Let me begin, as Rob is fond of doing, with a story.
The other day a woman came into my Christian bookstore, stood over the new release table and pressed a stern pointed finger against the cover of Love Wins then glared in my direction, “You should NOT be selling this book. It is NOT a Christian book.” “Oh uh, okay” I said politely, “have you read it?” “No!” she said, “But I heard Bob Dutko talking about it on the radio.” (Bob Dutko is a conservative Christian talk show host out of Detroit).
Not fifteen minutes later a young woman rushed into the store and right over to the new release table where she enthusiastically grabbed a copy of Love Wins. I happened to be standing right there and so I asked her, “have you read the book?” Yes I know that was not the most perceptive question considering that she was buying it off the new release table. But to my surprise: “Yes I have. I’m buying this second copy for my aunt.”
Such has been the polarizing effects of the idea of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.
I can’t tell you how many reviews I’ve read because frankly I don’t know. There are “pint sized” reviews, “Cracker Jack” reviews and “drive-by” reviews all the way to full blown “let me write a book on my blog against Love Wins explaining chapter by chapter, post by post, bit by bit why Love Wins teaches heresy” reviews. And almost all of them ask the same question: does Rob Bell believe in Hell? I mean an actual, physical, eternal and conscious place called Hell?
Now I know I don’t have it all together. I’m not boasting that I know something that everyone else does not know. But I think this Rob Bell frenzy got everybody’s heads shifted into the wrong gear from the start. The subtitle of the book, “A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” didn’t help much either.
So let me state plainly something I believe to be emphatically true about Love Wins: this is not a book about Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.
Love Wins is not a book that is overly concerned with the fate of people when they die. Bell’s book is more concerned with the here and now and not really concerned with the there and then.
So let me explain something about book subtitles. Authors don’t always have a choice in them. The publisher will often choose a subtitle (often loosely connected to the subject) in order to sell books. And a book about “Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” sells.
A couple of years ago I reviewed Karl Giberson’s book “Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution” and slammed it pretty hard because the book had nothing to do with “how to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution”. As it happened Karl came across my blog and left this comment:
“Hi. Solid review with many relevant comments. The subtitle of the book was chosen, over my objections, by the marketing dept at Harper.” (Here)
So I would not be surprised if the subtitle of Love Wins was also a marketing strategy of HarperOne, and not Bell’s first choice.
Justin Taylor’s gunshot review and John Piper’s “Farewell, Rob Bell” ignited a firestorm of controversy in people’s minds which has not been easily quenched. So when Greg Boyd – one of the few who actually read Love Wins at that time and who, with Eugene Peterson, endorsed the book – wrote a response to Justin Taylor, it was virtually ignored in the blogosphere. When Boyd wrote:
“Rob’s book really isn’t about the population or duration of heaven or hell. It’s mainly about the unfathomably beautiful character of God revealed in Jesus Christ and therefore about the unfathomably good nature of the Good News.” (Here)
No one picked up on it. Here is someone who read the book before anyone else telling the rest of us that the book is not about what everyone thinks it is about, and everyone ignores him. The question persisted: does Rob Bell believe in Hell in the orthodox way, yes or no?
I believe that if Bell was pressed to answer the question, what do you believe about the nature of Hell in the afterlife, Rob would answer, “I don’t know, but let me tell you what hell on earth is”.
In fact, that is pretty much what he does in chapter four. After caricaturing the traditional Western approach to Hell and exploring other Christian interpretations of Hell (to remind us that orthodoxy is wider then Protestants often give due credit), Bell writes:
“Will everybody be saved,
Or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?”
It is here, if anywhere, where we might expect that Taylor and Piper’s accusations would bear fruit or not. But Bell pulls back:
“Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.”
Rob Bell, what do you believe about Hell? “I don’t know.”
But – and here is his orthodoxy shining forth in all its beauty – if the question is asked, “Does God get what he wants?” or “In the end, will love win?” Bell’s answer is as true, as clear, and as unambiguous as they come:
“It’s not ‘Does God get what God wants?’
‘Do we get what we want?’
And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure,
and positive yes.
God is that loving….
if we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours…
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.”
Love is a choice. That is Wesleyan-Arminian theology. That is Eastern Orthodoxy theology. That is the theology of virtually all of the early church fathers. Love wins because God is Love and God wins. Love wins because love requires reciprocal choice. Love wins because if the person chooses “Hell”, they get what they want. “God is that loving” says Bell, “because love wins.”
But there is a Hell on earth too. And Bell wants to remind us conservative North American evangelicals that a part of the gospel (a big part) is to press against the gates of hell in the here and now. This part of the gospel (sadly all too often ignored by conservative Protestants) is a huge part of what it means for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The feeding of the poor, the standing up for the rights of the helpless, that compassion towards the “cutter” or the “addict” or the “abused” as Jesus did, and not just a “say a sinners prayer and go to church and you can escape Hell and go to Heaven and in the mean time everything will be alright” (because we all know how harmless and heaven-like church can be!).
That is the message of Love Wins. It’s not to deny a Heaven or Hell in the hereafter, but to remind us that there is a Heaven and Hell in the here and now too. That is why at each step along the way Bell begins with speculation about the afterlife – to show that there usually are more uncritical speculation then most people recognize – then he draws us back into the reality we can speak of with unambiguous certainty.
There is a Hell on earth.
What are God’s people going to do about it?