Love Wins: The Controversy That Keeps On Giving
Billy Graham (1954, 1993, 1996, 2007), and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr (1957, 1964, 1965, 2007) are the leading Protestant clergy with four covers each. Jimmy Swaggart and Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker (both in the glorious year of 1987) also made it for less than honorable reasons.
An assortment of nine Catholic Bishops scored nine covers (the last in 1966), and of course eight Popes have worn the red frame more thirty-three times. Throw in some stray renewal movements, missionaries, reformers, etc., and the total number of pastoral cover stories grows to about fifty in eighty-eight years.
In case you’re keeping score, that’s about 1% of the nearly 5,000 Time cover stories in history, so we are talking about some very elite pastoral company. I mean, even Jesus has made only 18 cover stories (so far), and he’s often had to share them with his Mom!
Now Rob Bell has done it! Time’s Holy Week edition (dated 4/25) is on news stands everywhere: complete with a cover story entitled, “What if There’s No Hell? A Popular pastors best-selling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation and judgment.” Okay, like a pastoral Roger Maris, Bell has done it with an asterisk, because neither his NAME nor his PHOTO make the cover. Still, it is quite a fete.
You would think that evangelicals would be dancing with glee (the emotion, not the television show) over this latest public relations coup.
Or then again, maybe not?
Christians continue to line up on both sides of the issues, and no, despite all efforts to the contrary, the dialogue remains caustic. Two Handed Warriors’ plea for civility, Meanness Wins: Rob Bell and the Apostle Paul’s Cyber-Theology Blogging Checklist, was reposted on Facebook, websites, and Twitter more than 250 times, but to no avail.
Still, there are at least a few cooler heads who are contributing to a more nuanced conversation. Here are three new contributions to the dialogue One more “pro”, one more “con,” and a third more “mixed,” that might help you make up your own mind on the issues… but please don’t decide until after you read the book!
Is Hell Dead?
By JON MEACHAM in the April 25 issue of Time Magazine
…The standard Christian view of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is summed up in the Gospel of John, which promises “eternal life” to “whosoever believeth in Him.” Traditionally, the key is the acknowledgment that Jesus is the Son of God, who, in the words of the ancient creed, “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven … and was made man.” In the Evangelical ethos, one either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.
Bell, a tall, 40-year-old son of a Michigan federal judge, begs to differ. He suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal — meaning that, as his book’s subtitle puts it, “every person who ever lived” could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be.
Such a simple premise, but with Easter at hand, this slim, lively book has ignited a new holy war in Christian circles and beyond. When word of Love Wins reached the Internet, one conservative Evangelical pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell,” unilaterally attempting to evict Bell from the Evangelical community. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Bell’s book is “theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way.” In North Carolina, a young pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.
The traditionalist reaction is understandable, for Bell’s arguments about heaven and hell raise doubts about the core of the Evangelical worldview, changing the common understanding of salvation so much that Christianity becomes more of an ethical habit of mind than a faith based on divine revelation. “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world,” says Mohler, “then you don’t need the church, and you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. This is the tragedy of nonjudgmental mainline liberalism, and it’s Rob Bell’s tragedy in this book too.”
Particularly galling to conservative Christian critics is that Love Wins is not an attack from outside the walls of the Evangelical city but a mutiny from within — a rebellion led by a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following. Is Bell’s Christianity — less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient of assumptions — on an inexorable rise? “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian,” Bell says. “Something new is in the air.”
Exploring Love Wins
by Scot McKnight in Jesus Creed
5) Today we will examine what Rob Bell says about hell.
Chapter 3 in his book is surely one of the most controversial chapters and that means I will have to sketch what he says before I offer my own critique and raise some questions for conversation. Up to this point Bell’s book has been at best mildly controversial; from this point on his controversial points come to the surface.
Bell makes five points about hell, organized by how the Bible talks about hell. First, the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) where we find the term Sheol [pit, underworld, etc]. “The Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined … a bit vague and ‘underworldly’” (67).
Second, Gehenna. He opts for the flippant hell = garbage dump, yes I believe in hell, I believe my garbage goes somewhere. Gehenna is the “town garbage pile.” [Rob’s just wrong here and I’ll get to that below. Also, rule #1 about hell: never be flippant.] Tartarus and Hades. Both are Greek words for the underworld, more or less Jewish substitutes for Sheol.“And that’s it.”
6) Rob Bell is not a universalist, and he can’t be if he is as committed to freedom as he says. Now to explain…
The chapter is titled and begins with this question: Does God get what God wants? Of course, this all depends on what “wants” means, and Rob narrows God’s “wants” to his desire, found in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”Others might define God’s “wants” in ways that permit other factors, but this is Rob’s book and this is what he focuses on. He asks some almost facetious questions – like “How great is God?” – meaning is God great if he doesn’t get what he wants and what he wants is the salvation of all. By Rob’s own logic, though, and this needs to be listened to, as this chapter unfolds God doesn’t necessarily get what he “wants”.
Bell opens up the universalism question here, which means that all humans — every last one of them in the past, present and future — will in the end be saved. He quotes passages in the Bible that have both “gospel going to all people” and reconciliation of all themes. The verses can’t be denied. Colossians 1 can’t be ignored: “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” But that’s not the end for Rob Bell in this chapter…
Bell Rings True: A Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins
…As Bell has it, one job of the community that might rightly be called “church” is that of a clarifying, lyricizing, parabling stewardship concerning the mystery of God’s redeeming presence in the world. In this sense, the church names the people who “name, honor, and orient themselves around this mystery. A church is a community of people who enact specific rituals and create specific experiences to keep this word alive in their own hearts, a gathering of believers who help provide language and symbols and experiences for this mystery.”[ii]
In my own witnessing work, I was stuck (or in danger of being stuck) in what Bell terms “an entrance understanding of the gospel” which views it “primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation.”[iii] To remain there is to hold to and, more tragically, embody that “cheap view of the world” that is born of “a cheap view of God.” While there is for some, perhaps inevitably, a developmental stage of this kind in religious formation, it can become what Bell deems “a shriveled imagination.” He observes that “An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation.”
…against Bell’s critics who could perhaps be forgiven a little for confusing Bell’s advertising for his text, it seems to me that Love Wins is committed to sustaining, clarifying and elaborating upon this pinch. As Bell has it, the question of life’s meaning, its lasting significance, is at the heart of Jesus’ famous exchange with the rich young ruler. How does one “enter life?” Keep the commandments. Bell focuses the conversation: “Another way of saying ‘life in the age to come’ in Jesus’s day was to say ‘eternal life.’ In Hebrew the phrase is olam habah….What must I do to inherit olam habah?…This age, and the one to come, the one after this one.”[iv] Or as he puts it in what I hope might prove to be the book’s most popular soundbite, “Here is the new there.”[v]
Judgment, the decision to be made, the alive and signaling, evangelical pinch isn’t to be deferred. It’s now. Or as Modest Mouse famously puts it, “If you wasted this life, why wouldn’t you waste the afterlife?” Life in the age to come is as inescapably social and ethically laden as this one, only moreso. With Jesus’ counsel to the young man to sell everything he has and give to the poor, we’re given a vision of here and there which is anything but neutral (economically, politically, what have you). “Heaven also confronts. Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points. What Jesus is insisting with the rich man is that certain things will not survive in the age to come.”[vi]