In his preface to Love Wins, Rob Bell makes three points to set the stage for the rest of the book.
First, Bell tells us that the central truth of the Gospel is the good news of God's love for the world and every single one of us in it. He goes on to say that he and others are concerned that the Jesus story has been hijacked to make a very different point and it is time for the centrality of God's love for the world in Jesus Christ to be reclaimed. In particular, the hijackers are saying that a central truth of the Christian faith is that only a "select few" Christians will live forever in heaven and everyone else will spend eternity in hell. Bell says this is a toxic message that undermines the spread of Jesus' real message.
Second, Bell tells us that he has written Love Wins in order to grapple with the big and important topics of salvation, judgment, heaven and hell. Jesus invites us into the heart of these questions. Open and honest inquiry into these and other theological questions are holy activities. Although some religious communities frown on expressing doubts or questions, Bell counters that the Bible is full of controversy not only among believers, but between believers and God!
Third, Bell does believe this book represents a radical new teaching. He intends to draw a new set of readers into an ancient and ongoing discussion. He writes, "If this book, then does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity - well, I'd be thrilled."
As will become clearer as we move further into the book, Rob Bell comes out of an evangelical/fundamentalist background. He and some others have been noticing that an increasing number of evangelicals are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a narrow Christian faith as they live into the post-modern world of religious pluralism and cultural diversity. Rob Bell wants to communicate with evangelicals and nonbelievers who need to hear the message of Jesus in a new way. One of the troubling dimensions of traditional evangelical theology is the set of doctrines around eternal life that Bell addresses in this book.
I agree with Rob Bell that the traditional evangelical doctrine of hell is not only implausible to a great many people, it endorses a view of God that makes God a monster, not a God of love. If this is the God of Christianity, they rightly give up on Christianity. The "traditional" doctrine of hell is an obstacle to evangelism. Of course, this might seem to be a somewhat paradoxical claim, in that a fair number of evangelists use the threat of hell to try to coax people into accepting Jesus. Bell and others understand that this is a profoundly misguided strategy.
I also agree with Rob Bell that the discussion of these issues is necessary and good. Our honest conversation helps us to reach deeper understanding - not only an understanding of the positions of others, but also of our own convictions and faith. Perhaps you saw the old bumper sticker: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." That is not the relationship between God and God's people portrayed in the Bible. There is much give and take. Controversy is common.
In this post I have referred to the "traditional" doctrine. I use quotes because I agree with Bell that there are a variety of understandings of these matters that have been advanced by faithful, prayerful Christians down through the centuries. The breadth of diversity in the Church can be startling. Bell is another faithful and creative voice that I believe is worth paying careful attention to.
Questions to think about:
- When has your heart rate risen or your stomach churned when you have heard someone hijack the good news?
- Do you prefer to have theological questions settled and certain, or up for grabs?
- What are some important principles you might offer for how to conduct conversations about significant questions about God?
[To join a conversation on this book go to http://groups.google.com/group/lovewinsdiscusstion.]