It takes a lot to get me to read a book. Usually it's by recommendation.
In the case of Love Wins, it's more because of unrecommendation.
Upon its publication last year, it quickly became so divisive within the English-speaking Christian church that I felt it necessary to hold an opinion on it. Apparently author Rob Bell had typed some theologically unpopular thoughts regarding the nature of salvation. Well, so have I.
It's also because - again last year - I found myself flicking through a copy at work during a discussion about its impending availability locally. It immediately struck me as looking like a really quick read. Slow reader that I am, I don't think that about many books.
So now that I've got my own edition and read it cover to cover, in fact its chapters have struck me as overlength. Bell's style of using very short lines and para… what? Oh, right, what I think of the opinions he expresses.
Well, I'm actually not that clear on what the opinions that he's expressing are. I guess I probably should have read the book a lot more quickly than I did, to avoid forgetting about it between chapters. Despite making notes, I'm afraid that most of it has just not remained with me.
I think I need to to refresh my memory here. Perhaps I should trawl back through some of my sprawling and long-winded digital jottings. Mind you, be warned: When I agree with an argument, in case I'm wrong, I'll do my darndest to disagree with it...
If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him - a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds - and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren't those verbs?
And aren't verbs actions? [p.11]
I disagree. Accepting, confessing and believing are verbs, but they are not usually actions. No two words mean exactly the same thing. That's why the book doesn't simply ask 'Aren't accepting, confessing and believing actions?'
"Second, one of the most striking aspects of the pictures the prophets used to describe this reality is how earthy it is. Wine and crops and grain and people and feasts and buildings and homes. It's here they were talking about, this world, the one we know - but rescued, transformed, and renewed." [p.34]
The prophets would have to describe heaven through their own experiences, hence they had no choice but to describe heaven in earthy terms. How could they possibly get any other terms in which to describe it? They couldn't have had the words, and if they did, then we, being unfamiliar with those concepts, could not have understood them. So of course they described heaven in earthy terms.
"To name is to order, to participate, to partner with God in taking the world somewhere." [p.35]
"When we hear people saying they can't believe in a God who gets angry - yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn't get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings?" [p.38]
Again, WE have emotions such as anger, so we are inherently compelled to perceive God in terms that we can comprehend.
"Rewards are a dynamic rather than a static reality. Many people think of heaven, and they picture mansions (a word nowhere in the Bible's descriptions of heaven)…" [p.43]
Unless you count: "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you."
- Jesus' words in John 14:2 (King James Version)
"But heaven also confronts. Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points. What Jesus is insisting with the rich man is that certain things simply will not survive in the age to come. Like coveting. And greed. The one thing people won't be wanting in the perfect peace and presence of God is someone else's life. The man is clearly attached to his wealth and possessions, so much so that when Jesus invites him to leave them behind, he can't do it." [p.49]
"… think about the magazines that line the checkout aisles at most grocery stores. The faces on the covers are often of beautiful, rich, famous, talented people embroiled in endless variations of scandal and controversy.
… are we seeing the first who will be last that Jesus spoke of?
When it comes to people, then - the who of heaven - what Jesus does again and again is warn us against rash judgments about who's in and who's out." [p.54]
Uh, isn't that what you just did? :) Or did I miss the subtlety there?
Sad to say it, but pages 54-58 - obviously too long to quote here - strike me as a poor attempt to reconcile scripture to theory. The summary on pages 58-9 is clear, but requires Jesus to have meant any of three different things whenever he used the word 'heaven'. Also, the author seems unaware that definitions for words from 2,000 years ago are only the definitions that we today infer that those words had back then. Quite apart from which, observing how hard he seems to be working here to get scripture to fit his theories, he probably didn't intend to suggest that God was such a poor communicator.
Anyway, having taken apart the use of the English word 'heaven' in translations, Rob inevitably moves onto that other place.
"To answer that question, I want to show you every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word 'hell.'" [p.64]
Now obviously, he does not actually mean the actual word 'hell', because that is a word in English. He must mean any word in the Bible's original lexicons that has been translated into English as the word 'hell'. He just about makes 34 references, even fewer of which he concedes mean what is traditionally thought of as 'hell', and even fewer of which he quotes.
"And that's it.
Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word 'hell' in the Bible they got from those verses you just read." [p.69]
I have two big pushbacks here:
a. I have not just read them, because Rob hasn't quoted them all.
b. Most of Rob's hypothetical 'people' won't have read the same English translation as he, and as a result may be privy to a whole pile of additional uses of the word in the Bible.
To check this out, I've run a quick whole keyword search on the number of instances of the word 'hell' occurring in each of the full English Bible translations available on biblegateway.com. In Rob's favour, I'm surprised to find that most do produce quite a low number of matches. But not all.
Remember now - Love Wins found about 34, give or take: (cue Alan "Fluff" Freeman music)
21st Century King James Version: 54
American Standard Version: 13
Amplified Bible: 13
Common English Bible: 19
Complete Jewish Bible (I guess the one Jesus would have used): 0
Contemporary English Version: 20
Darby Translation: 12
Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition: 108
Easy-To-Read Version: 16
English Standard Version: 14
English Standard Version Anglicised: 14
God's Word Translation: 35
Good News Translation: 21
King James Version: 54
New King James Version: 32
The Message Bible: 57 (r3sp3ct dude)
New American Standard Bible: 13
New Century Version: 17
New International Version: 13
New International Version 1984: 14
New International Reader's Version: 22
New International Version - UK: 13
Today's New International Version: 13
New Life Version: 35
New Living Translation: 17
Wycliffe Bible: 88
Young's Literal Translation: 0
So out of those 27 translations (admittedly some of them very similar, such as all the NIVs), five contained a significantly higher number of instances of the word 'hell'. What's that? You don't count da funky Message Bible? Okay then - four. Clearly, still too many for the assertion that "Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word 'hell' in the Bible they got from those [34-ish] verses you just read."
