Freedom Wins - A Review of Rob Bell's Love Wins

I cannot recall a book in my lifetime that has garnered as much attention as Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  His last book was Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile was releatively ignored.  I think Love Wins further elaborates on the points brought out in that book.  If the church needs saved from the institution and legalism it has become ensnared it, what does that look like?

Many have found Rob Bell's book disappointing because it did not address what they were looking for.  I went down to my local neighborhood auto mechanic, and he said that it was a terrible book to use for tearing apart and rebuilding engines.  I then went down to my local printer, and he said that the book was worthless when it came to running a printing press.  Finally, I stopped to talk to the local drug dealer, and he said the book was no use at all at showing him how to make more money.  So many people found that the book did not address what they wanted it to address.

Bell says that Love Wins is written "for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, 'I would never be part of that'" (viii).  He wants to show the real Jesus to those people who have rejected false Jesuses.  He writes that as purpose number one.  The second reason that he wrote the book is to free Christians from a faith that prevents them from asking certain questions to one that is real and full of seeking Jesus and the truth.  He wrote, "There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous" (x).  So for those looking for a book like Four Views on Hell, it has already been written.  That is not what Bell was going after here.  He was looking to share Jesus to those who have rejected him and to start a discussion.  At least on the latter, he has been extremely successful.  On the former, we will have to wait and see.

Chapter One, What About the Flat Tire?

In this chapter, Bell asks questions.  Questions most of us have asked ourselves.  Questions that would get people in trouble in some churches.  Questions that some Christians feel that they can't be honest with themselves over.  Questions that some will just brand one a heretic for asking.  He sets up the tension to spur the reader on.  And he does a great job at it.  He frames it by telling the story of a kid who was a high school student and died in a car wreck. 
Was God limited to that three-year window, and if the message didn't get to the young man in that time, well that's just unfortunate?

And what exactly would have had to happen in that three-year window to change his future?

Would he have had to perform a specific rite or ritual?
Or take a class?
Or be baptized?
Or join a church?
Or have something happen somewhere in his heart?

Some believe he would have had to say a specific prayer.  Christians don't agree on exactly what this prayer is, but for many the essential idea is that the only way to get into heaven is to pray at some point in your life, asking God to forgive you and telling God that you accept Jesus, you believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your sins, and you want to go to heaven when you die.  Some call this "accepting Christ," others call it the "sinner's prayer," and still others call it "getting saved," being "born again," or being converted."  That, of course raises more questions" (5).
Chapter Two, Here is the New There

The title says it all.  Heaven needs to be the here we are trying to bring about rather than the there we are hoping to get to.  Bell has an eye-opening section where he deals with the story of the rich, young ruler in Matthew 19.  That section alone is worth the price of admission.  Bell facetiously describes how Jesus gave the wrong answer to the question of how to get eternal life.  The answer we give or the approach we take when asked about eternal life is not the approach that Jesus took.  If one of us needs to change, it isn't Jesus.

Having been used in the last year, as most pastor's regularly experience, to provide that eternal life stamp on someone's life who is living out of step with God and has no desire to change, this chapter hit a chord.  People just want us to baptize them, guide them through a prayer, or do some other ritual to insure that they avoid the fiery pits of hell and can walk the streets of gold in heaven, but what Jesus really wants is for people to give their life over to him and join with him in redeeming the world.  This is where he gets into the controversial rendering of some Greek words.  It's unfortunate because the point could be made without that distraction, but for most non-scholars the point is made with the distraction.  I will not be dealing with the distraction but with the point.
How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.  Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world.

Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now.  Not because we've bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere.

Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water.  People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come.

That's what happens when the future is dragged into the present (44-45). 
If we view our life as one big escape from this evil world to heaven, we will live a certain way.  But if we view our life as letting the light of Jesus shine through us, joining in his work of redeeming and restoring the world, and being that city on the hill, then our life will be lived a lot differently than that of an isolationist, escapist Christian.  He's is not saying that right thinking doesn't matter.  He's saying that right thinking will produce right living.  For those religious groups that are hung up on just thinking the right theology without living a life of transforming the world, then this chapter would be extremely offensive because they really don't have right thinking if they aren't participating in restorative living.

