Controversy Wins: Heaven and Hell in the Real World

by Derrick G. Jeter

There’s an old axiom in the public relations business (and if it isn’t, it should be): “There’s no such thing as bad press, unless it’s no press.”
I’ve read my share of controversial books. And I’ve read my share of Christian books. Some of these books, whether controversial or Christian (or both), are well written, well argued, and well . . . good. Other books, and this is usually the case, are none of these—though they are well marketed. And this is where Rob Bell and his controversial offering, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived comes in.
Bell has been on the receiving end of a lot of “bad press” from evangelical circles since the book came out in mid-March. Called a “universalists” and a “heretic,” Bell (and his publisher, HarperOne) have reaped “good press” from all the bad press. (“No press is bad press. But bad press can be good press.”) This is not to say that Bell gens up controversy to sell books to simply sweeten his bank account (though it clearly does that). I assume the purest motives in Bell and his use of the controversial: he wants to sell books because he wants people to engage with his ideas—ideas he believes are important and true. Ideas that are more earthy and practical than theological and otherworldly.
The controversy swirling around Love Wins, however, is theological. The question is: Is Rob Bell espousing universalism—the notion that everybody (every single person who ever lived) makes it to heaven? The short and clear answer, for anyone who’s actually read the book, is no. If universalism were his position he would, without question, deserve the band many have seen fit to apply to his rumpus: the big H—heretic. But Bell is no universalist. He is probably best described as an inclusivist. He believes Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life—that Jesus is the only way to Heaven. Yet, Bell is less sure about the means or mode of accessing the Way. Here’s how he put it:
There is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.
Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.
What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.
And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.
He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation. [1]
Bell seems to come to this conclusion because he cannot conceive of a God who could create billions of people, claim to love them, and then send them to hell just because they didn’t say the right words or do the right things before they died. Fair enough—but more about this later. The issue for Bell is God’s love, not God’s justice. For him, “the very essence of God . . . is love.” [2] But this is not where the criticism has come from.
Bell is a postmodern. And he writes like a postmodern. He wants to have a conversation with his readers. Though I must say, the medium of a book makes the conversation limiting. Nevertheless, Bell’s reliance on story instead of creedal clarity on a subject usually reserved for propositional statements causes many to assign beliefs to Bell that he clearly does not in hold.
Love Wins is a postmodern apology for not being dogmatic on the theological question of the age to come—as Bells like to call it—of Heaven and Hell. His concern in the book isn’t where these places are, how one goes to or is sent to these places, or who goes to these places. Bells concern, his dogmatism, is social and cultural. This is the point, unfortunately, that’s getting lost in the controvery. Love Wins isn’t about Heaven and Hell, or the fate of everyone, as such. It’s isn’t heavenly or hellish, but earthy. Bell is an advocate for social justice—or perhaps called social love—without the politics. The question Bell is interested in asking and answering is this one: Is the church a conduit of God’s love here on earth? That is to say, are we, who follow Christ, living out our Father’s love in order to bring heaven to lives living in the hells they experience right here on earth?
And herein lay one of my criticisms.
Getting outside the sanctified walls of the church and past the stained glass, and staining our hands with the stench of sinful humanity is an important message—a vital message. We need to hear it and heed it. We don’t hear it enough and heed it even less often. But this isn’t what I paid for, no matter how much I agree with that message. Nor is what I’ve been asked about when good folks in my life want to know what I thought of the book. Speaking of Christian social engagement isn’t sexy—certainly not as sexy as Heaven and Hell and the fate of every one who ever lived—but I don’t like being taken for a ride . . . unless it’s a roller coaster at Six Flags. The title is a Trojan horse; it’s a game of the shell and the pea.
But that criticism, and the fact that I found the writing at times tedious, is merely a personal bee in my bonnet. More important criticisms need to be voiced.
Though it wasn’t his aim to state a theological outline for Heaven and Hell, one cannot place those in the title of a book and then ignore them. Nor can one simply get away with using these terms metaphorically—“heaven on earth,” “hell on earth”—especially when your subtitle includes this bit of intrigue: and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The average Joe reads these words and automatically thinks of a future, literally state of eternity. Bell seems to know as much and so affirms his belief in a literally and future Heaven and Hell, though with an inclusive bent.
The theology of inclusivism itself is not a great position in my opinion. It flies in the face of the clear statements of Acts 15:11, Acts 16:31 and Romans 10:8–10 (just to name a few). One frustration with the book, however, isn’t with his inclusive tendencies within his thinking, but with his often simplistic and sloppy use of Scripture.
