“Love Wins”: Thoughts about Rob Bell’s latest book August 10, 2011Posted by Hampton Morgan in Reviews.
I had lunch last week with a pastor whose theology struck me as pretty conservative and orthodox. I mentioned that I was reading Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. My friend seemed unconcerned that I might be playing with heretical fire. He said he had read a couple of Bell’s books and used some of his video material regularly. I asked what he thought of Rob Bell. “Bell has a lot of good stuff,” he said; and added, “but you have to pick the bones out.”
His assessment squares pretty well with mine about practically everything I read, including at times and much to my dismay, the Bible. Love Wins falls into that category too, though I found far fewer bones than I had expected.
I credit Clark Pinnock with preparing me for Love Wins. Fifteen years ago a good friend gave me Pinnock’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Pinnock, who died within the last year, ran into trouble with the evangelical establishment for his support of “open theism,” the view that God has not determined everything and that God is open to the influence of prayers and how the decisions and actions of humans may actually change the future.
In A Wideness in God’s Mercy Pinnock musters an impressive number or scriptures — most overlooked in the traditional evangelical arsenal — affirming God’s desire to bring all people into his saving grace. When many Christians talk about who is in and who is out, they rarely mention the many verses that affirm the wideness of God’s love and saving grace. Rather, many rally around a few New Testament verses that have an exclusivistic ring to them that appear to clearly limit salvation to those who knowingly confess Jesus as Savior and Lord. John 14.6 is at the top of everyone’s list: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” For many evangelicals, this verse settles everything. And it clearly trumps everything else the Bible says about the question of salvation and the love of God for all humanity.
Rob Bell clearly does not believe that John 14.6 settles the matter, and he offers many of the same scriptures as Pinnock did to buttress his argument. He addresses the meanings of the biblical words “heaven” and “hell” and theologizes about the kinds of heaven and hell people create and experience before they die. He argues for the rationality of a loving God’s intention to save humanity and the irrationality of a God who consigns multitudes to eternal damnation simply because they did not know or confess Jesus as Savior and Lord.
Clark Pinnock, in the work cited earlier, argued for Christians to be optimistic about the ultimate fate of those who die without faith in Christ. He did not embrace universalism and did argue strongly for the finality of Jesus Christ. Bell, on the other hand, walks right up to the line on the question of whether all will be saved. He peers over that line but, in my reading of him, does not actually cross it and embrace universalism. He implies that people who create “hell” during their earthly life may well continue in “hell” in the hereafter. (Likewise, those who create “heaven” by their righteous and faithful deeds may well continue in “heaven” in the hereafter).
I appreciated Love Wins as a well-argued counterpoint to the traditional evangelical understandings of heaven, hell and salvation — positions with which I have had increasing problems in recent years.
Bell’s exegesis of the parable of the prodigal son was one of the best such efforts I have ever seen. He sees it speaking to these critical questions in a powerful way.
It is worthwhile to note that there has never in Christian history been anything approaching a consensus on the questions Rob Bell takes aim at. To be sure, there have always been positions considered orthodox by bodies that lay claim to the authority to determine orthodoxy. There has never been consensus and we are surely not even close to it now.
I would also note that my own ecclesiastic tradition, the Moravian Church, chose in its doctrinal statement, The Ground of the Unity, to avoid any statements about heaven, hell or the fate of humans. It does affirm the finality of Christ but avoids any effort to declare a position on those who do not confess him. I always thought this was wise, now more so than in the past.