Reader Beware… I actually like Rob Bell; regardless if his theology is 100% the same as mine! His ministry and thought-provoking style have helped my wife and I navigate through some very tough times losing a son and consequently some very muddy theological waters. We have come out swimming in a more clear stream of faith in Jesus Christ than ever before… and we both attribute a lot of this to the influence of Rob Bell’s ministry.
This is NOT a review on the book by Rob Bell; Love Wins; A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I just don’t have the time to pour into a chapter-by-chapter review, and others who are far more capable have already done so.
I was disappointed by the hoopla surrounding the book before it came out because so many people used terms like heretic and false prophet to describe Rob Bell before the book even came out… so I decided to give my thoughts on the actual book!
I think there are several compelling arguments in the book, and the most convincing for me is the fact that when we say Jesus came and died to save ME from MY sins and have a relationship with ME… that puts YOU and ME in the center of the Universe and that doesn’t appear to be what God through Jesus intended to accomplish!
In regards to who gets “in” and who is “out” of the heavenly realm, early in the book he mentioned the death of a 15 year-old boy who dies and asks what happens if they consider themselves atheist, playing on the “age of accountability” mantra many churches teach. The questions he raises are valid… did this young man only have a 2-3 year window (nobody knows the exact “age of accountability” because its speculation) to make the right decision? If he didn’t make the right decision once he reaches the appropriate age is that all there is to his life and now he is in hell forever? And then you have people who don’t think there is an “age of accountability” and so even the youngest of children who die are in danger of hell fire if they don’t believe the right thing… is this how God works? Or do we just hope God is kind enough to accept our young children into heaven, and this is something he decided before the foundations of the earth predestines them to heaven? What if the person is handicapped and just doesn’t have the capacity to “choose” Christ… are they off the hook somehow, or will God send them to the Hell they had no ability to choose?
See what I mean… some great questions to consider when deciding what you believe about who is in Heaven and who is in Hell.
I’m just asking you to consider these questions, because this is what I dealt with as a parent who lost a child who was 3 months old… and I’m certain people who have lost 12 year olds who grow up doing what kids do… have been tormented by these questions… I think they are worth asking and exploring!
All throughout the book, Bell raises a lot of questions… and I enjoy the way he asks them. It’s about making you think through your faith and stretching it, instead of simply believing what you’re told and rolling with it through life. He writes, “all that matters is how you respond to Jesus, and that answer totally resonates with me; it IS how you respond to Jesus. But it raises another important question… which Jesus?
Seriously… I love this question. He goes on to give examples of people who witnessed the not so nice side of humanity following Jesus in THEIR own image. Christians who killed Muslims for being… Muslim. What about those who glean their understanding of Christianity from the people who are on television and murdering the image of Christ with their “theology”, how about the people who have been molested by God’s representatives or who have been witnesses to Pastors engaged in mistreating people in the name of Jesus… the list could go on and on. But asking the question which Jesus is one worth asking. Even for Rob Bell himself!
Here are some of the things I struggle with what Rob Bell is saying in the book.
-Hell is less about a literal place and more about something that is created here and now…
(While I resonate with the fact that many people live a “hell on earth” existence, and if we can do something about that we should as followers of Christ, I wonder if jumping to the side of not talking about Hell as an eternal reality is the most productive approach. I want to be a part of bringing Heaven to Earth, but I also want to hold that life is eternal for us all… somewhere)
-When Jesus spoke of Hell he was primarily speaking to religious people who had decided who was in and who was out…
(Yes, I agree that many of the times Jesus used a word we translate hell he was speaking to people who already thought they were “in”… but the point is Jesus did talk about it, and seems to take it seriously even if He was speaking to religious people. Even today I think religious people are in need of a refresher course on the gospel daily! Tony Simoncini included!)
-The Gates are still open, there is no last chance for people and God will always accept them into the kingdom if they will reject their way and accept God’s way through Jesus.
(This is an argument I would love to be true, but I don’t think it can really be supported biblically. I’m not saying everything about what happens when we die is biblically clear (as evident by so many ideas within the Church) but I don’t know this one can be supported as something other than pure speculation. It’s a hope some have and a call to the grace of God, but from what we have in scripture I think we can say that people are not walking through the gates of the new heavens and the new earth saying, “Oh, now I get it… I do want in.”
God can and will relent in regards to eternal destinies is his most premium stance. Yes, God passionately wants us to walk with Jesus in the here and now, because we can lessen the Hell on Earth as his followers, but there is a second chance of sorts.
