Love Wins: My Humble Attempt at Joining the Conversation
I watched Rob Bell’s interview last night and a few of the interviews that he did this morning on cable news networks. I also had at least two people at church ask me if I saw the interview with the “preacher who doesn’t believe there’s a hell.”
Here is my meager attempt at engaging this important issue.
First, I would say that I hear nothing in what Rob is saying (and I have yet to read the book, so I cannot comment on what he has written) that would lead me to believe that he is lobbying for universalism or that he does not believe in a literal hell. On the contrary, I think that he was pretty clear that there is a hell and that we get to choose whether or not we want to spend eternity there. This freedom of choice concept is appealing to me as a Wesleyan but clearly drives my Calvinistic brothers and sisters batty. Rob sounds an awful lot like CS Lewis sometimes. Consider this quote from the Preface to The Great Divorce: “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven; if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
Secondly, the idea that “love wins” has very little to do with the afterlife. Rob’s interest, it appears to me, has much more to do with how we live “here and now” than what we think about what happens “there and then.” This is a concept that former Anglican bishop and renowned theologian N.T. Wright explored deeply in his excellent book Surprised by Hope. Wright argues, and I believe Bell agrees that Jesus was much more interested in teaching us about how to live now than how to prepare us for then. Jesus’ most famous prayer, in fact, instructs us to ask God to let his “kingdom come” and his “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The kingdom of God is not someplace we go to when we die; it is “at hand,” it is here and now. It is not fully and finally revealed of course, it is an “already/not yet” kingdom that bursts into the midst of our broken and sin cursed lives on occasion and gives us a taste of what will ultimately be, but it is partial. Heaven and Hell are present realities and we get to choose. In Surprised by Hope N.T. Wright challenges us to consider whether we are asking the right questions or not:
“… the question of our own destiny in terms of the alternatives of joy and woe is probably the wrong way of looking at the whole question. The question ought to be How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world? The choice before humans would then be framed differently: are you going to worship the creator God and discover thereby what it means to become fully and gloriously human, reflecting his powerful, healing, transformative love into the world? Or are you going to worship the world as it is, boosting your corruptible humanness by gaining power and pleasure from forces within the world but merely contributing thereby to your own dehumanization and the further corruption of the world itself.”
I believe that this is the point Rob is trying to make with the book. He is not interested so much in who gets to go to heaven and who gets to go to hell; nor is he very interested in arguing about whether such places exist or not; but he is much more interested in trying to help us see that the way we live our lives in the short amount of time that we are given on this planet is much more important than worrying about where we will go when we die and who we get to hang out with when we get there.
Lastly, in an effort to not completely ignore the concerns of my friends and so many others who are interested in this issue, I want to briefly try and explain where I think Rob is coming from soteriologically. I believe that Rob is much more of an inclusivist than he is a universalist. Although I cannot speak for him, my sense from listening to his interviews and his sermons and reading his books is that Rob will choose to err on the side of mystery with regard to “controversial” issues like the afterlife. This has led some to accuse him of being ambiguous at best and heretical at worst. Why is it, I wonder, that we Christians have such a hard time saying “I don’t know?” Why is it that we feel we have to have an answer for every question that is hurled at us, and then defend our answers with such absolute assurance? Love wins, means that it’s o.k. to be unsure. It means that what’s most important is that we help people who may have questions about God and Jesus and faith and heaven and hell to know that although we may not have all the answers, we know one thing for certain: love wins. Inclusivity means that we do not condemn people to hell just because they think differently from us; it means that we choose to believe that the Holy Spirit might actually be able to reveal Christ to people in ways that we cannot even imagine; it means that we choose to love and accept people even if we disagree with them.
Rob Bell is a Christian. He is a pastor who loves God with his whole heart, and truly believes that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. But he also believes that there are ways to encounter Christ that we may not even be aware of; and that it’s actually o.k. if we can’t explain it. It is arrogant and naïve of us to think that our understanding of how to “be saved” is the only way.
The irony of all of this to me is that Rob set out to write a book about the power of love and the divisiveness of judgment, and all he seems to have gotten from his brothers and sisters in Christ is judgment.
“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 13.34-35