Love Wins: A Few Good Thoughts

I wanted to like this book. I watched as conservative bloggers jumped on the train to burn this book, and some of them certainly jumped the gun, condemning it far too early to be appropriate. While I land in the decidedly conservative theological camp, I am willing to call out conservatives when they are giving us a bad name. Damning a book to a place it allegedly argues may or may not exist before it comes out is a practice too full of uncertainties and overly zealous bloggers.

Granted, a title like Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is bound to cause some controversy among the theologically minded. Regardless of your thoughts on Rob Bell – and mine were inconclusive –  this title is one that will likely push you to take a stance: Are you for or against Rob Bell’s theology?

Even as I was ready to tell conservative theologians that they attacked the book prematurely, and in fact am still willing to say this, it does not follow that their conclusions were incorrect. Some were, and some weren’t.

So enough dancing around the book.

What exactly does Rob Bell do in this book, and why should people be concerned, if they should be concerned at all?

Firstly, what Rob Bell does not do is provide an exegetical argument from a systematic theological perspective. He does not intend to win over academics to his cause but rather write a book to the average person, and so primarily attempts to frame his discourse in questions and not deeply analytic arguments. That isn’t to say he sidesteps doing exegesis entirely, but rather that is not his primary goal.

Bell also does not advocate what many people would see as a standard universalist stance. When Bell denies being a universalist, I think his denial has merit. In fact, Bell’s entire post-mortem, eschatological framework is one that doesn’t fit easily into a universalist stance. A universalist tends to begin with essentially the same framework that traditional Christians begin with: there is a heaven and there is a hell.  However, universalists believe that hell will not be populated, as God loves too much to send anyone there. Some deny the existence of hell entirely, but even then the idea of heaven is roughly analogous to a traditional understanding: eternity in the presence of God. The model that Bell expresses is simply different, categorically, than this model.

For starters, Bell equates heaven with ‘the place where God’s will is done.’ That isn’t to say that heaven is a place distinct from earth, at least not necessarily, but rather that the place that God’s will is done is heaven. When we follow the Lord’s prayer and pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Bell understands this to mean that we are praying that heaven and earth become one place; heaven is moving towards earth as much as we are moving towards ‘heaven.’

In fact, it is precisely this view of heaven that leads to his view of hell.  Man is not the sort of being to ever lose its free will, and from this Bell argues that the gates of heaven will likely be forever open. While he admits his ideas are primarily speculation, he sets forth his belief that in the afterlife, it is likely we will be at times in a more heavenly state and at others in a more hellish one. You see, hell and heaven come down to essentially relational statuses: if you are “in God’s will” then you are in heaven, and if you are not “in God’s will” (read: sinning), then you are in hell. That seems to become more pronounced post-mortem, but even then Bell is not extremely clear.

I want to take a moment to tell you the things I think Bell actually does quite well. In fact, I think the things he does well he does extremely well. I think Bell is right in the assumption that we are meant for earth. From this he concludes that heavenly and hellish states will be worked out on earth, even on a continuum, which I do disagree with, but am glad that he places humans on earth for eternity. I won’t speculate on our abilities to travel in the afterlife (after all, Jesus flew to heaven), but it seems pretty obvious to me that perfect man was created for earth (Adam and Eve), and that the earth will be restored (a new heaven and a new earth, with earth being for humankind).

The other thing I think Bell does exceptionally well is argue that we have real experiences of heaven and hell here on earth. He brings up an example that hammers the point home quite well: there is simply no word to describe what it is like to tell a five year old child that his dad has killed himself other than hell. Likewise, some experiences are actual experiences of heaven; marriage, baptisms, and the Eucharist come to mind.

I think, though, aside from those two points, I simply found Bell’s book to be filled with questions I did not answer how he expected me to and non-compelling emotional arguments. “Can you really believe in a God that sends Gandhi to hell? Really?” is the rhetoric of the entire first chapter. I simply answer “Yes, in fact, I can.” I believe in a God who can send me to hell, and I believe in a God who can send anyone to hell. Can we really believe in a God who would send Hitler to hell? More people are willing to say yes here, I think, which may provide an opening into an argument about what criteria must be used for “who goes to hell?”

