Title: Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
Author: Rob Bell
Publisher: Harper One
The Book of Mormon has gained a reputation as one of those books individuals don’t feel that they need to read in order to have an opinion of. Recently, Rob Bell, a a popular evangelical preacher, has presented a book that seems to be gaining the same sort of reputation.
The ruckus really started when this provocative video preview was posted online announcing the book, giving a preview of Chapter 1, and quickly went viral:
And then, based mainly on this video alone, all hell broke loose (pun completely intended) in the evangelical Christian community. Bell was called a heretic, a faithless popularity monger, biblically illiterate, and deceived by the devil for suggesting that its possible that God may not be sending people to burn forever and ever in literal fiery pits of hell.
And that was before the book even came out.
I don’t know much about Bell as an individual. I haven’t listened to podcasts of any of his sermons. This being the case, I wasn’t approaching this book taking into consideration his own motivation, past, or credentials.
However, I did approach the book with a unique perspective among many Mormons: I was raised in the Pentecostal Evangelical community, specifically, the son of an Assemblies of God minister.
I grew up seeing dramatic plays performed at Church called ‘Heavens Gates & Hells Flames’, which graphically depicts the death and condemnation to hell of those who put off the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, all leading up to the eventual altar call for those in attendance to ask Jesus to save them from this fate.
Bell tells us that he was troubled as a youth by a painting depicting individuals traversing a cross-bridge over a fiery pit of hell. While I never had such a painting on my church or home wall, I did have books on my shelf with very similar imagery – but it never troubled me. It was just a clear illustration of what I believed. It was clear cut, plain and simple.
Yet there were times, as a child (and even young teenager) when I would wake up from a nap in the house, find that my parents weren’t there, and fear that the Rapture had occurred, and I had done something wrong, hadn’t been Saved, and that while my parents had been taken away to be with Jesus, that I’d been Left Behind. This happened more than once. And each time, I was equally worried.
I was raised with the understanding that God loved us very much, but if we were wrong, or ‘backslid’, then1 we would be in danger of an everlasting fiery torture. As a young teen I never questioned this understanding of God’s Justice – it was equivalent with Christianity in general, which I also never questioned – although I did at times question where I personally stood. While I fully accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, during those ‘Did the Rapture happen’ episodes, it did cause me to question if I really was Saved. Or, in a future context, Would I be saved?
It wasn’t until years later that I thought about what “salvation” really meant, and what (or who) Jesus was would be saving me from, and why I needed to be saved from it.
So that’s the context from which I, as a 7-year convert to Mormonism, approached this book.
The key message Bell presents is that when a majority of individuals reject Christianity, they’re not as much rejecting Jesus Christ as much as they are rejecting individual and highly mistaken concepts of Jesus that have been developed and presented and understood as being De Facto Christianity.
What they are really rejecting, says Bell, is a re-imagined pop-culture disciplinarian Jesus that uses fear as a weapon, and whose mission is to take the few chosen that believe in Him and submit to Him to a place “away from here”, where everything that annoys you, bothers you, or pains you will be instantaneously gone. Those who disobey, or do not accept the truth of this Jesus will be punished, or ”Left Behind”. Bell quoted from the websites of different Churches who hold to this understanding that clearly promise that those who did not believe the right things would be sent to be tortured, in full consciousness, for a an endless duration of time in a physical location of physical and literal fire and brimstone.
“Welcome to our Church,” Bell sardonically editorialized.
While this description admittedly differs strongly in degrees of accuracy among many mainline protestant Churches and denominations, what is clear from my own personal experience is that this is the general perception amongst a huge part of the population. These are the images that come up when many think about God, Jesus, and Christianity. If it’s a caricature, then its a caricature that is believed by many – Churched and UnChurched – and a great many sermons in many of the world’s evangelical Churches I’ve attended (those who aren’t preaching the Prosperity Gospel) don’t do all that much to change to that perception.
For many, this is simply what the Bible plainly and unequivocally teaches.
“Really? It Does?” Is a common rejoinder from Bell throughout the book, inviting a closer look at this perception.
After setting out his premise in the first chapter that there’s a good chance that this popular understanding of Christianity, God, Jesus, and Hell appear to have some serious problems and contradictions, and may not be purely founded on a straightforward reading of the biblical text, he then goes out to explore in the second chapter what it appears to him that the Bible- and Jesus himself – actually teaches about Heaven.
He uses the words of Jesus in the Gospels to present the idea that a key aspect of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, was that it was generally not presented as somewhere ‘away’ where one would “go” or be sent – it was an ideal that needed to be created or brought here. On earth.
Using concepts that appeared to be very much inspired by C.S. Lewis – especially his masterful The Great Divorce2 – as well as explorations of the nuances of the literal Greek meanings of the phrase we’re familiar with as “Eternal Life”, he concludes that “Eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God. Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”3
The converse of Eternal Life, the concept of Eternal Suffering, would fall under the same category. It is something that can and is experienced here and now – it is separation from Eternal Life.
That may resonate with Latter-day Saints familiar with the principles of Doctrine and Covenants 19, where Eternal is defined as a divine quality or attribute, and not simply a duration.
Bell uses the example of the Rich Young Ruler who asks what he must do to “enter into life”. After citing four of the last five Ten Commandments, the Ruler acknowledges that he’s doing well, and wonders what more he needs to do. Jesus then directs him to sell all he has, in effect testing him on the tenth commandment – will he refrain from coveting his own goods? (echoes of D&C 19:26)
Bell suggests that Jesus was letting the young man know the qualities that experientially and practically bar the individual from the experience of and participation in heaven, or the Kingdom of God, right now.
