I read Rob Bell's controversial Love Wins yesterday - as in I started at 8:30 and was done by 3:30. Granted, I'm preaching on heaven and hell this week, so I figured I should at least read the most debated book on the topic in recent memory.
If you missed the controversy, let me just say it was messy and ugly, and I was only viewing the remnants and echos from the other side of the world. For a not-so-brief summary of the controversy, check out this article. For a beautiful interview with Rob Bell about how he has handled all this controversy, click here. For a look at what this conversation means for the current state of North American Christianity - especially evangelicalism, read this excellent article by theologian Scott McKnight.
Essentially, the controversy is all about two long debated points within Christian theology.
1. What does it take to be saved (to go to heaven and to avoid hell)? (Specifically, can people who have never heard about Jesus be saved?)
2. Is hell a place of eternal, conscious punishment from which there is no escape - ever?
Both of these questions have been asked by theologians almost since the time of Christ, and for almost that long, our best Christian thinkers have come up with a variety of answers. There is no Christian consensus on these two points. Neither of these two points are critical questions of Christian orthodoxy. Therefore, throughout history, most Christians have afforded each other the freedom to disagree. Rob Bell's answers to both questions fall well within the scope of the varied Christian opinion throughout history.
So what does Bell actually say? Although he says it very well, in his wonderful way of putting very complex ideas in simple and beautiful words, he actually only makes a few specific points.
Regarding heaven, Bell clarifies the use of the word heaven in the Bible. In the New Testament, the word "heaven" is used in three different ways: (a) as a reference to God (e.g. "Kingdom of Heaven"), (b) the place/time of total restoration in the future, (c) the invasion of that future reality into our present reality ("Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" - type of thinking). Basically, heaven is something we can experience in part now. (Remember all your pastors talking about starting the "eternal life" now. This is what Bell is talking about.) But one day, this foretaste will become the real deal, explosively joyful, unfiltered presence of God among the loving community of God's people. So far, Bell is right in line with all good theologians.
Regarding hell, Bell unpacks almost every Biblical reference to hell. And then he slowly works to prove that it is at least possible that a person's experience of hell might not be forever. The fires of hell might be for the sake of purification rather than eternal punishment. There might be a second (or third) opportunity to repent and to return to God's grace even after death. It is possible that God might eventually empty hell and reclaim every lost child. This may sound strange to people who have grown up with the concept of hell as a place of eternal, conscious, permanent punishment. However, as Bell points out, good Christian theologians ranging from Justin Martyr to Origen to Luther have said exactly this.
Regarding salvation, Bell makes three basic points. (1) God is everywhere. (2) God is always trying to woo people to him and his ways of love. (3) We will be judged on how we respond to God's wooing - however or wherever we find it. Although he puts the argument in more beautiful and more controversial tones, this is the essential point, and this is nothing new to Christianity. Everywhere there have been Christian missionaries and thinkers, people have wondered about this, and many of them have said exactly the same thing.
So here's my conclusion. Rob Bell didn't say anything new or unorthodox or unChristian, but he said it really, really well. Honestly, I'm not sure he's right, but I think it's possible. And I think it's important that we talk about hell and who may or may not go there with a little more humility and uncertainty. (The Bible seems to be intentionally unclear on that point.) And I am sure that Bell (or anyone else) can believe everything in this book and be authentically Christian.
The Josh rating: JJJJ.
(Coming soon, my sermon on Heaven and Hell.)