Not since Bishop Robinson's Honest To God has a book from within our own ranks got so much of the Christian church talking. It is easy to see why. One doesn't need to be a theologian to see that Pastor Bell is positing a form of apocatastasis as the only way to reconcile God's essentially loving nature with the idea of eternal punishment in Hell (whether with a capital `h' or not). And since the generally accepted theologically reformed position at the time of writing is that not all will be saved - Pastor Bell has upset a lot of very serious (and seemingly loud) people within our Church. Is their upset warranted? Is Pastor Bell really saying that what we do here doesn't matter because each and every person, even the most horrid and unrepentant sinner, will go to Heaven? Will all Muslims go to Heaven? Will suicide-bombers go to Heaven? It appears they all will if Pastoral Bell gets his way - but, as I am sure Pastor Bell would say were he here (which, sadly, he is not - indeed I have only a cat for company today) - it is not his will but God's will that all of the aforementioned cretins end up parading through the streets of Heaven.
When one takes a serious look at the theology of the book, the first thing that it is perhaps helpful to bear in mind is that Bell is not introducing any new ideas here. Indeed, in his introduction, he says so himself. Neither is he resurrecting some erstwhile forgotten fringe theology that would be better left in the dust of time-gone-by. Indeed, CS Lewis, from whom Bell quotes, appears to have held very similar views to the ones Bell puts forth. Not many of us would tolerate CS Lewis being called anything other than a hero of orthodoxy and yet in his book The Great Divorce Lewis uses a story to set forth exactly the views that Bell is being so heavily criticised for here. Having born all of this in mind, what exactly is Bell saying?
Firstly, Bell tackles the subject of Heaven. He is correct to challenge our views of what Heaven is. Too many Christians have a totally un-biblical and irrational concept of Heaven as a place in the sky to where we shall be promptly evacuated upon our death. There is very little in the Bible to support this view. It is the fault of bad teaching from our pulpits that more Christians do not understand that the term Heaven in the Bible is used, most frequently, to refer to the here-and-now rule of God in this world - not in some other. Bell, as many before him, draws us back to the truth that when Jesus taught us to pray `Our Father, who art in Heaven' - He was not teaching us to pray to someone who wasn't here but was there - but rather He taught us to pray `Daddy, who is here with me'. This is a very important difference. Bell elucidates the idea that Heaven can be understood as what God is doing right here, right now. Heaven is the woman who leaves her abusive husband and finds refuge and love in the home of a family from her local church. Heaven is the workers who have flown to Japan to feed and cloth those who have lost everything. Bell, over and over again, draws us back to the simple fact that God is at work restoring the world to Himself now - not letting us all get on with it to be dealt with at some point in the future. Heaven, according to Bell, is when God's will is done here and now, and one day God will shout `ENOUGH' to all of the places where His will is not done. On that day the suffering will cease, oppression will be halted and all tears will vanish and God's will will be fully done in all places, and Heaven will be complete.
Next, Bell tackles Hell. Just as Heaven is those places where God's will is done - so Hell, by corollary, is those places where humans choose to act against the will of God. Bell posits that each of our actions either take us closer to God and His will, or take us further away from God. The closer to God we get, the more able our hearts are to deal with the sheer goodness and holiness of His person. The further away we go, the harder our hearts become and the more difficult it is for us to let love break through. We have all met evil people - people who are twisted and bitter and sinful - and thought `They will never know love or peace or joy', and been sad. Bell asks us to imagine on the great day of judgement when God returns to shout `Enough!' how each of these two groups will fair. Those who have been working with God in brining about His kingdom here-and-now will rejoice and continue on their work in the direct presence of their Lord. Those who have rejected God will find the torment of being exposed to a world where sin is impossible like being in the hottest fires and darkest night. Hell, according to Bell, is being in the new world, with God, and having a heart that is unable to respond to Him.
Bell goes on to talk about the means of salvation and redemption and I think it not unfair to say that his central view is that salvation is dependant upon responding to God. Bell states that because it is God's purpose to redeem all of creation to Himself - that there is no `cut off' point for salvation. That even after the Judgement Day God will, through grace, accept any who wish to turn their hearts to Him. For Bell, a God who would do otherwise just wouldn't make sense.
So - is Bell's theology wrong? I don't think so. While I may not agree with everything that Bell says, and I certainly don't agree with his rather loose and free use of scripture to support his points, he is on to something. Time and time again Bell brings us back to the person of Jesus and asks - What would Jesus do? Bell comes to the conclusion that seems to many of us to make sense - Jesus would keep on going until every last one of us was with Him forever. It's hard to argue that this is not what God wills - and even harder to argue that if God wills it, He will ultimately be defeated. Yes, Bell does over-use emotive language at the expense of well-reasoned argument and yes his logic is a little crazy in places - but my feeling is that Bell didn't set out to write a theological text - he set us to make us think; to poke enough holes in the accepted view - and more than that to offer a strikingly beautiful alternative. It has certainly got people thinking.
The Bible tells us `and ye shall know them by their fruits'. If people took what Bell says in Love Wins as true - what would the fruit be? Well, more Christians would pay a lot more attention to this world and the good that still remains to be done. Our evangelism would look a lot different - rather than a man standing in the middle of the city-centre shouting `Turn or burn' we would have armies of Christians working for God's redemptive purpose in the world and changing the hearts and minds of all whom they encountered - just as Jesus did (interestingly Jesus only gave the turn and burn sermons to those who were already religious). Christians would be a lot more concerned with how they acted, what they said and how they treated the world - for they would realise that they are in Heaven now and will not simply be `made perfect' in that last day. In short - if Bell is right, and we all acted on it, the church would look a lot more, well, Christ-like. That is very difficult to argue against, don't you think.
I do not believe that Rob Bell has got it all right - there are errors in his thinking. Moreso, I do not believe that Rob Bell has got it mostly wrong. There is a lot of truth in what Pastor Bell has written, truth to which the Church is duty bound to take notice. I just hope we can hear that truth over the noise of all of those who choose to exhibit the love of Christ by shouting abuse at a fellow Christian for disagreeing with them.