like to let third parties do my thinking for me.
The uproar is understandable. Bell has a habit of asking hard questions. He also has a tendency to not provide definitive answers to the hard questions he asks. And when those questions concern the issues of heaven and hell and the possibility of universal salvation…well, the sacrificial fat is clearly sizzling on the altar.
It is hard to pin down Bell’s position and I am strangely OK with that. I suspect the reason is because these are some very complex questions and the Bible is somewhat lacking in absolute clarity. Where the Bible is lacking in absolute clarity we extrapolate dogma at our own risk. Honestly, when it comes to eternal things I think the Bible gives us the best picture we can possibly process from our finite frame of reference. Sometimes that picture seems confusing because things that seem exclusive of each other in this world can actually be essential to each other in the various dimensions of eternity. (What sense does it make in this world to die in order to live?)
Do heaven and hell exist? Of course they do, and Bell would be one of the first to assert their reality. He does have a little different take on what, and when, heaven and hell are but he certainly doesn’t deny their existence. Far from making them smaller and less meaningful he actually makes them bigger and more meaningful. I think there is room for disagreement among true believers on this topic especially since none of us have ever really been to either place. I actually find Bell’s concept of heaven to be challenging and somewhat more exciting than big mansions and streets of gold.
The real problem most Evangelical believers will have with this book concerns the question of universalism. Is everyone going to be saved? Can a person find redemption after this life? My inclination on both of these questions is to say, “No.” However, “No” does give rise to some legitimately serious questions and both positions can be argued from scripture with some powerful verses backing up each camp.
At this point I feel compelled to point out that Bell’s position on universalism is essentially identical to the one held by C. S. Lewis. Having read almost everything by Lewis my thoughts had already turned to The Great Divorce and The Last Battle as well as various quotes from his lectures. I was not at all surprised when Lewis was cited in the end notes. Both Bell and Lewis seem to essentially hold the position that God is going to save everyone He can. They both believe that a person can go to hell but they have to really want to go there. That assertion is not as strange as it may sound. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is a fantastical story but it shines a big bright light on human nature.
Am I comfortable with the notion that if everyone is going to be saved, or can be saved after this life, then strenuous efforts need not be made to bring people to Christ in this life (and the sooner the better)? Not at all, and that is not what I hear Bell saying. Am I comfortable with allowing God the right to do what He wants however He wants and would I be thrilled if everyone did get in to heaven? You bet. Do I know exactly what God is going to do about all of this? No, but I trust Him.
This is a short book and Bell doesn’t even try to tie up all the loose ends. (I would be quite interested in hearing his take on the “second death”.) What he does do is open a conversation that the vast majority of Christians who have ever lived would be comfortable having. It is only in the Western (mostly North American) church and over the last two to three hundred years that these issues have been considered resolved and beyond discussion. Hopefully once the journalistic hype and reactionary hysteria have died down this little book can make a positive contribution to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Frankly, after all the hate and vitriol in the current Evangelical dialogue I’m quite ready to see love win.
Ronnie Meek is is a guy who likes to share good reads with other people and warn them about boring or bad stuff. His personal blog is It’s In There Somewhere where he is currently blogging through the New Testament.