Let's engage Love Wins wiselyby Michael Danner
It is hard to believe that followers of Jesus would object to a book entitled Love Wins. Yet in September 2011 a book by that title, written by pastor Rob Bell, stirred up many objections. The objections came in the form of a charge that Bell is a universalist. By universalist, his critics meant that Bell believes there is no hell and that all people will be in heaven.
Last October, Gerald J. Mast made brief mention of Bell’s book in his article “True Evangelical Faith and the Gospel of Peace.” In that same issue, Everett J. Thomas wrote a brief review of the book suggesting it would be “particularly helpful for young adults and others who are jaded by Christian expressions that seem judgmental and unloving.” By December, the Letters section of The Mennonite evidenced that there are objections to this book in Mennonite circles as well.
As an Anabaptist, the reaction to Bell has led me to further reflect on what it means to discern together what the Scriptures teach. I’m also concerned about how that takes place and what the role of civility is when engaging works and authors we may not agree with.
As Anabaptists, whether we agree or disagree, we can at least applaud the courage it takes to publicly speak against dominant theological positions. Our own way of following Jesus was forged by courageous men and women who refused to remain silent when the Spirit compelled them to speak. Their understanding of the Scriptures, and the practice of their beliefs was considered heretical by the orthodoxy of their era.
At the same time, it’s important to represent authors accurately. Rob Bell has been asked directly if he is a universalist and has responded that he is not. In Love Wins, he affirms a literal heaven and a literal hell, both populated with human souls. He also articulates that where a person spends eternity is a result of human choice to accept or reject the free offer of salvation, by the grace of God through faith in Jesus. He defines God’s wrath and judgment in orthodox ways.
That said, Bell does push the theological envelope. He asks hard questions about biblical texts. What does Jesus mean when he says the gates of hell will not prevail against the kingdom of God? What does Philippians 2 mean when it says that every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord? How do we understand that in light of the Bible’s teaching that no one can confess “Jesus is Lord” unless the Spirit is in them? Does that mean there are people in hell bowing their knee and confessing with their tongues that Jesus is Lord under the power of the Spirit? What do we do with Paul’s contention in Ephesians 1 that God’s plan and purpose all along is to gather all things under the lordship of Jesus? What does it mean to say that death has lost its sting? What does Revelation 21 mean when it says the gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed? Anyone who wants to consider seriously the whole counsel of God and correctly handle the word of truth should be interested in these questions.
Another way Bell pushes the theological envelope concerns post-mortem conversion. Can a person choose Jesus after they die? This has been answered in various ways throughout history, most recently in the book If Grace is True by Phillip Gully and James Mulholland. The big question is this: Does God have the power to save people after they die? If God cannot save people post-mortem, then in what sense has death lost its sting? How does the Bible answer that question?
These are important questions. The answers impact our theology, which springs from our understanding of Scripture. They also impact the way we engage others as missional communities and the message we carry into the world. If the response of the faith community is to shoot arrows at anyone who raises these questions, then we aren’t discerning together what the Bible means, we are doing something else.
Fear of ideas that are new, make us uncomfortable or challenge previously held orthodoxies is unhealthy. Accepting those same ideas without critical engagement is also unhealthy. A better response is to engage such ideas together. I read Love Wins with three other pastors. With Rob’s book in one hand and the Scriptures in another, we discerned, together, what was wheat and what was chaff. That seems best to me.
As missional faith communities, following after the way of Jesus, how we respond to works like Bell’s says a lot about the God we follow, the Jesus we love and the Spirit that empowers our witness. May we be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
Michael Danner is lead pastor of Metamora (Ill.) Mennonite Church.
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