Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived. By Rob Bell. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. 202pp. $22.99.
Book Reviewed by: Jace Cloud
Rob Bell is a Christian author, speaker, and the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Since his increase in popularity through books such as Velvet Elvis, Bell has been pushing the envelope in areas such as the emerging church and redefining what it means to be “Christian.” In his most recent book, Love Wins, Bell attempts to reexamine the traditional understanding of “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.”
In chapter one, Bell poses honest, long-debated questions that set the stage for the rest of his book. He questions how a loving God could create millions of people who are going to spend eternity in anguish (p. 2). Next he questions, hypothetically, how a person could escape this eternal anguish (p. 5). Lastly, he questions whether or not heaven ought to be viewed as our “ticket” out of this world and into the next (p. 6).
In chapter two, Bell reexamines the concept of heaven. He argues that although heaven is a future reality, Jesus constantly urged His followers to bring heaven into their present experiences (p. 40, 46). Bell argues that among other things, heaven is “our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life…” (p. 58-59).
In chapter three, Bell reexamines the concept of hell. He theorizes that hell can be an earthly reality (the presence of rape, murder, etc. confirms this experience) just as heaven can be an earthly reality (p. 71). He then proceeds to support the future reality of hell but with a redefinition of it. By arguing from Ezekiel 16 and Matthew 10 that Sodom and Gomorrah have hopeful futures despite their past judgment, Bell theorizes that God’s ultimate purpose for hell is to move “from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life” (p. 85). He then adds, “failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction” (p. 85). To support this claim, Bell redefines the meaning of “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25 to be “a period of pruning” or “an intense experience of correction” (p. 91). In other words, Bell believes hell to be a temporary time of correction, not eternal separation from God.
In chapter four, Bell upholds the sovereignty of God in connection with God’s desire for all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). He then poses the rhetorical question, “So does God get what God wants?” (p. 97). At this point, Bell tries to balance the claims that God will reconcile all things to Himself (p. 109) and yet God’s love demands that humans have ultimate freedom to choose (p. 113).
In chapter five, Bell walks through different biblical metaphors describing terms such as freedom, reconciliation, and redemption (p. 128).
In chapter six, Bell argues that Jesus is bigger than Christianity. Through this claim, Bell argues for “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (p. 155). In other words, the doors of heaven were opened by Christ, but a person does not necessarily enter only through Christianity. By referring to Paul’s interpretation of the “rock” of Exodus 17 (1 Corinthians 10:4), Bell argues that Jesus is found in many other “rocks,” and “sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t” (p. 159).
In chapter seven, Bell reaffirms his belief that God cannot be both a loving God and a “vicious tormenter” (p. 173, 177). Bell then argues that people ought to allow God to retell their story, one that ends in reconciliation. For Bell, “hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story…. What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story” (p. 170-71). In the end, it is the “story” that makes all the difference. In fact, the story of an all-inclusive God is better than a God who allows people to go to hell (p. 174-175).
In chapter eight, Bell argues that Jesus invites us to say yes to God’s love, however one wants to describe this act (p. 194).
The book’s strength lies in its honest questions about God’s love, mercy, and justice. These are difficult issues that have been debated throughout the history of the Church. Furthermore, Bell rightly argues that Christians ought to live out the heavenly characteristics of joy, peace, and love. However, Bell’s work is far more detrimental than beneficial to the Christian and non-Christian community. From an evangelical vantage, Bell leaves much unanswered and unsupported. His rhetoric is loaded with rhetorical questions that offer no definite answers. Furthermore, by arguing from a postmodern worldview and reader-based hermeneutic, Bell’s use of scripture and argumentation is unsatisfying for audiences who do not share his philosophy and hermeneutic. Reasoning through Bell’s use of Scripture leaves one scratching his head in confusion. More troubling, however, is Bell’s defense of a temporary hell and its mere corrective purpose. For Bell, hell is a temporary reality in which people will be pruned and made ready for heaven, much like purgatory. While arguing that God will eventually reconcile all things to Himself, Bell adamantly argues for complete human freedom to choose. Furthermore, Bell’s view of the inclusive nature of salvation moves outside the realm of evangelicalism. Bell’s god demands the full reconciliation of humanity, regardless of their knowledge of or position on Jesus Christ. Through these conclusions, Bell offers a false hope to millions of people who reject Jesus Christ. Because of these conclusions, one can only hope that Bell’s readers will search the Scripture for themselves and realize the urgency for faith in Christ during this lifetime (Acts 4:11-12; Hebrews 9:27-28).
Book review by: Jace Cloud