Boy! There has been a whole lot of furor over a well-known pastor of a mega-church, a guy named Rob Bell. Folks have been jumping up and down, in a great big tizzy. Shouts of ‘heterodoxy!’(almost a heretic) as well as a few actual shouts of heresy have been burning up the blogs and even the comment pages in some major journals. I mean, what did the guy do to merit all this trouble? He wrote a tiny little book called, Love Wins.

I read the book this past week on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s not a long book, that’s for sure. Anyone who has taken my 52-week class, A Year in the Bible, knows most of what Bell writes: God loves his whole creation. Once sin was present in it, God began a long campaign to win the hearts of people so as to restore creation. The story begins in a garden but it ends with a great city, the Bride of the Lamb, the people of God, coming down from heaven to the earth. God means for us between now and then to love everyone we can into the great mission of restoring everything in creation to all it is meant to be. The eventual destiny of redeemed human life is a restored earth. God loves everything he has created and he never gives up on restoring families, friendships, marriages, businesses, schools, governments and the people who inhabit and manage all those human institutions. God loves all creation, including its project managers, the people of every tribe, nation, language and tradition: humankind, the crown of his good creation.

All that, from A Year in the Bible, is in Bell’s book, Love Wins. Besides all that, Bell writes one thing I never say or write. He says, God will win over every heart: every gnarled, warped, ruined human spirit, no-matter how badly broken, no-matter how addicted to envy or to malice or to greed or complaining or contract bridge, will be warmed and softened and reshaped and made whole some day. In the end, as Clarence Jordan used to say, the very last hopeless, isolated soul in the darkest, hottest most lonely corner of hell will eventually respond to God’s love. God will not leave billions of people to burn in their torment. He will have us all. That is what all the fuss is about.

This leads me to two questions: Why do I never say this thing and what do I think of Bell saying it.

1) I never say this thing because I do not know it to be so. There are clearly passages in scripture which can be read this way and there are also passages which can be read to suggest hell, founded on the day Jesus was raised to the right hand of his Father in heaven, is here to stay. Bell deals with all or at least most of these passages in his little book and while his brief treatment left me wanting a much longer discussion, I could see what he was saying, especially when he talked about the story of God. The story is crystal clear: in his long story, God frequently lets his people get into all kinds of trouble but always in order to bring them back into fellowship with himself. It is never the intention of God to throw them out of the land in order to leave them in the wilderness. It is all about God’s do-over clause: repentance. In the high-king treaties which God made, there was always the chance to turn around, to start over, to return to fellowship. So, that is the story I know but what I do not know is whether the great story will end that way, with everyone eventually, willingly reconciled to God. I never say these things because I do not know them to be so; I only hope them to be so.

2) I believe Bell – a pastor of a church which is much too large, more like a corporation than a church – has a lot more to do all week than write books. Yet he has done us a service if his little book-bomb gets the attention of a whole lot of folks who are interested in light and not heat, who give this age-old subject a much more thorough look-over than he did in his little “95 Theses”-like discussion starter. Toward that end, what follows is an excerpt from a post by a good man, a bookseller from Pennsylvania, Byron Borger. (If I have never mentioned Byron’s Hearts and Minds Bookstore in a post before now,, I need to be forgiven.) Borger’s shop and his reviews of Christian books, movies and other stuff are as good as you will find anywhere. I will conclude my thoughts after a piece of (one of) his reviews on Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

Here’s Byron, who says:

…Bell is not the first to wonder about the moral defensibility of God consigning people to conscious torture forever even if God’s holiness is such that human rebellion is inexcusably traitorous. This has been pondered (as Bell explains, perhaps making a bit too much of it historically) from the earliest days of church history. In about the only line from the brilliant Mark Galli review that I found wanting, Galli says that only a “tiny minority” held this view. What he means is only a tiny minority of theological writers who were deemed orthodox held to this view. I’d say a lot of people, people you and I know, actually do hold this view (and if you don’t have friends who have told you that they believe something like this about not really believing in hellfire as typical understood then you either don’t have friends who are being honest with you or you don’t get out much.)

