by Rob Bell
New York: HarperOne, 2011. 224 pp.
Reviewed by Marg Herder
As I was sitting in my doctor’s waiting room a few weeks ago, I pulled a Time magazine out of the rack. The cover story caught my eye. It was about a book,Love Wins, written by a pastor named Rob Bell and carried the headline, “What if Hell doesn’t exist?”
“Christians would invent it, obviously,” I mumbled, as I opened the magazine and paged to the article. I started reading about this guy who is the founding pastor of a 7000+ member church near Grand Rapids, Michigan. He calls himself an evangelical Christian, although most evangelicals who have something to say about him seem to wish he didn’t. To me, that’s about all it takes.
I gobbled up the article with more than a little excitement. The following sentence especially caught my attention.
“Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus’ atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.” (John Meacham, Time, April 14, 2011)
I’ve felt for quite some time that the biggest danger we face in the creation of our personal belief systems is complacency in certainty, the feeling that we actually understand God and Jesus and All That Is. It doesn’t matter where this certainty comes from—an interpretation of a religious text like the Bible, the theological statements made by some religious leader, a personal spiritual revelation, or all of the above. The people who use religion as a weapon, who hurt others in the name of religion, have one thing in common: an utter certainty in the veracity of their personal belief system.
So I was hooked, and downloaded the book that night. At 3 a.m. I finished it— and sat there staring at my Kindle feeling that something had shifted in me.
What I started thinking after reading Love Wins is that we need some new words, some new labels, because there’s getting to be two main kinds of Christians.
Let’s set up one label for the talking heads I see on the 700 Club and all those “religious” TV stations. This label would work for the Christians that believe homosexuality is an abomination, women are subordinate to men, and Satan is behind every tree and bush just waiting to trick you into joining his team. We’d use it to describe the Christians that blunder or push their way into different cultures just to say, “Your experience of spirituality is wrong, but we can show you the truth.”
How about we call these Christians “Common Christians?” The rest of us can be the “Uncommon Christians,” because we aren’t found as frequently in the wild. So we can have a big tent. We can all be Christians, but some will be the Common, and some will be the Uncommon.
This is going to make it easier for me to explain what Love Wins is up to, so thanks for playing along at home.
Rob Bell is saying there might be more loving ways of thinking about heaven and hell, resurrection and redemption, exclusivity and inclusion, sin and salvation than the Common Christian way of doing so.
The book is full of questions and responses, such as:
“[Is] going to heaven . . . dependent on something I do? How is any of that grace? How is that a gift? How is that good news?”(p.11)
The thing I found most appealing is that he responds to these questions, but his responses leave some room for the reader to look in her heart and see how his answers resonate. He’s not commanding you to believe what he says. He’s explaining what he’s figured out, in a respectful and thoughtful way.
Reading his book reminded me of listening to Virginia Mollenkott or Reta Finger speak at one of our gatherings or conferences. Information is offered, questions are asked, conclusions are presented; but there is no suggestion that there is only one answer, or one correct response. I had to smile when I got to Bell’s exploration of the parable of the prodigal son, because it so reminded me of Virginia’s sermon at the 2010 EEWC-CFT Gathering worship service!
Bell’s writing is a combination of poetry and prose perfectly suited for addressing the abstract concepts he discusses. The book is smooth as silk reading, and it moves quickly. I thought it was a very engaging ride.
I can’t really tell you exactly what this book is about, because it’s about everything. It’s not a dogmatic statement of what is; instead it’s a rolling exploration of life and death, heaven and hell and all the cool stuff Jesus and the prophets were trying to awaken in us. Everyone reviewing this book seems to focus on the fact that Bell’s implication is that there is no hell (in the Common Christian meaning of the term). This is huge for them, but it’s really just one example of his message, not the entire message itself.
For Bell, heaven and hell are not places we experience after our lives on earth end, but rather they are states of being best predicted by our willingness (heaven) or unwillingness (hell) to be present with and actively participating in the loving act of creation that we refer to as God.
