I’d watched some of his Nooma videos, but had never seen Rob Bell in person ’till he came to the Somerville Theatre a couple years ago. A friend had called earlier that day to say that Rob was in town and that Tara & I might want to get tickets and check him out.
Even before we got there, I knew something was up. For starters, there was no publicity – none. I couldn’t find it on the internet and there was no lettering on the marquee above the entrance. At the ticket office we were told that it was sold out but we could buy a “standing room only” ticket and watch from the back. The crowd inside was interesting – definitely not from the church scene around Boston. There was a lot of leather and many people was wearing black – artists, punks, musicians… Nobody moved for the next 70+ minutes as he told stories about altars and sacrifice and how the God of the Bible looks different from every other God ever worshiped. I was hooked – both by his style and by the way he told the story.
I didn’t know how controversial his latest book had become until I looked for it at christianbook.com and realized that, though they have Rob’s other books and videos for sale, they aren’t selling Love Wins. Ok…
I bought the book on Amazon and read it.
THINGS I LIKED
1. Rob asks a lot of questions – there are literally hundreds in this little book. More than that, he pushes back on the answers we’ve all heard when they don’t really fit with the witness of the text. At times this is uncomfortable – but also good. It encourages those of us who read and love the text to really own and deal with these ideas honestly. Rob doesn’t do in depth exegesis of the text but does spend time on a few important passages (Luke 15 – the two sons and the waiting father, Luke 16 – the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 18 – the “rich young ruler,” Revelation 21 – the new Jerusalem, Exodus 17 – Moses and the rock, etc…). Each of these are incomplete but are fertile ground for further study.
2. He challenges the followers of Jesus to “seek the kingdom of Heaven” to pursue it here and now. He gives a list of suggestions on page 46:
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.
3. His translation of Aion as “eternal” suggests more than just a length of time, i.e. “forever.” Instead, it points to a particular “quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God.”
Eternal life doesn’t start when we die;
it starts now.
It’s not about a life that begins at death;
it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can
endure and survive even death. (p. 59)
4. On hell – as with heaven c.f. The Great Divorce, Rob says that that hell is both a present and a future reality – and it is something that is chosen:
What we see in the Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life and so we can assume we can do the same in the next.
There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. (p. 79)
God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free. (p. 72)
5. I love Rob’s phrase the gospel of goats (p. 182). It’s a sort of shocking image right? A picture of the scarcity mentality embraced by some, who like the older brother (Luke 15), won’t join the party that the Father is throwing for his son who has come home. They have been “slaving all these years” and haven’t even gotten a goat (an animal he points out doesn’t even have that much meat!) so they can celebrate with their friends. Yes, this is toxic. “This is why,” he says (p. 179), “Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.”
THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT
1. I’ve thought a bit about Rob’s suggestion that there may be a time after death during which God’s persistent loving pursuit engages those who have previously rejected his call. He even mentions a letter (p. 106) from Martin Luther himself as evidence that God could do it. I think it is a compelling idea and I hope that this is the way it works. But I just don’t read it in the Bible. In fact, Luke 16 suggests that, at least for those who have Moses and the Prophets, another witness isn’t going to help anyway. It’s like Lewis suggests in The Great Divorce—the choice which the damned spirits make to reject heaven is merely the summation of choices they have made their whole life long. Why, having lived their life with every choice made in a certain groove, in response to another invitation after death, would they choose now to yield to joy?
2. In addressing the uniqueness of Jesus for God’s redemptive work in the world, Rob underscores John’s statement in 14:6, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However in place of exclusivity or inclusivity Rob proposes something he calls exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity (p. 155) Basically, this is saying that nobody is saved apart from Jesus but how this works is unclear. It may be that many people of other faith traditions – “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” could be saved by Jesus apart from knowing or coming to Jesus. Here again, it is a compelling idea that I don’t find in the invitations of Jesus in the Gospels to leave all and follow him.
3. Rob suggests that our process of being fitted for heaven isn’t concluded as the bass in Handel’s Messiah sings, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…” Instead, he says “our heart, our character, our desires, our longings—those things take time.” (p. 51) I don’t know about that but my wife is not going to be happy about this.