So what does Rob Bell actually say? Part II

My piece just went up at the Guardian’s Cif Belief, as below…

I met Rob Bell at Greenbelt, a couple of years back, because we happened to be staying in the same hotel. Though at first, I didn’t know who he was. Rather, I saw him coming. He was dressed head-to-foot in black and was accompanied by three other chaps, similarly clad, carrying those impressive silver cases that speak of expensive, hi-tech gear. Then, later, I saw the long queues for his event; they were heavily oversubscribed. I made the link with the inclusive megachurch American pastor who was topping the bill.

He draws congregations numbered in the tens of thousands. And now his new book, Love Wins, has achieved the ultimate accolade. A clever marketing campaign led to a top 10 Twitter trend at the end of February. Evangelicals, even liberal ones, believe the Word changes everything, and so they take words very seriously. They are entirely at home in the wordy, online age.

The row on Twitter is to do with the content of the book, or at least what a number of conservative megachurch detractors assumed to be the content. It’s to do with universalism – the long debate in Christianity about whether everyone is eventually saved by Jesus, or whether only an elect make it through the pearly gates. Bell’s opponents assume that he is peddling the message that when the great separation comes, between the sheep and the goats, there won’t be any going into the pen marked “damnation”.

From this side of the pond, it all feels very American, one of those things that makes you realise that the US is a foreign country after all. I’m sure that some British evangelicals debate the extent of the saviour’s favour too, only they are also inheritors of the Elizabethan attitude about being wary of making windows into other people’s souls. “Turn or burn!” works in South Carolina, not the home counties. (Then again, I was recently in a debate with someone who claimed to know Jesus better than his wife. I wondered whether his wife knew.)

Having read the book, it seems to me that Bell is trying to hold two Christian truths in tension. On the one hand, the Bible teaches that human freedom is real. It depicts all sorts of people turning away from God – or to put it in Bell’s kind of terms: it’s obvious, from the evidence of everyday life, that it is surprisingly easy to turn your back on love, time and time again. “Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,” as George Herbert memorably put it.

On the other hand, the Bible also teaches that God’s love is infinite. In particular, it’s a love prepared to wait from eternity to reconcile, remake and redeem all creation.

So which wins? Our lukewarm love or God’s perfect love? The book’s title gives the game away, though there’s a mystery inherent in it no less. “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?” Bell asks. “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, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”

Bell can quote chapter and verse with the best of them. So he does need to do some explaining, particularly about those texts that feature hell, casting aways, outer darknesses. He does so by interpreting them as shocking metaphors that express the undoubtedly real implications of the choices we make about whether to turn to, or away from, love. He also tackles the exclusivity issue in Christianity, when Jesus declares in John’s gospel, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” He adopts a hidden-Christ theology. Yes, Jesus does it. But do we always know what Jesus is doing, in the lives of “Muslims, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland”? No. For the Christian, Christ is working everywhere, regardless of whether he’s seen, known, named, worshipped.

The book is good news. On the one hand, Bell’s is an attractive, powerful intervention in the often ugly world of American evangelicalism, an ugliness that via American politics can indirectly damage us all. But it’s also a good news story. Love wins in spite of everything. Who wouldn’t hope for that?