Rob Bell

Tom Shipka

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)

  1. See Jon Meachem, "Is Hell Dead?" Time, April 25, 2011, p. 38.
  2. In 2007 Bell was named No. 10 in a list of "The 50 Most Influential Christians in America" as chosen by the readers of "The Church" See Rob Bell, Wikipedia. Bell has written several books, conducted successful speaking tours in the United States and abroad, and made appearances in a series of short films entitled NOOMA.
  3. HarperOne, 2011. The subtitle is A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
  4. The critic is R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. See Time, April 25, 2011, p. 40. Another attack came from The Evangelical Alliance, the oldest organization of Evangelicals in the world, through its spokesperson, Derek Tidball, former Principal of the London School of Theology. Tidball charged that the book is "full of confusing half-truths" and that it "lacks clarity." See Karen Peake, the online edition of Christian Today, March 30, 2011. Also, Love Wins was so suspect in the Bible Belt that a young pastor in North Carolina who recommended it lost his job. See Time, April 25, 2011, p. 40.
  5. Love Wins, Preface, viii. Also, see p. 95 According to Bell, the view that heaven is reserved for Christians is not "a central truth of the Christian faith" and to reject it is not "to reject Jesus." (Preface, viii)
  6. Love Wins, pp. 1-4. Also, on p. 151, Bell writes: Jesus wants us to be "growing progressively in generosity, forgiveness, honesty, courage, truth telling, and responsibility." (p. 51) Further, on p. 97, he writes: "God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."
  7. Bell writes: a) Jesus came for Jews and Gentiles, that is, "everybody else" (p. 149); b) "...Jesus is bigger than any one religion" (p. 150); c) Jesus aims to save, rescue, and redeem "everybody" (pp. 150-151); and d) "(Jesus) is for all people, and...he refused to be co-opted or owned by any one culture." (p. 151)
  8. See Love Wins, p. 117, p. 169, p. 170, and p. 194. This is typical: "...every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience (God's love)." (p. 194) Even if you reject God's love, Bell insists, God, through Jesus, sustains love for you and forgives you without your asking. Thus, for Bell, the welcome mat to heaven is always out. See pp. 188-189. Although Bell does not explicitly endorse universalism, the doctrine that all people are saved, he seems to endorse it implicitly.
  9. Bell holds that countless people suffer "hells on earth." Examples are a molested child, a raped woman, a drug addict, a victim of dementia, etc. (p. 78) He sees this incongruity among Christians: "Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death." (pp. 78-79)
  10. Hopefully, NPR and PBS will soon focus attention on Bell and his book in their programming.

© 2011 Tom Shipka