Soteriology Chronicles: On Rob Bell

I finally read Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  This year I’m reading several books on soteriology, with the intention of blogging my way thought them—a sort of self-directed class on soteriology. Even though I have failed in the latter, I had not planned to stray from my reading list.  But I just had to slip this one in. What with all the controversy surrounding Bell right now, the fact that the book is at least tangentially related to my reading project for the year and that a friend gave me the book for free…it seemed like a no brainer. I actually rather enjoyed it. It’s a quick read—you could probably finish it in a single setting if you’re committed. And I found myself in agreement with Bell through most of the book. Now I know that’s a controversial statement so I’ll make a couple of quick comments about the book generally before I get on to my real intent for writing this post: to pose to you a few questions this book helped me to raise.

As you know, debates about universalism have raged in the blogosphere and even made their way to major news outlets in the weeks before the book even hit the shelves—all the result of one conservative bloggers heated response to a promo video released by the publisher.

I vowed not to get involved in the debate, but that was when I thought the debate was properly about universalism, and I just did not feel ready yet to make any sort of decisive statements about that issue. But I was mistaken. So, before I get on to the real point of this post—to pose for you some questions that this book helped me to raise and which are relevant to my soteriology “class”—allow me first to make a few comments as a sort of outside observer. After reading Love Wins, I don’t have any idea why there remain debates about universalism surrounding it. Bell makes no claim anywhere in the book that sounds even remotely like universalism. To the contrary, he explicitly denies it. “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). I could site others, but why don’t you just read the book?

Don’t get me wrong, this is a hard-hitting book. Bell is stunningly frank and people will find lots that they might take issue with. For instance, some might think that Bell has an unbiblical view of both heaven and hell. “Here is the new there,” he says. Heaven is not somewhere “out there” beyond the spacio-temporal word where disembodied souls float up to be with God. Heaven is about God’s kingdom come on earth (his will be done on earth as it is in heaven). It’s about resurrection life. Heaven is a physical, local reality that is both here and now as well as extended into the future (see chapter 2). So also, hell is not a place of eternal, conscious torment for those who have rejected Christ after they have died. Hell is the torment, suffering, violence and heartbreak that is the result of rejecting Christ’s way of love. Hell is a physical, local reality that is both here and now as well as extending into the future (see chapter 3). So heaven and hell are right here together. If C. S. Lewis wrote of the “great divorce” of heaven and hell, Bell writes of their marriage. Both the younger brother and the older brother are “at the party,” he notes, echoing the story of the prodigal son. But for the older brother it’s not much of a party.

It’s important to note that Bells teaching on these points is well within the broad stream of historic Christianity, and I for one tend to think that he is closer to the biblical account than many of the alternatives. Those who would oppose Bell on these grounds will have to deal with the relevant passages of scripture at least as thoroughly as he has—and that’s no small feat!  But at least then they might have a case.

Still others may take issue with Bell’s affirmation of “inclusivism”—the teaching that “Jesus is the way, but…the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people,” including those who do not call themselves his followers or even know his name (p. 155). Again, I suspect it would be no small task to make a case from scripture negating inclusivism as strong as Bell’s case for the affirmative, but the charge of inclusivism is at least a legitimate one. (For Bell’s argument for inclusivism see chapter 6). The charge of universalism, on the other hand, is completely unfounded. I really don’t understand why we’re having the conversation. The only explanation I can come up with is that those people who jumped the gun and reviewed the book before it was released were successful in hijacking the conversation and distracting us from the real issues. They owe us all an apology.

Lest you think I just some die-hard Rob Bell supporter who thinks he can do no wrong, let me say that there is one entire chapter in the book that I thought was totally misguided. In chapter five Bell writes about how the entire universe is structured around the great mystery that death leads to life. Leaves fall to the ground and die causing new ones to spring into life. Gradually every few years we slough off our old skin cells making room for new ones to emerge. “This is true for ecosystems, food chains, the seasons—it’s true all across the environment. Death gives way to life” (p. 130). So far, so good. But Bell asserts that the ultimate example of this universal pattern is the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  “Although the cross is often understood as a religious icon, it’s a symbol of an elemental reality” (p. 131). A symbol of an elemental reality? So the cross is just a symbol of the pattern which exists intrinsically in the universe? Karl Barth would roll over in his grave! Look at the evidence another way. Yes there is a cycle that moves from death to life, but at other times in the cycle it is moving from life to death. Sure those leaves that fall to the ground make way for new life, but they’re dead—gone forever! When you and I take our last breath our organic material will eventually break down and become the food of the earth, but does that really feel like life the loved ones of the lost? The fact of the matter is that the evidence is neutral. Life springs forth all around us—but there is death, too.  We Christians understand that the universe arcs toward life only because the resurrection of Jesus makes the case.  It is the hope that the cycle will end in life, not death. The resurrection is not the prime example of some universal truth. It is the key fact around which all the evidence is organized. Bell gets it backwards. Now that’s a legitimate critique of one of Bell’s premises but it is about the doctrine of revelation—and it has absolutely nothing to do with universalism. Let’s be a bit more precise in our theological language, shall we? Otherwise we lose the legitimate points of contention and launch pads into rich conversation amid the wild goose chase for universalists statements that do not exist.

