by Nathan Brown
While visiting a recent church camp meeting, I was asked a number of times what my thoughts were on the Rob Bell “thing.” Of course, it was a reference to the recent online uproar preceding the publication of his most recent book, Love Wins. There are a couple of responses to such questions.
First, it was a remarkable piece of marketing, probably exceeding anything the publisher would have hoped for and showing how the sensitivities of certain issues within Christianity can lead to unreasonable overreactions. Marketing snippets—in this case, the back cover blurb and a video preview—are designed to provoke responses, raise questions and prime potential readers to want to get their hands on a copy of the book. Thus, primarily by asking questions, Love Wins marketing team did a great job.
But that such “gimmicks” could provoke such controversy in the wider Christian community shows what suckers we can be for a provocative question—and not in the best sense. The rush is not to engage with a well-asked question but to almost blindly defend the orthodoxies. That this plays into the hands of the marketers much more than contributing to a useful conversation seems obvious to everyone but ourselves.
Second, the book itself—Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Unlike most of Bell’s early critics, I have now had the chance to read the book.
My review is simple: Love Wins begin by arguing strongly and usefully against the traditional belief in an eternally burning hell but then spends quite a few chapters unsure as to what to do with the “bad” people, those who resist and reject God and His love. Bell explores a variety of possible answers to these questions before arriving at a stalemate: “Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.”
The last couple of chapters find Bell getting back into stride, emphasising the salvific love of God and trusting that God will save everyone He can. He also turns the spotlight back on us, urging us to get over our preoccupation with mere “entry” in favour of “enjoying” the present reality of the kingdom of God at the same time as anticipating its coming fullness.
Although this book misses the ultra-cool design that his previous books have enjoyed with the Zondervan–Flannel team, Love Wins is written in Bell’s usual light but questioning style. As such, quite a bit of the informed criticism of the book comes about because of what it doesn’t say. And there are many brighter reviewers than I who have re-examined these questions at the prompting of Bell’s book and its notoriety.
However, we can be thankful that there continue to be prominent voices that challenge the assumptions about hell and point out this doctrine’s inconsistency with a loving God. With Love Wins offering such a brief overview, perhaps the book’s greatest role will be as an introduction to N T Wright’s more comprehensive and careful Surprised by Hope, from which Bell has drawn significant inspiration. If that’s the outcome, then maybe the hype is really about more than marketing.