I had been eager to pick Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived up for while. I’ve read both Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith and Sex God, and found both simplistic and boring, but I figured a book about an evangelical universalist understanding of hell might be interesting. Once I got past the strange prose, the book was engaging, and I can see why evangelicals are up in arms about this issue.
Love Wins asks a lot of good questions that evangelicals, at least in my experience, are afraid to ask. As someone who has wrestled with the idea of hell, I found myself sympathizing with Rob Bell’s determination to challenge people who might be too complacent about the existence of hell and the eternal damnation of the people around them. Love Wins is very good at talking about the beauty, glory, and mercy of God. God is radiant in this book, and some of the extended meditations on the overwhelming God has for his creation were heartbreaking, in a good way. His view of creation as a place that reveals and displays the glory of God is a powerful corrective of an unfortunate Christian tendency to treat heaven and hell as distant places in the future, and reminds us that what we do in this world is important.
Unfortunately, that’s all I really can say that is positive about Love Wins. I think part of that is because I am not the book’s intended audience. Rob Bell is reaching an audience of evangelicals who are disenchanted with a narrow view of a vicious God who condemns people to hell for no good reason, and I commend him for that. However, this book should be the start of discussion, if we have to talk about it at all. Bell messes up basic elements of theology and church history; he treats people like Origen as venerated mainstream church fathers, when the reality is far more complicated; he misquotes Martin Luther; he assumes the worst of opposing views of hell; he calls other views of salvation tribalistic and narrow-minded; he treats demonstrably poetic language as literally as possible when it suits his purposes.
In the end, he reminds me of a less educated version of N.T. Wright, or even of C.S. Lewis. Lewis writes a powerful rebuttal of a narrow view of hell in The Great Divorce, and yet manages to convey that approaching heaven is a terribly painful process, one that will demand the total casting off of everything we held dear. Love winning in The Great Divorce requires losing ourselves utterly, while in Love Wins it just seems to demand infinite amounts of time. While I’m sympathetic to Bell’s worries about hell, I can’t quite say that I’m convinced. I think he tries too hard to make the Gospel palatable, and sin insignificant.
I know that Bell is writing towards a specific audience of evangelicals, particularly the ones who are bitter towards a God they think is cruel. I think a lot of the people who read this book will be pushed towards a deeper understanding of who God is, what Jesus did, and what salvation and sanctification are all about. I know that this book should be taken as an introduction to people who have no idea about the depths of Christianity, and the best case scenario will be that this book will cause people to seek out people like N.T. Wright, and hopefully continue on to reading church fathers like St. Athanasius.
However, I also know that there will be people for whom this book is the last word. Instead of freeing Christians to explore the depth and breath of God’s faithfulness and their faith in full, this book could be the end of the questioning for some. For that reason, I found the book shamefully lacking. Other elements of Christian thought, such as the concept of realized eschatology, which both John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas write extensively about, would have strengthened Bell’s argument, and would have been far more convincing than platitudes about how a God that damns his creation to hell cannot be loving and glorious. The Eastern Orthodox understanding of theosis and the impassibility of God would have been a welcome addition to a text that is sorely in need of depth.
In the end, I hope that this book allows people to seek out what makes Christianity great. I hope people find Jesus in these pages, but I don’t think I did.
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