I just finished reading the new book ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell. The book is subtitled ‘A book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived’. With a subtitle like that it sounds like it will have some definitive statements on the future of mankind.
If you’re not familiar with ‘Love Wins’ let me introduce you to the drama. This book has been a hot topic for the past few weeks since its release, and rightly so. It deals with questions that are current and on everyone’s mind.
Is there really a Hell?
Does a loving God send people there because they refuse to believe in Him?
Will He punish them for eternity?
Who goes there?
Who gets to go to heaven?
Will only a select few be saved while billions of others perish forever?
Is this really what love is?
This topic is so relevant that Rob Bell was interviewed by Martin Bashir on MSNBC before the book was released. Bashir attacked Bell with accusations of changing the views of Historical Christianity and thus the whirlwind of criticism began in the public. I first learned about ‘Love Wins’ when I was doing a general Google search. I don’t recall what keywords I was searching but whatever they were led me to a promotional video of Bell in an alley during the winter asking if we could be certain Gandhi was in hell and explaining that in the end ‘Love Wins’. This led me to another promotional video of a missing ball and a child hiding in bed due to self-imposed punishment and then forgiveness which claimed again that in the end ‘Love Wins’. The video’s sparked my interest in the book but there was something in what I was hearing, although not being fully stated, that just wasn’t sitting right in my mind. After seeing Bell in interviews, reading reviews of the book – both professional and of the blogging community, and finally reading the book myself; I was still left with a certain unsettled mindset and scratching my head.
If you have read Bells book or seen him in interviews, you will understand that he asks a lot of questions and likes to answer direct questions with more questions. He tends to make a lot of points using references to scripture without ever stating a final conclusion, although his points lead you to an obvious conclusion. It is near impossible to get a straight answer from him. He doesn’t seem to like to make a solid statement on a topic – he does not like to declare his belief.
Or does he?
Bell has a clever way of leading you to think what he wants you to think but then backing away from confirming this belief so that he can’t be tied to a certain claim. He colors a picture, then leads you to his obvious conclusion and when pressed says; I don’t know – is that what you believe?
This is why I keep asking questions, keeping in the tone of the book ‘Love Wins’. This is why I titled this article ‘Love Wins…Really?’ Not because I doubt that love wins but that I’m questioning the thoughts of this book. As in:
Is this what you believe?
Are you really making these statements?
There are differing opinions both supportive and non-supportive in regards to what Bell is teaching. Or wait, is he teaching anything?
Or is he just asking questions; questions that we all ask, questions that should be asked, but are these questions that even have an answer?
Just because we have the Bible doesn’t mean we have the answers.
If the answers are in there have we truly found them?
Could we even understand the answers if we found them?
Would we even be willing to embrace those answers and let them affect our daily life if we did understand them?
There are so many questions around the Bible itself.
Who wrote it?
Is it full of allegories or is it history?
What did Jesus mean when he said…?
What did Paul mean when he wrote…?
Isn’t the Bible full of contradictions anyway?
And so on. We ask lots of questions to lots of things all the time. I read one review of Bell’s book on Amazon that started this way
There are two types of people in the world: those who love questions and those who love answers. – George P. Wood, Springfield, MO
While this may be true; I tend to find myself in both of these types. Isn’t the entire point of a question to get us thinking about the answer?
And isn’t the point of that ultimately to come to a conclusion?
If all we are to do is ask questions and bounce theories around but never attempt to draw a conclusion – can we really ever have progress?
So in reading ‘Love Wins’ it seems that Bell is continually asking questions but never really drawing conclusions.
Or is he?
As you read the book you get bombarded with questions, lots of questions, which he then draws on scripture to begin to mold an answer but yet never fully states his conclusion and just leaves it out there for you to interpret then – end of chapter. I found myself at the end of a few chapters, looking to see if I missed a page or if there is more at the end that I just didn’t read. It sounded like he made a point out of the scripture references.
But did he?
Or was he just initiating the conversation to allow you to draw your own conclusion?
This cleverly disguised teaching definitely has a message and by the end of the book the message is fairly clear, however, Bell leaves enough ambiguity in each chapter to be able to wiggle out of an affirmative answer and cover his theology by claiming he is only asking questions. But he is not only asking questions, he is making clear statements, hidden in the obscurity of his questions.
But wait didn’t the disciples ask Jesus a lot of questions?
Didn’t the answers to those questions leave them scratching their heads?
Didn’t Jesus answer many questions with a question?
Didn’t Jesus frustrate many people because he didn’t give direct answers?
