Despite what Other reviewers have said, Love Wins is not a typical Rob Bell Book. Yes, it is written in typical Rob Bell style, moving from one chapter to the next nearly seamlessly, filled with stories (both from the Bible and his personal experiences) to prove his points, and
his signature stylization
to drive home
And, yes, there are plenty of questions. But these are where the similarities to Rob Bell’s four other books ends.
Unlike his other books, this is not a book necessarily intended to make you feel good. Some of his questions regarding traditional Christianity’s dogmas and bromides are much more convicting than they are angering. In fact, unlike, particularly, Velvet Elvis, his goal this time doesn’t seem to be to dismantle traditional beliefs and establish new ones, but rather to offer another alternative on what, when all is said and done, are not essential doctrine for one’s salvation. What Rob Bell does is embrace the traditional conceptions of heaven and hell while simultaneously making it possible to disagree with them and not feel like one is a freak or a damned heretic. But he doesn’t stop there.
Once making it pretty clear with a ton of Scripture to prove it that what you believe about heaven and hell, whether a traditionalist or not, is not essential, he tells you, in no uncertain terms (another separation from his first book) what is essential: repentance and faith in Jesus accompanied by a desire to follow Him. One may or may not like Bell, but it is hard to see this book as doing anything other than sharing the gospel.
The content of the book is simple and straightforward, which is another departure from his other books (with the exception of Jesus Wants to Save Christians). You come away from this book with little question about what matters to Bell. It isn’t heaven. It isn’t hell. It is Jesus. Jesus is really the focus of the book. Yes, it is “a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who has ever lived,” but none of this is worth mentioning if Jesus is absent.
If people are going to have a problem with the book, it is going to come in the chapter in which he addresses heaven and the one in which he addresses hell. For Rob, heaven and hell are not only future spiritual realities, but they are also present realities that one can live in now, and both are simultaneously present in our world today and can be standing as close as the person right next to you.
To illustrate this, he uses the story of the prodigal son. At the party celebrating the son’s return, the good brother is upset that he has never even been given a snack with his friends from his dad and yet the bad brother gets a fattened calf and a party. The dad’s response is, “He left and came back, but you have always been here and all that I have has been your’s all along.” When the bad son came back, he was simply gonna ask if he could be his dad’s slave and yet his dad ran to meet him and put sandles on his feet and a robe on his back. Rob Bell looks at this and says that these sons have a choice between two stories: the ones they are telling about themselves (“I’m only worthy to be a slave” and “I’ve slaved for you all along and I get nothing”) or the one the father is telling them (“You are my son and have been all along”). To accept the father’s story is to embrace heaven (read: God). To accept their own stories is to forsake their father and choose hell. To embrace heaven for these sons is to benefit from being the father’s son, and to embrace hell is to forsake all of that and receive nothing. I am sure you can make the logical progression to see how these are present/future (“now” and “then” are the words Bell uses) realities.
I completely understand how this can make people, particularly conservatives, very uncomfortable. We are not used to talk of hell, particularly, as being anything in our present world. Or at least we don’t tend to give the hells of this life the same emphasis as the hell of the next, which is a point Bell makes again and again, and he aims the convicting remarks at more liberal Christians as well. In his words:
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…There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously (79).
This idea of heaven and hell being present both now and then is key to understanding this book. Every comment he makes about heaven and hell is not talking about what happens after we die. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But he doesn’t necessarily tell you explicitly when he alternates between the two. I think he hopes his readers are smart enough to follow his illustrations, which are pretty straightforward, and make the logical connections.
When it comes down to it, he never once denies the Biblical posture of hell, but he does throw water on the traditional one. In the chapter on hell, he points out that the Hebrew Scriptures don’t have that concept and the New Testament is more ambiguous than what we are usually taught. In light of this, it is easy to see how he could be interpreted as denying it. Rather, what he wants the reader to do is form a Biblical picture of hell instead of assuming the traditional one. He never says that hell doesn’t exist. And he never says that it is empty. For seven to ten pages, he lays out the Scriptural foundation for a modified form of universal reconciliation, but it is no universalism. In the picture he paints, even at the end of time, when the new Jerusalem has been established on earth, when people are offered final reconciliation, some still choose hell over being with God and God lets them go.
Which is what Bell means when he says “Love wins.” He is not saying that there is no judgment (he says repeatedly, in so many words, that God hates sin and there is a day coming when judgment will be rendered). What Bell is saying is that for God to love us, he must give us freedom. For Rob Bell, if you love someone you do for them what will make them the happiest. If someone does not want anything to do with God, then they don’t have to be with Him. He will not force Himself to be accepted. God gets what He wants and love wins. God wants everyone to be saved, but we make that call, not him.
Calvinists will cringe at this language, and it may be why they assume universalism of him. After all, we all know that everyone who is not a Calvinist is a universalist. Bell refers repeatedly to the many passages of Scripture that refer to “all” and “everyone.” But he doesn’t do so to prove that everyone gets saved. His emphasis on these is to prove that the gospel is for everyone. No matter who you are, what your religion or any other defining mark, Jesus died for everyone, no exceptions. All sin is paid for. You just have to accept and join that narrative. That’s Bell’s message.
In fact, the last chapter of the book says as much. The whole chapter is about how whoever you are, wherever you are, your choices matter. What you do in this life has ramifications for the next. Then he offers a choice:
Time does not repeat itself. Neither does life. While we continually find grace waiting to pick us up off the ground after we have fallen, there are realities to our choices. While we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again. That specific moment will pass and we will not see it again. It comes, it’s here, it goes, and then it’s gone. Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine.
Whatever you’ve been told about the end – the end of your life, the end of time, the end of the world – Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today (197).
The book is controversial. To question conventional wisdom, even when it is flawed, is always going to be. And if you want Rob Bell to be a universalist, there are plenty of quotes that, when pulled from their narrative context, will say as much. But that isn’t the point. Rob Bell’s point is that he wants all of us to experience God’s love in our lives here and in the life to come and that the way to have that experience is to repent, trust, and follow Jesus Christ. what you believe about heaven, hell, the end of the world are non-essential. What is essential is what you do with Jesus. In this regard, Love Wins is a win for Rob Bell.