Several years ago a friend of mine informed me that he’d read a fantastic new book by an author who was “completely your kind of writer, Ros. You should check out the book. It’s called Sex God.”
Needless to say, I was a little shocked – my friend was, after all, a Pentecostal pastor, and it just didn’t seem like the kind of book a pastor would recommend, let alone read, and think relevant to me!
Several years passed. I remembered that conversation and the name of the author of the book, Rob Bell, but didn’t get around to reading it. And then, not so long ago, I came across a link on a friend’s Facebook page about Rob Bell’s latest book and how its publication had led to huge controversy among Christian circles. No wonder, I thought, if the title was anything like Bell’s previous book.
It turned out that this new book, however, had a fairly mainstream-sounding Christian title: Love Wins. Its subject matter, God’s love, seemed harmless enough. What, then, was all the controversy about? A quick internet search revealed that not only conservative Christians were denouncing the content of the book. Some online commentators claimed that Love Wins was an attack on Christianity itself, and that Bell was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. ‘Heretic!’ shouted some; ‘postmodern propagandist’ declared others; and still more voiced their disappointment that a good man like Pastor Bell could stray from the fold. Good grief. It was time to buy the book, and have a read for myself.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of American megachurch Mars Hill Bible Church. The church’s name is taken from a reference by Paul to an altar he had found in the city of Athens, dedicated to an ‘unknown god’ (Acts 17). Bell no longer serves as pastor of the church, but focuses now on his busy writing and speaking schedule. He’s a bestselling author, and his sold-out speaking tours have been held in North America, the U.K. and Ireland. In 2011 Time magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Clearly, then, Bell is a man with considerable influence and this, perhaps, is why he – rather than many others like him holding similar views – has become the centre of recent controversy over the issues of universalism, ‘popular Christianity’, and what could be ironically termed ‘the [not so] Good News’. From the Salvation Army to Assemblies of God, various people within my own very small circle of Christian acquaintances have warned me of the danger of Rob Bell’s new book. To a certain extent their views are understandable, given the questions raised by Bell that could, in the minds of many, threaten accepted versions of Christianity.
The thing is, Bell doesn’t ask any new questions. The questions he asks, in fact, must surely at some stage be asked by most thinking Christians, or by anyone merely curious about Christianity. In the opening pages of Love Wins Bell writes about his shock at seeing a note posted at an art show at his church, declaring that Mahatma Gandhi had gone to hell because he wasn’t a Christian. “Really?” Bell writes. “We have confirmation of this? …Somebody knows this? …And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?” He further relates how a Christian, upon hearing about the death of a young man who was an atheist, declared that “there’s no hope then.” Is this the Christian message, he asks. Is this what Jesus offers to the world?
These questions lead to further questioning of what comprises hell, if indeed hell exists. Bell argues that heaven and hell have become so central to contemporary Christianity that the ‘true Christian message’, of abundant life now, is forgotten. He argues that “it often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now.” Without the existence of hell, he suggests, many contemporary Christians would stand on shaky ground, because they are focused on a future heaven, rather than God’s will being ‘done on earth [today] as it is in heaven’, and on them being active agents in that process.
Bell goes on to emphasize a certain inclusive interpretation of Jesus’ statement that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ This kind of inclusivity, Bell writes, “insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people.” And then, if “the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy.” Uneasy indeed, if the internet response to Love Wins is any indication of broader reactions to Bell’s views.
“For some,” Bell writes, “the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do.” It is no wonder that many in the world want nothing to do with God, he says, because they see the actions of his followers and declare that they want nothing to do with a God like that. This version of God is not the true God, he says, because that God is love: “Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year to person after person.” Bell implies that true Christians are defined by their love, not by their destination in the afterlife, for they are so busy walking in the footsteps of Jesus that they have no time to pour out condemnation on others or contemplate the ‘fires of eternal torment’ that he calls into question.
Bell’s writing style is easy to read, approachable and understandable. It is perhaps no wonder that he is a bestselling author – or was a bestselling author, for who knows whether his reputation as a mainstream Christian author has been tarnished beyond repair because of the questions and answers he poses in Love Wins. Will people who have never heard the ‘Good News’ go to hell? If I died today, having never ‘given my heart to Jesus’, am I condemned forever more? Would a creator God, who goes to endless lengths to establish relationships with his children, really send them to a place of eternal torment? These questions are not new; in fact, they are questions asked by millions over the past two millennia. Yet, Bell’s fall from grace and exile from mainstream Christianity would seem to have been decided, all summed up in the label ‘universalist’ that many online reviewers applied in their critique of Bell.
What’s especially sad about the controversy surrounding the publication of Love Wins is that one book, asking difficult, age-old questions about heaven, hell and God’s grace, could spark such outrage in the Christian community, while very public homophobic expressions of hatred towards gays, and frequent anti-Muslim and anti-atheist sentiments – both expressed in churches – do not provoke such a fiery response. Have Christians, perhaps, become so caught up in disputes over doctrinal differences, over denominational divides, over theological issues that have little relevance outside seminaries, that we have forgotten the central message of Jesus’ story, “the love of God for every single one of us”, as Bell points out?
Love Wins is a book of questions, and a book of suggestions of ways in which those questions could be answered. Perhaps it does fall within the framework of ‘postmodernist Christianity’, but it should not be discarded, unread, simply because it dares to ask those questions. At a time in the western world when many refuse outright to be associated with any form of religion, perhaps – as critical readers, as thinkers, as concerned adherents of a particular faith in a multicultural, multi-religious world – we should be taking note of the issues raised in books like Love Wins. We might not endorse or agree with Rob Bell’s ideas, but that is no reason to dismiss them outright, nor forget that the path to true belief traverses the valleys of questioning and the hills of understanding.