In Love Wins (Harper One, 2011) Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, presents a new eschatology. In Pastor Bell’s own words, “eschatology shapes our ethics.” (46) Eschatology, what we believe about death, the end of the world and the final destiny of humankind (eschatology) influences how we treat each other (ethics). He spends 198 pages deconstructing the popular Christian understanding of heaven and hell: their physical location and what they are like. Ultimately, the goal of his eschatology is to reshape the Christian perspective of God and mankind toward a future in which justice and mercy exist here and now.
Praise for Love Wins
Love Wins contains a noteworthy thread for all followers of Christ: do not be too hasty to judge anyone’s eternal resting place. Pastor Bell opens and closes the book with this important point and it should be held close to the heart of all orthodox Christians.
Another positive point, though perhaps banal, is Pastor Bell’s obvious rally for a greater merger of Christian communities into non-Christian communities. He believes strongly that Christians communicate the love of Christ most effectively through service to the non-Christian world. Pastor Bell’s motivations are highly infected with social gospel, a point that makes many orthodox Christians squirm.
Love Wins should not be written off as overly sentimental anecdotes of an enthusiastic pastor. Pastor Bell clearly cares for those to whom he provides spiritual care. For all its divergent teaching, Pastor Bell has chosen to put his cards on the table. He is not hiding behind any misconceptions that his views and assertions are, or will be anything but controversial within the Christian community.
Heaven and Eternal Life
Pastor Bell elaborates on Heaven in the second chapter of Love Wins titled, ”Here is the New There.” Pastor Bell says, “[Jesus’ first-century Jewish world]…did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored and redeemed.” (40) Pastor Bell asserts that our world now is the place where justice and mercy will become united. (39) Earth is heaven for Pastor Bell.
Earth is God’s “new” kingdom; the kingdom referenced by the early prophets of the Hebrew scriptures; the kingdom about which Jesus taught and the kingdom which all of creation longs to see. (32; 58-59) Earth now is being restored with the work of Jesus and mankind together. Today we only get glimpses of heaven-as-earth. Heaven manifest itself in “honest business, redemptive art, honorable law, sustainable living, medicine, education,” and many other “sacred tasks.” (46)
According to Pastor Bell mankind assumes a co-creator role with Jesus. (48) Jesus’ primary role is to teach us how to live correctly, that is, with a proper kingdom mindset. Jesus’ goal is to redirect our efforts to be spent on easing suffering and pain in the world. (44-45) Earth has not become a fully heavenly place yet but with all of us putting out the effort to reshape our swords into plowshares,it most certainly will. With the emphasis on cooperation between man and God, “eternal life,” says Pastor Bell “is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God.” (59; 131)
Hell and Eternal Death
Hell, according to Pastor Bell includes anytime we reject “our God-given goodness and humanity.” (73) “Hell” describes a multiplicity of experiences for Pastor Bell. He says, “there are all kinds of hells” and hell is lived out when mankind resists and rejects all that is good, true, and “human” now, in this life. (79)
Historic Christianity has taught that Luke 16 describes hell as a physical place apart from God. This is a place where unbelievers (i.e. the rich young ruler) are sent as their self-imposed eternal punishment. Pastor Bell says that Luke 16 is important because it teaches that “hell” is an instructive experience for all mankind when they die. In Luke 16 the rich man dies. The rich man requests from Lazarus, a man he hated while alive, a bit of water. In requesting a bit of water from Lazarus “the rich man still sees himself above Lazarus,” says Pastor Bell. “The chasm1[between heaven and hell] is the rich man’s heart!.” (75) Hell, for the rich man is intended to teach him that he is no man’s master. (76)
Eternal death without opportunity for redemption does not seem to be a postmortem possibility in Pastor Bell’s eschatology. He proposes the possibility that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. At the heart of his teaching, Pastor Bell believes that given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. (106-107)
“Heaven for all!” is a billboard that probably appeals to many. Unfortunately, it has been the conclusion of the orthodox Christian church for millennia that scripture speaks of a place, somewhere other than earth, to which Jesus descended after he died on the cross. (Acts 2:22-32) This place is obviously not a place where Jesus wants to spend time because after proclaiming the gospel in that place he ascended to heaven. Jesus goes there in order to accomplish what no man could ever accomplish on his own, to break the hold of death on all of creation. Death is the penalty of sin in life.