Of course, popularity doesn’t make it true, but Bell is correct that he is not alone in suspecting–or at least hoping–that God’s love and mercy outweighs God’s anger at the unaware or unrepentant.

But there is something else going on here, something sometimes pretty deep below the surface, but it is something I think we can observe about Bell’s overall work and mission.
It seems some of the more responsible debate about Love Wins and Bells views of hell being defeated by the redemptive intentions of God’s love, are trying to wonder if it is orthodox to allow such an idea. Can we say that all souls go to heaven? Of course there is the huge question about the teaching of wrath and judgment, but let’s focus just on this background piece for a moment. It seems obvious that a lot of people take sides on this question–all souls go to heaven, yes or no, true or not?

But what if that isn’t an especially Biblical way to ask the question? What if Bell’s contribution, intended directly or not, is to help us reframe the assumptions of the question, or at least part of the question. Should we believe in disembodied souls and do people live forever in the Heaven where God and angels dwell? And where or what is our final destination? Let’s back up a bit. I’m positive it will help you understand Rob Bell better and not many have said it yet.

We must explore—hang in there with me because this is important—a matter presupposed within this conversation that has been going on, what people (leaders, theologians, artists, or more ordinary folk) tend to assume and therefore believe about the afterlife, any why they believe what they do. It is an important matter that Bell himself doesn’t adequately address, but is surely in his mind. We must explore the unhelpful influences of the pagan assumptions and weird views of Greek philosopher Plato, called Platonism (and, more precisely, the later, 3rd century revival and “Christianized” version of Plato that became known as neo-Platonism.) That unbiblical approach to the life of the so-called “eternal soul” influenced the intellectual categories of the early church. And this has been bad, generally, and vexing as it influenced our thinking and talking about this topic.

It may be simple-minded to explain it this way, but just think of what one gets in chemistry when one creates a synthesis—something synthetic, artificial. The pure thing is lost in the amalgam, now a composite, no longer the real deal. So, the early church’s synthesis, its tainted acceptance of these Platonic ideas was disastrous and plague us still. Bell doesn’t talk about this stuff, but I know that he knows it. It is surely between the lines, part of his intellectual agenda. And I believe he is right–call it prophetic, even–on this score.

Just consider the alleged gulfs, the great divides, renown in the early church and medieval world that have in various ways deformed the modern church and how we lean into our lives: the (good) soul vs the (bad) body, the (perfect) calling to be a prayerful contemplative vs the (lesser) calling to do ordinary work, the ideal of the (pure) celibate life vs the disapproval of (dirty) sex and procreation, the (sanctifying) role of pain vs the (tempting) joys of pleasure, the glories of the (rationalistic) intellectual life vs the (despised) life of manuel [sic] labor, the value of the (private) inner life vs the less valuable (public) life of the commons, and, eventually, the commonplace perception of a battle that is lined up as faith vs reason, and reason vs creativity, and, as Nancy Pearcy’s important work in Total Truth (Crossway) and Saving Leonardo (Broadman) helps us understand, knowing vs believing, fact vs value. These unnecessary and deforming dualisms (and church leaders did and do teach every single one of them) play out today in the oddest ways. Most enduring, perhaps, and most relevant for the debate about the afterlife, is the hard dualism of a focus on the (eternal) afterlife as opposed to the (temporal) things of Earth, rooted in the old Platonic heresy of a hard division between the so-called pure form of a soul locked inside a (bad) material body. Of course, this is not a Biblical way of understanding adama (literally, Earthling), the human person made in God’s image, but we hear it said yet today. All the time.