Is this what Bell is trying to do?
Possible, but the fact remains that many people have read the book and have drawn the same conclusion which leaves them upset as to Bell’s theological doctrine. While Jesus did leave many scratching their heads (Mk. 9:32, Lk. 9:45, 18:34, Jn. 3:10, 8:27, 10:6, 12:16, 12:39-40, 16:18) he also expressed concern to the disciples that after being with him for a while they still had a hard time understanding (Mt. 16:7-12, Mk. 4:33–34). He didn’t plan to ascend to heaven with every detail about life, salvation and eternity explained and all questions answered, but he did intend to leave a message that was clear with critical points addressed which involved life, salvation and eternity (Lk. 24:45–49, Jn. 8:23-24). His message was done in ways to limit obscure and uncertain thinking – this is why he so often spoke in parables – he wanted them to understand (Mt. 13:13-23, Mk. 4:12-13, Lk. 8:10, 12:39, Jn. 13:7). The goal of a parable is to get the understanding of a complex issue – not to teach deep hidden meanings. Every time we try to delve too deeply into a parable’s meaning we usually find that the parable breaks down and it becomes useless. Get the ‘gist’ of what is being said – this is why he spoke in parables. I will go into more detail on Bells teaching of a few parables later.
Jesus embraced questions, but he ultimately wanted understanding.
So, questions are good and questions are an essential element of critical thinking, but can we ever really answer our questions?
We have twenty-seven books in the New Testament; four Gospels – narrative accounts of Christ’s ministry, the book of Acts – a narrative account of the Apostles’ ministry, the book of Revelation – a prophetic letter to seven churches of the first century, and the remaining twenty-one books are letters from the Apostles to believers of early Christianity, known as Epistles. These letters are teachings on the new covenant faith we now call Christianity. The overwhelming bulk of the New Testament, these letters, was intended to instruct believers on the doctrines of the new faith and to make solid attempts to answer questions. While today we may argue over the meaning of certain passages, which I’m sure the original recipients of the letters did as well, it is clear that the Apostles intent in writing these letters was to clear up understanding – they wanted to answer questions, they wanted progress among the believers.
So what is the overall point of ‘Love Wins’?
What is the message that so many are understanding that has them up in arms?
As best as I can understand it, which I cannot claim is the official statement because Bell will neither confirm nor deny his message, ‘Love Wins’ is about certain redemption for all mankind. Not necessarily that all will be saved in the terms that are normally associated with salvation, but more so that all will have the option of redemption – not only in this life but in eternity as well. We may receive punishment to a degree after this life, but Bell does not believe this punishment is eternal. He also doesn’t believe that this punishment is a ‘lake of fire’ with ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. He seems to pose hell more as a personal torment that is relative to the person who is suffering. He also alludes to the thought that while in this personal hell, you are not actually separated from God but quite possibly still in heaven (as he references in the parable of the ‘Prodigal Son’), but because of your unwillingness to embrace God’s love you are suffering your own self-induced punishment, you are serving hell in heaven. God is not punishing you; you are punishing yourself by your own mentality and actions. Your resistance to God is the cause of your torment. You are experiencing your own personal hell. If you would change this thinking and embrace his love then you can be moved from your own personal hell to heaven. This thinking is not exactly Universalism, and so Bell can claim he is not a Universalist. But he definitely dances within the boundaries of grace and universalism without fully committing. The ultimate point, although subtle in words but being strongly made in context, is that even though we may punish ourselves to a ‘hell’ we will always have the option of redemption, even in the next life. While I will agree with Bell on the premise that it is not God but rather our own decision that brings judgment upon us, is it really true we can have hope of redemption after death? This is the most alarming point that has caused many to label Bell as a ‘false teacher’ and some as far as ‘heretic’.
Is Rob Bell correct?
Can we receive redemption after death?
Or is this belief more preoccupied with a concept of God that we can accept rather than seeking how God can accept us?
I did find some statements in ‘Love Wins’ that I wholeheartedly agreed with and embraced; foremost the statements that Bell makes in the final two chapters of his book regarding the nature of God. Bell does a very good job at describing God as a loving, caring figure who is not waiting to slap us on the hand for our disobedience at every chance he gets. Bell confronts the traditional thinking that God is a strict disciplinarian set on giving us what we deserve. While I completely agree with Bell that this is a direct contradiction to the term Paul uses to describe God as ‘Abba Father’ (Ro. 8:15, Ga. 4:6-7), the ‘Caring Daddy’ and not the ‘Yes Sir’ figure we often perceive God to be, I cannot agree that God’s nature does not have a part in it that makes him the authority who despises sin and will not allow for it in his presence. The Bible is full of stories of God being an angry and just God who serves punishment on the wicked, but it is also filled with stories of God being a loving and merciful God who allows forgiveness for those who have a heart in love with him. Because we cannot fully comprehend these two opposing natures does not give us the liberty to separate the two and choose which God we believe in. There is reconciliation to this paradox and we should seek that understanding in our questions.
