I dreaded reading Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions. It has stirred up so much controversy – online, on the radio, on American television, on John Piper’s twitter, apparently – that I almost felt that I had already read the book before I opened it up.
I dreaded reviewing the book even more, because it seems to me the way the debate about the book has been framed is that you must either come out for or against Bell and his positions. As Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have aptly observed, that’s something people who are involved with or have sympathies with ‘emergent’ Christianity are reluctant to do.
Anyone who has remotely followed the controversy surrounding the book will know that the biggest question it has provoked is whether Bell is a ‘universalist.’ In other words, does he believe that everyone will be saved? That everyone will go to heaven? That no one will end up in hell for all eternity?
In short, yes (though Bell resists the label ‘universalist’). But there’s a longer explanation for why Bell thinks this is so. I suppose that is why he has written an entire book to elaborate on it.
Love Wins is not tightly reasoned apologetics. It is rather like a poem, words that were written to be read out loud, to be listened to. You can get a feel for this in the promotional trailer for the book, where Bell recites portions of the opening chapter.
But there is some exposition. For example, in the chapters where Bell discusses ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, Bell argues that the way the writers of the Bible thought about heaven and hell is very different from the way we have come to think about them today. Accordingly, he thinks we should adjust the way we think about heaven and hell. This allows him to root his position in scripture (the book jacket describes it as ‘a deeply biblical vision’).
Though Bell’s exposition is elaborated through stories and through posing awkward, pointed questions, his position emerges clearly enough. I think DeYoung – who has written a 20-page rebuttal of Love Wins – represents Bell’s perspective fairly, so I’ll reproduce his summary here:
‘Hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. Hell is both a present reality for those who resist God and a future reality for those who die unready of God’s love. Hell is what we make of heaven when we cannot accept the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But hell is not forever. God will have his way. How can his good purposes fail? Every sinner will turn to God and realize he has already been reconciled to God, in this life or in the next. There will be no eternal conscious torment. God says no to injustice in the age to come, but he does not pour out wrath (we bring the temporary suffering upon ourselves), and he certainly does not punish for eternity. In the end, love wins.’
Is that true or false? Both Bell and DeYoung are claiming that theirs is the deeply biblical vision, the one that is right. Both claim precedent for their positions, drawing on the words of the church fathers that support their positions. Both think that their vision of heaven, hell and the nature of God is the healthy, holy vision – the one that God intended and that will most help humanity here, now and in the hereafter.
Spokespeople for the emerging church, like Bell, have been criticised in the past for failing to take positions. Love Wins, at least, has taken a position, though it has done so in a soothing, poetic way – in the soft style of much of the emerging church.
But can we move beyond questions such as whether Bell is indeed a universalist? Must we frame our debate in terms of whether we agree wholeheartedly with a Bell or a DeYoung? Can we allow ourselves to ask harder questions about what their competing words say about how we think about heaven, hell and God?