As a follow up to my previous post, which was more of an examination of the theology in Love Wins, I decided to post about how I felt reading it.
Firstly, it resonated with me because many of the questions he asks are questions I've asked. Reconciling the idea of a loving, all-powerful God with the view that God condemns millions of created beings to hell is a difficult one.
It's a difficulty that I saw articulated years ago by Scott Adams in a cartoon about not mixing logic and religion. "What happens to the people that don't knowthat God loves all his children?" asks the protagonist. "Eternal hell!" is the response. That cartoon has always challenged me.
(Of course, Calvin's response to the exact same issue was that God sends people to Hell as evidence of His glory. (Section 3.22.11 of the Institutes) I've never felt particularly comfortable with that, ever since I read Calvin at University. The idea that our view of God as holy and glorious and righteous is contingent on him sending sinners to Hell makes God's attributes only applicable through the actions of human beings. Or, to put it another way, Calvin's articulation of God is that He is not self-sufficient.)
What I felt reading Love Wins was that here was someone else articulating many things that I've thought before, particularly the idea that an obsession about where you end up after death means you end up ignoring the realities of the here and now.
I think Rob Bell does a good job of evaluating Jesus' teaching on heaven and hell, and the commentary of the early church. I think he is fair to the Scriptural texts and his exposition of the original Greek is actually quite good. It's not the usual kind of thing I've heard in evangelical contexts, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong.
I was particularly struck by his use of the parable of the prodigal son to highlight the negative images many Christians have of God - as a 'slave-driver', constantly looking over our shoulder to catch us out, and us not rejoicing in always being with him.
I think that chapter is actually a very good corrective to how God is talked about - his comment when talking about the atonement that Jesus doesn't save us from God, but that God saves us from the hell we create for ourselves is a good counterbalance to other technical theories of atonement that imply God is all about the wrath.
There were one or two throwaway remarks I wasn't happy with. Saying that a woman wrote Hebrews is a definite statement on a subject that from a Biblical Studies standpoint is hard to make definite statements on. There were one or two comments about people who hold a rigid view on hell (as not throwing good parties, for example) that were a bit needless. But generally, he reigned in the sarcasm.
The general tenor of the book - that we create heaven and hell through our choices and that affects how we live now and in the world to come reminded me of CS Lewis in The Great Divorce. I wish he had referenced Lewis' book, as it's not that well-known.
His comment on the literal nature of hell, based on his experience of seeing amputee survivors of the Rwandan genocide, is an intelligent way of taking something that can be quite theoretical and applying it. "Do I believe in a literal hell? Those weren't metaphorical limbs..." And then, later: "We can all choose to pick up machetes." Earlier he said "Our eschatology shapes our ethics." That's true too.
In that sense his realised eschatology is more realistic and relevant than the idea that it all happens after judgement. I've believed for a while that we need to start locating heaven and hell in the here and now to render them real. I said as much last year when talking to the youth.
For me, personally, it's been a bit of a journey to get where I am, theologically. On the subject of hell, I was helped by an insight of Frederick Buechner who made the point that if someone choose to withdraw from God, then they are withdrawing from the source of all things. That way leads to utter destruction or non-existence.
Buechner asked whether Hell was the stopping point - that God says 'You can go so far and no further'; that God wouldn't allow people to tip over the edge and cease to exist. Seen like that, Hell is an extension of God's mercy and love, because however far people run from him, he won't let them disappear forever.
I don't think Rob Bell's book was really written for those who are in churches and are happy with what's taught there. I think it's more for those who are unhappy, or who have left a church because they sense there is a discrepency between the emphasis on God's love, and the way hell is talked about.
What Rob Bell has done is offer an alternative view, that I feel is faithful to the Biblical texts, and presents a positive and affirming view of God as a loving Father. It made me feel hopeful and inspired to talk about my faith experiences with people to try and open up the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven right now.