Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, has produced a masterful treatment of the subject of hell and heaven from the perspective of God’s unfathomable and limitless love. I read this book in one day! Bell hits on all the main issues that Christians struggle with in the debate over heaven and hell. How could God create billions of people only to save a relatively small handful of them? Bell’s thesis is that God’s love wins in the end. While he stopped short of endorsing universalism, keeping the door open for one to reject God’s love forever, the book was the best down-to-earth explanation of the universalist arguments that I have seen in print so far. Most books on the subject tend to treat the subject from a scholarly theological perspective, but Rob Bell is a master of explaining things almost in a story-like manner.
This quote from the back of the book gives a great introduction to Bell’s thinking: “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In Hell. Huh?” His contention is that this presentation of the gospel really makes it bad news for the majority of people. Could there be some other way of understanding this difficult subject? He begins the book by talking about how the Bible seemingly presents a contradictory and confusing picture of “salvation” and “forgiveness.” Bell is a master of setting up the question to issue a power-packed response that goes right to the heart of the issue, even if it’s not popular with the experts. He is trying to demonstrate that the Bible is dealing with many different themes when it talks about salvation and forgiveness. He moves on to the subject of heaven and makes the correct argument that heaven has been misconstrued to be some place in the “sweet bye and bye.” He argues that this perspective has done damage to the world, because we tend to see heaven as our home and ignore social ills and suffering in this life. He maintains that heaven is going to be on earth in the “age to come.” The Biblical writers didn’t think of “forever” in the way we do, but in terms of a series of ages. The heaven to which we are usually referring is the experience of the age to come. Then he talks about the reality of hell. Bell teaches that it is a very real experience, but that it is overplayed since Jesus only talked about it half a dozen times compared to the emphasis put on it in modern Christianity. He argues that God’s judgment and punishment are for the correction of the sinner and not for punitive retribution. This is an accurate interpretation of the Matthew 25 passage where Jesus talks about kolasis aionian, the “age-enduring correction” and not “everlasting punishment” as it is translated. Bell also covers topics that address the issues of God getting what he wants in the redemption of humankind, the “us vs. them” mentality, God’s desire to save all of creation, and the process of salvation being through a kind of dying. He ultimately talks about a trust in Jesus being a response of “Yes” to God’s love and that this is not something we do one, but many times over and over. God’s love is an active force in the universe looking to redeem all of creation. He contents the gospel is better news than we have imagined and the scope of God’s love is wider than we could ever hope.
I loved this book. It was easy to read, written in straight-forward, laymen’s terms. This is a book that I think all young people should read. I think it will help to answer their questions about heaven and hell and the fate of their loved ones and friends who may be of different religions or of no religious faith at all. Ultimately, anyone would enjoy this book and, though Bell maintains that he’s not a universalist, it is a great introduction to the Christian, Biblical universalist position that still takes the issue of judgment and correction of sin seriously. I wish Bell had gone all the way and asserted belief in universalism, but, as is typical of this generation of leaders, they try to avoid the dogmatism of past generations which has become a huge turn-off in today’s post-modern age. Despite this, I think we can see the direction in which Bell leans. I also wish that Bell had been a bit clearer on the theology of beginning a relationship with God and the ultimate goal of deification, however the book had a specific scope and that was to show how God’s love ultimately triumphs among humanity and that all of his purposes, including judgment and displays of his anger, are born in love. Bell believes that the end of the human story is one where love prevails and not hate, indifference, or elitism. To that, I can say a hardy “Amen!” I’d say this is a must-read. Get your hands on a copy today!