“When Jesus talks with the rich man, he has one thing in mind: he wants the man to experience the life of heaven, eternal life…now. For that man, his wealth was in the way; for others it’s worry or stress or pride or envy – the list goes on. We know that list.”4
Latter-day Saints may be even more familiar with “that list”, especially as it is presented in the Book of Mormon in the profoundly resonating discourse of Alma 5.
Bell explains the standard understanding and usage of the biblical term Gehenna (usually and popularly translated as hell in many popular translations) as being a metaphor referring to the burning garbage dump outside the city walls in the Holy Land. Where the refuse and garbage are burned, and where wild animals hang out and gnash their teeth at each other. A vivid image of showing what must be done to those elements that cannot abide Eternal Life. such as the attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors on “that list”.
Heaven and Hell, Bell constantly proposes, is about the here and now, and the choices we are currently making, how we currently view the world, and who we are currently becoming. Hell is clinging on to the trash that is being burned in Gehenna and choosing to suffer along with it, instead of clinging to the Love of God, and allowing that to foster Christlike attributes within ourselves that transforms our life into one of Eternal Life.
One of the most interesting insights Bell expressed, for me, was his retelling of the Rich Man and Lazarus story. He points out the detail that while suffering, the Rich Man calls out to Lazarus, who is dwelling in a paradisiacal state, and asks him for a cup of water. This, says Bell, is a powerful illustration of the mindset of those who have not “entered into life.”
“The rich man”, Bell says, “wants Lazarus to serve him. In their previous life, the rich man saw himself as better than Lazarus, an now, in hell, the rich man still sees himself as above Lazarus. It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart! It hasn’t changed, even in death and torment and agony. He’s still clinging to the old hierarchy. He still thinks he’s better…He’s dead, but he hasn’t died [in order to be reborn into Eternal Life]. He’s in Hades, but he still has died the kind of death that actually brings life.”5. It is the Rich Man clinging onto his pride that keeps him in Gehenna.
Much of the confusion about the common concepts of the afterlife, Bell says, “comes from the idea that in the blink of an eye we will automatically become totally different people who ‘know’ everything. But our heart, our character, our desires, our longings – those things take time.”6
Disciples called by Christ, says Bell, are supposed to be examples of the ideal — guides to experiencing Eternal Life now. “Jesus calls disciples in order to teach us how to be and what to be; his intention is for us to be growing progressively in generosity, forgiveness, honesty, courage, truth telling, and responsibility, so that as these take over our lives we are taking part more and more and more in life in the age to come, now.”7
There’s much more that resonated with me in the book, that, when some specifica usage of terminology and trivial details are set aside, appears as what serves as powerful expression of the subtext of the doctrinal concepts presented by the scriptures of the Restored Church.
Bell even suggests the possibility of a concept Mormons would call, “Progression between the Kingdoms”, expressing that the only “Unforgivable Sin” would be a refusal to acknowledge and accept the Love of God, and to allow that love to change someone. He notes, tellingly, that in the description of the New Jerusalem in John’s Revelation that “The gates are always open”, as are, Bell suggests, the arms of God.
“For there to be love,” says Bell, “there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship himself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, the God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is.”8.
In short, the biggest sign of a lack of love would be to remove our agency from the picture, the very crime associated with the power of Satan in Moses 4:3.
The choice to return will always be there for us, Bell affirms.
Bell muses on the expressions of Christ throughout the world that may not be understood in terms of the name Jesus Christ, but expresses that all that is good and brings individuals towards Eternal Life is in actuality, the power of Christ.
While at first thought, one might want to categorize Bell as the type of Universalist denounced in the Book of Mormon who proclaims,
“Eat, drink, and be merry; nevertheless, fear God—he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbor; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.” ( 2 Nephi 28:8 ), to me9 , Bell actually affirms instead that any beating and suffering that may occur would be of our own doing, that all that all true unrepented sin and pride does indeed keep us from Eternal Life in the here and now, and that our very thoughts and behaviors must be changed as we are drawn to the Eternal Life offered by God, as expressed and offered in its fullness by Jesus Christ. Heaven and Hell is always a Choice – God will not beat anyone in Heaven – Or chase anyone into hell.
The potential beating anyone would experience is masochism – not an outwardly imposed divine sadism.
While everyone who reads will certainly find some elements or aspects of Bell’s straightforward assertions annoying10or troublesome or overly simplified or just plain inaccurate, the end result, the big picture of the book, is a deep expression of one man’s conviction of the power and love of God. One that, taken as a whole, resonated very powerfully to me with the message of the Restored Gospel, for those with ears to hear, and eyes to see.
Bell’s message is that if salvation of mankind from themselves is God’s “work and his glory” (the words of Moses 1:39, not Bell’s) , that God will not rest until he has exhausted all of his inexhaustible resources on that last one lost sheep. That in the end, when it comes to our hearts, “Love wins.”
It is a book that, in its overall message, is highly compatible with Mormonism as I understand and live it.11
Note on Edition Read: While the hardcover edition is listed in the details above, I read from the equally available – and significantly less expensive – Kindle Edition.
- Whether or not this was actual doctrine spelled out and presented, this is definitely the impression and understanding I went away with. [↩]
- which was confirmed to me as an influence when Bell recommends it as a further resource in the end pages of the book [↩]
- Love Wins, 59 [↩]
- ibid, 62 [↩]
- ibid, p 75 [↩]
- ibid, 51 [↩]
- ibid, 51 [↩]
- ibid, 103 [↩]
- Bell flatly denies that he is a Universalist – see the transcript of an interview with him at Patheos here. [↩]
- For example, Bell introduces a citation form the NT book of Hebrews by matter of factly stating, “The woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews…” – which will leave many of the general readership to do a double-take [↩]
- see especially Quentin Cook, Our Father’s Plan – Big Enough For All God’s Children, April 2009 General Conference [↩]