Bell provides little to no context to these and many other Scripture, leading to the conclusion that each and every person, past, present, and future, is included:
In Psalm 56 it’s written that “all people will come” to God. In Ezekiel 36 God says, “The nations will know that I am the Lord.” The prophet Isaiah says, “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (chap. 52). Zephaniah quotes God as saying, “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him should to shoulder” (chap. 3). And Paul writes in Philippians 2, “Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
All people. The nations. Every person, every knee, every tongue. [3]
Not only is this amateurish and highly selective (better should be demanded of a trained pastor), it leaves open the possibility of anyone filling in the blanks with their own personal and private interpretation—which the Scripture forbids (2 Peter 1:20–21). But then he has a couple of wonderful sections where he deals with the parables of Lazarus and the Rich Man and the Prodigal Son, making interesting observations, deep insights, and practical applications that I found refreshing, challenging, and helpful. Why couldn’t he have done the same with many of the passages cited throughout the book? I found this frustrating.
Bell’s argument for greater social, civic, and cultural engagement on behalf of the church can be made thoughtfully and biblically, as he did when we wrote of Lazarus and the Prodigal. But his inconsistency in making this case in such a manner was a disappoint because I fundamentally agree with his position on here.
In other places, theologically, Bell conflates activities in the Millennial Kingdom with the eternal state of the new Heaven and new Earth, while skipping the judgment at the end of time (Revelation 20:7–15). Bell claims—and I agree—that “Our eschatology shapes our ethics. Eschatology is about last things. Ethics are about how you live.” [4] But eschatology must also be studied and understood for its own sake first, before we apply it. If we fail to grapple with the more fuzzy things of the future can we know if we are applying them to the more concrete things of the present? And one unpleasant aspect of the future is the hard sayings of divine judgment—saying we don’t have the luxury to ignore.
To ignore the more difficult aspects of God’s activities or character—to merely hold to the notion that “the very essence of God . . . is love”—is to do a disservice to the readers of Love Wins and a disservice to the character of God. Yes, it is true that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but He is so much more than that! A. W. Tozer wrote, “If love is equal to God then God is only equal to love, and God and love are identical. Thus we destroy the concept of personality in God and deny outright all His attributes save one, and that one we substitute for God.” [5]
Love cannot be the essence of God (as in the preeminent, above all the others) because, using the exact same phrasing, John wrote that “God is Light” (1 John 1:5). Not a speck of darkness resides in God; not a hint or particle of unholiness or impurity dwell in Him. And as God is the quintessence of love, so He is the quintessence of holiness. He is 100 percent love and 100 percent holy at the same time. In fact, all of God’s attributes—the truth of His character—are equally divine and undiminished; none is greater than another.
And while God’s love is unconditional, it is not uncritical or undiscerning: “Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13). I understand that such a statement is a turn off to many—I don’t like it much myself—but none of us, Rob Bell included, is in a position to tell God that that isn’t loving. To presume to do so is to pick up the wrong end of the stick. We must always begin with God and how He has revealed Himself—all of Himself—in the Scripture and not begin with man.
Now, I can’t argue without a shadow of doubt that Bell really believes that there is a hierarchy to God’s attributes. But little is said of God being anything but love. This can lead one to believe that God is one dimensional and if He does anything that smacks of being unloving—like sending people to Hell—then that cannot be the God of the Bible or the Christian faith. Of course, this begs the question: Does God send people to Hell or do they choose to go to Hell? And if they choose to go to Hell, by the fact that God allows them to make that choice is He unloving? The question isn’t why God will not save all, but allow them to choose Hell. The question is why God would save any and grant them entrance into heaven—why God would save me.
And in this Rob Bell has picked up the wrong end of the stick, because, I believe, he has asked the wrong question theologically.
And herein lays my greatest frustration with Love Wins. I know Bell didn’t intend to write a book on Heaven and Hell—those literal, future, and eternal states—but wanted to write a book about heaven and hell lived out in the here and now and what the church should be doing about that. That’s an important message. Unfortunately, the theological controversy, while leading to book sells, has overshadowed that vital message and will, I fear, cause some readers to read with a jaundiced eye. Thereby missing what he really wants to say. Others will simply never read the book, convinced that Bell deserves the big H.
In public speaking, sometimes an illustration is so powerful it gobbles up the central message. In publishing, sometimes controversy obscures the central message. And in this way, controversy doesn’t always win. And for Love Wins that’s too bad.
[1] Rob Bell, Loves Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 154–55.
[2] Bell, Love Wins, 176–77.
[3] Bell, Love Wins, 99–100.
[4] Bell, Love Wins, 46.
[5] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God—Their Meaning in the Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), 97.