Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have most likely at least heard about the big debate going on about Rob Bell’s new book, entitled, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  Before anyone had even read the book, Rob Bell was being labelled an ultra-liberal universalist heretic, based on a promotional video and a few snippets from the book.  I hadn’t read any of Rob Bell’s books since “Velvet Elvis”, which I enjoyed but wasn’t enthralled by, but I’m a sucker for theological controversy, so I pre-ordered the book on my Kindle.

The book came out this Tuesday and I finished it on Thursday.  As is usual with Rob Bell’s books, it’s not very long, even if it looks like it is.

He likes short sentences and short paragraphs.

Like this.

But I digress.

Before I read the book, and as I was reading it, I was inundated with facebook, twitter, blog, and news posts about what people were saying about Rob Bell, mostly pretty nasty negative stuff.  It made for an interesting reading experience.  So I’d like to share my thoughts on the book.

First, here, in a nutshell, is what Rob Bell is trying to argue in the book.  Rob (his style of writing makes it feel like we’re on a first name basis, so I think it’s ok to call him Rob) argues that the infinite nature of God’s love means that He will be forever patient with us, even into the afterlife, and there will never come a time when we have lost our chance to repent and put our faith in Him through Jesus.  He also argues for a definition of Heaven and Hell that means that both are existent now, currently, in our world, as well as in the afterlife.

The point Rob is trying to make is that we should approach God with a child-like attitude, trusting in His love, and not being distracted from that focus by ideas that God is a schizophrenic psychopath, where God’s love is saving us from God’s wrath, God saving us from God.  We also should not judge those outside the church; we shouldn’t be wishing Hell on them and should not be expecting them to rot in Hell for in eternal conscious torment.  He also stresses that God’s plan is redeeming this world, not escaping it, and thus we need to be focused, both in this life and the next (and the one after that) to be giving our lives over to God to partner with Him in redeeming the world.

So that’s basically, from what I could tell, what Rob is trying to get at in his book.  So here are some of my thoughts on it:

Things I liked:

Rob clears up many misconceptions about Heaven and Hell.  Heaven is not a place of disembodied timeless bliss where we sit on clouds and play harps and eat cream cheese, but there will be a life after death (in Sheol/ Hades) and then a life after life after death, with a bodily resurrection, where Heaven meets Earth and the Earth is redeemed.  He also clears up a lot of mistranslation issues with Hell, where “Hades” and “Sheol” are often (especially in older Bibles) mistranslated as “Hell”, when they mean very different things.

The book contains pretty decent arguments for the idea that people can come into a saving relationship with Jesus without necessarily recognizing the relationship as such, citing both philosophical arguments as well as Biblical texts that clearly support the idea.

There’s a really interesting little discussion on the book of John, and how the writer makes a point of numbering Jesus’ “signs”, and that the resurrection would be the 8th sign in the book, metaphorically referring to a new week, and thus a new creation.  It was something I hadn’t come across before.

Rob asks a lot of very good questions about our eternal fate that a lot of people are asking and aren’t finding the pat answers that their churches are giving them to be helpful.  Even if people don’t end up landing in the same place that Rob does, I think it is good to recognize that these are genuine questions that the evangelical church hasn’t always done a great job of addressing.

I think Rob did a decent job of demonstrating that the gospel is about more than just deciding who gets into what bin after they die.  The gospel is so huge and all-encompassing, I always enjoy reading about new perspectives and insights on it.

He really puts Jesus at the centre of everything.  You’ll find the word “Jesus” in this book a LOT.  I always like that; it is clear to see that Jesus is the foundation of Rob Bell’s faith.

Things that frustrated me:

Rob is no logician, and doesn’t always connect the dots very well, or sometimes, he doesn’t even try.  For instance, he put forward the idea that the “elect” in scripture refers to those who are being blessed so that they can bless others, similar to the nation of Israel (as opposed to those God “saves” and who get into Heaven).  He gave no argument for it, but just said it.  He shouldn’t wonder why Calvinists are generally not too happy with his book after saying that!

Similarly, he gives little support for his definition of Hell.  While I can accept his broad definition of Hell being separation from God and suffering due to evil (and thus Hell exists right now on Earth for many people) as a useful definition, Rob doesn’t really say enough to convince me that that’s exactly what Jesus meant when He used the word.

Rob essentially trades in one paradox for new one.  He discards the “God is all-loving but sends people to eternal conscious torment” paradox, and replaces it with “God is all-powerful, gets what He wants, He wants everyone saved, but some might still reject Him and not get saved” paradox.  Those who are trying to tell if Rob is a universalist or not will be confused by this book, because in some parts he seems to clearly say that God wants to save all and God gets what he wants, but then in other parts of the book says that God gets us free will, and it’s possible that some people will continue to reject him.  He recognizes the problem, but calls it a “tension” when it is really a contradiction.  Part of me believes that Rob really does believe that eventually everyone will repent and be “saved” by God, but doesn’t quite want to say so because he doesn’t want the universalist label.  I’d have rather he just be straight up and argue for the universalist view, if that’s what he really believes.  But then again, I’m not so afraid of differing ideas than many evangelicals.

While Rob spends a lot of time giving support to his views, he spends extremely little time interacting with the key verses used to refute his views, and a lot of them get ignored altogether.  A lot of people are going to read the book, and think, “But what about this verse?” and find little or no answer.  As such, I don’t think Rob’s going to win any converts to his ideas that weren’t already considering them.

Final thoughts:

So is Rob Bell a liberal heretic?  No, not particularly.  His views on the afterlife actually mirror purgatory in a lot of ways, which may not be a popular view in most evangelical circles, but isn’t particularly outside orthodoxy, and isn’t a “conservative” or “liberal” view.  After all the cries of “heresy”, I was expecting the book to be a lot more heterodox than it was; in the last few chapters especially Rob underlines many conservative views and affirms them, and he warns against Christian liberal ideas like ignoring or disbelieving in the afterlife as much as he warns conservative fundamentalists not to judge non-Christians or portray God as being hateful.

Do I think Rob Bell argues his case successfully?  While I agree with his final points and advice for Christians, I found his arguments for how the afterlife functions not so compelling.  He spurred my interesting in some of the ideas, and I will probably look further into what some more scholarly books may say on the matter, but I think Rob made too many leaps in logic without explaining them sufficiently.  Granted, the topics he addressed are way too big and complex to cover in such a short book, but he could have provided more support for his claims.

Did I enjoy the book?  There were times I quite enjoyed it, but overall it was kind of ho-hum.  I think I’m a bit more of the intellectual type, and Rob Bell is more “artsy”, so his style doesn’t always quite resonate with me.  I think those that are interested in this topic but aren’t wanting something too scholarly will probably enjoy the book a lot more.

Who would I recommend the book to?  I’d recommend it to someone who is really struggling with negative portrayals of God and who really find it difficult to see God as “good”.  I think this book would help them see some other perspectives on God’s goodness.  But that’s about it, I think.

In the end, I found it to be a decent book.  It’s an enjoyable quick read, but nothing worth the hype (negative or positive) that it has received.  I do hope people can look past the controversy though and glean out of the book the few gems that it contains.