One thing is for certain-- Rob Bell's latest and soon-to-be released book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, will sell well. There has been so much hoopla over what Rob might say about hell and whether or not he embraces universalism (of some sort), the publishers have to be ecstatic. So much free publicity!
I was not going to weigh in on this discussion since there has been so much that has been said in the past few days. I simply did not think I could add anything of significance, but then I thought of the catchy title for this post and I just had to use it.
So here are my not-so-original, but I hope helpful thoughts:
First, not only is it silly to conclude what Rob's position is before the book is published and read, it lacks fairness and integrity. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but many have now judged an author by the cover of his book (and his well done trailer added to it, of course... when the theologically obsessed take the bait, they really take the bait!). Let's try something novel and read the book and then evaluate the argument. When listening to the sarcasm and vitriole on both sides of this discussion, I relate to Mark Twain who said he wanted to go to heaven for the atmosphere and to hell for the company.
Second, I likely will not be reading Rob's book, not because I do not want to, but because my current reading list is so long and backlogged, I will be squinting and flipping through pages in books until... well... until hell (if there is one) freezes over. So, I will depend upon reviewers to give me a picture of what Mr. Bell is saying, and I will be looking to reviewers I have come to trust to give a good and fair review. Not all book reviewers are created equal.
Third, I am not a universalist, but it needs to be said to those who are having a theological meltdown over the possibility that Rob is going to go there, that there is a long and serious theological tradition of universalism in the Christian Church. In using the term "serious" I am taking a not-so-subtle shot at the not-so-serious shallow and sentimental expressions of universalism prevalent today that equate God with the sweet old man in the sky who never gets angry and really doesn't care how his children behave. That brand of universalism is not worth any kind of consideration. But there is a serious and deeply profound kind of universalism that the church has worked through from the earliest centuries that has attempted to make sense of what the redemption of Christ means for the world and how the justice of God relates to the love of God. In other words, what precisely does Paul mean when he says, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself?"
Fourth, to those on the universalist side of the equation, it needs to be said that by-and-large most of the church throughout history has not embraced universalism, nor have most of its theologians. The tradition is important and should not be ignored. All too often Protestants carry on their doctrinal discussions as if they are members of an exclusive theological country club that excludes the Catholic and Orthodox voices. It's as if the vast majority of the world's Christians simply don't count when such matters are discussed. To be sure, just as the Protestant tradition is not infallible, neither are the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, but they are significant; and any discussion of hell and eternity that does not take these voices seriously is not a serious discussion.
Fifth, there's a whole lot of non-biblical and theologically deficient baggage out there when it comes to people's conceptions of heaven and hell and we do well to discard them. That does not mean, however, that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject some notion of hell altogether. At the same time, those who assert their belief in hell would do well to take a rigorous look at what Jesus and certain New Testament writers actually say on the matter. When I hear someone say that she or he believes in a literal hell, my response to them is, "So you believe hell is located just south of the city of Jerusalem," which is exactly what Jesus is referring to in his reference to Gehenna. Exegetical and theological care are badly needed here.
Sixth, and related to point five, I will end by expressing my agreement with Scot McKnight in his excellent post on the Rob Bell hell hoopla, when he states, "...I believe in hell, but I want to believe in hell the way Jesus does. And I believe in heaven, but I want to believe in heaven as Jesus does. What Jesus believed about heaven and hell diverges at times from what many Christians think about heaven and hell."
When it comes right down to it, when I have to choose between what Jesus says and what someone else believes about a subject, I'll go with Jesus every time. As far as what Rob Bell believes... we will just have to wait and see. I know that Rob's pre-judgmental critics have good intentions, but I've been told that there is a road that leads to a real bad place that is paved with such motivations.