Chapter Three, Hell

In this chapter, Bell does to hell what he did to heaven in the chapter before.  Hell is not so distant.  We see things in this life that remind us of hell.  With that, we can either say, "This is a fallen world, and we can't do anything about bad circumstances."  Or we can say, "This looks like hell.  I should help people out of that situation."  He emphasizes that our life should be focused on living out the life of Jesus in the present rather than isolating ourselves and holing up until our great escape from this fallen world.

In this chapter, Bell goes through every verse in the Old and New Testament that deal with hell.
In reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word "hell," what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn't his point.  He's often not talking about "beliefs" as we think of them--he's talking about anger and lust and indifference.  He's talking about the state of his listeners' hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world.

Jesus did not use hell to try and compel "heathens" and "pagans" to believe in God, so they wouldn't burn when they die.  He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God's love.

That is not to say that hell is not a pointed, urgent warning or that it isn't intimately connected with what we actually do believe, but simply to point out that Jesus talked about hell to the people who considered themselves "in," warning them that their hard hearts were putting their "in-ness" at risk, reminding them that whatever "chosen-ness" or "election" meant, whatever special standing they believed they had with God was always, only, ever about their being the king of transformed, generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God's love looks like in flesh and blood. (82-83).
A great point.  Many miss these great points because of the controversy surrounding the book.  Every book has some bones that need to be spit out.  This book is just like all of them.  But he is emphasizing that we can get so hung up on heaven and hell as destinations in the life to come, we can get so caught up on being right and religious, that we forget to live out the life that he has called us to live.

Chapter Four, Does God Get What God Wants

This is the chapter that one would think the whole book is about.  Is Rob Bell a Universalist?  (According to himself, no).  Does he believe in hell?  If he doesn't have our view of hell, should we call him a heretic?  It reminds me of the 2009 Derek Webb album.  Derek Webb wrote a song entitled "What Matters More" on his Stockholm Syndrome CD.  In the song he uses the word "shit."  It's about how we don't really care about the lost, especially homosexuals; we just care about keeping our "Christian" appearance intact.  The record company then wouldn't put the album on the disc because of the use of the word.  They were worried about appearance. 

Webb's song was really a rip-off of the Tony Campolo sermon that does the same thing.  Tony had a message that he began with, "I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."  And then some of the people leave the message complaining that he said "shit"rather than getting upset that the church is not doing its job.

So what does this have to do with Bell's chapter on hell?  Well, his main point in the chapter is that we shouldn't divide over speculation about hell.  Then the anti-Bellers have chosen to divide over this.  It's sadly ironic like the Webb song and Campolo sermon.  The real debate should be whether one's view of hell is an essential that we are willing to divide over.  For some groups, it seems like everything is an essential, so the question is a no-brainer.  For a group like us in the Christian Churches, it is more difficult.  When this debate began, I went to Southeast Christian Church's website and looked at their belief statement.  They have no statement on hell listed.  Neither do we at Riverside Christian Church.  Now, the fact that we don't have one listed currently doesn't mean we shouldn't.  But a controversy over a book doesn't mean that we should.  It would be a shame to have a gut reaction and start including statements on hell into our belief statements.  It is part of our heritage that we believe in a minimal set of essentials in order to foster unity and freedom in Jesus.  Bell seems to share in our heritage.  The question we should be discussing before labeling Bell a heretic on his view of hell is whether anyone can be a heretic because of their view on hell.

Bell frames the discussion in the Bible verses that God wants all to be saved.  And then he asks, as the chapter title states, "Does God get what he wants?"  It's a tough question.  Bell has no problem asking such tough questions.  But he amuses the thought that God does get that which he says wants because he thinks it would be a good story to tell.
In contrast, everybody enjoying God's good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story [than one about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment (110)].  It is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes. (111).
If it would stop there, we might conclude that Bell is a universalist.  But we will see that he is just dreaming.  He is an idealist.  And for the systematic theologian, engineer types, dreamers like Bell are scary and incomprehensible.  They dream, yet they go after their dreams.  Bell is a church planter, a dreamer that goes after dreams.  When you plant a church, you have this perfect ideal of a church that you are going to strive for.  You know that your church will be faulty and not live up to the ideal, yet you still plant it anyway.  This is where Bell is at.  In the next paragraph, he goes on.
Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.  We can be honest about the warped nature of the human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God's love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together.  To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now. (111).
Bell sets up the ideal of universalism in the first paragraph, tears it down in the second by saying there are objections to it, but still states that it is a good ideal to strive for.  For some, paradoxes like that are unacceptable.  It must make rational sense.  For an idealist like Bell, those conflicting ideas can live themselves out in a person by trying to bring heaven onto earth while knowing that you will fail.  Does this make him a heretic?  I wouldn't say so.  Bell is someone who refuses to take a methodological, systematic approach to Scripture.  And this is where the big disagreement rests.  It's between Systematic Theology and another approach to Scripture.  Bell's approach is one that revels in the narratives and allows frustrating paradoxes to exist without shoehorning one Scripture to fit nicely under another.  To some, a non methodical approach might be heretical.  But that is making another essential that just should not be there.

