When I was compiling the list of books for my appendix on reading the Bible again, Keisha McKenzie made an important point about rethinking heaven/hell as a key part of getting free from supremacist religion. Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is one of the books that I included to address that topic.
Love Wins was a New York Times best seller and Rev. Bell has gotten a great deal of press (including being called a heretic). This is another good bet for something you can find at your local library.
Rev Bell dives right into some of the key challenges that would-be Christians face when navigating mainstream evangelical teachings:
Some communities don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most. … I believe the discussion itself is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations, and Jesus response to almost every question he’s asked with… a question. … My hope is that this [book] frees you. There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous. … Jesus frees us to call things what they are. (Bell, page ix-x)
Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the god they don’t believe in, we quickly discover that I don’t believe in that god either. (Bell, page 9)
Rev Bell spends an entire chapter talking about Heaven from a biblical point of view.
When we talk about heaven, then, or eternal life, or the afterlife–any of that–it’s important that we begin with the categories and claims that people were familiar with in Jesus’s first-century Jewish world. They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth. (Bell, page 40)
What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now. (Bell, page 46)
What we find Jesus teaching, over and over and over again, is that he’s interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven. (Bell, page 50)
Heaven, it turns out, is full of the unexpected. (Bell, page 52)
[E]ternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life live now in connection to God. (Bell, page 59)
I cite Deuteronomy 30:19 to open chapter 1 of OtherWise Christian, so I particularly liked the way that Rev Bell unpacked that one:
When Moses in Deuteronomy 30 calls the Hebrews to choose life over death, he’s not forcing them to decide whether they will be killed on the spot; he’s confronting them with their choice of the kind of life they’re going to keep on living. The one kind of life is in vital connection with the living God, in which they experience more and more peace and wholeness. The other kind of life is less and less connected with God and contains more and more despair and destruction. (Bell, page 66)
Rev. Bell spends another full chapter unpacking a biblical view of Hell:
But in reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word “hell,” what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point. He’s often not talking about “beliefs” as we think of them–he’s talking about anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of his listeners hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world. Jesus did not use hell to try and compel “heathens” and “pagans” to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love. (Bell, page 82)
By the time that Rev Bell finishes with heaven and hell, the book is half-way done. He spends the rest of the book trying to help the reader make sense of God and Jesus. In the process, he teases out perspectives on salvation.
When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true. But that explanation as the first explanation puts us at the center. For the first Christians, the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander. More massive. When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’s resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything “on earth or in heaven” ([Colossians] 1), just as God originally intended it. The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable. (Bell, page 134)
So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will “get into heaven,” that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club. The good news is better than that. … When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity. (Bell, pages 178-179)
Rev Bell’s hook in chapter 7 (“The Good News Is Better Than That”) is the Luke 15 story of the prodigal son. Rev Bell points out that each character has a story about the other and suggests that God’s grace comes in God’s retelling of each of our stories.
Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story. We all have our version of events. Who we are, who we aren’t, what we’ve done, what that means for our future. Our worth, value, significance. The things we believe about ourselves that we cling to despite the pain and agony they’re causing us. … We believe all sorts of things about ourselves. What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story. (Bell, pages 170-171)
Rev Bell closes with this blessing.
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. Love is why I’ve written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with. May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins. (Bell, pages 197-198)
Preview: Love Wins
About the Author: https://robbell.com/
Rob Bell defending Love Wins (debate), extended interview
Compiled by Mx. Chris Paige in July 2019.
Note: This blog is intended to be an on-going work in progress. Please contact us if you have corrections or are able to contribute further context or reflections.