While I think God relenting is a possibility (maybe more of a hope of mine), I don’t believe this is something that happens for everyone who ever lived and I don’t think I would bet anyone’s life on it. Most importantly I don’t think it’s a viable way to proclaim the good news that Jesus came to save us and make a way to God! When I’m faced with the fact that my son died, I’m ushered into questions of accountability, predestination, and God’s grace and mercy. The same questions arise when I consider what happens to people in the above scenarios (what happens when people who lived a rough life die without a visible faith in Jesus)… and then you have the classic question of people who never get a chance to hear about Jesus before they die because they live in a country without the freedoms and luxuries we take for granted in the US! In my opinion, Jesus is the ONLY way to The Creator… which makes The WAY narrow, but is the path on which we find Jesus narrow, or can that path extend to where people are… how long is the arm of Jesus, how wide is His love for the people of ALL the earth?
Sorry if you’re getting more questions than answers : )
So in the end, He is not an Universalist in the sense that God uses his power and knowledge to sweep everybody into heaven even if they are kicking and screaming the entire way there! The book speaks of a choice we all make everyday and our lives are shaped by the choices we make… to follow and trust Christ or not is the biggest and most important choice we are faced with, but in the end some will make this choice through other avenues. I think a better description of Rob Bell is an Inclusivist. This may be evident in his video promo for the book, when he asks if Gandhi is really in hell, and if someone can know this for sure. It’s hard to imagine a man whose life was spent doing so much good in hell, and for many it’s hard to say he is in heaven because he never said Jesus is Lord.
Gandhi did say…
“I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”
“A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”
“The message of Jesus as I understand it, is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole… If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.’ But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount… I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity, as it is understood in the west.”
“Jesus occupies in my heart,” said Gandhi, “the place of one of the greatest teachers who have had a considerable influence on my life. I shall say to the Hindus that your life will be incomplete unless you reverentially study the teachings of Jesus… Make this world the kingdom of God and his righteousness and everything will be added unto you. I tell you that if you will understand, appreciate, and act up to the spirit of this passage, you won’t need to know what place Jesus or any other teacher occupies in your heart.”
So the question remains, is saying Jesus and his teachings have had the most profound effect on your life than any other person, and that all Hindus are incomplete without studying the teachings of Jesus and letting them impact their life enough for heaven? Some would say yes, and some would say no! I don’t think this is a debate we will see settled in this life, but someone will be surprised in the life to come: )
I’m certain from the contents of the book he is not advocating a belief that it doesn’t matter what you believe or do in this life that determines your eternal destiny. In fact he says the opposite, but he is also not saying that a good Muslim or Hindu ends up in hell because they never heard the gospel of Jesus, or never said the sinner’s prayer. The book reveals that he believes more people will be in heaven than many evangelicals think, and this puts him outside of the traditional Evangelical Christian circles. It seems for Bell the idea that a simple prayer fixes your eternal destiny is more dangerous than believing that people who are not classified as Christians may also be in heaven. While I have insisted through the years that God’s grace is much bigger than the sinner’s prayer and people we thought were out might very well be in… I do think I would distance myself from the wide range of people Bell would include in the “in-crowd” because it seems he is unwilling to say that people will be in Hell. For him Hell is a choice people make now and will make in eternity and whenever they decide they have had enough of the Hell they chose God will rescue them (my words not his). I can’t say that I agree with him here.
As my wife Shanda pointed out to me in our discussion about this topic… there is something about confessing your sins and your need for Jesus that does something to the heart, and denying this is not something I can support!
I still liked the book a lot and believe it raises a lot of really good questions that need to be asked and explored by everyone… if you don’t ask God these questions for yourself and search them in the scriptures, I think you are doing yourself a disservice. Many of Bell’s detractors will say that questioning faith without giving answers is dangerous… and I believe just the opposite to be true. A faith not healthy or strong enough to ask and handle the questions is NO faith at all! After all it is FAITH are talking about, which means we believe something to be true and real without absolute certainty. I am who I am today IN Christ because I was given permission to ask some hard questions of the faith I was engaged in, and of the God of The Universe. What I found is He is big enough to handle the questions, and my faith became stronger in the end even if my questions were never really answered. In the end I found THE ANSWER and in the end HE is the only answer that matters. Jesus matters… not my or anyones opinion on Rob Bell, Heaven, Hell, or the fate of everyone who ever lived!
Here are some more qualified opinions if you care to see what others are saying…
For an ongoing Chapter-by-Chapter review by a scholar I respect immensely see Scot McKnight’s thought at Jesus Creed… This is Part 1 of many I suspect
Reviews For Love Wins:
Reviews Against Love Wins: