The most controversial book on the Christian publishing scene so far this year arrived a couple of weeks ago. Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions, was published on March 15th following a publicity video that led many to believe that Rob was about to promote a universalist theology where hell (if it exists) is completely empty.
A couple of earlier posts have commented on other people’s views of the controversy (mostly surrounding the publicity video). In the posts I promised to post a review of my own once I had actually read the book. Here it is.
In the event, as Greg Boyd predicted before publication, Bell turns out to be no universalist. This, however, is unlikely to pacify many of those who wish to pin the “heretic” label on Bell. Many of these come from a Calvinist or neo-Calvinist constituency for whom the doctrines of total depravity of humans, election (that God has already chosen those who will be saved) and limited atonement (that Christ’s atonement is ONLY effective for the elect) are important aspects of their theology. For those of this mindset, it is likely that they will hold an exclusivist position on salvation; that is to say, that only those who have heard and responded positively to the Christian gospel will be saved.
As I have said, Bell is no universalist. He concedes that human free will allows for the possibility that individuals may choose to reject the love of God; thus it is quite possible that not all will eventually be saved, but this will not be God’s choice but theirs. His thesis is that God wants to save as many people as possible, contrary to the picture that, he maintains, is often presented by traditional theologies. These give us a God whose anger is barely restrained by Jesus. By contrast, Bell’s view presents a God whose desire is to reach out to all of humanity in love. It is an inclusivist scheme where people opt out of salvation rather than opting in. It is possible to be saved through what Christ has done, even if one is unaware of “the Gospel.”
But I suspect that there are other reasons why many theological conservatives will be unhappy with Bell’s book. Bell sees the Bible, and the New Testament in particular, telling a different story from the one that they have grown up with. In spite of his refusal to join with the Emergent/Emerging Church movement, Bell’s view of the Bible’s story shares many features with the emerging theology of Brian McLaren and others, themselves heavily influenced by N.T.Wright. His earlier book, Jesus Wants To Save Christians, gave an outline of the story Bell thinks the Bible is telling, and it is one that is focussed on the here and now, on confronting those things in our culture and society that militate against the Kingdom of God. For many conservatives this comes too close to what they would term a “social gospel,” and, they would claim, is a distraction from the Church’s task of proclaiming the message of a spiritual salvation focussed on the afterlife. The penultimate chapter of Love Wins is entitled ”The Good News Is Better Than That” and is Bell’s riposte to this viewpoint. He does not discount the eternal consequences of the gospel message, but sees eternal life as something that we begin to live in the here and now and that continues beyond physical death.
For me, there was not very much here that is ground-breaking. One suspects that for many of his critics both here and in the United States it is Bell’s popularising style that is the real problem: that he is saying in a very accessible and communicable style what others have been saying for years. The fact that he is the founder and pastor of a US mega-church is a problem for others, particularly this side of the pond. Love Wins is not an academic work. There are no footnotes, though a kind of bibliography at the end points those who want to read further in the direction of books and websites that will go into more depth. The layout on the page is more like poetry than prose and it reflects his preaching style (podcasts are available at www.marshill.org). He asks questions, many of them rhetorical; he interprets parables and other passages of scripture; above all, I feel, he is a storyteller and a poet, and this fits very well with our current post-modernist culture.
In summary, then, the book will appeal to those who are finding some of the traditional Christian answers to the big questions problematic. Those who think that Calvinism IS orthodoxy will continue to regard Bell as a heretic (and I’m not sure where that leaves Lutherans, Arminians and the rest of us); those who are prepared to wrestle again with some of the questions about what salvation really means may find this a very readable and thought-provoking introduction to these issues, but will probably want to follow up with something a bit more rigorous.