Okay, now onto the point. Before reading Love Wins I was working with theological framework pretty similar to Bell’s (with, of course, the exceptions noted above), but reading it has caused me to ask a couple of questions, and I’d like to know what you think. One quick disclaimer: If you’ve read the book, say whatever you want. If you haven’t read the book, I don’t care what you have to say about it, about Bell, or about universalism. Write it on your own blog. That said, whether you’ve read the book or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these questions.

  1. My first question is about the nature of judgment. The good news about judgement—and, I take it, part of what makes heaven heaven, whether it is here or somewhere else—is that is that evil and violence and chaos will be banished. (The biblical way of saying this is “and there was no more sea”). Bell clearly understands this (see pp. 37 ff; p. 113), though he never offers any clear account of what this great and final judgement will be like. So, then, how can both heaven and hell be here and now and extending into the future? If heaven and hell are physical and local realities, then wouldn’t those who continue to choose violence, oppression and evil have to be in a separate physical locality? Otherwise what’s to keep them from rendering heaven unheavenly? My suspicion is that if you push this question too far you end up having to say that heaven and hell are internal realities. I’m not sure that Bell would want to go there…I know I wouldn’t.
  2. The second is like it. If the gates to heaven are “never shut,” as Bell say, quoting the Revelation of St. John, then can and will those who would seek to cause chaos and war be exiled peacefully? If the division between heaven and hell is permeable, as both Bell and Lewis affirm, can judgement be non-violent? How, in other words, do justice and mercy embrace?


Filed under Soteriology Chronicles

7 responses to “Soteriology Chronicles: On Rob Bell

  1. ben smither

    Good stuff, Joe. You’ve convinced me that I need to move this one up to the front of my reading list as well.

    • Joe

      Yes, Ben, you definitely should! It really is a quick read, and no matter where you land, you’ll be glad you joined the conversation.

  2. I read the book a month or so ago and, like you, found very little to disagree with. I was (and am still) shocked that people are up in arms about this book, doesn’t seem too out there for me.

    You mentioned C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. As I was reading through Love Wins, I couldn’t help but continually think about Lewis’ book too. Many of the ideas are very similar. At times Love Wins seems like a post-modern re-write of The Great Divorce.

    On to your questions.

    I definitely think that Heaven is renewed earth. There is quite a lot of Biblical evidence for it and I see very little to the contrary. But then what about Hell? Is that somewhere else? Bell talks about the existence of many other dimensions. Is it possible that Heaven and Hell are part of different dimensions? Or could Lewis be right and Heaven is simply “farther into the mountains”? It’s a tough question and I don’t have a conclusion about it. However, I at least believe that those who would like to incite violence/wars/etc would not have a place in Heaven.

    I guess my answer to the second question would be similar. I definitely think that those who want chaos and war and violence would be put somewhere, I hope peacefully. I do agree with Bell and Lewis that there will still be a chance to enter heaven even after physical death. What that actually means and how that actually happens are maybe questions better left for the afterlife.

    But, at least we can hold out hope that all will be peaceful, that the Earth will be renewed and that all people can live in peace – if only they choose to.

    • Joe

      Dan, you’re the man!

      You’re right, the echoes of Lewis are so loud they must be intentional. One of the strengths of Lewis’ work, I think, is that, because he tells it as a story, one doesn’t worry too much with the sort of mechanical questions I’m asking here. In some ways that makes Lewis’ work more pomo than Bell’s, doesn’t it? But Bell certainly took a great risk by saying in prose. I admire him for it!

      • I also admire Bell for taking the stand and saying what many of us were thinking anyway. It’s very sad that in the church today there is so little appreciation for real dialog about these important issues.

        Ha, Lewis as more pomo than Bell? Maybe. You’re at least right about the way Lewis rights as being less in your face. Maybe that’s why Lewis is accepted when Bell is not? Maybe too many people read stuff like The Great Divorce as just a nice story, without seeing the meaning behind it. You can’t read Love Wins that way. For that, at least, Love Wins is an important book.

  3. Joshua Rollins

    This is something I too have read and have been trying to really grasp. Like Bell states in the video, who are we to say Ghandi is in hell? This leads me to the group of people I have spent the most time with and studying over the last year to a year and a half — Latter-Day Saints.

    I’ve entered countless debates about where Latter-Day Saints are “Christians”. Of course, the majority of those I’ve debated this with are of the PCA variety, who honestly, don’t think I am “Christian” simply for even considering that. However, I’ve seen the pure love of Christ in the LDS people in my life. In fact, I would say, that while they may reject the trinity, they may have “new found” scriptures, they may even have a “living Prophet” in Earth, I would think that they are indeed living inside the heaven that Bell speaks of.

    • Joe

      Thanks, Josh!

      I don’t know much about Mormonism, so I won’t speak to their theology. But Jesus seems to be clear about one thing: that in the kingdom of God a lot of the ‘A-listers’ that everyone expects to be at the party, for one reason or another, will have made other plans, and that the place will be crawling with people that no one ever expected to be invited (Mt 22:1-9). Perhaps the refrain of heaven will be “Who let in the riffraff?”

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