The book opens with a story, where Bell's church held an art contest. The theme was "what it means to be a peacemaker". One piece depicted Mahatma Gandhi, and while it won the hearts of many onlookers, it didn't win everyone - one person attached a paper to it that said, "Reality check: He's in hell." Bell takes great issue with this thinking, and seeks to redefine the traditional, simplistic viewpoint of heaven and hell. The whole book takes this tone. It reminds me of Morpheus in the karate training sequence in the first Matrix, to Neo, "I'm here to free your mind..." and "... do you think that's air you're breathing?"
From there Bell discusses heaven and hell. He argues both on Biblical and experiential grounds that heaven and hell are realities we encounter daily. For example, the love and joy of a happy, content marriage... heaven on earth. Conversely, take any brutally hurtful injustice (say, abuse) - is this not hell?, he argues. I can't help but agree; heaven and hell do seem like things occurring right now. Bell argues that to think of heaven and hell simply in terms of something that happens later, like when we die, is a grave misunderstanding of Jesus' redemptive story. It seems like this is what sparked at least some of the controversy - is Bell saying that there is no afterlife version of heaven and hell? Frankly, I feel like this question derails us off of Bell's larger, helpful points. Namely, if Jesus really is initiating heaven on earth, then that's a conversation worth having because it offers us a life we couldn't get on our own - suddenly we have access to unprecedented perspective, help, and guidance. We're invited out of our small worlds and into a larger story, Bell says.
One cornerstone of Bell's writing is he often gives four or five descriptions for one point, none of them individually giving the full scope of his thoughts on any issue. I'd imagine for people who are strongly bent towards theology, like, systematic study and definition of the Bible, they'd find his writing slippery. It's hard to pin him down sometimes. But that's just what I like about it. While his love for sound Biblical interpretation is evident, his writing often feels more like a painting than a logical treatise. I feel something when I read it. And he seems aware of this - on the Bible stories of Jesus, he says:
The point, then, isn't to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there's a 'correct' or 'right' one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors."
And he often pits seemingly conflicting thoughts next to each other, creating a compelling idea to demonstrate a point:
But sometimes those individuals' [ex-churchgoers] rejection of church and the Christian faith they were presented with as the only possible interpretation of what it means to follow Jesus may in fact be a sign of spiritual health."
Going against my own disclaimer, it's now thumb time. A few things I liked:
- Bell is relentlessly creative. Parts of the book are written like poetry both in structure and content. Sometimes I find myself with an intuitive understanding of what he's saying, even though it's hard to articulate. (Like trying to fully describe a sunset with words.) Not to sound crass, but it's refreshing to meet a well-grounded, artistic Protestant. I even hope to be one someday (har har).
- Love Wins is full of stories. Like, I enjoy reading about actual people. I lose track of faith discussions that are too conceptual and abstract.
- I love how succinct Bell's writing is. The book is 100 something pages (I can't tell on my Kindle), and he says a LOT in 8 chapters.
- 20liters.org. This nonprofit gets mention in the post-book footnotes. I didn't realize there are 1 billion (with a B) people on earth without access to clean water. This nonprofit arranges inexpensive, effective filtration systems for such folks in Rwanda. Cool.
- For the same reason I enjoyed the book, and being pushed to think differently about heaven and hell, I quickly found I had to be okay with unanswered questions. For example, people have clearly loved and hated the following types of statements:
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them..."
- I was most helped when I read Love Wins with the approach of, "What can I learn?" and "What do I like?" There's much to be gleaned in the book - and best of all, if read with a group of friends, there are a million conversations to be had afterwards.