“We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.” (p. 177)
Bell doesn’t believe it makes sense that God would let us go through life with the freedom to choose between heaven and hell but then withdraw that freedom the moment we die. He supposes that our choice continues even after our present state of existence ends. He also feels that grace ensures that God forgives us and opens participation in heaven to any one, not just those who call themselves Christians.
“When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.” (p. 179)
Rob Bell puts great value on artistic expression, indeed suggests that all of this is God’s artistic expression, and invites us to participate in the specific acts of creation which can only come from God through us.
“God creates, because the endless joy and peace and shared lives at the heart of this God knows no other way.” (p. 178)
But all this is not the message of the book either. These too are just examples of the message. As for the whole of his message, he puts it the best way possible in the title, Love Wins, every time, in every way possible.
I really liked this book because it suggested a kinder and more open Christianity. Rob Bell paints a picture of a Jesus who teaches us all from where we stand, just as we are, and doesn’t expect each of us to be the same as every other Christian or believe what some other Christian says we have to believe.
I had the feeling Bell isn’t judging anyone, or claiming anyone is wrong. He’s simply saying there is another way to be a Christian, a way that might be more tolerant and understanding of the breadth of spiritual expression we have come to know in the twenty-first century.
I’ve read scores of book reviews published in Christian Feminism Today, and I know how well researched and evenly presented these reviews of various books are. I tried to follow this example by reading a few of the many reviews of Love Wins written by the Common Christian evangelical crowd, just so I could present some of their arguments to you. I got as annoyed reading those reviews as I do when I find myself trapped in a waiting room with Fox News blaring on the TV, but I managed to mutter my way through a few of them.
Suffice it to say the Common Christian evangelicals are in agreement that though Bell’s questions are okay, his answers are not. Each one of the reviewers I read from that camp couldn’t help but whip out his Book of Labels and start pasting. “Emerging Church,” Universalism,” “Protestant Liberalism,” and “heretical” are the most common. Apparently a Common Christian approach requires that one need only prove that it is appropriate to paste on one of these labels before dismissing an argument out of hand. To all the Common Christian reviewers, Love Wins is a barely veiled attempt to once again champion the cause of Universalism; and as such, it can be neatly written off as heretical.
A Book Worth Sharing
There have been a few books I’ve read that I couldn’t stop myself from sharing with others, because I knew they might change a life, or at least change a mind. When I was younger, Richard Bach’sIllusions was such a book. I handed it out to all of my friends because I wanted them to understand how much they could be in this world, and the possibilities open to each person when we start to unravel the presuppositions of our own physical and spiritual limitations.
I hand out Is the Homosexual My Neighbor, by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and Letha Dawson Scanzoni, as well as Nancy Wilson’s Our Tribe, to people who want to be accepting but simply can’t get past the supposed Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality. I hand out Mollenkott’s Omnigender to lesbians who can’t accept the importance of embracing people of all gender expressions.
As soon as I finished Love Wins I went out and bought a hard copy to give to my neighbor down the street. It’s the kind of book you want to share. I’ll give Love Wins to my friends who are dissatisfied with the Common Christian message, but who are not dissatisfied with Jesus.
A Place for Everyone
After swearing I would never suffer the Christian label again, this book left me thinking that even if I am not a Common Christian and do not identify or agree with that message, there is still a place for me in Christianity, “Uncommon” as it might be.
All our explanations of God, all our heavens and hells are rooted in human experience, in human understanding. We can’t do it differently. We can only dream from our experience. So there’s never going to be an explanation, a vision that gets it right. Even the Bible says we only know in part. We can only hope to approach truth, one revelation at a time.
Rob Bell’s God, Rob Bell’s heaven and hell come from the fact of his humanity. Common Christianity’s God, Common Christianity’s heaven and hell also come from this human place. But to me, Bell’s revelation rings truer. While Common Christianity has settled on a framework of anger, punishment, and exclusion (somehow trying to shoe-horn love into that mix), Bell forms his understanding around the framework of kindness, peacefulness, justice and love. And I think, just as he says, Love Wins.