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Love Wins: Neither Earth-Shattering nor Heretical

July 21, 2011

No doubt by now you’ve heard of Rob Bell’s (Pastor of Mars Hill Church, Grand Rapids, MI) new book, Love Wins.  Even before it was published it gained a lot of media attention, particularly from conservative Christian pastors and theologians.  They called him a heretic.  They said he was leading people astray.  One prominent pastor tweeted: “Goodbye, Rob Bell,” suggesting at the least that he was no longer welcome in the company of conservative evangelists, and perhaps no longer numbered among the “saved”.  So, what in the world was all the fuss over, before the book was even published?

In his book, Bell challenges the notion that those who do not confess Jesus Christ in their mortal lifetime, or even know about Jesus, go to a place of eternal, conscious punishment called Hell.  Towards the end, he even seems to challenge the existence of a place called Hell.  You can probably see the reason behind the fervor now, can’t you?  I mean, isn’t that a main tenet of Christianity?  That you have to believe in Jesus and ask his forgiveness to go to Heaven, and if you don’t you go to Hell?


Isn’t it?

Bell suggests throughout his book that this is not the case and argues through several chapters that God is bigger than that.  Whether you buy his arguments of not, his ideas are worthy of being heard at least.  And contrary to what the media would have you believe, these are not new ideas either.  They are at least as old as Origen and Co.

Boiled down, and I’ve written about this before elsewhere (though my understanding has grown since then somewhat), there are three principal areas of belief.  Bell discusses these in his book, as well.

Exclusivism:  no salvation outside of Jesus Christ of Nazareth;  you must confess your sins and ask his forgiveness in your lifetime or else you are not”saved,”

Inclusivism:  no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, but there may be times beyond our mortal lifetime and ways other than direct confession of the name of Jesus to attain salvation,

Pluralism:  there is more than one way to achieve eternal salvation from God; for example, a Muslim or a Buddhist might achieve salvation through their religion without ever having the first thing to do with Christianity.

Bell’s book clearly states he is an inclusivist, according to these three definitions.  Combined with that he challenges the notion of a place of fiery, eternal, conscious punishment called Hell.  He challenges the idea that a God who is all loving and all merciful would do such an about face just because a person died without saying “hello and help me, please” to God.  He even hints at the idea that individual salvation may not be what it’s all about, after all!  These are the points where he gets out of step with evangelical, conservative Christianity.  But is he out of step with Christian thought?  No, I do not believe so.

So, I am not ready to label Rob Bell a heretic.

The book itself is cleverly written in an easy to read, easy to follow style, making frequent use of questions and infrequent use of answers.  Is it earth-shattering?  Not to me it wasn’t.  Is it his best book?  No, that is still Velvet Elvis, his first book, in my opinion.  Is it even the best book on this subject?  No, that is Surprised by Hope, by Bishop N.T. Wright.

What Love Wins has up on Surprised by Hope however is that it is easier to read, easier to finish, and easier to digest.  Where Surprised by Hope succeeds is in careful, if not always as easily digestible, theological discussion, excellent and thorough use of Scripture (compared to the almost proof-texting style Bell employs in Love Wins), and its gentle insistence that personal, individual salvation misses the greater theological point of what God has done, is doing, and will do in heaven and earth.

Want an easy to read book with some very provocative points that will get you thinking?  Read Love Wins.

Want a book that will blow your mind and get you thinking in a way you never have before?  Read Surprised by Hope.

Fr. Ryan+

P.S.  Rob Bell – keep thinking, praying, and writing.

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