Add a little anti-matter gnosticism, some rationalistic scholasticism, some medieval Catholic mysticism—see Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience by Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs (IVP) for an excellent critique of how some of those enduring monastic writers perpetuate this hugely wrong and finally inhuman dichotomy—and throw in notions of the Divine Right of Kings and the idol of unrestrained scientific and industrial growth (“Knowledge is Power!”) wedded to the nationalism that confuses God and country and we have the gigundus confusions of Christendom which we are yet to discern our way out of. Interestingly, the Mennonites and Brethren have offered some help on this whole affair, but others mostly silenced them. Early 20th century social gospel liberalism and early 21st postmodern emergent conversations have been valiant in trying to offer an alternative vision to this unbiblical mess, but have simply not offered enough Biblical truth to be valuable or sustainable. I find great hope, even in Bell’s contributions, but, better, in new books like A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael Goheen (BakerAcademic) showing the generative and fruitful way good Bible teaching can fund a missional vision for a missional church. It is nearly monumental and will be a real blessing moving us in the right direction.

To try to again put it simply, a synthesis between Christian thinkers and the dualism between the realms of the sacred and secular from Plato gave rise to an ungodly ritualized church and a privatized personal faith, which facilitated a secularizing force (starting with the Renaissance and into the French Revolution and the British Enlightenment) to become prominent in Western culture, so we now have an often culturally irrelevant faith where the one thing people, most religious people hope for—being immortal souls in an ethereal heaven—is itself an indication of our deeply unbiblical views. The story of our lifetime is mostly shaped by the American Dream and our hope for the afterlife is shaped by a synthetic, lazy view that just isn’t the story of God.

The mid-1980s book, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP) is still the best overview of this less than positive take on the accommodation of seminal church thinkers with Greco-Roman ways of thinking and the subsequent capitulation to the Enlightenment roots of Western culture with its idols of technological and economic progress at all cost. The first chapter of their must-read sequel, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP) is a very succinct and prophetic bit of discernment about the ways modernity deformed our ability to live faithfully in God’s being-redeemed world. Although it can be a tad dry at times, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew (Baker) is jam-packed with vital insights about our era (and how we got here). this “crossroads” time of a shift from modernity to postmodernity, invites us to “think Christianly” as we develop a worldview and way of life in this setting, in light of the full unfolding drama of Biblical redemption. Again, Bell doesn’t say it like this, but I believe if you can get this vision from these reliable scholars, it will put the debate about Love Wins in a bit of a different setting, and might be seen just a bit differently than the pretty predictable pro and con essays we’ve seen to date.

Now I do not know if Rob Bell has been influenced by these books. The analysis which rejects the early church assumptions about the soul vs the body, spirit vs matter, church vs world, which were taken from Platonism and the subsequent adaptation of this sacred/secular dualism is important to really absorb if we are going to understand Bell’s view of new creation and the nature of the renewed world to come.

Interestingly and importantly, Bell properly critiqued this sacred/secular split in his first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, and revisited the topic forcefully in Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, and he explored it by way of a study of modern astrophysics in his long-form DVD, Everything Is Spiritual (all bravely published Zondervan.) Not everyone who cries “No Dualisms!” and proclaims that Christ rules “Every Square Inch of Creation” or those who is [sic] attentive to the deforming ways pagan ideas have crept into our understandings and lifestyles agree with him on, least of all on his view of hell. Still, he does cry (or at least whisper) “No Dualisms!” in almost everything he writes. And that is essential to appreciate if we are going to understand him fairly.

This is the context out of which Bell comes, then, and (or so it seems to me) some of the concerns that seemed to have propelled him, some of the stuff he maybe learned when he was at Fuller, some of the questions he pondered (I’m guessing) when he worked with the ex-fundamentalist church planter Ed Dodson who was learning to disentangle himself from his former right-wing work with Jerry Falwell, now hanging around people in Grand Rapids with AIDS as well as folks from Calvin College with their beloved Kuyper quote about the Lordship of Christ over “every square inch” of the creation – it’s on tee shirts in Western Michigan – starting up a hipster congregation with a serious, savvy and sassy concern for how the unchurched have been turned off by all of this bad religious stuff, this irrelevance and weirdness and ugliness and profound worldliness. Early on he was rejecting dualism and rejecting Christendom and affirming creation, common grace, and a significantly Christ-centered view of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Again, as early as 2006 he did a lecture tour (performing sometimes at rock clubs and other unusual venues) on the spirituality of science which was marketed in DVD as Everything Is Spiritual!

