The problem with love is it’s easy to sentimentalize. O heck, there are many problems with love, sentimentalizing being the least of them. Love distorts our vision. Love lets us down. Love keeps us in relationships we should have left. Love is a knife to the heart and a passionate madness. Yes, love is a many splendored thing, but let’s be honest: Sometimes, to quote the J. Geils Band, love stinks.
The problem with Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell is not that the title is wrong. Christian theology is all about love winning. I high-fived Bishop James Swanson mid-sermon on the floor of the Virginia Annual Conference last summer right after he said roughly that.
The thing is: we’re not the best judges of love.
I’m a little late to the game on Love Wins. It has been seven years since Bell made a splash with this book which challenges the idea that sinners will suffer consciously and eternally in a literal hell unless they find Jesus. This was the book that led to infamous John Piper tweet which said simply, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” And the following year Rob Bell had said farewell—to the large Mars Hill Church he had pastored in Michigan, in part because of the fallout from his flirtation with universalism.
Bell landed on his feet under the wing of Oprah, who was enamored with Rob’s follow-up book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Becoming a celebrity spiritual guide only confirmed the suspicions of those who see Bell as a theological lightweight. But it’s unfair to measure a man by his Nielsen ratings.
Let’s measure by the book. And Love Wins does speak to an honest hunger among us to know a God of love. Bell wants to give a lot of windows on that question. He uses biblical examples like the parable of the prodigal son and the plight of the rich young ruler. He pokes holes in the otherworldly theology behind an old, evangelical picture of a cross straddling a chasm between the darkened ‘here’ and the gleaming ‘there.’ He celebrates the kitchen floor conversion of a man who found God in the midst of smoking pot. There are many ways Jesus can meet us, he concludes.
What Bell doesn’t do is to spend a lot of time describing who this Jesus is and how the Christian tradition has talked about the work of atonement. “Not his job or his point,” you might say. He obviously wants to talk about how Jesus’s story is the story of love. “The love of God for every single one of us,” Bell says on the first page. “It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” (vii)
True, that. But it’s also a stunning, beautiful, specific love that finds its expression in the Christian story centered on a crucified Jesus. That’s the story that lights up all those other stories that Bell brings to the table.
Arguing about hell is like judging a car by one ball bearing. Whether you like it or not doesn’t help understand how the thing works. And you’ll never understand the piece without comprehending the whole.
Which is not to say that Bell is wrong about hell. In his afterword he points the way to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce which is pretty great read and which offers a plausible rendering of what hell is within the tradition. But the tradition holds the key, tends the light, and marvels at God’s love, which is unlike any of those loves we celebrate in our culture.
And to get a little lyrical about it: We see it as compassion—this willingness of God to go to the far country, to restore the divine image in the works of clay. We call it love—the greatest love—but it has a character altogether different from any kind of love we know. Our pale reflections are tinged by fear and grief and pain, sentimentality and need and failure.
But what is this love which is just doing its work—not out of necessity but out of some grand unicity—its beauty of a piece with its eternal wholeness? It is love because God is reconciling all things to Godself in Jesus Christ. Of course, we experience this as love—of the unmerited kind that so captivates us and makes for tender parables of prodigal sons restored and dead children brought back to life. But Christ is just doing his job. ‘Today and tomorrow I am with you and on the third day I’m in Jerusalem.’
This is the mundane job of the divine—to knit together what is wounded and to blaze a trail where there is no way. But it comes with purely superfluous flourishes—touches that are in no way required. A tear at the tomb of a friend. The sensual pleasure of bathing in nard. The intimacy of a mother and child. Bread passed around a table and a shared cup.
Is it any wonder we reduce it all to love winning? Rob Bell has the same instincts.