In recent months, Rob Bell suddenly became uber-popular again.
(Well, popular isn't quite the right word. "Talked-about" is good, or "infamous.")
Lil' Bobby Bell was once known for his artsy NOOMA videos and the equally-artsy book Velvet Elvis. I was quite familiar with him because I had a hip youth pastor, and no one loves Rob Bell like hip youth pastors do. I mean, really, he was everything the young church wanted; that is to say, he was nothing like the pastors we'd seen in Grown-Up Church so far.
Our ancestors had brought to us the seemingly-endless era of Duty Church, wherein all the good Christians sat in wooden pews and listened to a withered old man talk about what he learned from the Bible in a monotonous drone. No one ever admitted to having questions or struggles, nobody ever danced, and no word was dirtier than "sex."
Understandably, Duty Church had left us with a bad taste in our mouths, and who better to swoop in to save us than Rob Bell? He was everything we wanted. His messages came in well-produced videos (which conveniently never laster longer than our limited attention spans) and always included music from the forever-magnificent Album Leaf.
What more could we ask?
But, for me at least, Bell eventually fell off the stage. After reading Sex God, I sort of forgot about him. Oh, I still echoed his thoughts, used his quotes, remembered his axioms--but I didn't even notice when he published two other books.
And then he wrote Love Wins, and suddenly everyone remembers him.
Now, since it's Friday and I owe you all a post, I'm going to piggyback on Bell's controversy with my own review. Here we go.
Part 1: The Perception, and My Sparknotes
Critics have come out of every single nook and cranny to decry Bell for being a universalist. To hear them tell it, Love Wins suggests heinous heresies: first, that "There is no hell," second that "All roads lead to God," and third that "Everyone will get to heaven." ("WHAT! How dare he suggest that Christ has enough grace to forgive even the people who don't accept him?!")
Now, let me be clear: none of them read the book.
Bell never says any of the things above. He does not even suggest them. The only thing he says on the subject of hell is that, maybe, we misinterpreted it.
("WHAT? HOW DARE HE SUGGEST THAT THE CHURCH CAN MISINTERPRET THINGS!")
The principal idea of Love Wins, whether accurate or not, is this: the word Christ uses to describe "eternal" or "everlasting" or "forever" (what have you) is, in the Greek, "aion." The English lost quite a bit in translation here, because aion isn't an unending series of minutes going on indefinitely; it's used to describe an experience that is so intense that it feels timeless, e.g. the seemingly infinite time it takes to sit in a class you hate, or the seemingly infinite moments you spend with people you love.
More accurately, "aion" means "timelessness."
Further, the word for hell is often "Gehenna"--a term used to refer to the Jerusalem city dump, a trash heap where everything is miserable and the fire never goes out. Essentially, it's the place where all humanity's refuse goes to rot. A place where all the consequences of our actions can be seen clearly.
In essence, all he says about hell is that maybe the idea of everybody who doesn't respond the right way burning forever isn't quite accurate. Do we have verses backing up our idea that all the unsaved will be burning forever, with no chance for redemption? (He stresses the "with no chance for redemption"--his concluding idea about hell is that, eventually, even the people in hell can be redeemed. But he does acknowledge that hell is certainly real.)
[In answer, no, we don't--or at least, I haven't encountered them.]
He sums it up on the back cover of the book:
"God loves us.
God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part.
Unless you do not respond the right way.
Then God will torture you forever.
Part 2: My Thoughts
Is he completely accurate? I doubt it. Does he have a point? I think he does. Hear me out for one moment:
The way we understand the Gospel right now, it seems that often we run to God for an utterly wrong reason. It's not because we love him, not because we want a better life or an eternal union with our Maker.
It's because we don't want to burn in the eternal conscious torture we learned about in Sunday school. Love? Hardly.
We're running to Daddy because we don't want him to carve us up with a knife.
We're told to offer our lives as a "free will offering," and this doesn't seem anything like that. It seems a lot more like coercion. (I'm only suggesting that the message has been distorted somewhat. For an even better look at the subject, check out David Dark.)
Further--with the ideas we have now--yes, sinners do get what they deserve. They even get, if you will, what they "want" [for a given value of want]. Anyone who does not acknowledge God--anyone who does not respond in the "right" way--is condemned to an eternity separated from God, with no chance for redemption, ever.
Firstly, if that's the truth (that God closes the door on redemption as soon as we're dead), there's a serious risk he's (a) impotent, since he is "unwilling that any should perish" [2 Peter 3:9], (b) not as good as he says he is, or (c) far more judgmental than we ever thought. Or, perhaps, (d) we're misunderstanding. (I find that's it's good to work in the option "I may have misunderstood" into any final answer. It leaves wiggle room.)
Secondly, that leaves quite a few people screwed over.
What about a Quechuan who never hears the Gospel?
What about a kid who, just after reaching the "age of accountability" (whatever age you want to make it), is murdered by a serial killer?
What about a girl whose father raped her while reciting the Lord's Prayer?
Does God condemn these people? They certainly had their chance. Yet they never sought out God, never accepted Jesus, never prayed a special prayer or shadowed the doorstep of a church. Certainly they are guilty (as humans are). Is it equally certain that they will be eternally condemned, with no chance for redemption after their earthly flesh is rotting?
Somehow I doubt that a God who would give up his own Son for us will have no mercy on them. I can't see him saying, "I'm sorry, kids, but I'm fresh out of grace and mercy. Looks like you'll have to burn in hell forever and ever!"
I can't buy that. That's not the God I know.
Part 3: My Apology
I've grown up with the evangelical view. Many of you know me; I'm well-versed in most all the traditional ideas. And I'm fairly bright and, heaven help us all, God saw fit to grace me with an education.
That being said, understand that I have not (and certainly will not) swallow all of Bell's teachings without bothering to chew. Once again, as you all know, I do so love chewing.
Please remember these facts when [if] you slog through all that weary, mumbling prose I put up. I'm not saying Bell's right; I am saying that he's worth listening to if only because he makes you think.
Heaven knows Christians don't do enough of that these days.
P.S. I would really like to hear everyone's thoughts on the subject after you've read the book. It's darn interesting and, frankly, it's not going to die down for quite a long while. People will read this, and when they do, it will be our job to discuss it with them intelligently, rather than responding with blind hate and ignorance. We've done too much of that already.