Well I hope that you have been one of those that has missed the firestorm surrounding Rob Bell’s latest book Love Wins although it has been all over the Christian Press and blogosphere. Before I even start this review I have to admit that I really admire Rob Bell and think that he is a great communicator (indeed I would love to be 1/2 as good as he is in that sphere).
So what has the firestorm been about? Well the core of the debate that has fuelled the argument is the view taken by many that Rob Bell is an Universalist – that he has come to the point where he believes that all people will be saved and that no one ends up in hell.
Let me come back to that point later.
This book is aimed at starting a dialogue. A dialogue with those that may have been put off Jesus or the Church. As Rob Bell says in his preface:
I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that”
You are not alone
There are millions of us
Of course, this will have set alight some of those who are in the church trying to “uphold” the teaching of the church. I don’t think that will necessarily lose him a lot of sleep. He has been attacked many times in the past for being part of the Emergent Church scene and for his views.
In his sights in this book is the Evangelical view of Heaven and Hell and how it works.
He starts off the book asking questions. In a display of art and poetry someone included a quote from Gandhi that many found “quite compelling”.
But not everyone
Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece of paper was written: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
Gandhi’s in hell?
We have confirmation of this?
He goes on to ask many other questions in this first chapter about how we will know that we are in or out. He quotes examples of pastoral insensitivity such as a fifteen year old atheist dying in a car accident and a friend being told that “there is no hope”!
Rob Bell then builds up his viewpoint (and he seems to have drawn heavily from the scholar NT Wright who was until recently Bishop of Durham). He starts off by looking at heaven. He makes the point that
It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now
His argument is that one day heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21 et al) and that the earth is not scrapped and thrown away. Instead the universe is renewed and heaven and earth will be united. This has profound consequences to the way that we treat this world and those around us. It means that we must consider each other and the difference that we make in the world.
He ends up on this chapter saying:
How would I summarise all that Jesus teaches?
There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here, sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.
Its a good point that he makes to ensure that we don’t drift off into an other-worldliness that doesn’t take seriously the issues of the world around us.
Then he comes to hell. This is the part where many have been sifting his views to see if he is a universalist. He wants to set his views over and against those who he portrays as thinking or saying
Sin, refuse to repent, harden your heart, reject Jesus, and when you die, its over. Or actually, the torture and anguish and eternal torment will have just begun.
So what is his view of hell? Well again he has taken much from NT Wright (especially Suprised by Hope). He looks at the uses of Ge-henna and Hades (the two words most used to describe hell) and shows how much of their meaning is focused on here and now. He’s talking about our attitudes and our behaviour. He points out that even in situations that might be deemed hopeless God doesn’t declare hopeless – such as Capernaum doing more badly than Sodom and Gomorrah at the last judgement.
He sees hell as often originating here and now. He describes seeing hell in abuse or betrayal. So hell starts here in the choices that we make.
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.
But he also argues that hell and its decision can’t be limited to this world. That God can reach even into hell. But he also won’t have it that God forces people into heaven. He points to the story of the prodigal son (or rather two sons). Pointing out that the younger son has to overcome his belief that he can no longer be the son of the father and so be welcomed back. The older son also needs to have his story re-told by the father. For the older son, at the party, Rob Bell suggests that we get a picture of hell – invited to and at the party but hating it.
Hell is being at the party
That’s what makes it so hellish.
Love to be love must allow freedom. It allows us to make decisions that are detrimental to us and often those around us.
I think his real attack is at those who almost glory in the idea of hell.
There is much more to discomfort some. The view of who is in or out. His view that Jesus is so much bigger than we can imagine. So much bigger than our tribal imaginings?
Rob Bell sees that the Bible views as Jesus being everywhere. So in the story of Moses bringing water from the rock in the desert for the Apostle Paul this was Jesus. It means that we can expect to bump into him all over the place. It means that people can share the good news of Jesus to people who have never heard of him and they will say
That’s his name? We’ve been talking about him for years….
It reminds me of the discomfort of visiting a church where they were about to go on mission to Vietnam and they were proclaiming “Two weeks to save Vietnam” as if God had never been there before and they were the only ones who could “save” it. Rather if they had gone with humility seeking what God was already up to it might have not been so grating!
It’s very clear from reading the book that Rob Bell starts from the premise that God is Love and then works from that fundamental point. A God who seeks us and searches for us to enable us to be more than we could imagine ourselves to be.
It’s a great read.
A provocative read.
It raises many questions. Ones that you might want to try and answer and others that you might feel challenged and want to avoid.
At the root of it I think that he is asking people to look at how they live and can respond to the awesome love of a God who never gives up on us.
Well worth reading.