Tag Archives: heaven

Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

Those of you with a good memory may recall a post I wrote a while back stating my intention to look into the theology of hell. Well, I must admit, that I have somewhat neglected that intention as other things have cropped up. So, slow as progress may be on that project, this was an essential part of getting to grips with the universalist position.

Even before the book came out, it prompted a vicious backlash from some quarters of the christian blogosphere, denouncing Bell as a heretic and declaring the book harmful. Though books that are condemned before anyone has had a chance to read them are amongst those that interest me the most. So I came to the book with a certain understanding of the view espoused. If you’re reading this review, then maybe you have a similar understanding. Of course, that understanding may be outright wrong, have an incorrect emphasis or be incomplete. However, the idea that it is about heaven & hell is absolutely correct.

Bell likes to ask questions.

Leading questions.

And spaces.

He likes to leave lots of spaces.

Like that.

If you’ve not read any of Bell’s writing before, he does have a particularly annoying style. In fact, ‘style’ is a good word to use. There a great focus on the manner of the presentation which does mean the content is sometimes compromised; not necessarily so that it is absurd, but there is a laxity here that one would hope not to find in a theological work. But then Bell’s writings aren’t those of a systematic theologian; they are the work of a pastor with a great heart.

Throughout the book, as if the title didn’t give you a clue, the idea of love shines through. No one could be in doubt as to the passion and compassion of the author both for his readers and the subject matter. On that count, no word of criticism can be levelled at Bell.

Diving into the subject matter, Bell opens with a look at the idea of heaven. It is a fairly well-known fact that Bell has much respect for (as do I) Tom Wright. The exposition given of repainting heaven here has undeniable echoes of Surprised by Hope, which is duly referenced at the end of the book. He portrays heaven not as a place where we go when we die – a view that I wish would die its own death. Instead he outlines the idea of the restoration (or rather, recreation) of a new heavens and new earth much closer to the vision outlined in the bible than one finds in tradition.

There shouldn’t be anything particularly controversial here, though for those who have grown up in churches teaching the idea that “[the aim of life is to go to heaven when you die]” and not questioned it, then this may come as something of a shock to you.

So that’s heaven done. Onto hell.

Before coming to this, the book’s reputation was for a particular idea that Bell had regarding hell. The accusation (for that is what it was) was that Bell was a universalist, advocating a view that after death everyone would have an opportunity to repent. The impression is that it was sort of half way between two heresies: universalism on the one hand, but with elements of purgatory on the other.

However, after I finished the book, I was left wondering “where was it?” It just didn’t seem to be there. I thought that half a dozen pages or so must have been stuck together. I had to go back and skim read two-thirds of the book in order to find what it was that got so many people in a tizz.

Because the fact is, that’s not what the second half of the book is all about. To portray it as such is to misrepresent Bell and the point he is driving at. When you read Bell, one must keep in mind that he writes for different groups of people at a time. With Velvet Elvis, for example, there was a distinct feeling that he was writing for those who had grown up with a particularly conservative viewpoint, showing them that christianity was more freeing than religious conformism, that there is scope for disagreement without condemnation. With Love Wins, he is writing to those who have been hurt. This is brought out in a Q&A at the back of the book, written after the initial publication, where Bell recounts the testimony of one his readers who had previously faced a very condemning attitude in church and had come to think of themselves as doomed and unloveable.

I don’t agree with Bell’s outlook, as he seems to portray a view of christianity that best suits his pre-existing ideas, rather than changing his ideas to best fit scripture. If you think of it as a message about love, rather than a detailed theology of hell, then it becomes more palatable. If someone only read Bell and took him as authoritative, then one would get a skewed idea; so in this respect I agree with his critics. But I would not go so far as to denounce the book as heretical. There are some very good questions posed here, and all Bell asks is that we try to answer those questions ourselves. Some of these very leading, but many more are worthy of deep consideration. The other thing that slightly rubbed me up the wrong way was Bell’s opening defence; he claims at the start that all that he discusses has been considered by orthodox (small o) christians for centuries, but he fails to mention that some of these views have been rejected, denounced or otherwise declared as heresies by a good number of those same people who have considered the issues. In so doing, he tries to present his view as mainstream. Though it is interesting, I really don’t think it is mainstream, nor should it be.

In conclusion, it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it as a first port of call on studying hell. However, as a way of gaining and understanding Bell’s view, it is better to read him than only those who reject him. For those who have been hurt by those in church and are seeking assurance, this is a resource, but it is not a complete set of answers. It may be an interesting exercise to go through the book, noting all the questions and coming up with your own answers.