In addition, while Bell is certainly not doing exegesis, his understanding of certain pieces of Scripture are still poorly constructed. One example in particular feels key-holed to fit his already-determined mindset about the afterlife. Bell addresses the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. In the story, in case you are unfamiliar, Lazarus is treated worse than the dogs at the table of the rich man. When the rich man dies, he ends up in “Hades.” Lazarus is “carried to Abraham’s bosom.” The rich man looks up at Lazarus, and asks that Lazarus be allowed to dip his finger in water to come and cool the rich man’s tongue. Bell here argues that this act, this request for mercy, is at core a continuation of the rich man’s treatment of Lazarus before death; that is, it is primarily a request that Lazarus act as the rich man’s servant. The parable continues, and Abraham says “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” Bell argues that the reason this chasm exists is because of the rich man’s prideful heart. My first thought upon reading that was “Huh, I’ve never thought of it in that way.” Upon further reflection, it just seems a more and more unnatural read. The rich man even continues to plead, requesting that someone go to his family from the dead, to preach to them what will send them to Abraham’s bosom, instead of Hades. Even here, Abraham rejects his request, saying that they can hear from Moses and the prophets. Bell’s interpretation continues to fall apart.

I felt like this for most of the passages Bell attempts to interpret or exegete. At one point Bell points out that gehenna is a physical location. He is right; in fact, gehenna was a place where trash was taken and burned. The fire there never went out. From this, he concludes that Jesus must not mean that you will be condemned to what we think of hell, but rather to gehenna. I’m not quite sure how that works, but this strikes me as ignoring the message for the shape of the sign. Jesus is clearly here demonstrating a type of thing, much like his other parables. Is the Kingdom of God thus a mustard seed?

All in all, I found the book to be a few good ideas wrapped in a lot of poorly argued thoughts. Even poorly presented. I did not even take time to talk about Bell’s writing style, which will be a big barrier for many people. I do not forsee this book having a lasting impact on the Church or on the intellectual world. In fact, I think we have already seen it dying out a bit. To be fair, after the initial surge we were bound to see it drop off, but it has all but disappeared. I haven’t seen a post or heard about it after that first week (except when I brought it up, as I was working through the text). This book will likely be forgotten except by fans of Bell, and will not even spark much more controversy in the future.

If the response to this blog is significant enough, I may do a follow up post, but at this point I’m content to leave the topic be. If you do have a pressing question about the book or a comment on the post, feel free to share, and I’ll do my best to answer it.

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    • Stephen Hale
    • May 15th, 2011

    James:

    I like most of what you said here. I too was glad Bell emphasized humans as created for this earth. I don’t think the Bible teaches we’ll live in Heaven forever, even if you read Revelation through a dispensationalist lens. And if you read it through a correct lens, even less so! (Yeah, I said it)

    In your earlier post you brought up the Lazarus bit. And you’re right, I think. I’m fairly prone to try and make someone’s (apparently) innovative exegesis work. I try to assume I’m held back by my own preconceptions, and eagerly look for ways to break out of that. However, at the end of the day, I didn’t think his understanding of this passage made much sense, either. Maybe there are extra details he could outline in a more academic medium, but…what he presented here was very weak.

    I’m a little upset that I think universalism and annihalationism will be judged by Bell, when he clearly didn’t present very tight arguments for what he believes (which is not quite either of these views, as you said). There are better arguments than what he gives here, but I think he has done more to discredit those ideas among a certain population…

    However, I did want to disagree with one thing you said: “is the Kingdom of God thus a mustard seed?”

    Jesus nevers says “hell is like gehenna.” He just says “you’re going to gehenna.” He DOES say “the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” He talks about these two things in very different ways.
    The mustard seed is clearly a sign. If Gehenna is a sign, he never makes that clear. If Jesus believed in Hell the way many modern evangelicals believe it, he totally innovated the idea himself and never bothered to explain it to anyone. He just started talking about it as if everyone knew what he was talking about. That’s pretty weird.

