I'm just barely getting in under the wire for this month's Quaker blog carnival! I'm glad QuakerQuaker decided to suggest people write on this book, because I'd been hearing about it and wanted to check it out for myself, and this gave me a good excuse. Plus, completely independently of me, Joel bought the e-book, so I took it as a sign!
Rob Bell wrote a really important book here, one I appreciate and found helpful. As he said himself, he didn't actually say anything new--he said stuff people have been saying for a long time--but he said it in his own voice, in this time, in this context, and I think that's really helpful. For those of you who haven't heard of him, he's fairly well-respected in the evangelical world for his NOOMA videos, which explain theological concepts of grace and love, sin, redemption, etc. in story. He's also written some other books. (I'll trust you to do your own Amazon search for those if you're interested.) He's pastor of a large church that connects mainly with young adults.
So, why is this book important?
The full title tells a little about what the book is about (as a title should!): Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. That's quite the list of topics to cover in this brief text! But he manages it, and does so well. The book's been getting a lot of attention--both positive and negative--because of various sides' opinions about its tendency toward universalism. Bell writes in an engaging way that is biblically based and pays attention to the needs in the world and in our particular culture, and presents an authentic Christianity that connects with people today and is anything but watered down. In fact, I think he shows that the "Christianity" that is often spouted by those who often get the most press is the one that's watered down, or too black and white with no nuance. Bell sees and names the nuance--which really shouldn't be nuance, because his point is that God created people, God loves people, and God doesn't get any pleasure out of throwing them into hell, but people do have a choice and can put themselves in hell if they want to, here and now, and drag others with them, and they can continue to be in that hell as long as they want, even after they die.
I'm not saying I think this book will become a Christian classic, but it's important largely because it speaks our language now. He writes like he talks, so this book is really accessible. (If you've ever seen any of his videos you can picture him while you're reading, with his black-framed glasses, each expression and gesture he would use...) Accessibility is really important, because although he tackles theological issues, he doesn't do so with the voice of a theologian, which, as much as it pains me to say it, just isn't often listened to by "normal" people. (Just us abnormal ones.)
I was really impressed how he goes through all the atonement theories (theological theories of what Jesus' death and resurrection mean) in a way that no one would realize that they were being taught any kind of theories. His point is something I've been saying as well (but he has a much larger audience, so, go Rob Bell!), that all these theories are well and good, but we need to make sure we're not stuck on just one or it can become an idol to us, or actually injurious to those who grow up with only one view of who God is and who we are in relation to God. The people who wrote what came to be the New Testament were providing metaphors from their culture to understand what this all meant, and we're allowed to do that too--that's how we connect with God now, how God draws us to God's self. This is a very Quaker way of understanding God, because our denomination is based on the idea that God continues to speak to us here and now, every day, in ways that we can understand. We don't just know about God from ancient texts, but we know God through the stories of our lives.
OK, so is he a universalist? Yes and no. He's definitely Christian (in my opinion), because he thinks the only way to God is through Jesus and the saving work that happened through him. He doesn't say definitively that everyone will be "saved" (i.e. be with God for eternity in some form of heaven), but he suggests that all people will always have the choice to come to God. This doesn't end with death--because why would God create all these people, who God loves completely and utterly, and send them to an eternity in hell because they never heard about God/Jesus or they heard in a way that was harmful or they had a bad upbringing or whatever?
And Bell doesn't just say this, he backs it up with scripture. I'm not going to give you all the references because you should just go and read his book. (It's not very long, only took me a few hours to read--more like having a long conversation.) He points out every single place in the Bible where the words for heaven and hell are mentioned, and where the concepts of heaven and hell are even inferred. He shows that these were not major emphases in scripture, either by Jesus or any of the epistle writers, or even John when he wrote Revelation (since he was mainly talking in metaphor about what was happening to people at the time he was writing, although it can and does still have implications for our present and future spiritual lives). Bell reminds us that in the Hebrew Scriptures there was not a concept of "hell" as we think of it (and I remind us that the story of Lucifer being cast out of heaven is not in the Christian Bible, but in the pseudepigraphal book 2 Enoch, written in the first century BCE). In Jesus' speech he mostly talked about "Gehenna," which was a real place--a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, where there were literal fires, as well as animals who fought and therefore "gnashed teeth."
Two important points Bell makes:
1. When Jesus talks about hell he's talking to people who are already "believers," people in the "in" crowd, the Chosen People--his fellow Jews. He doesn't use hell as an evangelistic tool. He's telling those who are already trying to follow God that they should really follow God instead of just doing it for show, which didn't do any good and only produced evil.
2. I hadn't realized this one before, but in Revelation where John talks about the new heaven, the new Jerusalem, there is a gate--but the gate is always left OPEN. One doesn't come to the pearly gates and get turned away. One can choose not to approach the gate, but it's always an option, according to John's metaphor here.
Bell mostly has a realized eschatology--meaning that mostly he thinks what's important is what life looks like here. It matters how we live and cause others to live here. We can't get ourselves off the hook by making someone say the Jesus prayer before we shoot them so that they'll be in heaven, or by destroying the Earth because it's only the afterlife that matters. But the Kingdom of Heaven is now--and it's then. Bell is more specific about the afterlife than I would be, saying that eventually we'll get physical bodies and there will be a physical new earth, which may be true I'm just not certain we know for sure. At any rate, he believes in an afterlife with God, but he says that there will be boundaries. Those who don't want to be with God can continue making destructive decisions that put them in their own hell, and God will keep pursuing them, just like the lost coin, lost sheep, lost son. God won't give up. Love wins.
He's not a universalist in that he doesn't think we all just get a free ticket to an eternal paradise, or that every way up the mountain is the same. But he does believe that God cares so much about all people that God won't give up on them, forever. They can forever choose not to accept God's love and grace, not to live into God's version of their story, as Bell puts it, based on the Prodigal Son parable. But they always have the option of accepting God's gift.
How does this relate to Quakers?
Well, I think this is a theology that is very compatible with Quakerism. We believe in the "Light Within," that spark of od in each of us that calls us to God, that communicates God's love and grace to us. As Friends have said all along, people can choose to stamp out that Light and not pay attention to it, but people can also choose to respond to God's Light and become more and more filled with the Light of Christ.
Quakers also haven't traditionally focused too much on the afterlife, but have lived out a realized eschatology: we believe that how we live now and how others live is important and has ramifications on eternity. Loving God IS about loving others and living in right relationship with them (and, many of us would say now, with all of creation). That is how we follow God, not just by saying a prayer once and then living according to a set of rules or stating certain beliefs (a creed). How we live is of exponentially more important than what we say, and I think this is Bell's understanding of Christianity.
All of this is important because of the kind of God we believe in. The God I believe in is just to the oppressed, but not just in the sense of "giving people what they deserve"--God for some crazy reason chooses to give us more grace than we deserve, and chance upon chance to live into the love lavished on us. We have choices, but ultimately, love wears us down, love wins.