Bell begins Love Wins by laying out some common ground with some thoughts few would disagree with, “First, I believe that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” (p. vii) Next, he gives us the overarching problem the book will address, “there are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories that Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.” (p. vii-viii). He goes on to say that this book is written as a response to a false gospel that would make anyone with common sense respond with, “I would never want to be a part of that.”
Most of you have probably experienced what Bell is talking about here. You have heard people make mountains out of mole hills on either end of the liberal-conservative spectrum. We know this happens. We can all agree this happens. The question is, which stories is he saying are the false ones? Which stories was Jesus not interested in telling? Which insignificant things have we made far too significant? Bell gives us a preview of what he thinks the false Gospel narrative includes on page viii-ix laying out two reasons he wrote this book. The first has to do with which story some Christians are telling and the second has to do openly and honestly dealing with the story we believe is central to the Gospel:
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
I agree heaven and hell as realities has been taught extensively and rightly so, Jesus taught about them as well. I agree that it has been taught that heaven will be joyous and hell will be a place of torment. Unless I am mistaken Jesus taught about that and that is the picture we get in Revelation 20-22. So if those parts of his statement are being taught then I don’t see any problem with that. But he couches this picture of the saved as a “select few Christians” and those in hell as having “no chance for anything better.” There is the part that will get most people. That is the part that sounds angry, arrogant and judgment. That is the part that will make many want to say it is all too exclusionary and hopeless and that God must be a bitter and angry tyrant to lay out a plan that results in something like that. Since we know God is a God of love our logic would lead us to believe you can’t have both a God who loves everyone so tremendously but who set up a system that would result in the vast majority of those he loves going to hell forever. That is a difficult thing to sort out. If it is going to get sorted out, we have to let scripture inform our understanding of these difficult issues. Bell says he is going to dive into what the Bible has to say about these things and not skirt around it. I hope that turns out to be true!
“Second, I have written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them.”
He goes on to say that many have avoided these issues by discouraging open and honest dialog about some of the most important aspects of our faith. The result of that approach can be devastating to people’s faith. That is true and unfortunate in some, but not all, places. So I am glad Bell is willing to take on some really big issues. I am glad that he is willing to step out there and try to broaden our view of what God is up to. However, I am concerned by the way he couches these questions because it seems to me that he has already began hammering the nails to construct the frame he will erect his straw man onto in the chapters that follow. One of the ways Bell makes some of the points in this book is to point to an extreme example of what he thinks misses the point and then discredit anything that is even remotely pointed in that direction.
He concludes by saying nothing he presents in this book is new, radical, or unorthodox. Several others have done a good enough job critiquing this last point in his preface that I don’t need to re-hash it but point you to their thoughts. See Witherington’s post (3rd paragraph) for more on that. I think it was Rex who pointed out that it wasn’t really accurate to sum up a universalist perspective as orthodox as many of those who held that view were condemned as heretics at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.