Still, as you can also see, his argument comes out of this battle strong, if not successful. Most of the translations above come out with even fewer references than Rob's!
Nonetheless, the argument on page 68 that the word Gehenna means the city dump is a double-edged sword. The reasoning goes that Jesus was using it as a metaphor for the terrible earthly consequences of our actions. Yet if Jesus were looking for an understandable way to convey the actual fire of literal eternal torment in hell, then equally Gehenna would be the perfect metaphor for that too. Ultimately, there is no argument to be made either way by explaining this word.
Despite this, I found Rob to really be getting into his stride in this chapter. He gives a great illumination of the rich man and Lazarus story, including the folly of exaggerating a hierarchy. His view of man's freedom - including freedom to hurt - being an enormous gift of grace from God is inspiring.
"Failure, we see again and again, isn't final,
judgment has a point,
and consequences are for correction." [p.88]
He goes on to realise Satan more in his accuser persona, and then to disassemble the idea of 'eternal punishment'. Universalism, I think he argues, is not an interpretation of the Bible, but rather one of its foundations.
"It's not 'Does God get what God wants?'
'Do we get what we want?'
And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.
God is that loving.
If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option." [p.116-7]
In chapter five Dying To Live the book moves onto emphasising how much Jesus' death on the cross accomplished. However here again I found the argument sprawling, with repeated asking of the same growing set of questions Twelve Days Of Christmas-style, rather than just presenting them once.
"Think of what you've had to eat today.
Dead. All of it. If you ate plants, they were at some point harvested, uprooted, disconnected from a stalk or vine, yanked from the ground so that they could make their way to your plate, where you ate them so that you can… live. The death of one living thing for another.
… [so] when the writers of the Bible talk about Jesus's resurrection bringing new life to the world, they aren't talking about a new concept. They're talking about something that has always been true. It's how the world works." [p.130-1]
Except that the vegetables I ate today are still dead. And I sincerely hope are going to remain so. Granted, all metaphors break down sooner or later, but not usually this quickly.
"How many people, if you were to ask them why they've left church, would give an answer something along the lines of, 'It's just so… small'?" [p.135]
In my opinion, a minority.
In chapter six the author gently crushes his own argument for Jesus' divinity at its launch, but then proceeds to go on and impart it anyway. Hey, there's a lot to be said for positive-mindedness.
"If you find yourself checking out at this point, finding it hard to swallow the Jesus-as-divine part, remember that these are ultimately issues that ask what kind of universe we believe we're living in. Is it closed or open? Is it limited to what we can conceive of and understand, or are there realities beyond the human mind?" [p.147]
After this, you just know that he's going to plunge on and explain the limited understanding of the whole undiscovered universe that he believes in his own human mind… ouch...
"Or are they referring to the very life source of the universe who has walked among us and continues to sustain everything with his love and power and grace and energy?" [p.156]
Yes, I really hope so too, but I cannot know for definite either.
After embracing the idea of the kingdom of heaven as working its way through the universe like yeast through dough, presently we get to a terrific examination of the prodigal son story. Like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus earlier, I found tons of great illuminations in here.
Yet still, there is this ongoing swinging between beautiful realisations of truth, and, well, things you can't edit once the book has been printed.
"God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone." [p.177]
Except in the Bible! :)
"When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.
Life has never been about just 'getting in.' It's about thriving in God's good world." [p.179]
"God is not a slave driver." [p.181]
Tell that to poor Ezekiel! :)
"When you've experienced the resurrected Jesus, the mystery hidden in the fabric of creation, you can't help but talk about him." [p.181]
Again, I beg to differ.
"Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.
Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer." [p.182]
I so agree.
"This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us." [p.182]
If one is sincerely seeking truth, then I don't agree that this is always true. I cite Paul of Tarsus, who was shaped by a different God to the one he had himself shaped.
"In Romans 5 we're told, 'At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.'" [p.189]
By this point I was lost as to why Christ had died.
"What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody." [p.155]
I love that idea.
So, in conclusion, just what is the case that Rob Bell is making here?
I think it was:
Maybe God is so great that everyone goes to heaven.
Maybe heaven is here, and is at least partly up to us to restore it.
Maybe there is no hell, in the traditional sense, but we can corrupt this world into a similarly terrible place if we collectively choose to.
Maybe the verses that he quotes actually are the only ones on that subject in the Bible.
Maybe there is no heaven, in the traditional sense, at all.
Maybe there is no afterlife.
The whole thing carries a momentum that suggests he's both building to a point and rerealising Christianity, but neither of these journeys seem to me to come to fruition.
I'm also reminded of a feeling I once had while watching a video of a Christian man enthusing beliefs about God that he seemed to hope were true so strongly that they had become an assumption. A moment after recognising this feeling, I realised that that guy had been Rob Bell too.
I think I love Rob's vision. It makes a lot of sense to me, and sounds awesome. As I've read this book, I've found great teaching in the parables that he's examined, and a renewed understanding of Jesus divinity. And yes, I feel inspired to take more responsibility over this world and its occupants.
I think I just have two problems though:
1. The absence of life after death. I spent the entire book waiting for him to get onto covering this. If God is that loving, then he can't let babies die.
2. The book-long attempt at making the argument Bible-based.
I can't help thinking that the vision described in Love Wins would function a lot more clearly if it didn't keep trying to reconcile 66 other books on the same subject into agreeing with it. It would probably be easier to mount this argument without the Bible.
But maybe this book is one stage on the journey towards discovering that agreement.