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Sep7WedA Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell September 7, 2011 Review by Dion Oxford and Geoff Moulton
The evangelical world is in an uproar about a controversial new book called Love Wins by Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, and featured speaker in the popular NOOMA video series. So what's the big deal? While most evangelicals believe fervently in Heaven and Hell as real places where souls are punished or rewarded for eternity, Bell challenges readers with a new set of questions about our ultimate fate.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
Bell states that the story of Jesus is “first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.” He then criticizes the Church for making questions about Jesus, Heaven, Hell and salvation off limits. There is no question too big for Jesus to handle, Bell argues. And too many people have walked away from the Church because no one listened to their doubts.
Particularly vexing for Bell are questions about Hell. He writes, “It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief [in Hell as conscious, eternal torment] is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
Bell then outlines a number of alternative theories of Hell, including universalism, the belief that Hell is not permanent and that God will eventually reconcile all of humanity to himself. “Of all the billions of people who have ever lived,” he asks, “will only a select number 'make it to a better place' and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?”
Using the parable of the Prodigal Son, Bell suggests that Heaven and Hell may be one and the same place, depending on our perspective. The younger son joins the celebration even as the elder son sulks in a self-imposed “Hell” of his own creation. While God, in his universal love, extends the invitation to all to participate in the abundant life, our choice to accept or reject him determines our experience, argues Bell.
“If we want isolation, despair and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants you that option,” Bell writes. “If, however, we crave light, we're drawn to truth, we're desperate for grace … God gives us what we want … the peace that transcends all understanding.”
For Bell, death doesn't cut off the ability to repent. In the Bible, Bell sees no “infinite, eternal torment for things [people] did in their few finite years of life.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the subject matter, Bell's book leaves a number of questions unanswered. What do we do with Jesus' teaching about the final judgment? Why are the Apostle Paul's words about Christ as the model or exemplar of our faith taken seriously, but the verses on substitutionary atonement dismissed as an outdated metaphor? Is Bell tailoring his message to the current culture at the expense of biblical revelation? And if we all end up in the same place anyway, what is the point of the gospel?
In the face of intense criticism, Bell denies he is a universalist. Rather than embracing any particular view, he wants to leave room for uncertainty. Love Wins presents his “case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.” Some evangelicals see this “uncertainty” as incompatible with biblical teaching, while others say that the book is simply promoting overdue conversation about traditional interpretations of Scripture.
No matter where you stand, these are questions worth exploring.