Monday morning, 8 a.m PST. My phone rings. It's Rob Bell calling from New York City where he's headed for Central Park to take a stroll with his wife between media appointments. "How's my favorite heretic?" I ask.
Our "interview" is really a conversation between longtime friends. I've known Rob for nearly 23 years. We went to college together. He is one of my favorite people. None of this is a secret, as I've written about Rob and my admiration for him in the past. Which is why you won't see a traditional "news" story or straight-forward book review from me about his recently released book, Love Wins. I am aware of my own biases, which is why what I've written publicly about Love Wins and the ensuing controversy surrounding it have appeared as columns -- works of opinion and commentary. Something to keep in mind as you read an excerpt of the interview below. [Read the full interview here.]
Cathleen Falsani: You've written a really beautiful and powerful book. What is the take-away?
I begin with the world that we live in right now and the simple observation that we can choose heaven and hell right now. I see lots of hell around me all the time. We all do. From greed to abuse to rape to genocide to exploitation of people who are vulnerable -- we see this around us all the time.
And then I see people choosing peace and joy all the time, and experiencing extraordinary peace that transcends anything you can get your mind around. I've sat with people who are days away from dying of cancer and they are connected with a peace and a joy that is so extraordinarily real, it's almost like you can see it in the room.
So I begin there. I begin with this life, with what we see around us, and I begin that way because that's how Jesus talked. He talked about realities that are right here right now. And so my assumption is that love wins. Love creates freedom. Love always demands freedom. And so we are free to choose. And this freedom has consequences. You can resist and reject this love, both in your own experience of it and in the ways in which you refuse to extend it to others, and you can receive it and pass it on to others, which seems to me to be the center of what Jesus keeps bringing up. Love God. Love others.
So love demands freedom. Freedom has consequences and then it also creates all sorts of possibilities. And so my experience has been that the love of God that Jesus came to give us and show us and teach us about, when you say yes to it, all sorts of things happen that you could never have dreamed up on your own.
Freedom and consequences and possibilities. And if we can choose these realities now, that Jesus came to offer us and show us, then I assume that when you die, you can continue to choose these realities because love can't co-opt the human heart's ability to decide.
But after you die, we are now firmly in the realm of speculation.
When I was reading the book again, I kept thinking of that line from a U2 song -- "We're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been" -- and is that heaven? Is that the kingdom of God? What are we talking about? And as you said, this is totally speculation even though we get glimpses of it in scripture: Where are we going after we die?
I think it's important to point out that in the Hebrew consciousness, out of which the Christian faith flows, it was always Earth is where the action is, and that for millions and millions of people in our modern world, the fundamental Christian message they were taught is about evacuation. The highest form of spiritual practice is escape, essentially.
That's been hard wired into their consciousness. Jesus is how you get somewhere else. And that is not the central narrative of the scriptures, which over and over and over refer to this place as our "home." The central story is a God who loves the world, calls it good, and has set about a restoration/renewal/redemption/reconciliation/rescue effort. (I'm trying to think of more words that start with 'R'.)
It's a very, very important distinction because it leads to all sorts of things. How you understand that arc -- if you believe that the real issue is just how not to get left behind, then why work to care for the earth? Why make a big deal about how many nuclear bombs we're stockpiling?
And that's why these issues do matter. Heaven and hell can be these kind of vague, esoteric sort of things that Bible people do when they have time on their hands, which actually have huge consequences for how you live and move in the world right now.
Can you tell me the short version of where the slogan, "love wins," comes from?
The slogan started with a sermon that I did -- something about the Jesus-way versus the Caesar-way, and that the resurrection was a vindication of the Jesus-way over and against the Caesar-way.
There was this dominant, violent coercive power that was crushing everybody in its sight and Jesus comes along to offer a whole other way of understanding power and offers himself. And that the resurrection was a vindication of a whole new way of understanding how to be in the world.
So it was some long historical Jesus-resurrection-Caesar-type sermon. And I talked about the practicality of how the universe actually works and so then I made these stickers up and at the end of the service I handed them out -- these "Love Wins" stickers. That was years ago and somehow the phrase just exploded.
I remember going to see a band at a local club and there was a serious heckler that would not leave the band alone and they invited him to the front of the crowd -- it was one of those moments where the whole audience went totally silent. I was like, I cannot believe they're not only acknowledging this heckler, but the singer invited him up to the front of the stage's barricade area and he says, "I just wanna tell you right now, I just wanna tell you right now: Love wins." It was one of those moments -- I can't even explain. I think that band is at SXSW -- the Bangups they're called. They're awesome.
So the phrase had just extraordinary traction.
I've had that sticker on my car for years. Strangers in traffic often give me the thumbs up or yell asking where they can get one.
Yeah, so I've had this content knocking around my head and heart for about five years -- knowing it was a book. And I thought, oh the book's called this or the book's called that -- and then all of a sudden what I was actually trying to get at was the freedom of choice, and that when you begin with God is love, a lot of questions about heaven and hell and who goes where