4 final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

I’ve blogged my way through most of Love Wins. I never got around to the last two chapters… but really, there’s nothing I could’ve said that a thousand others haven’t already.

So here are my parting thoughts in response to Love Wins. (True to form, I can’t manage to get this to a reasonable word count, so I’m dividing it into two posts.)

1. Let’s admit we’ve painted a one-dimensional picture of salvation.

The Bible stubbornly resists simple answers to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rob zeroes in on this in his first chapter. It may make us uncomfortable, but it is what it is.

(In fact, after reading the New Testament, you’d be forgiven for thinking the PR consultant whose job it was to make sure everyone stuck to the approved “salvation” talking points severely neglected his duties. It’s almost as if the New Testament writers didn’t even HAVE a PR guy…)

Take just a few examples. In Romans, Paul characterizes salvation as a simple matter of saying “Jesus is Lord.” In the same vein, he insists in Ephesians that salvation is a matter of faith, not works.

But in the gospels, Jesus warns that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter his kingdom. At one point he quotes Psalm 62, telling his disciples that the Son of Man “will reward everyone according to what they have done.

And this is just one example of the tension we encounter. To be clear, tension is not the same as dissonance. But salvation is more than a one-note melody. There are many notes to this score, and they all must be heard.

(For more on the NT’s multifaceted picture of salvation, see Scot McKnight’s latest post on Love Wins.)

2. Let’s admit we’ve confused salvation for evacuation.

Love Wins reminds us that at the end of the story, heaven comes crashing to earth. We don’t get whisked away to some distant realm.

(And if you’re wondering about the passage that says we’ll “meet the Lord in the air and so…be with the Lord forever,” understand that Paul is describing Christ’s return in the very specific language of an emperor visiting one of his colonies. Upon his arrival, heralded by a trumpet blast, the emperor’s subjects would march out to meet him. Then they would escort him back to the city. That’s the picture Paul paints in 1 Thessalonians, not one of evacuation. For more, see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.)

Others (including Wright) have made the point more comprehensively than Rob Bell does in Love Wins. But it still bears repeating:

If God’s kingdom is coming to earth — and, in fact, has already started coming — then we can either participate in this reality here and now… or not. There is another choice. The invasion will not be uncontested.

Love Wins helps us to see the many ways in which heaven and hell (and Rob affirms both as real places) collide with our world every day.

3. Let’s admit that much of what passes for a biblical notion of hell is anything but.

Close your eyes and picture hell. Chances are, the image in your mind owes more to Dante’s Inferno (or one of cartoonish depictions from The Simpsons) than Scripture.

The Bible says little about hell. It’s mentioned 23 times… only it isn’t. Not really.

Most of our modern Bibles conflate several different terms under the rubric of “hell,” obscuring the fact that each term had a distinct meaning:

  • Gehenna (12x) | a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, a valley south of Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to the god Molech during OT times, which Jesus uses as a metaphor for judgment (thanks to Scot McKnight’s recent post for the clarification)
  • Hades (10x) | the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew term sheol, referring simply (and ambiguously) to “the realm of the dead”
  • Tartarus (1x) | borrowed from Greek mythology, used only once in Scripture to describe a place where angels are judged

These terms are pictures of judgment, not necessarily the thing itself.

4. Let’s also admit there’s much more to the biblical picture of judgment than hell.

For me, this is the biggest weakness of Love Wins. It’s not enough to read every passage that mentions hell (or uses a term that’s been translated as such). Hell is such a miniscule part of what the Bible says about judgment.

Consider the prophets. Consider the judgment parables in Matthew 25, where those on the wrong end of things are characterized as being in a perpetual (or at least indefinite) state of exile. Consider Paul’s words for those persecuting the church in Thessalonica.

Judgment is part of the redemptive story. Without it, the good news isn’t really good news for those on the receiving end of exploitation in this life.

Yes, judgment is often restorative. But sometimes the Bible talks in terms of destruction. So how do you reconcile restoration with destruction? It’s a fair question.

Rob seems confident that judgment after death is restorative (p. 86), but what is the basis of this confidence? It’s also a fair question…especially when most of the passages he cites seem to focus on judgment in this life.

And even if judgment after death is restorative, how can you be sure the hardest of hearts will take the bait? Another fair question.

Speaking of fairness, many Christian thinkers — yes, including Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis — have left open the possibility of a second chance after death. And it’s worth remembering that Rob is arguing only for the possibility of universal salvation, not the certainty of it. In the end, I’m not sure he made his case, because I’m not sure he dealt adequately with the full biblical picture of judgment. But still…

More tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “4 final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

  1. This is awesome! I love your approach: Politics, Business, & Theology… that’s a pretty unique, yet balanced mixture of academic pursuits. Anyways, just wanted to say that I stumbled onto your blog, and found your unique voice/style to be very helpful/engaging. Keep up the good work!

    Like

  2. Pingback: 4 (more) final thoughts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins (2 of 2) | Ben Irwin

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