About a month ago I picked up a copy of Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins. The book has unleashed a torrent of reactions ranging from celebrated praise to down right outrage at the message contained within. Bell has been through the meat grinder of interviews being accused of "Rewriting the Gospel," "Preaching only what people want to hear," and of course being judged to hell in all the fanciful ways that we Christians like to do it.
First off, let me say that I'm not a Calvinist. That being the case, I enjoyed this book. But I can definitely see why Calvinists (i.e. John Piper) would have a big problem with this book. And the conflict that Calvinists will have with the book are the topics of "salvation" and "choice". It's easy to see why Calvinists would have an issue in these areas because he talks about how we have Free Will, and that salvation may be for more than what the Calvinists think. Just the thought of something maybe being a little more gray-area-ish, would be enough to nudge any black-and-white thinking Calvinist to condemn this book and Bell. But that's the core of the conflict, some people only want answers and Bell asks some tough questions that the answer people don't have. And it's the uncertainty that drives the answer people crazy. So if you hate tough questions, don't read this book.
Now because of this book, Bell has been called everything from a heretic (again) to a universalist. All of which, I believe, is due to the accusers not grasping the scope of Bell's intent. Bell spends a fair amount of time writing about the Christian Universalist view on salvation. Which people have taken and made their accusations. But that is all preceded by Bell stating that everything we stand on for life after death is a guess. (Which I will tell you made me think, "Then why should I care?" And made it tough for me to finish the book...AKA why it took me so long to finish.) Which is just pure honesty in regards to the afterlife. But a Universalist doesn't believe in Hell, right? So if this is the case, Bell is NOT a Universalist because in many of his sermons and his previous books he talks, and sometimes precisely states, that he believes in heaven and hell.
Bell continues on in his book laying out Christian Universalism and how it might be possible. He uses scripture and logic to come to the conclusions that Christian Universalists hold. But he never says, "THIS is how it will be." If he did this, he would contradict what he lead with. But throughout the book, he poses tough questions based on the "accepted" stances within Christianity. Questions that I've had, questions that you've had, basically he delves into the questionable areas of our faith where there are no fantastic answers.
But the climax to the book, and I fear the part of the book that most negative reviewers never made it to or they were too mad to understand, was the last two chapters. In the last two chapters Bell brings it all together by describing how God's grace and love are greater than all views we hold of the afterlife, free will, and salvation. These two chapters really saved the book for me.
Bell discusses how since we can't be absolutely positive how the afterlife will play out, we can be absolutely positive that there are people in this world that are currently living in hell. He talks about a woman in his church that, for some time now, brings him a little slip of paper with a number written on it up to him after church. He says that the number is sometimes large and sometimes small. And what the number means is how many days it's been since she last cut herself. He talks about how the message she needs to hear is that she is unconditionally loved by a god that can help her overcome the addiction to self harm. But even more so that God loves her now, no matter how high or how low that number is, God's love and grace is never unattainable.
Now, the questions I have for us as Christians. Are we willing to actually believe that God's love is greater than all theologies and doctrines of salvation? Are we willing to believe that when John writes, "God is love," that this statement is one of the most profound statements in the Bible? Are we willing to believe that only through love, not judgement or condemnation, can we bring true glory to God? Or are we going to continue to live within the stereotype that Christians are stuck up, arrogant, hypocrites that don't practice what they preach? Maybe the better testament to Christ is not how our devotions or prayer lives are going, rather, how have you loved one another today?