    When he came with new udnerstandings of what the Kingdom of God is like, he explained it to people. He taught on it all the time because what he had to say about the Kingdom of God was unique among the varied theories on it which were current at the time. Other ideas he simply repeats from Judaism, so he doesn’t explain them (God, Elijah, etc) much. However, he never explains these three places we act as if are the same place. That’s pretty different from the example of the kingdom and the mustard seed. What exactly IS going on, I’m not sure I know, but I’m confident it’s not how you discussed it.

    Anyway, basically I think you’re right. With any luck, people will forget about this book, and Bell will…well, write better. He’s a very pastoral and (I think) effective presenter of the Gospel. If he continues to write about the things he wrote about well here, and from the little I’ve read, that he’s written about well in other places, then good!

    I’ll probably read the next thing he publishes, but I hope this book is just forgotten quickly.

    -Stephen

  1. Stephen,

    Hm, you’re right about the Mustard Seed example. Way to call me out on the poor comparison. I retract that comment.

    It still seems to me that he uses Gehenna as a type of Sheol, which would be a Jewish concept he did not feel the need to explain. Though I need to research that a bit before holding fast to that.

    I think Bell is a great speaker. Regardless of my disagreements with him theologically, when he speaks it is hard not to listen. Even if I walk away disagreeing with him, he engages audiences in a way rare among pastors.

    Unfortunately for Bell, he writes like he speaks. Love Wins is best when read aloud, but then far too long to be read.

    And as far as universalists and annihalationists, I think it would be unfair to judge them on Bell’s book. While he has some aspects that may be termed ‘universalist,’ the whole shifted paradigm makes the label more misleading than descriptive.

    I was actually hoping you’d disagree with me more, if only so you could write a response post, and then we could have a little back-and-forth battle. But hey, I guess I’m even happier that you basically agree.

    Christ Abide,
    -James

    • Stephen Hale
    • May 15th, 2011

    🙂 I thought what you wrote was very, very fair. You tried to be open-minded before you judged, and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    And then all the stuff I said above. 🙂 I couldn’t have done better (or even as well) myself.

    -Stephen

    • Stephen Hale
    • May 31st, 2011

    James!

    I found a blog post that gets into the Greek of Mt. 25:46 w/ a bit more depth than Rob Bell did. I think it is making the same point, but in a more academic/thorough way. I wonder of your thoughts?

    -Stephen

    http://chadholtz.net/2011/03/22/eternal-punishment-really/

    • It’s an interesting discussion. I did poorly enough in Greek that I don’t know how much I can speak to the treatment of the Greek words. I found it kind of amusing that one of his examples came from the Old Testament, but that isn’t so much a criticism as a genuine amusement.

      I actually found the comments on the post more interesting than the post itself. Some commenters simply give the blogger the same verses he used right back, and one commenter went to Revelation (for a fairly good point,mind). Many people were simply glad the pastor was standing up for the belief he holds.

      I think the idea running through a few of the comment threads that sticks out to me is the idea that not everyone is a child of God, and thus will not be trained up as by a parent. Some are simply citizens in God’s world, and may need to serve life sentences, so to speak.

      But I am glad people are out there talking.

      As far as the actual interpretation he refers to, which I will not go too much into given my lack of Greek skills, it seems clear that the term ‘aion’ is used in the same sense for both life and death, there. So if we are to throw out ‘eternal’ for death, we should probably toss it for life. Sure, the word ‘aion’ may change with the thing it is connected to, but Jesus seems pretty clearly to be drawing a parallel there.

      Thoughts? Thanks for finding this article, by the way.

    • Stephen Hale
    • May 31st, 2011

    I noticed a comment that pointed out this parallel (eternal life, eternal “punishment”), too. I thought that was an excellent point.

    On the other hand, I disagreed with the reference to Rev. I think a premise is incorrect: Rev. does NOT refer to the end of the world. It’s apocalyptic literature, which most certainly doesn’t describe the end of the world. I am unanimous on this!
    🙂

    -Stephen

    • Revelation is certainly apocalyptic literature. You won’t get an argument out of me on that point.

      But it is interesting that it uses language of an ‘age of ages’ when referring to the destination of ‘Satan and his followers.’ Just the idea of an ‘eternal punishment’ existing at that time pushes back a bit against Bell’s claims (unless I’m crazy. He did say the idea of ‘eternal punishment’ simply didn’t exist in that time, right?).

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