Rob Bell is a charismatic 40-year old pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, which attracts over 10,000 people for Sunday services, and which “emphasizes discussion rather than dogmatic teaching.” (1) Although Bell was well-known in religious circles before the publication this year of his latest book, (2) Love Wins, this book has catapulted him into a pastoral rock star. (3) His celebrity was sealed when Time magazine did a cover story on him in the April 25th issue this year.
Love Wins stirred up a theological hornet’s nest. One of its critics, a prominent seminary president, attacked it as “theologically disastrous.” (4) So, what did Bell say which ignited controversy? In a nutshell, he said that what most Christians believe about heaven and hell is wrong! He signals his attack on orthodoxy in the Preface:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better… This (teaching) is misguided and toxic (emphasis mine) and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (5)
To show how the “misguided” notion of hell has gripped people, Bell recounts a story about an art show in his church in which one artist included in her exhibit a quotation by Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu. Bell was shocked to find a note attached to the quote by a visitor which said: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” The idea that a loving God could consign one of the world’s greatest peacemakers to hell struck Bell as absurd. Similarly, Bell reasons, it is inconceivable that a loving God could condemn any other compassionate and responsible person, even an atheist, to eternal torment. (6) Bell says that those Christians who close heaven to non-Christians fail to understand that Jesus offered a message of love, peace, and forgiveness to the entire world and not merely to one tribe, culture, or religion. (7)
But Bell doesn’t stop there. For Bell, heaven and hell are not distant places somewhere “out there” where people go forever after they die. Heaven and hell, he insists, are conditions in the here and now. You are in heaven when you freely embrace God’s love and you are in hell when you don’t. (8) Those who embrace God’s love, Bell says, shower love on others, especially those who suffer, and those who reject God’s love are indifferent or cruel to others. (9)
Love Wins has many shortcomings.
*It fails to deal with two philosophical conundrums: why does a loving and powerful God allow tsunamis, floods, cancer, AIDS, starvation, dementia, and crime? And are divine omnipotence and human free will reconcilable?
*It makes selective use of the Bible.
*It fails to explain what happens at death if, as Bell says, heaven and hell are in the here and now; and
*It lacks the technical arguments that one looks for in a serious discussion of religion.
Nevertheless, Bell’s book is a bold assault on conventional religion from within which will inspire a great many to take a fresh look at their beliefs and practices. (10)
© 2011 Tom Shipka
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