This is not a new book. I read it when it first released in 2011, but I am reviewing it now. Rob Bell was the founder and pastor of the prominent Mar’s Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids (not to be confused with Mark Driscoll’s prominent Mars Hill Church in Seattle).
A well-known evangelical, Bell is the author of several other books, but his 2011 publication of Love Wins exploded with tremendous interest, discussion, and a huge measure of energetic controversy.
A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
Bell begins his book with:
I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody everywhere.
Upon reading this, I thought immediately that I might really like Love Wins, and I did. Bell points out that many have been taught that ‘a select few Christians will spend forever in heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.’
We all know that’s the case; this belief is rampant! Bell points out, correctly, that his contrasting views are not novel but have been embraced and promoted by many in the past.
In response to a flat-out statement that Gandhi is in hell, Bell asks, ‘Really? Gandhi’s in hell? We have confirmation on that?’ Gandhi is said to be in hell because he never accepted Jesus or prayed the sinner’s prayer. So now there is no hope. Bell asks, ‘Is this the sacred calling of Christians—to announce that there is no hope?’
An excellent question in my opinion.
Bell shares this painting that hung in his grandmother’s home, and which so unnerved him and his sister growing up. He does so to illustrate the idea many of us have of going away to heaven, and he considers a number of questions people ask about this place. Will we wear robes? Are their dogs? What about sports? Also, who will be there and who will not?
He speaks of Christian programs that instruct believers how to ask people the question, ‘If you were to die tonight, where would you go?’ I am very familiar with these programs for I was deeply involved in them many years ago.
But Bell then turns to a biblical story in which someone gives Jesus a clear opportunity to explain how to go to heaven—but he doesn’t! In the New Testament Jesus never tells people how to go to heaven. Instead, he emphasized life in the age to come, which is very involved with life here on earth. Bell says, ‘If this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally.’
It is the world we know–but rescued, transformed, and renewed. As the prophets pointed out, there are things that cannot survive into this age to come, such as war, greed, injustice, pride, exploitation. So they spoke of a day of cleansing and purging when God would banish those things.
Rob Bell states:
So when people ask, “What will we do in heaven?” one possible answer is simply to ask: “What do you love to do now that will go on in the world to come?”
Fury, wrath, fire torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish. That’s all part of the story, right? Trust God, accept Jesus, confess, repent, and everything will go well for you. But if you don’t, well, the Bible is quite clear…
But Bell then asks, ‘Is that what Jesus taught?’ And to answer that question, he shows us every single verse in the Bible in which we find the word ‘hell’. He talks about ‘Sheol’ in the Old Testament, which is a ‘dark, mysterious, murky place people go when the die.’ He notes that the concept is a bit vague and underworldly.
He then turns to the New Testament where Jesus uses the word ‘Gehenna’ a number of times. It was an actual place just outside Jerusalem that Jesus’ listeners would have been familiar with. Jesus also used the word ‘Hades’, which is essentially the same as the Old Testament term ‘Sheol’.
And that’s what we find in Jesus’s teaching about hell—a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity…some agony needs agonizing language.
Throughout the book, Bell uses many illustrative stories—both biblical and contemporary—to elaborate on his points, and I particularly like his analysis of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; but I will let you read it for yourself.
Bell observes that: ‘Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now.’ And he further says:
Jesus did not use hell to try to compel the “heathens” and “pagans” to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to the very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from the God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.
If you are looking for confirmation of the common concepts of hell in terms of ‘Fury, wrath, fire torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish’, you will not find it in this book. And, of course, that disturbs a lot of people. But he pushes further…
Does God Get What God Wants?
In the face of the forceful teaching by so many that God will send multitudes of people to hell, Bell points to a passage in 1 Timothy chapter 2 that says, ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’ So he inquires, ‘Does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets our to do?…Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?’
Of course, this smacks of universalism, and it stirred up accusations and tremendous attacks on Rob Bell for his ‘heresy’. But Bell continues by tracing from the Old Testament numerous indications that God intends to bring salvation to all people. Then he turns to the New Testament and discovers the same themes there. He concludes: ‘This insistence that God will be united and reconciled with all people is a theme the writers and prophets return to again and again.’
Bell considers the widespread opinion which is expressed on one website as, ‘We get one life to choose heaven or hell, and once we die, that’s it.’ But he then discusses the opinion of others throughout church history who suspect that, even after death, there will be opportunity for those who have never aligned with God to change their mind. He mentions Peter, Clement of Alexandria, Origin, and a number of others who believed this. So, he asks,
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?…We don’t need to resolve [these questions] or answer them because we can’t.
Bell then suggests that the question really becomes, ‘Do we get what we want?’ And the answer is ‘Yes, we get what we want. God is that loving…we can have what we want because love wins.’ Later in the book, he states that, ‘We are free to accept or reject the invitation to new life that God extends to us. Our choice.’ This is an answer I can embrace.
There is So Much More to this Book
I have only interacted here with about the first half of the book, but I’ve already exceeded the space allotted for this post (to avoid exhaustion and irritation on the part of the readers). Even in the pages I reviewed, there are far too many topics, themes, and developments than I can introduce here. It is rich with insight and guaranteed to rattle our traditional understanding on these many related issues.
This 198-page book is written in an engaging and conversational tone that makes it easy to read. Bell’s somewhat unusual style and paragraph structure also lends itself to easy, interesting reading and rapid page-turning. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
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Have a great day! ~Tim