Sunday, March 11, 2012

Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

by Rob Bell
San Francisco, HarperOne, 2011
224 pages    Spiritual

Early in the book, Love Wins by Pastor Rob Bell, he says: “Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do.”

In eight short, sermon-like chapters, Bell discusses and disses some of the basic beliefs of the Christian religion—please note that I said religion, rather than faith. The chapters read more like sermons than theology and therefore are easy to read, a real plus for people not willing or able to pour through theological tomes.

Some have said that his writing is Universalist in nature, meaning that he believes no one is outside the grace of God and Jesus came that we all might have life and have it abundantly. As one reviewer said, it is a book with a “hope-filled message of transformation.” Bell takes on the topics of heaven and hell, topics sacred to evangelical Christianity, and apparently he has caused a bit of a firestorm by saying that theology that relies on discussions of heaven and hell is “simply missing the point.”

 As I am reading the reviews, my liberally-educated theological soul is crying…”What?” I didn’t read anything heretical or revolutionary in his writings. He begins by focusing on a haunting painting in his grandmother’s house that showed travelers on a narrow cross-shaped path leading over hellfire to a town called “heaven.” He tells about how disturbing that image was to him growing up. I recall helping my best friends with their catechism lessons when I was about 6 or 7. In those catechism books were horrifying (to me) pictures of heaven, hell, and children being lifted up to Christ, who was sitting on clouds of glory. Even then I believed, as Bell does, that the Christian faith isn’t about going to heaven when we die, but about entering into a living relationship with God. The works and words of Jesus are our example and guide. The Sojourners reviewer says that to Bell, heaven and hell are not simply places we go when we die, but they are connected to who we are in Christ now. “We are called to accept the gift of a transformative life that can endure even death. This life is a gift from a God who truly desires life on earth to be like it is in heaven, both now and for eternity, and who lets us serve as partners in this work of reconciling a world that God loves and will never give up on.”

I have a friend who has already been to hell. Alcohol, drugs, prison, schizophrenia.  He’s been to hell with a capital H. He is trying so hard to rehabilitate himself with God’s grace. Heaven, for him, right now, is a nice little apartment, supportive friends, a relationship with God that lifts him up every day—and a little truck to drive around to painting jobs. Love wins—in the terminology of Rob Bell.

The core of Bell’s book is that God will not give up on us—no matter what. The hard work about being a Christian is living…living a life that is in constant relationship with God, a life that is thoughtful, relevant, kind, and loving…I guess the Evangelicals would call it “spirit-filled.” I have just finished a 10-week study of the Beatitudes, where we struggled mightily with Jesus’ words and our response to them. I can’t remember even mentioning the words “heaven or hell” except to mention that we had begun reading Bell’s book. Our conversations were all about understanding Jesus’ message through the Beatitudes, finding peace, being in relationship with those we love, and living a Christian life in the world. And that is the gist of what I took out of my reading of Love Wins

Our church congregation is reading Love Wins as an all-church Lenten study, and the chapters are the themes of each week’s sermons. An interesting choice for a liberal congregation that committed itself to social justice issues long ago and whose members firmly believe in God’s grace extending to everyone.  I would think that if Bell would preach at our church, he would be preaching to people nodding their heads in agreement. 

And therein may lie the problem. Bell has been the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI, a bastion of Calvinistic theology. I just read that he has left Mars Hill to “pursue other opportunities.”  As I was reading reviews and other Internet drivel, I came across this comment following Julie Clawson’s review on Sojourners: “I don't need to read anything. Rob Bell is a heretic. A universalist heretic. John Piper says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Oh, it does, does it? It is very hard to shake up the established “church.” 

You might also be interested in Jay Bakker’s book, Fall to Grace. Bakker and Bell could be best friends.
The thoughtful review by Julie Clawson on Sojourners:

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