Heaven and hell, here and now
Heaven and hell. Salvation and judgment. Not easy subject matter – a reality Rob Bell knows all too well! Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, has stirred controversy and garnered attention across the evangelical landscape and beyond.
In Bell’s trademark fashion, Love Wins reads more like a conversation than a book – sparsely crafted sentences, deeply provocative questions, and engaging stories. The topic is “the love of God for every single one of us,” with a particular emphasis on questioning how we understand this love.
Jesus doesn’t call us to “skirt the big questions,” Bell asserts. And Bell doesn’t. No question is out of bounds in addressing evangelical beliefs about heaven and hell, salvation and judgment. Bell’s ability to connect God’s love with the messiness of human experience is by far the book’s greatest strength.
Bell’s biblical interpretation offers an incisive challenge to how we define heaven and hell. The influence of C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and Tim Keller shines through. Bell helpfully broadens our view of heaven as strictly “somewhere else.” The message is clear: heaven starts now. Everyday life such as business, art, medicine, and education needs to reflect heaven on earth – “partnership with God now.”
Correspondingly, hell already exists. Sin and brokenness are everywhere. God’s judgment is “the promise of the world made right” – God reconciling the world to himself (Colossians 1:20). Bell’s emphasis on the centrality of Jesus’ teachings should resonate with our Anabaptist roots as Mennonite Brethren.
Reading these themes, I realized the book isn’t actually about the afterlife. This isn’t bad; it’s just confusing. Mention of the afterlife is sporadic and ambiguous, distracting from the force of the admonition that God’s love matters now. A more appropriate title would be Love Wins: Heaven and Hell, Here and Now.
At times Bell’s biblical exposition is overly speculative, especially when probing the possibility of conversion in the afterlife. It’s also unclear how sinfulness is a barrier to our choice of God’s love. Does God’s love win? Or our choice? It’s unclear. Love Wins has plenty of unanswered questions begging to be explored together with other searchers.
Throughout the book, Bell expresses his concern that traditional views of heaven and hell have “hijacked” the gospel, weakening our views of God’s love. While many of Bell’s critiques are valid, I worry he’s building a theology primarily out of opposition. His pastoral sensitivity amid secular culture is admirable, but he runs the risk of making cultural appeal the driving force of his theology. As a starting point, reaction or cultural appeal can easily put personal preference at the centre of our theology. Bell would do well to admit this in the book. An issue we all need to admit, no doubt!
So, many want to know, is Rob Bell a universalist? No. He affirms evangelical Christian orthodoxy – Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the sole source of humanity’s salvation and judgment before God. Heaven and hell are real, now and in the future.
Is Bell at times vague in presenting his broad and generous orthodoxy? Yes. But in a history mired with violence, abuse, exclusiveness, and hatred – oftentimes at the hand of Christians – the messiness of life and difficulty of belief refuse easy answers. So Bell’s comfortable with ambiguity. And if we take Love Wins as only a small part of the discussion on faith and life, we should be too.
The message of God’s love here and now is greatly needed. The book’s content and style make it accessible for all to read. In a time when Christianity is often perceived as irrelevant and misguided, Love Wins creatively presents a biblically relevant way of following Jesus in this world. Bell’s closing words should inspire us all to see God’s love here and now:
“Whatever you’ve been told about the end – the end of your life, the end of time, the end of the world – Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today. Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year, to person after person.”