Love Wins: A book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived  – Rob Bell (HarperCollins)

The subtitle will certainly get your attention! Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, Michigan and known in the UK for his books, his Nooma series of dvds and Drop Like Stars tour in 2010. He defies categorisation, refusing to hitch his wagon to any particular theological system and aiming to go where the Bible takes him. But his Evangelical critics don’t always like where this leads and will doubtless write him off following this book which fails to tick the boxes expected on the after-life, heaven and hell, and who goes where and for how long.

But the context and purpose of the book is all important, and even if you, like me, don’t agree with his conclusions, the book has considerable merit as a discussion about these key issues to our Faith and as a necessary challenge to some of the approaches taken.

Throughout the book, Bell re-considers the classic message believed in many US churches (and UK ones too). ‘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 of anything better.’(page 2)

He asks uncomfortable questions of those who accept this view regarding the randomness of who gets into heaven, the nature of the heaven and hell preached and the arrogance of those convinced they know who goes where.  Heaven is said to ‘somewhere else’ when the biblical picture is of eternal life beginning now in our relationship with Christ, and leading us to the new heavens and new earth where God comes to live (Rev 22). God’s intention is that we grow in character so that we are fitted for heaven

He also challenges the eternal torment view of hell. Do we really believe that a loving God, who welcomes us home as a loving father (see Luke 15) suddenly changes tack and becomes a sadistic torturer if someone doesn’t trust Christ? He points to the incomplete and shadowy concepts of the afterlife in the OT. Hell is mentioned just 12 times, 11 by Jesus, and not to threaten to non believers but often as a warning to the religious. Hell is a place we choose when we reject God’s offer of life, not a torture chamber to which people are sent if they don’t wise up. It is interesting that he makes no mention of the minority view that the soul of the non believer is ‘snuffed out’ after a time of punishment.

He writes in his engaging classic short sentence questioning style that gently and persuasively asks us to take a second look at what we think we believe. His reasoning is in places quite brilliant.

The controversial part comes when in chapter 4. He considers the existence of hell in the light of a God who is sovereign, loving and not willing that any should perish. He outlines how scholars respond to this tension, including ‘Christian universalism’ that maybe God will eventually through Christ reconcile to himself all things, including those who had rejected Him in their lifetime. He states: ‘whatever objections a person might have to this story  and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper and Christian to long for what God longs for (page 119). In other words, wouldn’t we all love it to be true that ‘love wins’ rather than countenance eternal hell for those who reject Christ? Then later: ‘will everyone be saved or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately those are tensions that we are free to leave fully intact’ (page 119).

Many will be horrified that he suggests ‘tension’ at all. Presumably the ‘many objections, includes key texts such as 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10, Matthew 25:46, Revelation14:11 and 20:10,15, which suggest that this life’s choices in this life are definitive for the next? The book would be much stronger if he had offered an opinion  on texts that seem to many to suggest the finality of hell.

But it would be sad if the book and Bell were written off for asking such questions, when Christians from Augustine to C.S. Lewis have also made suggestions that are not so different. I hope Bell is seen as an ally, not an enemy, who gently challenges us to re-consider whether the Gospel we preach is really the one Jesus preached. I don’t believe he has the answer, but equally, I think his critique of some evangelical approaches to this issue is spot on. He asks for grace to be extended to those with the courage to consider these things. Let’s hope’ love wins’ when it comes to responses to this book.