Love Wins makes an optimistic (and, some have said, flimsy), scripture-based argument about the nature of heaven and hell, but I’m not sure that the jittery pastor from Michigan even discusses the Prince of Darkness in the 200-page book.
Therefore, any fears you may have that Bell is a tool of the devil because he’s helping perpetuate the lie of the devil’s non-existence can be put to rest. (And for the record, the fact that an Al Pacino movie says the advancement of this lie is Satan’s greatest accomplishment doesn’t necessarily make it true.)
So if you were avoiding Mr. Bell in general or this book specifically on that basis, this is your official All-Clear siren.
Love Wins, like many of Bell’s sermons and videos, provides a somewhat non-traditional examination of key fundamental truths of 21st-Century North American Christianity. It questions, it probes, it dissects and comes up with a hypothesis that challenges the paradigms we tend to treat as truth. And for that reason alone – whether the conclusions are heroic, hogwash or even heresy – it’s definitely worth a read. (You can borrow my copy, if you like – after my wife gets to it, that is.)
It’s not always precisely enjoyable, mind you. I find his writing style a little distracting, to be honest.
But it’s interesting nonetheless. The content is cool, but what’s really revolutionary is the process he champions to delve into the topic-du-lifetime.
The fact that he encourages us to unpack Scripture and let passages speak to us, rather than simply accepting what we learned about them in Sunday School – or what the guy in the pulpit said they meant last Sunday – is really empowering. Not that we should go off half-cocked and start treating our own interpretations as infallible gospel, but we should use our own wits when it comes to God’s word much more than we’re generally inclined to.
OK, onto the content itself.
The book suggests rather strongly that we’ve misunderstood the concepts of heaven and hell. At the risk of oversimplifying the message, Bell suggests that heaven is anywhere God’s will is done and hell is everywhere else. He says we build our own private hells every time we fail to choose Jesus’ path for us.
Is there life after death? You bet, Bell says. Is it either harps and halos and bliss or pitchforks and horns and torment? Probably not. When we choose a life that’s contrary to God’s will on earth, we’re in hell already. And after we die, we’re not likely to suddenly see the error of our ways and do a complete 180 and head straight for our Heavenly Father (if it weren’t already too late according to conventional wisdom, that is) – we’re more likely to remain the people we were in life, after death. And that takes us to hell.
But if you’re looking to Love Wins to provide a detailed description of what heaven or hell are like, you’ll be disappointed. Bell doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with the nuts and bolts of the afterlife. More than once in the book he writes something like this: ‘People who are really concerned about the next world usually don’t do much to make this world better. And the people who spend a lot of time working to make this world better don’t usually waste a lot of time speculating about the afterlife.’
For my money, that piece of wisdom is worth the price of the book alone.
On a related note, Bell suggests that in the same way that heaven/hell starts NOW, our finite lives on the Prime Material Plane (D&D alert!) are not our one and only at-bat in the eternal baseball game that is our existence. He suggests there are plenty more at-bats after we die (not via Hindu-style reincarnation, though. My sense is Bell’s belief is that this game goes into extra innings in the spiritual realm, but he clearly has no idea how this works – how could he?). That eventually, everyone comes around and Love Wins for everyone. He cites a dizzying number of scriptural passages that support the claim.
The trouble is, he doesn’t spend much time talking about the even more dizzying number of scriptural passages that don’t seem to support his claim. Does he choose not to refute the conventional interpretations of these verses, or is he simply unable? It’s tempting to conclude the latter.
Still, there’s something about his thesis that rings true in my heart, whether it’s biblical or not: the concept of a God of love and justice and compassion just doesn’t seem compatible with the notion of eternal damnation if you fail to believe all the right things during your painfully short life on earth when a great many things are outside your control.
What if your church didn’t have a very strong youth program, and you lost interest in your teen years and never went back? What if the missionary who was supposed to introduce you to God got a flat tire on the way to your house? Billions and billions and billions of people all over the world for the past two million years have failed to believe in (insert denomination here), so they’re all in hell?
Is that really the best that God can do?
Bell asks the question, and regardless of what it says in Scripture, I can’t bring myself to say anything but, ‘No flippin’ way!’
I’m not sure how much of the book I agree with and how much of it is just wishful thinking, but I’m glad I read it anyway – it’s certainly kicked me in my Christian complacency and for that I’m grateful.
And while it’s easy to get worked up about the messages and their biblicality and how compatible they are with other parts of the Bible and what the Bible as a whole says about God being loving yet demanding; holy yet forgiving, it’s important to remember that we don’t have all the answers, and we never will.
We’re not supposed to. We simply need to trust that the Creator of the Universe has it covered. Whatever Rob Bell may have gotten wrong in the pages of the book, his title is bang-on.
God is love, and Love Wins.
Peace be with you.