I recently finished Love Wins by Rob Bell and wanted to give my account of the book. Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was a fast read and typical of Bell’s style. I first want to say that nowhere did I see him step out of the realms of historical orthodoxy. He may stretch some of what “typical” evangelicals might say, but I would say he is well within the Christian faith. I read an interesting article by the president of Fuller Seminary you can read his blog here. He has one of the best understandings of orthodoxy that I have heard of in a long time. Finally on to Bell’s book.
I want to start out with some of the positive things I saw in his book and then move into some critiques that I had. First, the book is typical of Bell’s engaging style of both speaking and writing. While at time the repetition of phrases got to me I was impressed at how well Bell uses this style of writing. It may not have appealed to me specifically, reading too many academic theological texts might have influenced that, but I honestly respect his style. Throughout the book Bell throws in some clever and always helpful pastoral funnies like this, “I’ve heard pastors answer, “It will be unlike anything we can comprehend, like a church service that goes on forever,” causing some to think, “That sounds more like hell.” I actually started laughing out loud at this. Ultimately, I think Bell is making a very solid point when he discusses heaven and hell. Bell concludes that both are active in our world here and now. You can see here his influence by writers such as N.T. Wright in his famous and spectacular book Surprised by Hope and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. I highly recommend reading these books. It completely changed how I viewed the afterlife and also how we approach Christian mission, but I digress. Bell’s argument follows the line that heaven is here on earth and we as Christians and people who may not claim Christianity are called by God to actively seek to bring heaven to earth. This does not mean that Bell doesn’t believe in a literal afterlife, he may or may not I couldn’t really get a feel from the book, but even to ask that question is to miss his point entirely. Bell states, “Our eschatology shapes our ethics. Eschatology is about last things. Ethics are about how you live. What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.” I don’t think there is a truer statement in Bell’s entire book. Basically his discussion of bringing hope, life, and resurrection to the least of these is spot on. His discussions of hell was very interesting. I say that because I am not sure what to think yet, I am still mulling over his thought in my head. I was especially impressed with his chapter 7 of his book which really came to focus on the detriment of talking of a violent God. Bell states,
“Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer. This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us. Inquisitions, persecutions, trials, book burnings, blacklisting—when religious people become violent, it is because they have been shaped by their God, who is violent. We see this destructive shaping alive and well in the toxic, venomous nature of certain discussions and debates on the Internet. For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do”
This to me was deeply powerful. This to me is the heart of what can be a problem of ultra-conservative evangelical theology; it can promote a view of God that is violent, wrathful and unloving. This is not the biblical or theological witness of who God is. Christianity is not about violence it’s not about getting it right doctrinally or anything else, it is about love. The Christian life is not even about going to heaven; it is about bringing others into a loving relationship with God, with themselves and with others. This is the power of gospel and of the work of the cross and resurrection is redeeming the world and bringing all of creation into God. This I think is where Bell’s book contributes most effectively to the ongoing conversation.
Now onto some of my criticisms. I first want to say that while I am going to harp on Bell on a couple of things they are mostly from my own theological stance and more reflect my readings of Moltmann, liberation theology and my deeply Trinitarian understanding of all of Christian doctrine. With that lets jump in, Love is not just freedom. This phrase is used so much in the book it kind of became annoying. While love does give freedom it also restricts “freedom” as well. In marriage or even a close friendship there is not the freedom to go and do anything you want, because of the relationship you are defined to a certain aspect of principles and ideas for that relationship to exist. I think Bell would agree to this point, but it is not really described well in his book. I get hesitant around the word freedom, because it seems more to convey the liberal idea of absolute and autonomous freedom of the individual. In saying this I was concerned at how little Bell talked about the church being an influence in creating correct pictures of God. He was clear on how it could distort it, but I wanted perhaps a little more reconstruction on how the church could change our perceptions of a “violent God.” Bells discussion on hell was also kind of interesting, like I have said I have not completely made up my mind on it yet so I am not going to give an opinion, but I am leaning towards Tony Jones’s discussion of post structuralism, you can read his discussion here. I am not sure if Bell is a strong Trinitarian, but I find Moltmann’s discussion of Trinitarian panentheism and universalism much more compelling. Moltmann here uses the idea of perichoresis, the interpenetration of the three persons of the Trinity to create the basis for the Triune relationship. Thus then the very basis of relationship is the inter love between the three. John Zizioulas a Greek Orthodox theologian in his book Being and Communion describes the ontological necessity of humanity to be found in relationship to the Triune God and relationship towards others. Thus if we are to talk about love we have to talk about it as relationship. While I don’t want to go too far into a theological rabbit trail, I find this line of thought deeply compelling which is kind of in contrast to Bell’s and others discussion of individual freedom.
These are a few of my thoughts I am planning on writing some more on the subject of Trinity and Christian universalism.
I want to give a preliminary response to Rob Bell’s discussion of his new book Love Wins. First, I have not read the book yet so my response is chiefly from his interview on livestream. You can check it out here. I am purchasing the book today (because my wife said I could 🙂 ) and will be do another response to the book in full.
My thoughts concerning Bell’s new book are similar to the thoughts I posted on it in a Facebook dialogue when the controversy first came out. Ultimately, I think Bell is reaching out and asking some very good and provocative questions. As I guessed he does not give direct answers, but rather leaves them open for people to think about. He did firmly say that he is not a universalist which I am somewhat glad mainly so he can’t come under any criticism for leaving that open. Bell’s description of a God that forces people into heaven even if they do not want to be there, is I think an accurate statement. If that is what universalism is then it is not a God of love. I was impressed at how he handled many of the questions that were posed to him and ultimately thought he gave some very powerful pastoral answers. In me saying that does not in any way diminish his responses, in some ways they may be better than high academic answers about theodicy, because they are actually grounded in real human suffering and pastoral care. For me Bell is not saying anything new or really that heretical. I count myself as pretty orthodox in many of my beliefs (friends always joke that I am the crazy orthodox one in our group) and I do find anything extremely heretical in Bell’s statement. He flatly denies being a universalist and his other comments are no different from what many others, people like N.T. Wright have said. I do want to highlight a couple of big points that I think we should take note of.
- How we talk about heaven and hell directly impacts how we talk about God.
- Orthodoxy is a wide not narrow. Even the church fathers who are the most notorious for labeling heretics understand that there can be difference of opinion.
- Christian descriptions of the Gospel or Good News are not chiefly about believing a set of propositions or certain dogmatic truths, these are important, but the Christian life is meant to be lived in communion with other people.
These are my first thoughts. More will come soon.
Grace and Peace