Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011).

Are all of God’s attributes subservient to his love? And does God’s love demand the salvation of everyone? If you answer yes to both, then you’re inclined to agree with everything else in Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I say this because traditional views of God, salvation, heaven and hell are not really challenged through argument but are dismissed through a series of rhetorical questions that caricature conclusions that most Christians have historically maintained on the basis of looking at the relevant passages.

To be sure, a lot of us were raised in backgrounds where we expected to be saved from “the late, great planet earth” instead of with creation. Salvation was “going to heaven when you die”—that is, the real you—the soul, sloughing off its mortal coil. In spite of apparent disembodiment, heaven was like winning the national sweepstakes: your own mansion, streets of gold, jewels in your crown, and so forth. Before there was “Left Behind” there was “Thief in the Night,” and I recall waking up in a cold sweat, wondering if my parents had been taken and I was left behind.

There are two “Gentile” ways of misreading the biblical plot with respect to the dawn of the kingdom of God. 

The first is to think of salvation as the liberation of the soul from the body. As we see especially in Plato, there is an “upper world” of eternal spirit or mind and a “lower world” of mere appearances, the prison-house of the body, chained to the ever-changing realm of historical flux. So the soul or mind strives to ascend upward, away from the lower world. 

The other Gentile misreading of the kingdom is to imagine that it’s a perfection of human society from below, something that we can bring about gradually through our own activity. At least according to orthodox Jews, the kingdom of God is not an ethereal “other world,” but this world re-created. Yet it is also something that comes to earth from heaven, through God’s Messiah, not something that human beings can bring about. It’s interesting to read contemporary Jewish scholars who point out that for orthodox Jews at least, not even the modern state of Israel can be identified with God’s kingdom. In fact, some call this “blasphemy,” because it confuses the work of human beings and their own political orders with that apocalyptic order that God will create when he sends his Messiah into our history. 

Now, Jesus’s religious contemporaries had their own misunderstandings of the kingdom, which even the disciples assumed until they understood the purpose of Christ’s mission after his resurrection. However, their mistakes were different from the usual “Gentile” readings.
Bell avoids the first “Gentile” misreading. Rob Bell’s vision of heaven in one sense is much closer to the Bible than the images of Sunday school. Whereas Greeks and Romans were looking for the release of their divine spirit from its bodily prison-house, Jews in the first century (at least the more orthodox) longed for the resurrection of the dead and everlasting life beyond the reach of sin, death, injustice, and violence. At last, God would dwell in the midst of his people—in peace, as the source of the renewal of the whole cosmos. The categories were “this age” and “the age to come,” not “this world” of mere appearances (earth, body, history) versus the “other world” of eternal mind. 

Jesus and Paul invoke these categories of “this age” and “the age to come” repeatedly. The Triune God who created the world also preserves it, redeemed it, and will one day bring it into the everlasting Sabbath that the head of the new creation—Jesus Christ—has already claimed for us at the Father’s right hand. So Christians confess, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Sure, there’s the intermediate state where our souls are guarded in God’s presence before the resurrection that we will all share together, but as glorious as that is, our ultimate hope is the consummation of God’s blessings for the creation that he has made. Salvation is not escape from everything worldly, but the liberation of everything worldly from its bondage to sin and death (Rom 8:23-25). 

However, Bell escapes the jaws of the first Gentile error only to embrace the second. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the new covenant is greater than the old because it is founded on better promises, with a better mediator, a better sacrifice, and an everlasting blessing based on God’s work instead of a temporal blessing (or curse) based on Israel’s obedience. Because the kingdom comes to earth from heaven, it is indestructible; it can’t be shaken, as even Israel was ever since the exile. We are not called to build the kingdom or to realize it by our effort, but to receive it. “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:28-29).

We’re not building the kingdom, but receiving it. The proper response is gratitude, not achievement. The Messiah did not come into the world to get the kingdom started, only to leave its results in our hands; he brought the kingdom, founded it in his own blood, and now his ambassadors are taking its message to the ends of the earth. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mat 24:13-14). The end of what? The end of “this present evil age,” as the resurrection and last judgment turn the page on history as we know it and the everlasting history of God with his people endures from age to age. According to the prophets, John the Baptist, and Jesus, the arrival of the kingdom is not an era of gradual human improvement of the world’s conditions, but the radical inbreaking of God himself into our history, in judgment and grace. Wrath is just as evident in the kingdom motif as forgiveness. Blessing is not to be taken for granted by those who think they’re entitled to it. It’s a time of division within the house of Israel itself, where some are baptized with the Spirit and others with fire. But in this time between Christ’s two advents, it is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel and welcome people “of every nation, tribe, and tongue” to the feast of the Lamb (Rev 5:9). Christ did the work of redemption and reconciliation. Our work is merely to announce it to the world, as the Spirit gathers strangers into a communion of saints who are justified through faith in Christ. 

In Rob Bell’s vision, though, the uniqueness of Christ’s person and work in this unfolding drama is seriously undermined. Striking the pose of a radical reformer, Bell asserts in the preface that “Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories….The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.” In fact, the author seems to regard the traditional doctrine of hell as a strange and shocking heresy that has lately corrupted the church’s faith: “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” However, this belief “is misguided and toxic.” “And so this book.” 

But has he gone too far? 

Part 2 will appear tomorrow . . .