I finished Rob Bell’s Love Wins almost a month ago, and have been ruminating about what to post. As I was nearing the end of the book, the thought I returned to over and over again was: he’s ripping this off of C.S. Lewis (see The Last Battle and The Great Divorce; maybe also Perelandra). But then in his suggested readings he encouraged people to read Lewis (and N.T. Wright, who was another one I was thinking of — esp. Surprised by Hope), and in his acknowledgements he thanked his parents for suggesting he read Lewis when he was in high school (it took him that long to find the Chronicles?).
But I keep returning to the book for several reasons:
1) Bell’s theological approach is narrative rather than propositional: he tells stories to illuminate questions rather than creating an argument through foundational truths and deduction from them. You’ve heard the promo video, of course: he tells a story, and then prompts your thinking by asking 12 questions (count them! — in the book he asks close to 30 questions in the first chapter alone!).
2) Because I am also not a systematic thinker (neither in theology or in economics), and tend to be analogical, I’m attracted to story-telling as an explanatory device. As Lewis said, stories help us get past the “watchful dragons” who patrol access to our minds. Bell thanks his parents for introducing him to Lewis: I have done the same for mine, but I have often said throughout my life that the biggest mistake conservative evangelicalism made with me was introducing me to Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, MacDonald, and L’Engle. Their stories led me into a sacramental view of the world, which meant I had to leave evangelicalism.
3) If I did put Bell’s ideas into propositional form, I would start with 2 statements:
a) God is love
b) God’s love pursues us infinitely
All of Bell’s questions come from agreement with those two statements. The questions about his views on hell, of course, have to do with his ambiguity on the issue of whether one could infinitely refuse God’s love. My own view is that Bell is not a universalist; he would rather focus on questions relevant to our life today than to speculation about infinity.
4) I find it ironic that so much attention has been focused on Bell’s views on hell that his understanding of heaven is simply ignored. If you want to see why he doesn’t talk about hell in the hereafter much, perhaps you should look first at why he doesn’t say much about heaven in the hereafter either! He isn’t opposed to talking about those issues, but is focus is on God’s action through us today. Love Wins. Not only in the end, but here and there, now. That is the promise of Easter.
5) While reading Love Wins, I kept remembering a hymn I used to have tacked to the wall of my office. I thought the translator of the hymn by Francis Xavier was John Mason Neale, but turns out it is Edward Caswell. The hymn is perhaps best known as “My God, I love Thee” but also as “Thou Art My God, and My Eternal King.” Here it is:
My God, I love Thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not
Are lost eternally.
Thou, O my Jesus, Thou didst me
Upon the cross embrace;
For me didst bear the nails, and spear,
And manifold disgrace,
And griefs and torments numberless,
And sweat of agony;
Yea, death itself; and all for me
Who was thine enemy.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
Should I not love Thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven,
Nor of escaping hell;
Not from the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as Thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord.
So would I love Thee, dearest Lord,
And in Thy praise will sing;
Solely because Thou art my God,
And my most loving King.
Francis Xavier, 1506-1552, Translated by Edward Caswall, 1814-1878