Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part II
If you haven’t read the introduction to this six-part series, you can read that here. Before we look at the questions: What is universalism and is Rob Bell a universalist? And Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave, here is an overview of the entire book.
Overview of Love Wins
In Love Wins, Bell teaches that God’s love is universal in scope and reach and that the central truth of Christian life is about a transformative faith – it’s about joining God in the renewal of all things both in this age and the next, as opposed to a transactional faith – where one prays a prayer in order to go to heaven in another time and another place. For Bell, heaven and hell are both present realities and future realities.
Throughout the book, Bell consistently seeks to answer the questions: Is the good news that Jesus came to preach concerned with getting a ticket to heaven in order to escape hell? Or is it more about an invitation to partner with God to bring a greater taste of heaven to earth?
To accomplish this, he first seeks to subvert the common notion that salvation is simply a set of objective facts for an individual to “believe.” Rather, it is an invitation to switch stories and join God in “dragging the future into the present”. When talking about heaven, he follows the path of N.T. Wright and others. He holds to a redeemed earth, where heaven and earth become one and things are done on earth as they are in heaven. Bell believes that our eschatology shapes our ethics and that Jesus is more “interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven” rather than focusing on who “gets in” or how “to get in.” For when Jesus speaks of judgment, it often involves surprises. Thus he warns “us against rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out” (54).
From heaven, Bell moves to hell. He mentions that the Hebrew Scriptures are vague regarding what happens after a person dies, and then he does a quick sweep through every verse in the Bible in which “hell” is used. He sums up Jesus’ teaching on hell saying it is “a volatile mixture of images, pictures and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-give goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone” (73).
For Bell, “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79). He points out that when Jesus talked about hell, he was addressing the covenant people who were straying from the God-given calling. He was not speaking of hell as the means of compelling the “heathen” and “pagans” to come in. He ends his chapter on hell by reminding us that “God crushes, refines, tests, corrects, chastens, and rebukes – but always with a purpose (86)… of healing, redemption, [and] love” (87,88).
After a review of hell, Bell makes the case that God’s love is universal in scope and reach and then he poses two questions. The primary question is, “Does God get what he wants?” In other words, is God great enough and powerful enough to reconcile the whole world to himself? The second question is “Do we get what we want?” In other words, can we choose hell? He says, yes, love wins, because love “can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (119).
Bell then calls us to join Jesus in his way of life by losing our life so that we might find it. He focuses on the victory of the cross and the many ways that Christians have understood atonement. He describes the good news as both cosmic and personal and cautions against a reductionist gospel whose chief message is the avoidance of hell .
After talking about the cross, he proclaims that Jesus is bigger than any one religion and that while the door is as “narrow as himself” it is “as wide as the universe” (155), thus calling us to be “extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s destinies” (160).
He uses the parable of the prodigal son to question our view of God, saying that “Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God” (175). He makes the case that, when the gospel is primarily understood as an entrance into heaven rather than participating in God’s life now and forever, it is a reductionist view of the good news that leads to shriveled living. He questions a God who would love and accept someone one minute, and because of death, torment them in hell the next. He thinks the good news is better than that.
In his final chapter, Bell says that the end is here. He shares his personal conversion story, and then makes a passionate plea for people to choose this God of love by dying to the old life and living a new life. He calls us to live today as if it were our last day because time does not repeat itself and our choices matter. He calls us to choose love, because love wins.
Two Significant Flash Points
Having looked at an overview of Love Wins, in the next post, I will focus in on two significant flashpoints that arise from Bell’s teaching. In this next post, I look at: What is a universalist and is Rob Bell a universalist?