If you’ve read Rob Bell’s other works like Jesus Wants to Save Sinners, Velvet Elvis, then you’re familiar with his format and conversational, poetic style of writing. From the Preface: “If this book, then, does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity—well, I’d be thrilled. “This vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity” is what Rob Bell explores in the eight chapters that make up the book.
Ch. 1. What About the Flat Tire? Bell asks questions about various texts of Scripture that people often ask—questions that many of us will find both troubling and uncomfortable, especially in what it means to be saved. Ch. 2. Here is the New There. Bell takes on heaven. “For all of the questions and confusion about just what heaven is and who will be there, the one thing that appears to unite all of the speculation is the generally agreed-upon notion that heaven is, obviously, somewhere else” (p. 24). Ch. 3. Hell. Now, this is where a lot of the controversies in the book are. Well, let me quote a central passage, so you can see what Bell really believes: “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” Bell continues, “There is hell now and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (p. 79). Ch. 4. Does God get What God Wants? Bell builds on 1 Timothy 2:4: “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end? (pp. 97-98). Bell then explores that concept of “restoration and reconciliation” that we find in Scripture and offers: “Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t” (p. 108). Ch. 5. Dying to Live. Bell begins this chapter at a 2010 rap concert, featuring the Detroit famed rapper Eminem. But there’s a point to the story. This chapter is potentially controversial since Bell is calling for a change in how we talk about what Christ did on the cross, in terms of “sacrifical metaphor,” “blood,” and people who “offer animal sacrifices to gods.” Bell writes, “People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways. But most of us don’t. What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand” (p. 129). Ch. 6. There are Rocks Everywhere. Bell develops the Exodus narrative of water from the rock and Paul’s interpretation of it to refer to Christ, who was present with Israel. This chapter then becomes controversial as Bell explores matters of exclusivity and inclusivity. Ch. 7. The Good News is Better than that. The story of the Prodigal Son is engaged along the lines of the various stories that the father, the younger son, and the older son are telling. Bell eventually returns to a discussion of hell. Ch. 8. The End Is Here. Bell begins this chapter retelling his own conversion story while an elementary school kid.
1. Does Rob Bell believe in Hell? First, we need to define our terms. If we’re talking the traditional belief in conscious, eternal torment, then no. Rather, Bell believes in hell now, in the sense of hellish living, and even hell in the age to come. I’ll say more about this.
2. Is Rob Bell a Universalist? In a recent interview with Martin Bashir Rob Bell says that he is not a Universalist. But what does his book, Love Wins, say? Well, in the chapters “Does God Get What God Wants?” and “There are Rocks Everywhere,” the discerning reader will find some answers. In “Does God Get What God Wants?” talking about the new city, the new creation, Bell, having developed his doctrine of restoration and reconciliation at this point, has everyone in the new city but then adds, “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (p. 113). This is Rob Bell’s version of hell in the age to come, if you will. In fact, Bell interprets the gates of Revelation 21:25, in the new city, thus: “But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go” (p. 115). But then Bell asks, “Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom?” (ibid). Bell himself concedes tension here and says “we don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t…”
3. Is Rob Bell an Inclusivist? In chapter 6, “There are Rocks Everywhere,” commenting on John 14:6, Bell says, “And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (p. 154). What does he mean? After challenging the exclusivity that most evangelical are use to, and the inclusivity that we were all trained to reject, Bell answers, “This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus that will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.”
Toward the end of the book I was compelled to ask, What kind of image of God do I really have? Has my image of God been shaped by an accurate reading of the Scriptures, or has it been shaped by someone else’s reading of God that I’ve bought into? And what version of God’s story am I sharing with others?
If this was partly Rob Bell’s goal in writing this book, then I’d say he has accomplished it, at least to me.
Shame on that church for dismissing their pastor for endorsing Rob Bell’s Love Wins. The board certainly didn’t read it. And if they did, it’s probably because they’ve got it all figured out already.
I recommend Love Wins, not because I agree with everything that Bell says, but because Rob Bell has asked some tough questions.
And I have no problem putting it in the hands of new converts.