Bell’s previous book, Velvet Elvis, got some notoriety because a number of conservative Christians misread a very minor piece of the book into a doctrinal statement and then objected to that. Love Wins ended up with the evangelical world excommunicating Bell—even the church that he founded and had grown from nothing to thousands of attenders asked him to step down as pastor. Despite having joined in the excommunication myself after hearing an interview where Bell refuses directly answer whether he believes hell exists, I have been curious what Bell actually wrote, so when I visited a friend of mine and discovered he had a copy, I was excited to read it.
Bell starts out by looking at what I will call The Conservative Gospel. This is essentially: we all disobey God (“sin”); the consequence of this is separation from God in hell forever; God loves us, so he sent Jesus to pay the price for us; trusting in Jesus gives us eternal life with God. Bell points that this message has a lot of contradictions like rocks submerged just under the surface. Since the conservative belief in hell is the Augustinian eternal-conscious-torment perspective, the Good News (“gospel”) is that God is love and as long as well put our trust in Jesus’ death for our sins we will experience God’s love but if we fail to do that this loving God will torture us eternally. That is not so good news for people who have never heard the Gospel, or for people who died while the missionary had a flat tire, or for people whose life experience does not include love from a father or maybe even men in general and who therefore cannot conceive of someone doing what God, or for people who have been hurt by people in God’s name. For even the best of us, loving God and experiencing his love is like trying to hug someone, unaware that we are in a hazmat suit.
It also raises questions about the nature of God. For someone who is supposed to be so loving, he sure seems to reverse course rather rapidly after one dies. Why is God so accepting the moment before death but the moment afterwards he will not let you change your mind? Is someone who flips so quickly like that even trust-able? If “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17), why do you have to luck into being born into a situation where you are in a position to believe the right things during the seven or so decade of your life? If God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” why such a narrow time window and why is the qualification so strict that you have to believe the right things?
You can see right away why Bell got excommunicated from evangelica—he is pointing out the flaws underlying the whole framework of thinking.
Bell goes on, C.S. Lewis-style, to observe that hell is essentially what results when we walk in the direction away from love and forgiveness, and towards self-orientation and counting slights. Hell is here and now in the form of rape, abuse, genocide, to name a few. He stays away from what happens after death, noting that it is pure speculation on our part, since we have no verifiable evidence of what happens. But he does address the question raised earlier, does God get what he wants? God has stated that he desires all men to come to him and receive his love, but love inherently requires us to have a choice. It is not love if we are forced to receive God’s love or to love God. But God is also able to do everything, right? Might there not be many opportunities for people to choose God? Might God’s love not melt even the hardest person’s heart given enough time? Many early Christians had this view: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nicea, and Eusebius. Jerome claimed that “most people” would come to God, Basil said something similar, and even Augustine, who created the eternal-conscious-torment model said “very many” believed that God would ultimately succeed in getting all people to choose to love him. So if you are appalled by the Augustinian hell, there is plenty of room within Christianity for a broader, more inclusive God.
The Bible also has hope for those who have not heard, or who are currently unable to hear with their heart because of past trauma. The New Testament notes that when Moses struck the rock in the desert to bring water to the children of Israel, “the rock was Christ”. How were the patriarchs (who had never heard of Christ) saved? It is only through Christ that we are saved, but Christ apparently shows up places where he is not clearly visible. If a rock bringing water is Christ saving Israel, maybe need to broaden our perspective on what Christ looks like when he shows up in salvation. Are there many paths to the same mountain? Well, no, but Christ the one path might not look how we expect, except that we know that Christ will look like love.
In a similar fashion as hell, the Bible does not portray heaven as the abstract place or eternal church service that is a ticket out of hell. Revelation describes the New Jersualem as a physical place. It is high on a mountain, it has walls made of a material (pure, translucent gold), and all nations will come there to learn how to live. Notably, its gates will never be shut—if the New Jerusalem keeps no one out, how can we be so sure of Augustinian hell?
But even more importantly, heaven is not a place we escape to. The New Jerusalem is the restoration of the plan God had from the beginning; heaven is the fulfillment of how people were meant to live. Now that does mean that some things cannot exist there—if you enjoy hurting people, you will not be welcome there. It says nothing about whether you cannot repent in the future and enter through the always-open gate.
Interpreting heaven as a place to escape to distorts the Christian message. It turns the story from God has repaired the estrangement between God and Man and is restoring the earth to what he meant it to be, into the pressure of needing to accept Jesus and/or (depending on interpretation) believing the right things within the few years of our life. It has simplified Christianity into Pascal’s Wager, where in the light of eternity there is only one thing in life. And then once you’ve got your ticket you’re good to go (or, again depending on the interpretation, you need to make sure you continue believing and/or living the right things until you do).
A friend of mine who converted to Catholicism said “Protestantism is ‘thin soup', Catholicism is ‘thick soup’”. Recently I have started to sense that the soup is thin (although I do not consider Catholicism to be a solution, there’s too many inedible things in that soup), without being able to articulate why. Bell articulates some of the thinness and presents some ingredients that have traditionally thickened the soup. In Love Wins Bell presents a thicker Christian soup in an easy read that could be an inspirational apologetic for someone appalled that a loving God would create Augustinian hell, or a thought-provoking consideration of papered-over questions and invitation for a traditional conservative to explore deeper.
Bell is clearly a preacher not a writer, and writes with a lot of pauses, which I find pretty annoying, and he is intentionally not at all academic, but I miss C.S. Lewis’ clarity and anchoring the concepts in history. Bell does offer some additional reading at the back, but if he is going to question some fundamental assumptions of evangelicals, he should cite his sources. So what happens is that Bell talked about the skeletons in the closet, raising questions about some core beliefs, failed to anchor the question in the history of Christian though (which neither his evangelical nor his non-Christian audiences know), and then appeared to dodge the question in interviews because he wanted to start a discussion. The establishment was not interested in a discussion, so he got crucified. But C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and A.W. Tozer all have some very non-evangelical views—Lewis’s The Great Divorce even offers the possibility of escaping hell and raises some of Bell’s observations—yet they are welcomed as luminary thinkers.
Love Wins is an iconclastic apologetic for God’s love, and Bell raises some questions that evangelicals seriously need to consider. The iconoclasism got Bell into trouble, but the book remains and is a great introduction to a broader Christianity, especially for someone who struggles with Christianity or a loving God. Long-term Christ followers may be better served with his recommended readings at the back of the book. It seems like Bell’s calling is to present God’s love to people estranged from him, and Love Wins is effective at that. In an interview with the Christian Post, Bell says :
“To be honest with you, I am passionate about all the people out there who want to know Jesus, they want to know God, and they are sick of a system that is hung up on a bunch of things that have nothing to do with the love of God,” said a visibly emotional Bell. “They say, ‘If that is how you act, why would I ever want to know your Jesus. You are not even kind at a basic human level, let alone to people who are apparently on your team, so to speak. You crucify them. That’s what you do? Why would I want what you have?’ So for me it’s about my friends and neighbors who want nothing to do with this, but are open to Jesus. And it’s a justice issue. They need to know the Good News.”
Love Wins is written for those people, and for those who have only experienced narrow Christianity, Bell has written will draw them closer to God.