As I turn off from I-196, the exit ramp is completely backed up, and I wonder, “Is the traffic for Mars Hill Bible Church always this bad, or is it just because Pastor Rob Bell is preaching after one of the most intense weeks of his life?” I know I’m in the right place when I notice the bumper sticker on the car in front of me, “Love Wins.” Having missed Bell preach ten years ago when I last attended Mars Hill, today seems a great time to hear one of the most influential and provocative Christian preachers and teachers in America today.
The worship service is simple: a few songs, a time of greeting, an “interview” with Bell on his experience of the past week, his sermon on Revelation 2:12-17, and communion. I also note that the 2 opening songs and the communion song are familiar: “Gather Us In”, “O Worship the Lord,” and “Grace Greater Than Our Sin.” I recognize that I am clearly one of the older people in this megachurch.
I am curious why Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has stirred up such a hornet’s nest and put him repeatedly on the evangelical hot seat. No one is more surprised than Rob himself. At the beginning of the service Rob emphasizes, “I believe in heaven and hell. I’m not a universalist. I believe people get to make a choice. And I believe it’s best to discuss only books that you have read.” Expressing gratitude for the support of his congregation, Rob thanks them for their patience and kindness toward him. He says, “Thank you for trusting your experience of the resurrected Christ when others put you on trial. Thank you for allowing the heat. It’s good, and it will make us all Jesus-like.” Bell is no doubt including himself as well.
Being conversant with current religious trends by reading books, magazines, and blogs is necessary for church leaders, whether we are lay persons, pastors, superintendents, or bishops. That leads me to purchase and read Love Wins, which seems to have touched a deep-seated anxiety in our individual and collective hearts. Is the defining characteristic of God love or fear? Did Jesus die only for those who are saved, or did he die for all sinners? Could a loving God condemn anyone to hell? Will people who have never heard of Jesus automatically be rejected at the pearly gates? Do we get to heaven merely by confessing our faith, or does it also have something to do with working to eliminate malaria, HIV-AIDS, hunger, poverty, and oppression from our world?
Like most of you, my religious experiences have helped to shape who I am today. I grew up singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” “I love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love,” and “What Wondrous Love is This.” In my home church I knew nothing but the love of Jesus. Outside of church, however, I heard a different story. During my one year at church camp in 4th grade, I learned about God’s wrath toward those who reject Jesus and was pressured to accept Christ as my Savior in order to avoid burning in hell. Never mind that I was already a Jesus-lover. Because I didn’t express my faith with the same language as my counselors, I wasn’t truly saved. Spooked by the experience, I never returned to church camp again.
I also attended revivals with friends in high school where I heard much the same message. Somehow fire and brimstone sermons didn’t do it for me. Shocked by the anger of the preachers and turned off by the coercive tactics, I yearned for God’s grace, which seemed in scarce supply in those settings. I discovered early on that fear is not a motivator for me.
When I became a pastor, I was faced with the inevitable funeral scenario. Someone died who had not been a professing Christian. Unlike some pastors from other denominations who had no qualms about matter-of-factly claiming during the funeral that the dead person was rotting in hell, and we’d better get our act together NOW or we will suffer the same fate, I went a different route. Convinced that the grace of God that is greater than all our sin mysteriously extends even to those who die without believing, I did not presume to usurp God’s role and judge the deceased. Rather, I shared the good news of God’s unending love for our world and its people through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then I challenged the congregation to choose to follow the one who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
In Love Wins Rob Bell uses an abundance of biblical images to raise questions, challenge long-held assumptions, and wonder about beliefs that other Christians see as non-negotiable. The book will likely be threatening to anyone who lives in a black and white world where you either are or aren’t a Christian. If you are a Christian, you’re going to heaven, and if you aren’t a Christian, you’re going to hell. Jesus said it, I believe it, and that’s that.
Rather than critique Love Wins, I’d rather share a few quotes from the book and some personal observations in the hope that it will encourage you to read the book yourself, examine your own ideas about heaven and hell, and find a group of people with whom to discuss them.
- “Really? Ghandi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”
When my high school Baptist friends would comment about all the people in Africa and Asia who were condemned to hell either because they had never heard of Jesus or chose to follow another religion, all I could think was, “Many of them are much more caring, compassionate, and Christ-like than I am. Who’s to say I’m in and they’re out? If anyone is not worthy, it’s me.”
- “Heaven is that realm where things are as God intends them to be.”
“Life in the age to come. If this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally.”
“Justice and mercy hold hands, they kiss, they belong together in the age to come, an age that is complex, earthy, participatory, and free from all death, destruction, and despair.”
I believe that after I die I will go to live with God in heaven, but the greatest reward and motivator I can imagine is the privilege of building God’s kingdom here on earth by living like Jesus. I am motivated because I have turned my life over to Christ, and the Holy Spirit compels me to tell the story of God’s love and change the world. The biblical vision of the kingdom of God calls us to create heaven on earth by modeling shalom for the world and its people.
- “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”
I don’t know what hell after death is like, but I do know that we can create our own hells when we choose not to live in Jesus-like ways. God’s deepest desire is to restore us and all of creation to wholeness and harmony, but God made a conscious decision never to force the human heart. When we run as far away from God as we want, God respects our choice, but the hound of heaven will never stop pursuing us with love.
- “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, ‘God’s love, of course.’”
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is a clear indictment of my greatest sin: judgmentalism. How dare Ray receive the same amount of grace as me! I worked harder, I suffered more, I sacrificed more, I deserved more. Thank God grace is not fair or logical. If it were, I’d be lost. God is consistent in God’s fairness. If God were to judge, who could stand?
- “What happened on the cross is like… a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another again, an enemy being loved.”
Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end. Rather, it began the unfolding of a resurrection life that is available to all and is powerful enough to transform our world. The life of faith is one of continual death and rebirth as we lose our lives for the sake of the gospel.
- “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation.”
I wonder. Does love win? Could it be that God is much bigger than me and that the ability and desire of Jesus to save is much more expansive than I can imagine? Could it be that rethinking heaven and hell is threatening because I don’t really trust God’s love for me, let alone for the rest of the world? If I let go of my preoccupation with understanding the mystery of salvation and allow God to be God, could I be released to become a living example of the love of Jesus and bring heaven to earth? I wonder.
I invite you to share your thoughts!