Whether it was a brilliant marketing strategy or just a sad reflection of the charged atmosphere of Christian dialogue these days, one cannot deny that Rob Bell's latest book Love Wins has stirred up a load of controversy before it has even hit the shelves. As a book claiming the daunting task of being "A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived," the uproar was understandable although disappointingly cruel at times. For some reason many Christians hold to the notion that where we go when we die is the most important aspect of our faith, and thus get rather up in arms when people even dare to open that topic up for conversation. Bell deftly addresses the need to re-prioritize what is central to our faith, but more on that in a moment. Let me first get the controversial stuff out of the way.
Does Bell believe in hell? Yes. Does Bell believe in heaven? Yes. Is Bell firmly rooted in Christian orthodoxy? Yes. Does Bell think that Jesus is the way? Yes. Is Bell a universalist? If by that we mean that God is reconciling all creation to Godself, and that we shouldn't assume that God will fail at this, then yes, Bell is a universalist. If that's all you want to know so that you can judge, label, dismiss, or whatever -- then you can stop reading now. But if you are curious about what the book is really about and the hope-filled message of transformation it contains, then I invite you to keep reading.
At the most basic level, Love Wins is a typical Rob Bell book. Which is to say that he writes like he speaks and so what the reader encounters is an easy to read, yet powerful narrative that speaks straight to the heart. Bell's gift is to take tremendously complex theological concepts and translate them so that they are not just understandable to all but also blessedly practical. People can complain that he is too popular or over-marketed, but it is this gift that makes him resonate with so many people. At the same time, those who are versed in history and theology can clearly see the conversations of Christians through the centuries behind the ideas Bell expresses. He is not espousing anything new in this book; rather, he is simply making the rich tradition of Christian thought accessible for believers today.
And what he is saying is powerful. Bell gets at the heart of what Christians believe about God and isn't afraid to challenge the implicit assumptions about God that are at the core of some Christians' belief systems. Central to that message is the suggestion that our relationship with the God of the universe is a dynamic, not static, reality. Jesus' work on the cross isn't just an historical event, but an ongoing narrative of redemption and reconciliation. Our faith isn't just about going to heaven when we die, but about entering into a relationship and partnership with God now and for eternity. Heaven and hell are real for Bell, but they are not simply places we go when we die. They are connected to who we are in Christ now. We are called to accept the gift of a transformative life that can endure even death. This life is a gift from a God who truly desires life on earth to be like it is in heaven, both now and for eternity, and who lets us serve as partners in this work of reconciling a world that God loves and will never give up on.
This message that God loves his creation so much that God refuses to give up on us, forms the core of Bell's book. Bell points out that since the early church fathers, Christians have held that since God's central essence is love, it is reconciliation and not eternal suffering that brings God the most glory. What we believe and how we act are vitally important, but in the end, upholding and glorifying the essence of God is most important. And when we insist that people who think differently than us, or who haven't had the same revelation as us, or who said a different prayer than us will be eternally separate from a God the scriptures say works for and longs for the redemption of all things, we are stripping God of power and denying God glory.
At the same time, Bell doesn't deny that love involves freedom. We are free to deny God and to refuse to live the ways of God's kingdom. God cannot abide in injustice or greed or hatred -- such things have no place in the world to come and have significant consequences in the world now. Suffering exists and God cares about those in pain, yet God loves us enough to allow us to continue to live in the hell of our own choosing. Hell is real, but it is a place we create for ourselves as we reject the gift of life God offers to us. But in the scriptures judgment is always connected to restoration. God's essence is love and that essence can never change. The gates of heaven never shut, for even as God will not abide injustice and sin in God's realm, God by nature is always desiring the reconciliation and restoration of all things. God can never stop being God which means that in the end, love has to win.
Love Wins is not a book about who is in or out. That sort of talk is too small. It is a book that invites people to remember the life God is offering them and this encourages them to thrive as they joyously participate in that life. Bell challenges theologies that seem to have forgotten what it means to live this life and moves the conversation back to a placed where Christians have the freedom to say yes to the gift God continually offers. Christianity isn't about being right or wrong, it's about living joyously and transformativly for Jesus -- and this is a message we can all benefit from being reminded of.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.