Another tactic Bell likes to use is that he casts a wide blanket over Christians as wanting others to suffer for eternity because they don’t believe the same way as we do. His view of Christianity is that since we aren’t allowed to do as we please in this life we will have the satisfaction of knowing that those who don’t play by the rules will suffer endlessly while we enjoy paradise. He claims that Christians believe the unsaved will ‘get theirs’ in eternity because God is chomping at the bit just waiting to strike His vengeance on them.
Is this what Christians believe?
Is this what I believe?
Is this love?
No, this is a gross generalization. I can’t deny there are many differing thoughts in Christianity and many misguided teachings that hurt more than heal. But this isn’t the Gospel either. While it helps Bell to make his case, it simply is not the truth. I have been a Christian long enough to know better and the vast majority of Christians I’ve met in my life (if not all) do not agree with this mentality. It is a generalization of Christians and most likely the backlash from his own personal experiences. Christians are not perfect, not even close. They are hypocrites, liars, adulterers, idolaters and worse who deserve nothing more than eternal separation and condemnation from a Holy and pure being who is God. God in His perfect essence could not have us in His presence without fully consuming us in His wrath, not because He enjoys tormenting us but because it is the cause and effect of His perfect being and our imperfect being colliding – His perfection will win that collision every time.
The properties of God do not allow for sin. It is not an argument based on interpretation but a result of the collision between God and sin. Jesus makes reference to this by using the analogy of light and darkness. Repeatedly we see throughout the New Testament by Jesus and the Apostles that darkness cannot be in the presence of light – they both cannot occupy the same space (1 John 1:5–2:2). We see this evidence in our universe and how our planet relates to the sun. As the earth turns on its axis we see that the side of the planet facing the sun is completely in the presence of light and the side of the planet facing away from the sun is in the presence of darkness. As the earth turns the light wins the battle of dominance – not the darkness. The same is applicable to God and sin. It is not because of discrimination that sin is not accepted by God, it is not because God has it out for us that He punishes sin – it is because of the difference in the properties of the essence of God and the essence of sin (Eph. 4:17–24, 2 Cor. 6:14-16). Unfortunately we are sinful beings. Sin is destroyed in the presence of God. It is not acceptable no matter what the intention is – when in the presence of God; sin is destroyed. This is why we can never be good enough and never coexist in God’s glory but need something to purge us from our sin so we can be clean and safe in the presence of God (Ro. 3:23-26).
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17–24)
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people’. (2 Corinthians 6:14–16)
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:22–26)
There is a bumper sticker that has annoyed me from the first time I saw it that says:
“Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven”
I am fairly certain the intent of this sticker was to convey that Christians are no different than anyone else with the single exception that we’ve repented of our sinful mentality submitting our will to that of God through Christ and as such have received pardon for our sin. While this statement may be true, parading the bumper sticker around seems like a pardoned inmate walking the halls of death row waving his pardon document in the face of the other prisoners soon to be executed, it just doesn’t feel right. And so when we receive sneers and comments we just brush it off as the persecution Jesus said we would receive – not recognizing we are communicating in bad taste.
We are sinners, all of us, and we need redemption, all of us. Being ‘saved’ is not being ‘perfect’ it’s being pardoned from a horrific fate (Ro. 3:23-26). A fate of separation from God – that’s why it’s called ‘saved’ otherwise we would have called it something like ‘completed’ or ‘perfected’ but we chose to call it ‘saved’ because we recognize that we need rescuing from something horrible. And this is where the controversy with Bell thickens.
What is the definition of ‘something horrible’?
Some call it ‘Hell’, but is that a proper doctrine?
Does hell exist?
How long does hell last?
Could God really punish someone forever, without ever ceasing to stop?
Does God’s redemption have limits?
Can we ever receive pardon once we are sentenced?
These are further questions Bell is asking and he attempts to discuss in ‘Love Wins’. Rob Bell asks a lot of questions of which he further asks ‘can anyone really know?’ Yet at the end he is drawing conclusions and making statements that attack fundamental Christianity.