I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins back in October, but I just uncovered my notes about it — so it’s time for a much-overdue book review! If you’re the sort of person who reads blogs about religion and atheism, you probably remember the controversy surrounding Bell’s book in March 2011. A quick refresher for those who need it: he argues that God must get what he wants in the end, and since God is love, it simply can’t be that some people are tortured in hell eternally. He doesn’t deny that there might be punishment for bad people and/or for nonbelievers, he just thinks it couldn’t be final. This is pretty well outside the mainstream of evangelical Christianity in the US, and Rob Bell’s role as founding pastor of a Michigan megachurch made his stance on the afterlife into big news.
I find it strangely compelling, or at least intriguing, when religious people drastically critique and criticize their own doctrines or traditions but somehow stop short of rejecting the whole thing outright. So, naturally, I wanted to read this book for myself and see what Pastor Rob’s case for (eventual) universalism looked like.
The first thing I have to comment on about this book is exactly that: what the writing looked like. The entire book is written in the form of, well, a sermon — with tons of linebreaks, repetition of phrases, and all-caps emphasis. It’s more of a prose poem, really. (It gave me a greater perspective on why so many Christian bloggers write with single-sentence or even single-fragment paragraphs, bolding whole sentences all over the place.) As I read it I could hear it being spoken aloud in my head, and it would make a moving sermon. The thing is, sermons aren’t really a good format for conveying logical arguments. You can’t go deeply into any one idea when your paragraphs can’t be more than four lines long. I got the sense that Bell was depending more on emotional manipulation via dramatic use of literary techniques than he was on actual argumentation, and that doesn’t really work on me. I actually found it rather annoying (although at least all the one-line paragraphs made the book a quick read). I see why Christians would get really riled up about it, though; they’re used to being convinced by what they hear from the pulpit.
Let’s get into the argument, then, such as it is. I’m not going to bother with a lot of the usual Christian-apologetic silliness in this book except to put it on the record that it is in fact here. One of my favorites was this line, early on, after reviewing a long list of things the Bible mentions as ways to get saved: “But maybe all of these questions are missing the point. Let’s set aside all of the saying and doing and being and cutting holes in roofs and assume its more simple than that. As some would say, ‘Just believe.'” [p.17] Ah yes. Let’s set aside the questions, and just assume the easy answer! If you’re an atheist planning to read this book, you have to grit your teeth and get through these parts.
To Bell’s credit, he admits a lot of things that I often wish Christians would. He definitely agrees we ought to call CPS on an “earthly father” who punished his children as violently as some say God does [p.174]. He also grapples with the idea that an omnipotent God who wants everyone to be saved might somehow have created a world in which not everyone is saved [p.98]:
Will all people be saved,
or will God not get what God wants?
Of course, in order to give the first answer (which at least doesn’t violate Christians’ basic premises about God’s nature) Bell has to rejigger our usual understanding of what an eternity in hell might actually mean. Because the Bible is pretty clear, you know, on that whole business of being condemned forever. But conveniently, people aren’t always super precise with their language, so Christians can probably twist “forever” to mean something more like it does when we say, “Hurry up, you’re talking forever to get ready!” [p.92-3]
The word olam “can be translated as ‘to the vanishing point,’ ‘in the far distance,’ ‘a long time,’ ‘long lasting,’ or ‘that which is at or beyond the horizon.’ … Jonah prays to God, who let him go down into the belly of a fish ‘forever’ (olam) and then, three days later, brought him out of the belly of the fish. …
So when we read “eternal punishment,” it’s important that we don’t read categories and concepts into a phrase that aren’t there. Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever. Jesus may be talking about something else, which has all sorts of implications for our understandings of what happens after we die, which we’ll spend the next chapter sorting through.
This is fair. But it raises another issue I’ve discussed before — if the Bible’s language is so vague that a word always translated as “forever” might actually have originally meant “three days,” why is anyone reading English translations of the Bible at all? It reminds me of how atheists point out that the Bible repeatedly promises “anything” to a believer who prays for it, and Christians reply that “anything” shouldn’t be understood to encompass things that are at all unusual. If “forever” should be read as “a rather short time,” and “anything” often means “hardly anything at all,” why should we trust the other bold claims the Bible makes? Perhaps when the Bible says that God is perfect, it actually meant that God is a decent enough dude who tries hard. Perhaps when the Bible says that God is omnipotent, it really meant that God is pretty handy with a multitool.
Somehow, though, Bell manages to trust those parts of the Bible, which is what got us into this apparent bind in the first place. (If God isn’t omnipotent, it wouldn’t be surprising that some people wouldn’t be saved, even though that’s against his will.) He seems very confident in God’s ability to make a perfect world [p.37]:
Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day the “day of the LORD.”
The day when God says “ENOUGH!” to anything that threatens the peace (shalom is the Hebrew word), harmony, and health that God intends for the world.
God says no to injustice.
God says “Never again” to the oppressors who prey on the weak and vulnerable.
God declares a ban on weapons.
This is referred to as “the age to come.” Now you might wonder, as I did: if God can say no to injustice, what is he waiting for? If God can protect peace, harmony, and health on earth, why isn’t he? This doesn’t really trouble Rob Bell. He just explains that in the meantime, God is only taking care of heaven [p.43]:
Jesus consistently affirmed heaven as a real place, space, and dimension of God’s creation, where God’s will and only God’s will is done. Heaven is that realm where things are as God intends them to be.
Never mind that later [p.145] in a discussion of how the sun shines and how grass grows, Bell declares, “God speaks . . . and it happens. / God says it . . . and it comes into being.” Heaven’s where things are really the way God intended. He’ll settle everything that’s messed up on earth some time in the future — maybe in three days, maybe in a trillion years. It’s hard to tell, what with language being what it is and all, you know?
If this seems like an idealistic kluge of a belief system, that’s because it is. And this is probably what stunned me most in reading the book. Not that some Christians don’t think that sinners will burn in hell forever, but that Bell was so open about believing what he does because it sounds nicer and he “longs for” nicer things to be true. He literally explains [p.111] that “some stories are better than others,” and that he finds the story of an impermanent hell to be better than a permanent one. Never mind that the Bible is stupendously confusing on this topic, or that (as Bell candidly admits) you can find a group of Christians at some point in history or in the present who have claimed just about any possible theology. Love must “win” because Rob Bell wants love to win. QED, I guess.
I don’t know if I’d really recommend this book except as a case study of the mind of one evangelical Christian leader or as additional context for the very interesting debate that happened within evangelical Christianity last year. I don’t think it really made the case for anything beyond “the god most Christians believe in is a jerk,” which I already agree with. At the very least, thanks to Bell’s overuse of the Enter key, Love Wins is a quick read so I don’t really regret the time I spent on it.