Rob Bell’s new book comes out today and because of a nice lady at Barnes & Noble I was able to pick a copy up last night. Finished the book already and wanted to share with you some of my thoughts, especially after already touching on the controversy.
Realizing that you may have different expectations of a review I will start with a short overview followed by a more lengthy look at what the book proposes and maybe more importantly how it is proposed.
Before that let me say I am glad this conversation is happening. As a leader and a communicator in the local church I am guilty of oversimplifying eternity and not working through the questions that we all have. However I am saddened as to the tone of this discussion is taking in some circles. I realize these are matters of grave importance but people are watching how we treat one another and so far we are only reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Rob Bell is not advocating universalism. People are not dragged to heaven kicking and screaming. In fact a good portion of the book is spent reinforcing hell and the reality of hell that we see all around us. Readers of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce or Mere Christianity will be familiar with the concept of choosing to live in a hellish state. Bell is affirming hell, free will, and God’s judgment.
He is not doing this in neat and clean categories. This will drive his detractors crazy, which I think is his aim. Bell is trying to create conversation and bring up the questions that many have either repressed or whose unresolved nature became a wedge for them and the local church. Bell is changing the conversation from “what happens after I die?” to “how do I live now?” It reminded me of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope in that God is in the restorative business not the evacuation business. God is bringing heaven to earth and we get to, as Bell puts it: “drag the future into the present”.
I liked this book and would recommend it. However let me be clear I have resonated with Bell’s work before and many of the critics leading up to the book’s release aren’t people I readily identify with. Perhaps Bell has done an excellent job of taking dangerous theology and putting it in an appealing package and I am just one more fool taking the bait. But as I read it last night I never saw anything that screamed of being heretical. Of course God is willing to do anything to reconnect with us. Of course God’s love and grace is bigger than anything we can imagine. Of course there is an obvious hell in this world, but thankfully there is also an obvious heaven as well.
That is what Bell is practicing with this book. He is taking the words and categories imposed by others and using them against them. That may be too strong of a description but the bulk of the book is looking at the Scriptural references used to support an exclusive heaven and an eternal conscious torment hell and deconstructs them. Any student of the Scriptures view on eternity knows that there isn’t a lot of detail and throughout church history there has been plenty of diversity on the matter.
What Bell is doing specifically is deconstructing the idea of heaven being extremely exclusive.
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance of anything better.
What this idea creates and what Bell spends a lot of the early parts of the book analyzing is the insider vs outsider paradigm this creates. There are people who are in and those who are out, and we can clearly define who those people are. Within this paradigm people rightly point out that eternity is determined by how we respond to Jesus, but Bell asks “how does one properly respond to Jesus?” What follows is a litany of Biblical texts in which people are told by Jesus they have found salvation through various different actions, evidence of faith, and statements. There lacks a singular example of someone coming to faith.
As I mentioned above Bell is trying to redefine our notion of eternity. As opposed to fulfilling one action or step that ensures our eternal bliss, Bell points out that Jesus is challenging people to live in eternity in the here and now and also makes it clear the present hellish nature of others.
Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem less concerned about hell after death.
Heaven requires a change that can be anything but easy. Take for instance the Rich Young Ruler who asks Jesus about eternity. In the conversation that follows eternity is offered, but the consequences are too painful for the man to embrace.
Jesus brings the man hope, but that hope bears within it judgment.
So if heaven, with all of its implications, is something we can begin to experience here and now what about hell? The Biblical case for hell is sparse. In the Old Testament you have a few mentions of a dark place you go when you die called Sheol, but the Hebrew Scriptures are infinitely more concerned with the present context than the afterlife. Jesus talks a lot about what is translated as hell Gehenna but that was the trash dump outside of town, a nasty place with fire that you wouldn’t want to be but our common understandings of hell don’t match the literal meaning of the word. Throw in a couple of references to Hades and you have the totality of the teaching on hell in the Bible. However we know that hell exists. We see hellish things in this world all the time, and if this world is only a glimpse of the next then it is right to assume that we can go on living in that hellish state.
God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.
. . . there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.
The chapter that may get the most reaction from people is the fourth, titled: “Does God Get What God Wants?” It deals with the intersection of our free will to choose and God’s urgency to bring us closer to him. Bell readily acknowledges that free will is not something God can override, but he also states that we may limit God’s ability to extend to us opportunities to turn back to Him particularly after we die.
At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.
Bell is gracious to acknowledge the diversity of opinion down through church history on this matter. He doesn’t land at a nice neat answer that so many reading this book may be looking for. What he does in this regard is land at how the Bible ends. It ends with complete restoration and healing. This is the hope he is advocating and when those questions of who will be saved and what are the qualifications this is how he responds:
Those are the questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating more space for the freedom that love requires.
Critics will cite John 14 and Jesus’ declaration that He is “the way and the truth and the life”. The only way to be saved is through Jesus, and Bell agrees. In that statement of exclusivity he points out the inclusivity on the other side of it.
This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.
Of course God’s love is bigger than we assume. This open door will bother some people, but that is Bell’s point as reflects on the Gospel.
The book ends appropriately with Bell’s story of conversion. One that many can relate to. As a child he prayed a prayer of salvation with his parents. I am thankful that he affirms this as it is a common and comfortable method of coming to know Jesus Christ. It brings the conversation back to the context many of us are familiar with and takes abstract theological questions and makes them real. Which is the whole point of the incarnation. To many God is an abstract idea hard to relate to. Jesus is the Gospel with flesh. Jesus was and is constantly surprising and challenging us with the Gospel. It should be no surprise then when we come to realize that our notion of love and grace and salvation has been far too small compared to the real thing.