The opening chapter to Love Wins sets the stage for the rest of the book. It is entitled What About the Flat Tire? I have learned one thing about Bell for sure. He is a master of the question. Questions are important. So many people live frustrated lives because in spite of finding answers to their questions they remain unfulfilled people because ultimately they were seeking answers to the wrong questions. Rob Bell demonstrates a gift for asking questions in this first chapter, almost to a fault. I estimate, roughly, that up to forty percent of the text in chapter one is in the form of a question. In fact, rather than offer a clear thesis statement for the rest of the book, he offers questions.
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? (p. 2)
The above series of questions plot out the course for the rest of Love Wins. These are actually good questions to spark some good discussion. However, as you might imagine, Bell does not immediately answer these questions in black and white terms. Rather he embarks on a long series of questions about the traditional, long-held beliefs about heaven and hell. What Bell does in this opening chapter is what any good author would do: bait the hook.
He asks some provocative questions. For instance he questions the humanity of allowing children to live beyond the age of accountability if there is a chance that they might grow up and reject the Gospel and consequently spend eternity in hell (p. 4). Of course, he is not advocating this, but he doesn’t mind using it for its shock value. He also raises a question of “Which Jesus are you following or rejecting?” (p. 9) This is a valid question (it is a question that I would seriously pose to Rob Bell himself) and it demands an answer. Are you talking about the Jesus of the Inquisitions? Are you talking about the Jesus of the televangelists? Are you talking about the Jesus of the Mormons? Which Jesus? The Apostle John warns us that there are already many Jesus imposters among us (1 John 2:18). Which one are you following, or are you following the real Jesus? Then as the end of the chapter approaches, Bell goes into a verbal tornado of questions that singles out some verses about salvation and twists them harder than Chubby Checker; although he later admits that those questions miss the point (p. 17). Ultimately, Bell casts sufficient doubt on the issue of who is saved and how they become saved to bait the reader into continuing.
I must admit, after reading chapter one, I had to take a few days break from the book. All at once I was angry. I had written all over the pages of the first chapter with my own notes, my own questions, and my own answers to Bell’s questions. I was ready to march into the next chapter with my highlighter pens a blazing. Then a moment of peace fell into my heart. I realized in that moment I was not really taking time to really understand Bell’s motive and his heart in writing this book. I was still confident that Bell was going to say some things that I would never agree with. And he did. But I committed to really listening so I might gain some insight into why this book is so important, and how it will affect all of us.
The most encouraging thing about this chapter of Love Wins is that Bell sheds some light on a much ignored reality. Because many Christians, particularly American Christians, long ago adopted the attitude, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through,” we have neglected some very earthy problems. Feeding the hungry, social justice, caring for the environment, and caring for the sick have not been the trademarks of the American Church of late. In fact I’ve heard some of the most environmentally irresponsible, socially unjust, un-empathetic ideas come from church going Christians. Are we not charged to be good stewards (Luke 12:42-43)? Have we not been entrusted (given dominion) with the very planet on which we live (Genesis 1:28)? Are we not expected to love justice and do mercy (Micah 6:8)? Why then are we not known for these things? Why does America need Social Security? Why does America need Medicare? In part, it is because long ago, the American church stopped serving the people whom it was trying to save with the Gospel.
One dangerous thing about Love Wins is that it contains a message that, if we’re all honest, we wish were the truth. Who does not have friends or relatives that were good people, but they died without the Lord? And who would not wish that things could be different for them? This chapter teases that wish and attempts to offer hope with an alternative view. Also, it is dangerous because it is presented by a man with an incredible capacity for impactful and winsome presentation. Like I said before, Rob Bell is an incredibly gifted communicator. I have no doubt that he will persuade many. Another reason it is dangerous is because it flows smoothly with Postmodern ideologies that have already taken over the Western mindset. Bell’s claims will find little if any resistance from the trendsetters of our Postmodern culture, possibly gaining it a very wide acceptance in the culture abroad. If Hell is not eternal or if a multiplicity of beliefs will suffice to avoid it, then a responsibility for holy living is essentially nullified. Finally, the most dangerous thing is that it subverts the authority of the Word. If we can quibble and disagree about the meaning of such a historically established doctrine as Hell, then what doctrine is not up for grabs?