"Love Wins" – A Catholic Review (Part 2 of 2)
Yesterday I featured the first part of my review of Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 is below.
Though Bell doesn't cite sources in Love Wins, he clearly pulls from a couple of modern theologians. Bell’s treatment of heaven is almost identical to N.T. Wright’s in Surprised by Hope. Both theologians claim that heaven permeates our current world right now, that heaven is not just “somewhere out there,” a place we'll ascend to “someday."
Christians shouldn’t be escapists hoping to vacate this world but should usher and welcome heaven into the here and now. Heaven is ultimately a present reality we can choose and experience today. And if that's true of heaven, then it's true of hell as well.
Bell also turns to C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce for his view of hell. Like Lewis, Bell surmises that God doesn’t force eternal suffering on anyone. Both men suggest that people enter hell through their own choices, and that it's personal desire that keeps them in. In other words, both men say, the door to hell is locked from the inside.
But if Bell recycles the views of N.T. Wright and C.S. Lewis, two heroes in most Evangelical circles, why has this book attracted so much hate? Some ascribe it to Bell's massive popularity, for envy always denigrates. Bell is phenomenally talented and he’s reached thousands of people in a time when most other pastors are struggling to retain their flocks.
While Lewis is dead and Wright is in England, Bell is thriving in the modern American context. His vast, local success may be why modern Evangelicals raise their pitchforks when Bell proposes an idea while they alternatively praise other heroes for suggesting similar things.
Beyond the Evangelical backlash, though, how does Love Wins square with the Catholic Church? Surprisingly, Bell’s outlook on heaven and hell comes fairly close to the Catholic understanding.
Bell agrees with the Church that hell is a real place. “Do I believe in a literal hell?" Bell asks, "Of course.” (p.64) Also in line with the Church, Bell proposes that hell is a choice—it's grasped, not forced. “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.” (p.72)
In fact Bell even suggests the need for something close to purgatory:
“What we find Jesus teaching, over and over again, is that he’s interested in our hearts being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven…How many of us could handle it, as we are today? How would we each do in a reality that had no capacity for cynicism or slander or worry or pride?” (p.50)
Love Wins also jives with Catholicism by arguing that Christ can save people in many different ways. In a long chapter on “justification”—how we are reconciled with God—Bell confronts the traditional Evangelical schemes which require the “right” prayer to be said in the “right” way to properly be saved.
He instead suggests, along with the Catholic Church (see Lumen Gentium, 16), that there is still hope for those who were never introduced to the way of Jesus or who never had the opportunity to be baptized before death. Church Tradition holds that while we know the sure path to salvation—baptism, repentance, reception of the Eucharist, and confession of mortal sin—God isn’t bound by his sacramental system. He certainly can save people outside these normal means (and we pray and hope he does!).
Here again C.S. Lewis’ influence on Bell is clear, as Lewis says something almost identical in God in the Dock. “Though all salvation is through Jesus," Lewis explains, "we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life."
In Love Wins, Bell also suggests the need to re-imagine the symbolism of Jesus’ death on the Cross. The sacrificial metaphor used to describe Jesus’ atonement “worked” for so many early Christians because they came out of a sacrificial religious culture.
But that’s not our environment, says Bell. With tongue firmly-in-cheek he asks “how often do you slit the throat of a goat?...Do you ever strangle a bird and then place it on an altar for good luck?”
Bell argues that we need a new metaphor today and he seems to favor the rescue analogy popularized by N.T. Wright. In this metaphor Jesus, the Great Hero, uses the Cross to rescue all of creation from the snares of darkness. It views the entire story of salvation through the lens of a subversive rescue mission.
While this narrative doesn’t counter the Catholic view, the Church still sees great value in the Jewish sacrificial metaphor since it points toward her sacramental foundation in a special way.
Despite these similarities, however, there are two major areas where Bell and Catholics diverge. First, Bell suggests that hell is not permanent, something the Church has explicitly denied. We have one life, says the Church, to choose our eternal destiny and there will be no second choice on the other side of death.
Second, though Bell doesn’t explicitly state this, he implies that when all is said and done, nobody will actually end up in hell. He suggests that hell is real, but that it will always be empty, a view known as “universalism.”
Though a number of saints have believed in universalism, it's not something the Catholic Church officially teaches. However, she has also never firmly declared whether anyone is actually in hell. Under that open umbrella, many brilliant, faithful scholars like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Fr. Robert Barron have suggested that while we don’t know or believe that everyone will be saved in the end, we can at least hold out “hope” that nobody will end up in hell (the Catechism says something like that, as well.)
One theologian put it this way: “I’m not a universalist, but I hope God is.”
In the end, while Love Wins has shaken the foundations of conservative Evangelicalism, it has much less friction with Catholicism. All Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike, should approach Bell’s book with guarded curiosity—just as we approach any book. We should be, in the words of Jesus, "shrewd as serpents and simple as doves." With the proper spiritual maturation and discernment, though, almost anyone can find value in Bell's book.
I wouldn't recommend Love Wins as a trustworthy source on hell. But the book does offer a fresh, compelling, inspiring view of heaven and God's love. When read alongside the Catechism or other orthodox material, Bell's poetic exploration can reignite your excitement for the Good News of Jesus. And for that, I think it's worth at least a read.
(If you want a deeper understanding of the Catholic position on heaven and hell, there are plenty of good books, but none better than the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church. After that consider turning to Dante’s Divine Comedy for a more poetic look, or Fr. Martin von Cochem’s The Four Last Things for a theological explanation.)
- Book-length responses to Love Wins
- Effigy or Elegy: Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis
- Fr. Robert Barron on Love Wins and Hell
- Interview with Rob Bell about the book
- Is Rob Bell a Universalist?
- Rob Bell, C.S. Lewis, and Hell
- Rob Bell is Not a Universalist
- TIME Magazine Cover Story: Is Hell Dead?
- What Love Wins Tell Us About Christians
What do you think about heaven and hell?
If you've read Love Wins, what was your take?