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.