Now onto to the big, controversial point that is misunderstood.
Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions--and the people who do them--from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people?  Keeping the gates, in essence, open?  Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their righ tto be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom?  
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?

Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires. (115).
It's only controversial if you think we can have it all figured out.  Bell refuses to answer and is fine living with the tensions of God's desire to have all people saved.  To him, answering and figuring out the afterlife is not the point.  The point is to live out a life that brings heaven into the here and now.

At the risk of expecting Bell to write a book that he did not intend to write, I do think that he could have done some hermeneutical work on judgment throughout the Scriptures.  He talked about what the Scriptures say about hell, but he ignores the larger issue of judgment.

Bell then goes on to describe his view of hell.  Yes, he does have one.  Weird for a universalist, isn't it?
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.  If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to that.  If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities.  The more we want nothing to do with all God is , the more distance and space are created.  If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love. (116-117).

That's how love works.  It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.  It always leaves room for the other to decide.  God says yes, we can have what we want, because love win. (119).
Love is freedom.  God is not going to force us into heaven.  He is going to let us have hell if that is what we choose.  Now, hell is not a place with a dungeon lord torturing us where we are burning in a pit of fire yet our flesh continually grows back so it's always a never-ending, excruciating pain.  No, hell is a place where we are separated from all that is good because we have chosen our own selfish desires.  Hell begins on earth, but it will also continue into eternity because love wins.  Or freedom to choose is always given.

Now, Bell is really going after Reformed thinking throughout this entire book.  He's preaching free will and telling people that they can choose to either be part of the solution to the world in Jesus or continue to be part of the problem in themselves.  One must remember that Bell is a pastor in the Reformed capital of America, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He has to deal with Reformed people.  He has to wrestle with Reformed thoughts.  He has to deal with the hurt that special election thinking inflicts and the pride it nurtures.  You'll notice in the quotes I have shared up to this point, he has talked about these things.  The question and chapter title "Does God get what He wants?" goes completely against the Reformed thinking of sovereignty.  Of course, he gets what he wants in Reformed thinking.  But in Bell's thinking where love (freedom) wins, we get what we want because God loves us that much.  Some will choose hell.

Chapter Five, Dying to Live

Bell tells the story of going to an Eminem concert and where he sees Eminem wearing a cross around his neck.  If anything, people should be upset that Rob Bell has such bad taste that he likes Eminem. 

This chapter tells the story of how the Christian life and the life of Christians together in the Church needs to be so much more than it currently is.
When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God, yes that is true.  But that explanation as the first explanation puts us at the center.  For the first Christians, the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander.  More massive.  When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus's resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything "on earth or in heaven" (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it.  The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable.  Individuals are then invited to see their story in the context of a far larger story, on that includes all of creation.

Yes, it includes people.  The writers were very clear that the good news of the cross and resurrection is for everybody.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that all of humanity died through the first humans, so "in Christ all will be made alive."  He writes to Titus that "the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people" (chap. 2).  And then, in one of his more epic passages, Paul explains to the Romans that "just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all" (chap. 5).

He is not alone in this belief.  The pastor John writes to his people that Jesus is "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" and that Jesus is "the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (John 1; 1 John 2).

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"?

Of course.
A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small.
A gospel that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story.
A gospel that repeatedly, narrowly affirms and bolsters the "in-ness of one group at the expense of the "outness" of another group will not be true to the story that includes "all things and people in heaven and on earth."
The church can be so much more.  

And my review will end there today.  At the end of Chapter 5.  I might wrap up the rest, but I don't know if I have any more to say on it. It's definitely worth reading.  We will have a discussion class on this book at church some time in the near future, probably mid-summer.  Let me know if you are interested.