Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Love Wins – A Review

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Intrigued by all the controversy about Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell, I delved into this book expecting some shocking revelation similar to one of the tabloids in the grocery check-out aisles (i.e. “Christ Really an Alien!”). Alas, this book is not nearly as controversial as all the media coverage made it seem, and many of the detractors didn’t even read the book before condemning it due to rumors of its content before it hit bookstores. What I can say is this: If I had read this book in college after many bad experiences with churches, I wouldn’t have spent several years outside the church.

Rob Bell is writing this book for “all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’(viii)” In other words, he’s talking to those who have left the church because they felt or observed others feeling excluded or judged which was not in keeping with their understanding of a loving God. Bell is careful to cite Scripture and theologians to show that his views are not new, though they may not currently be the loudest narrative on judgment and the afterlife in America.

Bell goes on to address the topics of heaven, hell, end times, and the good news. From my interpretation of his writing, Bell believes that both heaven and hell are present realities that extend beyond death. Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven being near during his ministry and also talked about being with the thief on the cross in paradise after death. Bell says there is life-giving work that Christians can do to create the community and ministry of Christ on earth and after death. Here, the reality of heaven is not fully realized, and after death we are with God, but still have no body. We must work toward the day when the kingdom of heaven will be joined with earth (forget millennialism and the dozens of failed Rapture dates), answering Jesus’ prayer to see things “on earth as it is in heaven.” Only then will we see the kingdom of God fully actualized as described in Revelation—a beautiful city with open gates.

Additionally, Bell believes that hell is also a present reality that extends beyond death. We can freely choose at any point in this life or the next to live into God’s message of love. Hell isn’t permanent, but a state of being one chooses daily. Rejecting love is its own punishment—the isolation of living for one’s self, of embracing greed, and of not loving one’s neighbor. This is a daily misery from which God desperately wants us to turn. Bell works through all the passages in the Bible related to hell and cites many that talk of God’s love, justice, and grace to point toward a more redemptive, cohesive view of God as one of endless love and hope. Bell believes this view of God is more powerful than one that would limit God’s powers’ of salvation to a specific time period while one is living on earth. Bell states, “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…The good news is better than that” (179). The good news is that God loves us, and we can be in relationship with a God whose arms are always open.

Ultimately, there will always be a wide range of ideas on the afterlife. Many of these can be healthy when Jesus’ message of love is taken seriously and given the utmost importance over that which we cannot know. I do think that many in my generation (Millenials or Generation Y) who are friends with people of all faiths and no faith see more traditional views on salvation as unhelpful in a post-modern reality. Bell’s book can start a discussion among many who have left the church or are considering leaving. According to Robert Putnam, author of American Grace, the fastest growing group of those considered religiously unaffiliated are young people. Until the 90s, about 5-7% of young people were religiously unaffiliated. That number has risen to between 25-30%. Perhaps beginning a conversation with young people that starts with God’s boundless love rather than fire and brimstone is a good starting place!

1 comment:

  1. The Bible does not teach eternal punishment. God's love & mercy endures forever. Does it really endure forever or only in this life? How can it be Good News if it doesn't translate to the afterlife?

    1 Timothy 4:10- This is why we work hard and continue to struggle, for our hope is in the living God, who is the Savior of all people and particularly of all believers.