Book Review: Surprised By Hope by Tom Wright

Before reading this, I knew it was a kind of ‘lite’ version of the Resurrection of the Son of God (RSG), which Wright published a few years earlier. There was also some additional material included, where he built upon the conclusions reached at the end of RSG. The only other thing I was aware of was that it was not universally welcomed by all christians, and has faced something of a backlash at times.

The book is certainly aimed at a wider audience than RSG as Wright tries as hard as possible to say away from technical terminology, though he can’t resist returning to ‘inaugurated eschatology’ on one or two occasions. As usual, though, his writing style is brilliant, clear and easy to follow. He picks his analogies carefully, and always maintains a pace to keep the reader interested.

His basic thesis is as follows: many christians have muddled beliefs about death, resurrection and the afterlife. This then leads on to a confused idea of how the ideas of life after death relate to ideas of life before death. The book outlines some of the current ideas about these topics and Wright contrasts these with the beliefs of the early church, or what we might consider to be “authentic” christian belief. He demonstrates how some ideas that are commonly assumed to be christian are in fact adopted or adapted from alternative sources. One example of this is the notion of Hell. Many christians that I know have very firm ideas of a literal lake of fire and eternal torment, when in fact this is really just the Hellenistic idea of Hades, with some twists put on it by the likes of Dante Alighieri and John Milton.

Similarly, the traditional idea of heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory are also shown to have no real relation the beliefs held by the early church. As I read it, I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, sometimes suspiciously too much, so that I questioned whether or not my own prejudices were being pandered to. Certainly I find myself frustrated when I wish to challenge fellow christians about what they believe only to have told to me “The bible says… [insert Sunday school cliché]” to the extent that I question how many people regularly question what they believe and look to the bible for a proper basis, rather than cherry-picking certain passages and claiming the bible “says” what their particular interpretation is of this particular passage.

Of course, I don’t deny the possibility that I may do that myself. Just like anyone else, I’m a fallible human. If you think I’m wrong, please feel free to point me in the right direction (or at least, what you believe the right direction to be!).

Wright develops his own idea of “Hell” which he admits has no significant precedent. His view is that we become more and more defined by that which we worship and define ourselves by. So while christians become more Christ-like, those who “refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light…by their own effective choice, [become] beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.” (emphasis included in original text).

I do not agree with this, as my understanding of the bible leads me to be an annihilationist. I know this is also not a widely accepted view, though this does only prove Wright’s point that there is a wide range of beliefs within christianity.

From here, the level of controversy only increases. Having set out his stall with the historic evidence for the resurrection, what the ascension meant and what the earliest creation hope for “life after life after death” he then moves on to the idea of salvation. The two key questions posed, which I think we all ought to answer, are:

1) What are we saved from?
2) What are we saved for?

Wright’s particular answer is framed in terms of creation and new creation. Given my own liberal-baptist background, I have been used to the idea that salvation is about the restoration of a broken relationship with God. Wright calls this into question and claims such a worldview has missed the point. Personal salvation is a secondary matter to the restoration of creation. This view is, I think, one of the main areas where he rubs up against a large number of christians, who have been taught a different emphasis. I say emphasis, because I don’t think it really is a fundamentally different understanding from that taught from the front of churches week in, week out; but the deanthropocentrication represents a massive shift in focus.

Following on from this, the final section of the book looks at how this all affects the look of the church. Here, Wright does not shy away from politics. And when christianity (or religion, if you consider christianity to be a religion) and politics mix, controversy almost inevitably follows. It is probably fair to describe Wright as morally conservative but socially liberal. He has criticisms of both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Probably the most insightful area of this section is when he talks about the “massive economic imbalance of the world, whose major symptom is the ridiculous and unpayable Third World debt.” He goes on to say, “I simply want to record my conviction that this is the Number One moral issue of our day….The present system of global debt is the real immoral scandal, the dirty little secret – or rather the dirty enormous secret – of glitzy, glossy western capitalism.” Now that you’ve read that, consider this: this book was published in 2007, a full year before the Credit Crunch.

The conclusions of the last couple of chapters are not always that insightful or strong. Here, Wright does betray an Anglican bias, particularly with his advocacy of liturgy and other such religious rituals. So in one moment he calls for us to be living as “resurrection people” but in the next he supposes that the best way to live this out is in religiosity. I completely disagree with this application. I don’t think religion should have any part in christianity, so for me, this final section devalues the book slightly.

Other than that, it is an insightful and thought-provoking read; well-written with a razor sharp wit and a well-researched basis.