I've had a couple friends email me for my thoughts on Rob Bell's controversial new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. While I haven't read it yet, enough people whom I respect have and the verdict seems mixed at best. Megan says I somehow owe the world a few thoughts since Bell and I have the same glasses, so with that flimsy justification in mind, let me respond to the only thing I really can at this point – the promotional video for the book:
It's important to understand from the beginning that Bell is more a compelling communicator than a precise theologian; he flies and dies by the rhetorical question, which makes him both interesting as a teacher and dangerous as one as well. Personally, I enjoy listening to him tell stories in his rambling stream-of-consciousness way, and his Nooma videos are much like this one in terms of good production values and style.
Bell's art show story in the beginning of the video is a good example of Bell's gift. After telling the story, he rightly chastises the sticky note incivility of one of the show's attenders and calls Christians to take a fresh look at how rude and ridiculous this kind of behavior is. This, I think, is when Bell is most helpful – he has a keen eye for recognizing legalism in the Church and smartly addresses the thinking behind the behavior rather than just the behavior itself.
Unfortunately, Bell's rhetorical nature takes him down the wrong road quickly. His response to the judgmental Christian's "reality check" is so exaggerated and over the top ("Will only a few select people make it to Heaven and will billions and billions burn forever in Hell?") that he sweeps away his audience in a tsunami of hyperbole, leaving little standing in its wake. He jumps immediately to what a Christian's opinion (whether conceit or horror) might be concerning Hell, seems to accept it (whatever it may be) as gospel, and continues to think out loud by raising (but not alluding to anything other than) his own questions on the topic.
True to form, Bell then overemphasizes personal responsibility ("How do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe, or what you say, or what you do, or what you know?") as a possible way of dealing with the idea of Hell (which, in the video, has been referenced – and apparently in the book, regarded – as little more than personal interpretation). The initial question of eschatology (the study of end times) becomes one of soteriology (the study of salvation) and then of divine ontology (the study of God's essence), but all dependent on (and seemingly subject to) the hermeneutic of experiential relativism:
"And then there is the question behind the questions. The real question is what is God like? Because millions and millions were taught that…God is going to send you to Hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we need to be rescued from this God?"
This is, as one of my seminary professors would say after considering an honest (but misguided) inquiry, "the wrong question" due to the unbiblical theological suppositions upon which it's built and the variety of problematic propositional fallacies it violates. While I would not disagree with Bell that eschatology is crucial to understanding God, his rhetorical questions are not helpful in substance ("millions and millions" were taught that God is going to send you to Hell?) nor phrasing (Jesus "rescuing us" from God?) and instead cast God as suspect in his role as Creator and Redeemer.
After a final set of rhetorical questions about who God is and what God is like, Bell ends the video with a statement so sweepingly broad and generally vague that it really means very little (comparitive superlatives are, after all, only meaningful when you qualify what the initial positive is). He claims:
"What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful that whatever we've been told or taught, the Good News is actually better than that – better than we could ever imagine. The Good News is that love wins."
This, I'm guessing (again, I haven't read the book), is what so much of the controversy is about: Bell's theology seems so indistinct and non-commital as to what he actually believes that it's difficult to figure out what love wins and why it matters. This has some raising the question of whether Bell is a univeralist. I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that Jesus didn't "rescue us" from God; he rescued us as God (this is what the biblical doctrine of Incarnation is all about). I also know that God does not send us to Hell; the wages of sin we ourselves have earned (Romans 6:23) condemn us more than enough for that.
Love wins. Okay, but wins what? And how? And for whom? And says Whom? These are the questions I hope Bell answers biblically and convincingly in his book. Unfortunately, from the little I've read, watched, and listened, I'm not optimistic that his answers are going to be all that definitive.
Below are a few links concerning the Love Wins debate. Feel free to add others that would be helpful.
- Christianity Today: "Rob Bell's Upcoming Book on Heaven & Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism"
- USA Today: "Pastor/Author's Love Wins Bedevils Traditionalists"
- Al Mohler: "We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the Reemergence of Liberal Theology"
- The Christian Post: "Brian McLaren Defends Rob Bell Against Mohler's Critique"