There has been a lot of controversy lately concerning Rob Bell’s latest book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I know from experience that anyone interested in the controversy can quickly get sucked into blogs accusing Bell of heresy, false teaching, and being a wolf in sheep clothing. I like Bell, and so quickly want to defend him. In fact, I identify closely with Bell’s mission and so I tend to take those accusations personally. I find myself thinking, “I’m not the heretic. You’re the heretic!” I start thinking that these people are just haters. But, of course, I become a hater of those haters.
Do you ever feel like hate is infectious?
I’ve read about half of Love Wins, and, so far, I don’t find anything heretical. Bell is quick to refer to the Bible to support his claims and he is even quicker to remind us that his isn’t saying anything new. (So quick that he doesn’t even wait until page 1. He says it on page x! You may be surprised to hear this, but saying something new is frowned upon in all God-talk. Theology allows us to be comfortably unoriginal. Check out Ecclesiastes 1:9.) Contrary to many accusations levied against him, Bell has a gift of making heaven and hell real. We don’t have to wait until some future judgment to experience those realities. Bell emphasizes the present realities of heaven and hell experienced on earth without neglecting future realities of heaven and hell. He repeats the point that heaven and hell are not about somewhere else at a future time, but heaven and hell are about right here, right now. Jesus models what heaven on earth looks like and he invites us to follow him – to participate with him in the ways of heaven. Bell states, “Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one” (46).
On earth as it is in heaven.
Bell claims that participating in heaven now means that we intentionally treat one another in loving and generous ways. Contrary to many beliefs, heaven is not primarily about you (or me); heaven is about community. It’s about “Honest business, redemptive art, honorable law, sustainable living, medicine, education, making a home, tending a garden, they’re all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with God now, because they will all go on in the age to come” (46). Heaven is not about you receiving fame or glory. It’s about a community based on intentional “generosity, forgiveness, honesty, courage, truth telling, and responsibility” (51).
As I read the first half of Love Wins, I was reminded of a story in William White’s book Stories for Telling. I think it accurately depicts hell as a place where it is all about you. Hell is a way of life that leads to isolation from others precisely because it is about you. In hell we emphasize our independence and individuality. Heaven, on the other hand, is not about you. Heaven is a way of life that leads to community. As mimetic theory teaches us, humans are inter-dependent and inter-dividual. (Bell misses some aspects of mimetic theory. More of that in Part 2.) In heaven we emphasize our true humanity, thus, we emphasize our inter-dependence and our inter-dividuality. I’ll let this simple, yet profound, story explain what I mean:
One day God visited a special old saint. “You have been a faithful follower of mine all these years,” God said. “Is there anything that still puzzles you about my kingdom?”
“Yes,” the saint confessed. “Although I have read all the words of Scripture, I still have no idea what heaven and hell are like. I would be deeply grateful if you helped me understand.”
“Normally, I do not answer questions that belong in the realm of mystery,” God said, but since you have led such an exemplary life, I will give you a preview of the world to come.”
In the twinkling of an eye the woman was transported through time and space until she found herself standing before the gates of hell. It was not at all what she expected. As she walked through the magnificent black gates, the old saint was struck with the beauty of the place. Ahead of her she saw a huge banquet room with long tables filled with food. It was the most delicious food she had ever seen.
All the residence of hell were seated about the tables. They all looked normal except for one very important difference. All the people had very large arms, nearly six feet in length. At the end of each arm was a fork, but the people were unable to eat because no one had an elbow. Even though all of the food was so close at hand, they were unable to put the forks into their mouths. The sounds of hell were not very pleasant, for the people cried out in agony.
Suddenly, the woman was transported to heaven. Ahead of her were gleaming white gates. When she walked into the celestial city she was surprised to see that things looked very much like they did in hell. Ahead of her was a banquet table, quite similar to the one she had seen moments before. The food looked amazingly similar.
As the woman walked closer to the table, she could see that people were built identically to those in hell. All had long arms with no elbows, and forks at the end. The sounds in heaven, however, were very different. People were laughing and singing, for they found their long arms to be no disadvantage. Each person simply loaded his or her fork and then reached out across the table to a friend. The situations were identical except for this one thing: in heaven people fed each other.”
Below is the Livestream interview of Bell about his book, Love Wins.