Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is about heaven and hell of course. More broadly speaking, it's about what we believe will happen to a person after he/she dies and why that will happen. Of course, it's really hard to talk about these deep topics without exploring some other areas of Christian theology. So, as the second part of this 2-blog series on Love Wins, we will explore what Rob Bell says about Christ, the Cross, and (the crux of his argument) end times.
I must confess that Love Wins is not a systematic theology, I haven't ever spoken to Rob Bell personally, and I have only read parts of his other works. So while this blog explore Bell's beliefs, it is limited in its scope.
What Bell Believes about Christ - Christology
Thomas Noble, theology professor at Nazarene Theological Seminary and Nazarene Theological College Manchester and all-around theology genius, teaches that all Christian theology should begin by looking at Christ. This is what makes Christian theology Christian, and not something else.
So what does Bell say about Christ? Chapter 6, "There are Rocks Everywhere" is where the majority of his conversations about the person of Christ occur. First, Bell calls Jesus "the rock." Really, he says that Jesus was the rock that followed the Israelites around in the desert in order to give them water. By the 1st Century, many Jews believed that the rock that provided water for the Israelites sort of floated around with them to provide them water (as opposed to there being different rocks in different places). In 1 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul makes a reference to this fact and identifies this "floating rock" as Christ. Bell writes, "According to Paul, Jesus was there. Without anybody using his name. Without anybody saying that it was him. Without anybody acknowledging just what-or, more precisely, who-it was" (144). Bell, perhaps, pushes this analogy a little farther than I would be comfortable with. I think that Paul was simply trying to provide new meaning to an old story. He was suggesting that Christ was present with the Israelites (although not as a rock) and that Christ is sustaining and life-giving.
Even though Bell seems to push this metaphor farther than I believe Bell intended it, he still comes to some of the same conclusions - Christ was there and Christ is sustaining.
The next way that Bell talks about Jesus is as the life-giving energy of all of creation. This is based on the logos (Greek for "word" or "reason") passage in John 1. Here, Bell says that Jesus is the creating word of God himself. I am not in love of his vocabulary here, saying that Jesus is the energy or spark that runs through all of creation. While I think I agree with his point, his vocabulary points to a sort of monism. An extension of this creating work of Jesus for Bell also means that Jesus was divine.
Finally, Bell suggests that Jesus has always been present, but was also made flesh at a particular point in history. This is simply inferred by the way he talks about Jesus as being present in OT times and in the present, but also living and speaking in the 1st Century.
Overall, I do not really have any major qualms with Bell's beliefs on the person of Christ. The book wasn't an attempt to answer the question "Who is Jesus?" and so it makes sense that Bell did not go into a lot of detail on this point. On the hand, one can reason that Bell agrees that Jesus is God, Jesus was a part of creation, and Jesus came as flesh in blood. In other words, it seems that Bell maintains the doctrine of the Incarnation. On the other hand, the way that Bell identifies Jesus can be a little confusing. Christian theology identifies God as three-in-one: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is always difficult to speak of one person of the Trinity because it is really impossible to speak about one to the exclusion of the others. God is three. God is one. God is not three separate parts, he is three and one simultaneously. "Jesus," however, is the name given to God the Son when he was made flesh. The Son existed eternally before becoming flesh - becoming Jesus. For this reason, when talking about the identity of Christ, it's usually better to speak of this person of the Trinity as "the Son," or "the Word" as opposed to "Jesus."
What Bell Believes about Salvation - Soteriology
This area of theology, generally speaking, is composed of two parts: 1) How is salvation offered to humanity? and 2) How does one receive salvation? Rob Bell answers these two questions throughout his book, but chapters 5 and 6 contain the most explicit explanations.
The aspect of Bell's writing that I like the least in Love Wins is that he often posts different perspectives on an issues as "either-or" options. This seems to be a form rhetoric that Bell enjoys utilizing in order to engage the reader. Bell does this several times throughout the book and one of the most frustrating is in "Dying to Live" - Chapter 5. Throughout the first several pages of the chapter, Bell begins positioning several different "theories of atonement" (I will talk about this in a minute) against each other. He writes, "...which was it? When Jesus died on the cross, was it the end of sacrifices or the reconciling of all thins or the price paid to free guilty sinners" (126)? Eventually, he comes clean and says that it is all of these different metaphors.
"Theories of atonement" is sort of a misnomer. This title is given to the different ways people have explained how Jesus' life, death, and resurrection have provided salvation. Atonement is literally a made up word that means "at-one-ment," which points to how salvation provides humanity the ability to be in a right relationship with God. Many different theologians have identified many different ways that salvation is talked about in Scripture and have crafted "theories" based on these observations. However, most theologians realize that every theory put forth has many weaknesses and that really no one theory, in itself, is complete. In order to understand salvation, one has to create a composite of all of the different theories. Bell affirms this:
"For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audiences in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and reader would have already been familiar with, and then they essentially said: What happened on the cross is like...a defendant going free/a relationship being reconciled/something lost being redeemed/a battle being won/ a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again/ an enemy being loved" (127-8).
I'm in. I like that Bell goes on to say that redemption is for all of creation and not just humans. He also says that salvation is for everybody. Some probably read universalism into this proposition, but I just read free will. Rob Bell says that salvation is offered to everybody (not just a few predetermined people) and that each person has the ability to accept or reject this salvation.
