My fondest memories from the first year of law school (if such memories are even possible) involve brief quips that were made by Russell Weintraub, a fantastic teacher and scholar who taught my contracts course. One day, during the reading an extended section from a legal opinion authored by an appeals court judge who was famous for his fluid prose, Weintraub paused to remark: “Now…that’s been said many times before, but never in iambic pentameter.”
That’s how I feel about Love Wins. What Rob Bell says in this book has been said many times before, but never like this. It is Bell’s ability to take complex ideas and translate them into simple, conversational English that makes the book so compelling.
It may also be the thing that has caused Bell to draw such harsh criticism. The Great Divorce is a magnificent work of fiction. But it is just that: fiction. And even then, the theological concepts behind it are a little difficult to parse. Bell, however, does not write fiction, nor does he mince words. He comes out and says what he thinks (and what others have been saying for some time) in plain, conversational English. Sometimes, even, in verse. Bell’s mastery of the art of words, together with his popularity, means that his audience is much larger, and much more capable of understanding him. My sense is that Love Wins has become such a lightning rod because of its potential to be read and understood by a large category of parishioners who have never fully understood The Great Divorce, and who have never heard of The Evangelical Universalist or Origen.
And make no mistake, Bell is on the offensive in this book. He believes that the gospel is often presented in a way that is toxic. It paints God as an abusive, cosmic parent who will torment countless billions of people for all of eternity. Bell is concerned that this version of God is driving people away from and out of our churches. At the heart of the book is this simple message: “You don’t have to believe that God is like that in order to be a Christian.”
Bell presents some of his own ideas in the book, but he doesn’t seem all that concerned about whether you agree with him on the details. His main point is simply that there is a broad stream of conversation about how God deals with us after death, and that you don’t have to “buy in” to this particular viewpoint in order to follow Jesus. His disagreement is with those who insist that “eternal torment for countless billions” is the only valid interpretation of scripture.
All of that would seem harmless enough, except that – as I have already pointed out – there are a lot of pastors and scholars whose approach to scripture in general, and evangelism in particular, is deeply dependent on this one, particular viewpoint. For them, taking away this viewpoint of the afterlife is like pulling out a block at the bottom of Jenga tower.
So that is my overall take on Love Wins. Bell is explicitly calling out the “turn or burn” crowd, and he is encouraging people to look to other places for a better perspective on the gospel. Even though its nothing new, it was bound to ruffle feathers because of Bell’s notoriety and his ability to communicate.
In Soundtrack for a Revolution, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman highlight the way music helped to shape the civil rights movement. In some ways, I think Love Wins fills a similar role in the conversation over hell and the character of God. The conversation was well underway before Bell started writing. His book does, however, give a new, almost poetic voice to those who are challenging its validity.