So I’ve finally read Love Wins, the controversial new book by 40-year-old Rob Bell of ‘Nooma’ and Velvet Elvis fame. I’m a late-comer to Mr Bell – I’ve not read anything by him before nor watched more than a couple of YouTube clips of his Nooma films. But I’m certainly keen to read more now.
Two Mars Hills
First, something that’s puzzled me. Rob Bell is founder and teaching pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. But hang on, isn’t Mars Hill also the church of ultra-reformed super-scary hell-preaching pastor Marc Driscoll?
Well, it turns out there are two churches called Mars Hill, on almost opposite sides of the United States and at opposite ends of the evangelical spectrum. Driscoll’s church is just Mars Hill Church (founded 1996); Bell’s is Mars Hill Bible Church (founded 1999). Normally I’d be more scared of a church that had ‘Bible’ in its name, so great that Rob Bell has been able to turn that on its head. (‘Mars Hill’ of course is another name for the Areopagus where Paul famously addressed the Athenians in Acts 17.)
Take a read of this from Marc Driscoll on their Mars Hill website:
“Jesus tells a parable about heaven and hell. What does Jesus and the Bible say about what happens to every person upon death? Not naturalism, universalism, reincarnationism, annihilationism, or purgatory. The fate of every man and woman who has or will ever live is this: death, and then either heaven for blessing, or hell for suffering. Those alone are the options. Your eternal destiny is sealed upon your death. This life is your only opportunity. Hell is the wrath of God in effect. If you do not believe in and belong to Jesus, you are in the path of the wrath of God that ultimately culminates in the conscious, eternal torment of hell.”
After reading Love Wins, I have a feeling Driscoll and Bell may be glad they’re separated by about 2000 miles. Driscoll probably believes they will ultimately be separated by the impassable gulf between heaven and hell. For yes, brothers and sisters, Rob Bell is a heretic, a false teacher and a peddler of myths! Just have a quick glance at some of what’s being written about him by super-conservative Christians on the internet.
What’s all the fuss?
I think it’s fair to say that Rob Bell was never a darling of the Ultra-Cons, but with Love Wins he’s fallen over the edge of their abyss, never to return. For in this book Bell dares to explore and question the received biblical teaching on hell, what it might be and who might (and might not) go there, and to come up with some rather different (though never dogmatic) ideas from the standard evangelical view. He also dares to question the received wisdom on how people get ‘saved’ and what this means anyway.
Rob Bell and Robin Parry
Having recently attended the Spurgeon’s conference on Evangelical Universalism and subsequently read (some of) Robin Parry’s The Evangelical Universalist, it’s interesting to read Rob Bell in light of that and hear the resonances between the two. Bell is more tentative than Parry; he’s not saying that everyone will definitely be participating in God’s Kingdom in the end. But he’s certainly hopeful, and he draws on a lot of the same ideas and sources as Parry: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, the idea of ultimate restoration, the inappropriateness of everlasting punishment for finite sins. He points out that the phrase ‘eternal punishment’ in (for example) Jesus’ story of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25) can more properly be translated ‘a time of trimming’ or ‘a period of intense correction’, and that ‘eternal’ can refer to a quality or intensity of our experience of time rather than to unending duration. However, in the end he (I think wisely) leaves the questions open:
“Those are questions, or more accurately those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
Bell acknowledges at the outset that he’s not saying anything new in Love Wins – that pretty much all the ideas in the book have been expressed and believed by some mainstream, orthodox Christians from very early times. What he is doing is bringing them together and articulating them afresh, offering hope to the many Christians (and others) who feel that the predominant version of Christianity they see is not particularly good news.
Believing in hell
There are at least three ways of believing in hell that I’ve come across amongst Christians.
There are those Christians who believe in a dreadful and everlasting hell, but who do so reluctantly and sorrowfully, believing that that is what the Bible teaches but wishing it were not so. They believe it is a terrible necessity brought about by the grievous evil present in the world and in human hearts, and they would be immensely glad if neither evil nor hell were real. I have no problem with this kind of belief in hell, even if I don’t fully share it. For these Christians, Rob Bell offers some alternative takes on judgement, hell and salvation which may at least bring hope.
There are others who are haunted by hell, tormented by the thought of its torments. Will I, will my friends, go there? Are some of my family members there already? Should I spend every waking moment in evangelistic efforts to save others from damnation? And they live fearfully in its horrible flickering shadow, some driven to madness by it, others to over-zealous evangelism, others to lose their faith completely. For these above all, Rob Bell offers a message of hope, and I hope with all my heart that they hear it.
But then finally there are those whose belief in hell seems to have a kind of vindictive satisfaction to it, a self-righteous relish at the notion that those who didn’t agree with them or belong to their group will ultimately get the most unpleasant come-uppance imaginable, forever and ever. For these believers, hell is not a troublesome, regrettable or secondary doctrine; it is essential to their belief that they are the right ones, the good ones, the chosen one, the saved ones, and that others are not. Hell is a source of comfort because they know for sure they won’t be going there, but all those bad people who aren’t like them will be -praise the Lord! These ones will not like Rob Bell’s book at all. But maybe, just maybe, they won’t actually like the Kingdom of God much either, not when they see who’s there.
‘The good news is better than that’
Love Wins is about much more than hell though. It’s about life; it’s about love; it’s about hope; it’s about salvation in the broadest, deepest and richest sense. It’s about Jesus, and about us, and about everyone. It’s about Jesus and the gospel being far, far greater and bigger and better and more powerful than we think. It’s about heaven and hell and earth all in the same place and time, depending on how we see and how we respond to the story that God is telling.
I think it’s a great book. It’s not academic theology, and nor is it meant to be, but it’s based on good scholarship – Tom Wright’s for one. For many of us it’s simply saying what we already understood or thought or hoped, but Bell says it very well and with some great use of language. Go and get it and annoy the fundamentalists. 🙂
My vicar Will Cookson has also written a good review of Love Wins.
- Jürgen Moltmann and universalism
- Is Universalism an Evangelical option?
- Justice, mercy and the love of God
- More to Christ than just the cross
- Good Friday – the death and triumph of love
- Surprised by Hope – Tom Wright
- Wonders of the Universe – Entropy wins?