For part one of this series, click here. It's not been a month since Rob Bell's new book started a firestorm and publishing a review of it now seems almost dated. The interwebs are scattered with thoughtful reviews (I'm too lazy to hyperlink), so this one might not even merit a second glance. But having finally read Love Wins, I feel that I have a better understanding of what he is trying to accomplish with it. That said, I'm still not sure I still understand exactly what he is trying to say.
And I think that is precisely his point.
WHY DID HE WRITE? First, allow me to speculate concerning Bell's motivation.
I don't believe that Rob wrote this text in order to start a controversy. He's no dummy; he obviously knew that his thoughts would be the subject of debate. But I suggest that rather than seeking out the heretic label, Bell honestly believed he was doing something noble. He believes that Christianity has been hijacked by believers who do not practice love of Christ. These people may have beliefs, but they cling to these thoughts more religiously than they do the practices that ought to spring out as a result of it. Basically, they believe in Jesus, but they don't look any different as a result.
And he has a point, doesn't he? How many times have you read/seen a news report citing the words of some Christian leader and become irate? There are many people who cling to a Christianity that emphasizes the negative approach of salvation, a.k.a. acquiring fire insurance. "Believe in Jesus or you'll go to hell," some Christians proclaim. Even those of us who believe this to be true are squeamish of such a gospel presentation. It doesn't project the fullness of what God accomplished through the cross and we're embarrassed. We too want a more complete view of what it means to follow Jesus.
This is the world in which Bell dwells—with people from diverse, non-Christian backgrounds. Hence, we begin to understand his use of the driving anecdote behind Love Wins. In the opening chapter, Bell describes an art show at his church where one of the paintings was of Mahatma Gandhi. Someone decided to leave a note concerning the painting which alluded to the fact that Gandhi, as a Hindu, was in hell. Bell was repulsed by this commentary, asking, "Really? Gandhi's in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?" Bell's contempt is flamed by the thought that a Christian would simply dismiss a person's entire life in in the name of Jesus. If that's how we treat those who are dead, how does it speak to the living who still have a chance to embrace Christ? Bell is driven by compassion and empathy as he pens this book.
HOW DID HE WRITE? Bell uses various techniques in order to establish his position (whatever position that is). The most dominant one is the personal story. Littered throughout Love Wins are narratives that force introspection. This is a powerful approach because nearly all Christians who read this book will be able to relate to the tales Bell tells. For example, he speaks of a trip he took to Rwanda (a "hell on earth") in order to affirm his belief in a literal hell. This story empowers the readers to formulate a belief system based on how they feel. This experiential track is a popular one because this is how many people form their theology—"if it feels right, it must be true."
Bell goes to the Bible to deconstruct popular Christian theology concerning hell. He cites selected Scriptures in order to prove that the way mainstream Christianity views hell isn't biblical. Honestly, this approach bothered me the most because Bell was incredibly lax in the presentation of his systematic theology. He selects Scriptures at random, does a Greek word study of one word (and a poor word study at that), and rarely engages the many texts that present a counter position. Still, by merely dabbling in the Bible, he's able to convey a feeling that the Scriptures aren't very clear about hell.
Finally, Bell's go-to methodology in writing this book is to merely ask questions. As the father of a five-year-old, I can appreciate human inquisitiveness. I too am curious about the universe that God created, and continually ask questions of myself and others as I work out meaning. But Bell's questions are constant and are presented to create division concerning long-held Christian beliefs. While it is true that many questions have no definitive answers, the Scriptures do provide guidance for many an inquiry. For the lion's share of questions that Bell poses, he provides very few answers.
WHAT DID HE GET RIGHT? There are some powerful statements in this book, many things that, if said by another person in another context, would elicit "Amen's" from a congregation. Bell rightly observes that many Christians are so focused on our eternal destination that we're ignoring the power of the gospel to make life better in the here and now. He appeals for an attitude of graciousness from those who tell the good news. And Bell really understands people. Even in the written word, you can sense that magnetic pull of his personality.
WHAT DID HE CITE (POORLY)? Among the things that irked me about this book, Bell's lack of understanding the historical position of the church concerning hell is utterly perplexing; perhaps I judge him too harshly here, as many believers neglect to acknowledge the role of church history in our faith. Bell makes multiple citations to history, including a poor interpretation of Martin Luther. To me, the church's position on hell throughout the centuries is impossible to ignore when wrestling with this issue. In order to get a better grip on this issue, I'd invite you to read what's been written over the past 2,000 years by clicking here.
Also (and apologies if this seems minor, but I don't believe it is), Bell's selectivity is revealed even in his recommended resources. In Love Wins, he spends a good portion of the seventh chapter retelling the parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15; he uses it as yet another prooftext to show that God will ultimately redeem all people. In his list of resources at the conclusion of the book, he proclaims that the book The Prodigal God by Presbyterian minister Tim Keller was inspirational in his understanding of the parable. But in Keller's book, The Reason for God, he devotes an entire chapter on how to help intellectuals grasp the concept of a literal hell. By citing Keller's The Prodigal God, it seems as if Bell is trying to imply a relationship between the two men's thoughts, but they couldn't be farther apart. To read Keller's thoughts on hell, click here.
WHAT DID HE REALLY WRITE? So what IS Bell trying to say? It depends . . . on how you read it. Even in his interviews promoting the book, Bell is ambiguous concerning exactly what he believes about hell.
I don't believe that Bell is a true universalist, or one who believes that all people will go to heaven. He allows a framework for the punishment of evil that doesn't jibe with universalism. He most likely holds a position of inclusivism, that the grace of Christ saves people who have some kind of pseudo-faith.
What Bell espouses in Love Wins (and he freely admits this) is nothing new. But while he would claim that it falls within the parameters of mainstream orthodox Christianity, it is actually a mere recycling of 19th century liberal European theology. This belief system incited a war in the American church during the early 20th century (a conflict that eventually led to the establishment of my alma mater, Cincinnati Christian University). Bell attempts to sell inclusivism as orthodox Christianity, but it is not. And it never has been.
Still, I have no idea exactly what he believes. So why didn't he clearly define his position? Because there's too much a stake.
Bell's primary audience/readership is young, hip, mainstream evangelical Christians. My opinion is that, while Bell is definitely an inclusivist, he fully recognizes that staking such a position would alienate him from a more conservative Christians. So he chose to publish a book that merely alludes to his beliefs in hopes that he could have his cake and eat it too. But you can't have it both ways. I'm not sure he anticipated this kind of controversy, but he held to ambiguity in those public interviews in hopes of weathering the storm. For years, Bell was able straddle the line between orthodoxy and liberalism successfully but Love Wins, even if it is a literary success, will signal a loss to the Rob Bell brand.
With this book, and the position that Rob Bell (kinda) takes here, his influence will begin to diminish. He will never again publish with one of the big Christian publishing houses. His invitations to speak at conferences will begin to die down. People will most likely throw away their vast library of Nooma videos in protest. The rising star of Rob Bell will begin to fall. I'm not convinced that Love Wins will have any significant historical influence beyond today.
WRAPPING UP Beyond the theological implications, is there a lesson here? I think so.
This current culture is one that values pluralism. We want to be free to believe whatever we choose, and change those beliefs from day to day. So we embrace fuzziness in all it's glory, with a multiplicity of escape routes to maintain our widespread appeal. But we neglect to realize that in taking no position at all, we make a statement with our silence. No matter how you frame it, Jesus' message is divisive. We might not like it, but it is not ours to choose. The broader community of believers, especially in this age of digital connectivity, will always police those who try to induct fringe beliefs into the mainstream.
If Rob Bell can't get away with it, can anyone?