The subject matter of this book is not new to this writer. In fact I was exposed to some of its basic ideas nearly 40 years ago. The difference I see here and today is the manner of presentation and the fact that it so quickly made the New York Times best seller list.
And what is the subject matter? I think the subject matter and the point of the book come out pretty clear in this statement in the Preface:
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.
It’s been clearly indicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is in essence to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
The book goes on to make more such bold statements that I personally find challenging and worth considering. But in comparing the time when I first read along these lines and today I am concerned that more people are less discerning and less willing to research the Scriptures and history for themselves. More are even likely to agree with the conclusions of the author simply on an emotional basis or from something they saw on television.
And of course there will be those who will reject this book based only on what they previously have been taught and believed without careful examination.
A third group might however find this book helpful in truly seeking out the Truth of the Word of God. Some will ultimately affirm their former beliefs on eternal judgments etc. Others might even modify them or begin to hold them more loosely. Looking to some positive possibilities I can cautiously recommend this book while encouraging you to do your own homework on the content.
While I cannot agree with everything written here, or am even certain about everything he is trying to say, he starts with a principle I have tried to follow. That is that Truth can stand up to scrutiny, that questions and even expressed doubts can be healthy. At a very young age I questioned in my mind the way the Gospel was then being presented to us. Later when I was more mature and humble before the Lord my teachers helped me with my questions the best they could.
From my first reading of this book I am not sure the author was as fair to the traditional views on heaven and hell as he would like to have been treated for his position. In my opinion more people have come to these beliefs from careful study of the Scripture and with a sincere love for God and the world that he seems to think.
The bigotry that he describes does however exist. People are still judged to be heretics on the basis of their views on the Rapture of the church, Eternal Torment and other themes that are not so clear in the Scripture as are the Love and Forgiveness of God.
Consider the earliest version of the Apostles Creed which was in use about 150 years after the resurrection of Christ. Two of the twelve statements affirmed that Christ would come to judge the living and the dead, and that there was a resurrection of the flesh and life eternal. But baptismal candidates were not required to confess their belief in Eternal Torment or any particular end-time view. It wasn’t until many years later that the more elaborate and detailed doctrines we have today on these subjects became established.
In the book, Rob Bell’s reaction to an individual’s statement, “Reality check, Gandhi is in hell,” was jarring.
“Really? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this without a doubt?”
Wow! That really hit a nerve!
As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. But none of us can stand in the place of God, Who knows the heart of Mahatma Gandhi and everyone else who ever lived.
In the past decades I have been often among Christians and Christian teachers who do not embrace the traditional teachings on heaven and hell. For this reason I cannot confirm that the common view is all that toxic and subversive to the message of Jesus as Bell would imply. If that was so, the numbers of people coming to Christ today in these churches would eclipse those in the days of the First and Second Great Awakenings of early American history. That has not been the case.
By Bell’s reckoning, Jonathan Edward’s sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and those of other preachers in that era should have repulsed the multitudes from Christ when in fact so many received the Gospel in those days that the course of history in both America and England was changed.
Yes times have changed. People are more inclined to question the teachings of their churches. But by what standard do we test them? Popular moods and opinions, or the Eternal Word of God?
Getting back to my earlier exposure to alternate explanations about our eternal destinies. There is one thing that I did not find in this book which I have found in previous conversation along these lines. There have been subtle inferences and attitudes even to this day in some circles that seem to reflect that our behavior is not at all a concern to God anymore.
Fortunately I have not found anything in Rob Bell’s book so far that should encourage careless or unholy living. In fact I believe he is challenging us in areas that could easily be overlooked by todays American Christians. For the spiritual lessons alone this book is worth the time to read. There are also a number of references to practical issues especially from the Old Testament prophets which though not often mentioned in today’s sermons, are very powerful and inspirational for us today.
In part II of this review I hope to comment more on some of this actual content.