Jesus Christ does not describe the earth upon which he lives for a short time as being Hell physically and literally. He does, as Pastor Bell says, describe what we refer to now as “hell on earth.” He observes the cold, callous and satanic motives and actions of the people he loves. But Jesus never minces words nor softens his teaching on the reality and torment of Hell. Luke 11:27-54 is an important passage because Jesus puts himself above all the idols we fashion in this life. Luke 11:27-28, the idol of human sacrifice; the idol of false glory the rejection of suffering (vv. 29-30); the idol of human wisdom and understanding (vv. 31-32); the idol of inner righteousness (vv. 33-36); the idol of religion (vv. 37-44); and the idol of works righteousness and those who impose false salvation on others (vv. 45-48). Against each of these idols Jesus says, “Woe to you who believe such things!”
The High-way to Heaven
For Bell (?), peacemaking and performing “sacred tasks” are the ways by which “heaven” becomes a reality on earth. But which ones? Which cooperative tasks? Which sacred tasks? How do I know which are sacred? Are these Hebrew sacred tasks or North American Protestant sacred tasks? We all can ask questions, but Pastor Bell fails to clearly pinpoint the way to heaven when he removes Jesus as the only way to the Father. He has fallen into the trap of all non-Christian religions in that he is attempting to discover freedom from sin through fulfillment of a law of his own making. Taking the high-way in life is not, has not and will never be what gets us into heaven.
Both Pastor Bell’s teaching and the title of his book, “Love Wins,” is nothing less than ironic. If Jesus is no more than a moral coach, if heaven is the place where all people eventually go regardless of their moral condition and if there is no justice for those that hate God and his people, than love clearly does not win(not the Biblical sense of love, at least) Is Bell changing up the definition of love to suit his eschatology?
1 Peter 4:6 says, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” If this “living in the spirit” gains us a life that is the same kind of life God lives, then how do we live this way? Romans 8:1-13 talks about spiritual life as being that which is produced by the Holy Spirit not by our acts whether sacred or not. The flesh, which produces the natural life (which ends in death) is produced by the flesh. In short, the thing that we need to be, is the thing that we are not unless we are in Christ. (Romans 8:1) We need something new!
How New is “New?”
Pastor Bell attempts to redefine the Greek word “aion” in order to make us believe that the “age” that is coming has come in Jesus Christ completely. Therefore there is full realization for us of the new kingdom that Jesus said he brought with himself right now, we just need to look harder. Is the “newness” of the kingdom Jesus brings, newer than what we currently have? In other words, is Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit simply giving us a bait and switch in which they say, things will get better, even when they have not?
Jesus describes this new kingdom and by implication the newness of the kingdom to come as being like a new wine skin patched with old skin. (Matthew 9:17) The two aren’t compatible, the old will burst and become useless. Likewise, the apostle John sees a new heaven and a new earth but the old one goes away! (Revelation 21:1) There is not an equality between the life we live now and the life to come. This is why Paul says this life is best lived as Christ lived. Jesus Christ died! That death will be of greater benefit to us than the life we currently live. What we currently have is a dual membership in both a place that is lost to death, and a membership in a life-everlasting. In the first life we condemned, having been found guilty of sin. In the next life, the better life we are all called “right” before God because Christ takes the punishment for that sin despite the fact that we have been found guilty of sin. (2 Peter 3:13)
Unjust and Unorthodox
Pastor Bell proposes hundreds of questions in his book, 86 of them in the first chapter alone. Of all the questions Pastor Bell proposes in his book he fails to clearly articulate how heaven, whether his or the one that orthodox Christians have always taught, is finally achieved. He simply leaves it up to human efforts to mimic Jesus’ perfect life. In the final pages of his book Pastor Bell quotes 2 Corinthians 5:19. He should have continued this passage to its conclusion in order to understand its point. It says:
 …in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.(2 Corinthians 5:19-21 ESV)
Pastor Bell is right, the gospel is about reconciliation but human-peacemaking is unable to gain back the perfect life we lost. Only God, reconciling us to him will finally gain the perfect relationship we all need with our Creator. There are no “sacred tasks” or human creations that can attempt to create the kind of justice we need. Likewise, there is no time, plain of existence or age of man that could possibly capture perfect heaven on earth. We have to wait for that. Until then “my God will supply every need for yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. Philippians 4:19-20
1 Luke 16:26
2 R. Albert Mohler, Jr. “Love Wins: A Conversation on Rob Bell’s New Book.” Video posting. Referenced: March 30, 2011 from http://www.sbts.edu/resources/event/love-wins-a-conversation-on-rob-bells-new-book/