This leads to the 2nd part of Bell's beliefs on salvation - how does one receive salvation.
There are some phrases for this experience that have been hanging around churches for quite some time now. Maybe you know a few: "getting saved," "being born again," "pray the sinner's prayer," "putting faith in Christ," and the list could go on and on.
Bell doesn't use these phrases. He puts it simpler, in words that everybody uses. Here are a few examples (italics mine):
"People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. Sometimes people bump into Jesus, they trip on the mystery, they stumble past the word, they drink from the rock, without knowing what or who it is" (158).
"What we see Jesus doing again and again-in the midst of constant reminders about the seriousness of following him, living like him, and trusting him-is widening the scope and expanse of his saving work" (159).
"[The prodigal son] has to choose which [story] he will live in. Which one will he believe. Which one will he trust" (166).
"All [the other brother] had to do was receive" (168).
For Rob Bell, one must believe, trust, and come to Jesus in order to receive salvation. Although Bell does not talk about the Holy Spirit's role in the process of this relationship, he maintains several other key components of salvation: Jesus did the work, we have to have faith, we receive the salvation that Jesus has already provided. Bell does paint this a little differently than most though. He explains that Jesus is as wide as the universe and as narrow as a gate. Jesus is the only source of salvation, but is open to all people. Bell thinks more people will be saved than most Christians typically think.
One other way that Bell talks about new life in Christ is through the cycle of death and resurrection. He does not completely flesh this out. While I believe that Jesus' death and resurrection brings new life and that baptism is a symbol of us entering with Jesus into his death and resurrection, I am not sure that I feel comfortable using this as a typology for all of creation. Jesus' death and resurrection were, at least in many ways, unique.
What Bell Believes about the End - Eschatology
This is the crux of Love Wins. This is why Bell writes and the aspect that he talks about the most. I will simply try to summarize his beliefs on this component of faith and then analyze them.
Rob Bell believes in realized eschatology. He believes that the realities of heaven and hell can actually be experienced today, now, and in this world. But these realities continue on into "the age to come" as well. Bell struggles to see how permanent torture could be glorifying to God and so maintains that after death, even those in hell will have the opportunity to repent - a sort of second chance. In this way, God's love wins. Everyone will have opportunity to receive salvation. However, there will still be those who will continue to reject God's love and they will continue to live in hell forever (it seems that Bell would suggest that the number of those who would choose this path would be very small).
Let me tackle this in two parts
First, realized eschatology. The idea that heaven can be lived out now is actually quite popular and favored by theologians today. It is usually expressed in the already-but-not-yet nature of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament seems to maintain that the rule and reign of God broke into our sinful world with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because of this, wherever Christ's reign and rule are - there the Kingdom of God (heaven) is. If you have ever heard me preach, you know that I love this promise from the Bible. I haven't really ever thought of hell realized now though. On the one hand, it would make sense that people could be living in hell now, separated from God. However, the Holy Spirit is constantly working in each person's life regardless of their perspectives of God. In this sense, one cannot truly experience hell on earth because God is not absent. God is still acting in his/her life. But, one's life can be hellish, even if it is not the full reality of hell now.
Second, the second chance (or endless amount of chances). While I kind of like the idea as a relief of some theological tension, the Biblical evidence is unconvincing. Although Bell proposes that the doors are always open to heaven, he also leaves out several passages that explain that there is a time when God says "I am sorry, but I don't know you." The parable of the ten virgins, the story of the sheep and goats, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and the Sermon on the Mount are a few that come to mind that point to the finality of our decisions on earth.
My General Conclusions/Reflections on Love Wins:
This book is the first book I have ever read three times. Considering the book as a whole, I love it. It challenges several widespread and hazardous beliefs of the church. Following Christ is about participating in God's work of redeeming the world now, not just about getting to heaven. The Gospel is not just for a chosen few, it's for everybody. We shouldn't think we know exactly where the line is between "Christian" and "non-Christian." Rob Bell does an amazing job forcing the reader to reconsider these beliefs that he/she has probably heard since childhood.
Although I love the book on this broad scope, there are some details that I am not entirely happy with. Some of the rhetoric is a little misleading and some of the biblical scholarship is selective. I disagree with Bell's final point on the openness between heaven and hell after death, although would admit that it's impossible to really know until we get there.
Rob Bell inspires me as both a writer and as a Christian voice in our world. Although I do not want to say all of the same things as Bell or to write exactly like he does, I do hope that one day I can communicate as effectively and to as wide of an audience as Bell does. It seems obvious to me that he loves Christ and lives out of the Scriptures. I believe him to be a man of God and hope that others will see me in the same light.
I am deeply saddened by the way this book was received by the Christian community. In doing research, I found that most of the individuals who started the controversy did so before the book was released and before they even read the book. They made assumptions based on the description on the back cover (no, I am neither joking nor exaggerating).
Overall, Love Wins is a great book for those who are somewhat familiar with Christian theology and Scripture. It takes some critical reflection to sort through some of the material, but it is easily readable and deeply challenging. I would probably not recommend it for a new Christian because of the need for the reader to pull the helpful content out of the less accurate beliefs. I would strongly recommend studying this book with a small group.
Thanks for reading.