There has been no shortage of controversy in Evangelical circles surrounding the release of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins. One of the blogs I read hailed it as an “instant classic” (she was a self-proclaimed friend of his from college, with a picture to prove it), while others have called it “complete heresy” and labeled him a Universalist (apparently they weren’t his friends in college!).
While Bell certainly didn’t shy away from publicity on this one, I think we ought to be a bit more careful of jumping on or off the bandwagon so quickly. In fact, I think we should take a different approach: we should listen.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not endorsing everything Bell says in the book. Quite frankly, the book frustrates me. Just like Bell’s other works, it is choppy and seems as if he threw it together over an extended weekend, though I trust he didn’t.
There isn’t a single footnote in the entire book. This is especially frustrating to me when he claims “an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts” (p. 108).
That comment really interested me. In fact, it interested me so much I wanted to hear some examples. But none was given. Unfortunately, such claims serve only as ammunition for both sides without providing any evidence at all. Some will accept it as gospel truth simply because Rob Bell said it. Others will reject it as absolute heresy because—you guessed it—Rob Bell said it.
He also takes shots here and there that seem aimed at a certain type of Christian. For example, he references the “woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews” (p. 10) as if it were a proven fact a woman wrote that book. In reality, no one knows who wrote it. If a woman actually wrote that letter, I don’t have a problem with it. In fact, I think it would be great. But to make such a statement was clearly a jab at more conservative Christians, as if what he says in the rest of the book weren’t going to bother them enough. Sadly, this seems much more antagonistic than pastoral.
So when I suggest we should listen, I am not suggesting that he is completely right about everything. I think we should listen because he is a product of the Evangelical world in which he was raised, and clearly he has had a prophetic influence back into that world. And let’s face it: while Evangelicalism in America has seen numerical success, the movement has never succeeded in breaking free from its Fundamentalist roots—and those roots are now choking the movement.
While the movement has made subtle progress for good in our country, it has watered down the gospel of Christ to a set of propositions that we believe in order to be saved, yet never takes seriously the call of discipleship. It often has called the church to be separate from the world without ever calling the church to be holy. It has placed importance on what happens for the rest of eternity while turning a blind eye to the real problems the world faces today. It has fueled radically individualistic lifestyles in America, while showing little value for communities of faith.
Brothers and sisters, this is simply unacceptable. So I would challenge you to at least listen to what Bell says about the following areas:
• Listen to what he says about Heaven.
Bell speaks for a younger generation when he declares “Here is the new there.” By this he is suggesting our view of Heaven as a foreign place where we eventually go to escape this world is unbiblical—and he is absolutely correct.
The biblical picture of Heaven is of a kingdom where God reigns, and the good news is we don’t have to go there. Rather, the kingdom of Heaven is coming here—and to some degree, it already has!
While what we see now is but a shadow of what is to come, this understanding forces us to engage the world as Jesus did. It does not allow us to hide from any issue or to allow any room for Christians who refuse to engage the world. This is what the younger generation is longing for—a Christianity with hands and feet.
It also speaks to a revitalized importance of the resurrection of all believers. Too often Evangelicals have watered down Heaven to a place where your spirit goes when you die—with absolutely no mention of the resurrection! We have placed such an importance on the role of the human spirit that we have nearly forgotten the promise of resurrection applies to us too! That is the hope Paul reinforces in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ has risen, and so will we!
• Listen to what he says about Hell.
When the Bible speaks of Hell, it uses very dark imagery and metaphors. The only thing really clear about Hell is that it is very much a mystery. Bell correctly points out that Jesus simply refers to the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. It was a miserable place where fire was always burning.
It reminds me of my visit to the Philippines in 1998 where I was introduced to “squatter colonies.” These colonies were often found in garbage dumps, and the inhabitants burned a fire to keep themselves warm at night. There were no records of their births or deaths. They were not educated. Their only contact with the rest of the world was when the garbage trucks arrived with food scraps and cardboard boxes, their food and shelter.
Shortly after returning home, I read an article about a tragedy that killed several thousand squatters outside of Manila. Apparently, one of the larger colonies had been burning a fire for several weeks that somehow burned downward through the dump and caused a massive collapse that killed thousands of squatters. This is exactly the type of life Jesus was referring to when he spoke of Hell, or Gehenna.
Is there Hell on earth? Yes. Is it just on earth? No. Bell doesn’t seem to think so either. He is calling the church to more of a balance—not just a conservative or liberal view, but balance. He says, “Often the people most concerned about others going to Hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about Hell after death” (pp. 78, 79). We must take both Hells very seriously.
• Listen to what he says about God’s restoring love.
This is again where the Bible gets way too murky for us. We want it all settled here on earth before we die. Bell argues that God will continue to restore the fallen even after he returns to earth. While I struggle to completely reconcile this thought with my traditionally held beliefs, I do hope he’s right.
I must acknowledge that a lot of my beliefs are merely speculation on Scripture’s gray areas. What does John mean when he says the gates of the heavenly city will never be shut? What is he referring to when he says the leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations? None of us can answer these questions completely, and John probably couldn’t either. That’s why he gave us these beautiful images.
Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it means we allow our assumptions to be challenged. If we’re wise, we’ll walk away from a book like this with a greater emphasis toward God’s mission of reconciling the world to himself. That means we’ll be very passionate about winning souls in the classical evangelical sense, but it also means we’ll engage the current problems of this world with great intensity and hope, because we know along with Paul that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.
Dustin Fulton is preaching minister at Jefferson Street Christian Church in Lincoln, Illinois.