Controversy erupted in the Evangelical Christian community when Rob Bell released the book Love Wins: A Book About heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In fact, the controversy began even earlier than the book release; the first salvos of the ensuing Christian vs. Christian war were fired in response to the book’s preceding promo video, in which Rob questioned if Ghandi was really in Hell.
I remember the hysteria when the book first out. At that time, I was among the Christians who searched YouTube for tense interviews in which pastors and pundits laid the smackdown on Rob, confronting him with Bible verses and unyielding logic. I hadn’t read the book, but I didn’t need to read it to know that it was wrong; after all, the Bible is pretty clear about Hell. Looking back, I vaguely remember being open to the possibility that maybe people who didn’t hear about Jesus would get the chance to go to heaven, but even so, the suggestion that everyone would get to go was laughably false.
That was all back in 2011, during the last of my youth group days. When I picked up tLove Wins for the first time, it was almost 2014 and my faith was in a very different place.
In fact, I read Bell’s Love Wins despite being fairly uninterested in the question of whether people go to Hell or not. The idea that God would honor people’s decisions, coupled with my teenage experiences of actively making decisions that I thought were immoral, made it pretty easy to imagine a truly loving God nevertheless allowing some people to opt out of the party on the clouds.
For me, reading Love Wins was about identity and doubt. Identity: Would I remain in the club of Christians who laughed about how obviously stupid certain books were without ever having read them? Doubt: Since I had recently discovered my own frightening propensity to doubt, could Bell’s approach to the question of Hell serve as a model for how to faithfully navigate my own questions?
Identity: Would I continue to desperately cling to the certainty that I grew up with, even as that certainty continued to slip away? Doubt: If my uncertainty won out, would the ensuing plummet cost me my entire faith?
Despite what you might have guessed from Rob’s critics, Love Wins doesn’t ever take a strong stance on who does or doesn’t go to Hell. Bell raises a lot of interesting questions, probes the pros and cons of different perspectives in the way that only Rob Bell can, and looks carefully at a bunch of Bible verses and passages (those who say that they believe the Bible instead of Rob Bell must be talking about some other Mr. Bell…). Even though he expresses serious doubts as to how a God of second chances could become to a God of punishment as soon as a person dies, Rob never quite picks a specific answer to the question “Who (if anyone) goes to Hell when they die?”
From that description, you might think that Rob Bell’s book is, as his critics say, a bunch of wishy-washy lack of commitment posing as “authenticity.” For me, it was quite the opposite! Remember, back when I read Love Wins in December of 2013, I wasn’t looking for a persuasive view of the afterlife; I was trying to navigate doubt and identity.
To my question “Can I ask tough questions and still be a Christian?” Love Wins gave a firm and persuasive Yes. To the question “Am I crazy and/or sinful for being unsure about some standard Evangelical Christian beliefs, even the ones that everyone says are ‘clearly’ supported by Scripture and/or Tradition?” Love Wins delivered an equally unyielding No.
I still have one vivid memory of reading Love Wins. I was riding along in the family van during winter break, probably coming back from or going to my grandparents’ house for Christmas. It was night, but I was reading Bell’s book on my laptop’s Kindle app. As my brother and mother slept soundly, my dad squinting out along the dark highway, I was fighting back tears.
It was the second-to-last chapter of the book, and at that point Rob is basically preaching about how good and loving God is, all intertwined with stories of a woman who cuts herself and parables of Jesus, lest the rhetoric get too abstract. Amid Rob’s rhythmic poetry and one-sentence paragraphs (classic Rob!), I felt that same too-good-to-be-true love and acceptance that I had known before my doubts. Maybe the God who had loved me despite my sins as a teenager could even love me despite my uncertainty as a young adult.
It took me some eight more months and 21 more books to settle on that point; a childhood of implicit and explicit threats of eternal damnation are not un-learned in a day! Even so, in hindsight, Love Wins was nothing short of gospel to me: from the dead-end of my life up to that point, it made a new way forward, complete with a new identity, grasped by love beyond the limits of my belief.