He was, without saying it, making a statement which was profoundly anti-Platonic dualism in his first Nooma, 001 Rain. You know the one, where he holds his baby while hiking in the storm. The point is important: God’s creation is fallen and we must own up to our pain. And God suffers with us. God is not a distant deity and we are not called to be stoic. Much later (012) he did one about a friend dying of cancer, Matthew. God is present even in our pain, an important feature for Bell.

If you stuck with Borger’s somewhat rambling – look who’s talking! – and conversational style of writing, then you tripped across not only many good book titles but also phrases you may have heard or seen me use, authors I talk about and a condemnation of all sorts of dualisms – hi, there! – all of which gives context to Bell’s remarks. My views come from what has sometimes been called “neo-Calvinism,” for dire want of a better term and Bell appears to be a neo-Calvinist who somewhere along the way just plain stopped believing, just as I did, long ago, that Jesus died only for the “elect.” That’s right. I believe Jesus died to, among other things, satisfy the sins of the whole world, that Jesus died to redeem the entire creation, not just the sins of those people who come to believe in him. And once you believe it is possible for anyone or even everyone to be saved, then the only real question left is, how strong is the will of those who refuse to believe, who refuse the love of God, who will only be in a heaven they control!?

Some have said, the only people in hell will be those to whom God finally says, “I love you so much that, ‘your will be done.’” I agree. The question is, does God ever give up? C. S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, has George McDonald answer this question by showing Lewis the ghost of a woman who long ago got into the habit of controlling her world by complaining but who was eventually so gripped by ‘Complaint’ itself that finally there was only the auto-complaint mechanism left, and no woman, no self, no human will left at all. On another facet of the same argument, in the same book, Lewis and McDonald overhear a conversation between a great, shining, lady spirit and her ghostly husband, who, even after he gets the joke and realizes he can laugh off his shroud of tragic, wounded victim-hood and enter into love, still resists the pure love he is offered because to be so loved is against his will. So in one case, there was no will left, only ‘complaint’ and in the other case, there was no pretense left, only the will to refuse pure love. Both cases raise the same question: is the love of God stronger than all that? Rob Bell says yes. Well, no, Rob Bell proclaims, “O, Yes!”

Again, I agree. What I do not know is whether the God of love, because of love, always exercises that power to win or whether sometimes God, because of respect and love for the significance of his image-bearing children, finally says, “your will be done.” As the cliché goes, such knowledge, as far as I can tell, “is above my pay grade.”

What I learned in the book: Bell has a chapter in which he discusses the Parable of the Prodigal Son at some length. I found myself in the slave-story of the older brother, unable to hear the story of the father’s love. Clearly, in my life I am still trying to discover, to fathom God’s love for me. Sometimes in the midst of the mess which is my present life I forget who loves me and how much. I am thankful for the good lesson.

No, Rob Bell is no heretic. He is an influential Christian leader who is raising issues about some of the worst versions of Christianity out there today. As he notes several times, it seems the people who care the most to tell us all about how people are going to hell are most often the same ones who care the least about alleviating the suffering of various people’s hell on earth. Amen. My job as a Christian is to love in all the ways love can be expressed. Heaven is coming down to reclaim the earth. That is certain; it’s in the Book! My job is to raise up the vision of all sorts of redeeming work/service, holy calling in creation and to capture the imaginations of those who need to know, as Rob Bell suggests, the Good News is much better than they had heard. The fate of wheat and tares, of who is wheat or not and whether the tares are a valuable crop after all, I will leave to the angels.