I totally feel like I’m late to the game when it comes to blogging about Rob Bell’s newest and most controversial book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” I guess the only difference between me and so many of the folks who were blogging about the book weeks ago is that…well, I read it (and to be fair, some of them have now, by this point).
So, whether you like my thoughts on the book or not, I feel like actually reading the book before writing a review on it automatically gives you additional credibility that folks like Justin Taylor didn’t have when they started the “is Rob Bell a universalist” fiasco. Now, obviously Rob probably really appreciated it considering the fact that “Love Wins” has been in the Top 100 books on Amazon for the past 25 days, and it’s currently #3 on Amazon’s Bestselling Books.
So, I’m going to try to not make this too much of an in-depth review of the book, but rather just some thoughts around the book specifically and the topic in general. If you want to read a great review of the book, check out this great review from Julie Clawson.
I love the premise – that love wins. That in the end, the God of mercy, and compassion, and never-ending grace, this God who desires that all people be saved, is not going to turn God’s back on a majority of the world. That this God, who is pure love, would not be a God who could create a system in which millions of people would have to suffer through an eternal conscious torment. That isn’t the God whom I serve and call God.
I used to believe in a physical hell. I remember sitting at the memorial service for my grandmommy, a wonderfully loving and caring woman, and one of my uncles standing there saying “At least we know she’s in a better place now.” And I questioned that. I didn’t know whether or not grandmommy had “accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior,” which was of course required for entrance into heaven. And I remember that pain and pit in my stomach as I tried to imagine the fate of my grandmommy.
It was in a Christian Doctrine course at Whitworth University that I decided to change my beliefs about hell, and bought into the idea of annihilationism. I wrote the following paragraph in my final Credo paper for that course:
I believe that those who have rejected Jesus Christ will receive their just punishment from God. They will not receive eternal life. Upon seeing the eternal life and bliss that they have been denied because of their own denial of Jesus Christ, they will suffer a time of torment and “gnashing of teeth.” After this time is completed, their lives will be completely annihilated and they will experience utter non-existence.
Yah…and I thought I was pushing the envelope and being all progressive with my new views…
It’s safe to say my views on hell have changed since college. And much of that happened through many of the same questions that Rob writes about in his book. Reading his book is much like sitting in a coffee shop and having a conversation with Rob, and I’m sure it’s meant to be read like that. But it’s not like he avoids the Bible and theology – he addresses both Hebrew and early Christian views of the afterlife and looks at all the places in scripture where hell is mentioned. He looks at heaven and hell, questions of theodicy and how different interpretations of afterlife affect our lives here on earth.
I think one of the most striking things to consider from his book, and one that he continually tried to mention in subsequent interviews he had on TV & radio was the fact that first and foremost he’s a pastor. He’s not writing this book for the academy, or trying to present an exhaustive critique of traditional notions of hell and damnation. He’s writing as a pastor to people who have these questions; he’s writing as a pastor to people who have not been able to identify as Christian for years because of significant issues with a God who would send people into eternal torment.
Freedom and love are also critical points to his views on all of these topics. In a line that he repeats often in the book, Rob writes, “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are free” (page 72). He also cites heavily from some early church fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Jerome, Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. Rob writes about them and says:
“Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t” (108).
I also loved a portion of the book when Rob is talking about all of us who go to conferences to try and make our churches more hip, more relevant, more missional…when perhaps it’s our theology of hell that needs to be rethought. Perhaps it’s that theology that is making us unable to connect with a large segment of the world who can’t buy into that idea of God. He writes:
“Because if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if your God will punish people for all of eternity for
sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing
or compelling language
or good music
or great coffee
will be able to disguise
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable,
awful reality.” (175)
In the end – would you rather be judged because your view of God’s love and abundant grace was too narrow…or would you rather err on the side of grace? Perhaps that’s simplifying it too much – but it seems that to err on the side of love, on the side of grace, on the side of the possibility of reconciliation for all, it seems that isn’t a bad thing. Is love winning so bad after all?
When you read this book or when you hear Rob being interviewed about the book or the topics of heaven and hell, I think you really get to see his humility come through. And while I have some feelings and convictions about this, hopefully the same could be said for me. Is it possible that a physical hell could exist? I suppose. Are we really very sure about anything when it comes to this realm? Certainly not. And I think that’s the big thing for me. We have to be humble when talking about these issues. We have to say “You know…we really don’t know. But this is where I’m at…”
When Rob was in NYC and being interviewed by the Newsweek Editor, one of the things he said was that we should never turn our speculations into dogma. And when we’re talking about the afterlife, heaven, hell…there is nothing more we can do than to speculate. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of dogma thrown around in this conversation over the past month.
I would highly recommend ordering this book – as I think it will at the very least spur on some very interesting conversations. It’d be a great book to do as a book group, and we actually used the book as a springboard for a Theology Pub conversation we had about hell. You can also get it at Audible.com and listen to Rob read the book to you – which is probably the best way to hear the book. You can also hear Rob talk a bit about the book here in the video trailer below.
So, if you read the book – what are your initial thoughts? Did you find it helpful? Troubling? Insightful? Share some of your thoughts in the comment section.