A preacher named Bell wrote a book and before it went on sale was cast into hell. For Bell it is a Hell in which he doesn't believe. It has been a bit staggering to observe as John Piper tweets "Farewell, Rob Bell" and others dismiss a man whose words have not even been read. One could go on with a list of big pulpits dismissive of Bell's Hell.
With this kind of controversy, whoever marketed this book has ensured they will have long term job security. I have now read the book and am foregoing a book review type approach. Instead, here are three questions for reflection
First off, does it seem ironic that a book with the title "Love Wins" has been the recipient of so much Christian hatred? Now that the book is out and critiques and fans have now arm themselves with quotes and swords for their cause. This hatred comes not from outsiders to the Christian faith, but from within and some most prominent voices are ringing. One has to wonder about a faith that is becoming known for its hatred and dismissal of those with whom it disagrees. If this is how we treat insiders, then imagine the fire for outsiders. Obviously, Rob Bell's pipe dream that love wins is an obvious failure in action by Christ followers. We often fail to show love to one another and to the world.
Second, now that the book is in stores people have attempted to determine if Bell is a universalist. At some point in the future, I might examine the thoughts of this book and about universalism. However, I intend to offer something a little different than the standard fare. Whether or not Bell is a universalist and whether that view is valid or invalid interests me some. However, the question that presently interests me more is: "how much is Bell really different from most evangelical views of salvation?"
Basically, it seems that he believes in a second chance, after death. That salvation could happen at a point after your death. This is what angers conservative evangelical Christians. However, there is something missed by Bell and Bell's supporters and Bell's opponents. This is the same old problem evangelical Christians have. We are looking for a point in time for salvation. Is it now when I jump through the proper religious ritual (a prayer, a baptism, a confession, or insert your favorite starting line) or is it later (after death) when a (presumed) merciful God opens our eyes to see more options. Bell moves the potential line of salvation to some point after death (instead of the typical conversion or salvation at a prayer, at baptism, at confirmation, or some other point in time).
To me this seems to miss an important point of salvation. Jesus preached the good news, which is the following "the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news." In other words, the gospel is the present tense availability of God's reign to which we constantly turn our minds to God in trust. Jesus announces and embodies the arrival of God's reign. Salvation is something God accomplishes (whether for all or for some is up to God's pleasure-and no one else's). Conversion is our alignment of mind and heart and body with God. The current Bell debate is about whether that can happen later. Who cares? It can happen now.
If Christians were known for a more dynamic salvation, turning our minds and our lives to come under reign of God, then someone might care about our message and opinions. Salvation happens now. What happens next is not up to us. Salvation, as I conceive it, is what God does for us that we cannot do for ourselves. Salvation is a living under the reign of God right now in the present moment. We work for and we work with God, participating and facilitating God's reign first in our full being and second in the world around us through our action. My concern would be that a universalist view of salvation might lead us further into the same passive Christianity that an evangelical past tense view of salvation. There really is not much difference between: "Yes, I've been saved" (but who can tell any practical difference in my life) versus "Oh God will save everyone anyway" (so why bother welcoming God's reign into my life now). In both cases life really is not changed.
Third, is it just me or does it seems obvious that Christians should at least root for the salvation of all people? Whether or not it actually happens. Whether or not one has the theological swords for it or against it. It just seems in line with Jesus to root for the salvation of others (fellow sinners). I would want to vote for the clemency of God. Not everyone was provided the life of privilege given to me (good home, well off, education, etc.). Again, what God does with humanity is up to God (not me, not Bell, and no you). For me in the present moment, I intend to point people in the way of Jesus. It is a way of love and self sacrifice.
In sum, only these three things float above the surface of a difficult and much larger theological discussion: the unfortunate, dismissive hatred of Christians, the same old evangelical 'point in time' view of salvation (that just moves the line to after death), and our unwillingness to root for and live salvation in the present moment. As long as we debate and fixate on the "when" of salvation, we will live in the Hell that does not embrace the reign of God.
I'll leave with one last question: What might life look like if we fully embraced the reign of God now?