“There are a growing number of us,” Bell declares in the opening, “who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.” Much of American Christianity’s public and political posturing of recent memory has amounted, he goes on to say, to “a massive exercise in missing the point.”
At 40, Bell is the highly regarded pastor of a non-denominational Christian church in Grand Rapids, Mich., that 7,000 people attend. He is an interesting mix of culturally hip and theologically serious. The title of his first book, “Velvet Elvis,” drew on a song from the indie rock band he formed while a student at Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton College. He is said to observe a day each week of electronic-free Sabbath with his family. The rest of the week, his podcasts, spiritual short films, multi-media sermons and tweets have an avid following.
As “Love Wins” unfolds, Bell names and methodically deconstructs a contradiction at the center of American church culture: Christianity, the faithful are taught, is above all about love — a love so profound that God sent his only son, who suffered and died to redeem the sins of humanity. Yet the message loudest heard from its modern bullhorns is often “toxic,” Bell says, telling certain people that they will burn forever in the afterlife, while ignoring too much suffering in the world we inhabit now.
This paradox hinges on simplistic understandings, as Bell sees it, of heaven and hell – and thus of the very meaning of salvation itself. Bell seeks clarity in the sweep of the Bible of the mysterious notion that salvation comes from Christ alone to a far-flung, diverse human race, some of whom will never hear of him. And how, he asks, might this exclusive doctrine of salvation make sense, in global and cosmic terms, in the 21st century? He describes a cathartic experience during a church art show where someone had scrawled above a quotation by Gandhi, “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
“What kind of faith is that?” Bell asks. “Or, more important: What kind of God is that?”
This book, which pulls the reader in with muscular staccato sentences and questions that yield to more questions, has whipped up as much critique as enthusiasm. It has been labeled heretical and blasphemous. One influential evangelical pastor tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell” in response to “Love Wins,” whereupon Bell trended on Twitter. The Christian blogger Justin Taylor has charted multitudinous impassioned reactions to “Love Wins.” He says that Bell fundamentally misunderstands the nature of God and empties the cross of its meaning and power.
And the questions being asked of the book have validity: How much of orthodox theology and of what most Christians recognize as the core teachings of the Bible are left after Bell’s deconstruction? On the other hand, those questions may not be the right ones to ask of this particular book. This is a work of critical reflection. Bell is apologizing to a world befuddled and sometimes damaged, as he sees it, by Christianity’s blind spots and unfinished work on itself. He is playing something of a devil’s advocate — though that language, I suppose, would confirm his critics’ worst fears.
Bell’s image of hell is, indeed, at the center of the debate his work has stirred. Some have read this book and concluded that he is discounting the notion of hell altogether. But Bell’s exploration of hell illustrates the way he winds back toward traditional doctrines, reframing them along the way. Having excavated the nuances of the word and its associations in the Bible, he explores its resonance in modern times. Recounting a visit to Rwanda, for example, he asks, “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” Emphasis on the afterlife has sometimes, he argues, obscured Christian attention to hells on earth in this life. Yet he insists on preserving it as a central premise of Christian self-understanding:
“We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
“And for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well. Let’s keep it.”
That Bell takes Rwanda as a focal point for doing theology is part of what makes this a book to notice. He speaks for a new generation of evangelical leadership that emerged relatively unnoticed in the past decade. Moral issues like same-sex marriage and especially abortion have not disappeared, but they have become part of a broader agenda that is equally concerned about global poverty, sexual violence and ecological devastation. These moral quandaries are front and center in “Love Wins.” So, for example, the reality that 1 billion people lack access to clean water is his illustration that “taking heaven seriously . . . means taking suffering seriously, now.”
True to his promise on page 1, Bell eventually brings “Love Wins” back around to the basic Christian plot. Jesus alone, he reaffirms as the book closes, is the unequivocal savior of all humanity. He doesn’t relinquish that central doctrine for the sake of pluralistic nicety. But his description of Jesus as “supracultural” – as “narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” – begs for the kind of excavation he gives to the subject of hell. It lands in the realm of mystery. And it might be argued that a reverence for mystery is as biblical and orthodox a premise as any – an echo of the apostle Paul’s reminder to the early Christians that “we see through a glass darkly.” The questions Bell raises here clear some new spaces for glimpsing the challenges of theology in this age.
host of the public radio show “On Being,” is the author of “Einstein’s God.”