Love Wins Goes to College
In one of our pericopal studies involving fellow pastors in my area, I had my first exposure to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. The comments spoken registered with me because as I serve on a university campus I have witnessed the influence Bell has with younger generations. The awareness grew when I read the cover article in Time Magazine concerning the book. Finally, following Easter as the semester winded down, I had opportunity to read the book.
I read the book expecting things given the comments I had heard: universalism, Scriptures are contrary to each other, and the ‘love wins’ mentality of moralistic therapeutic deism. What I found was a conviction of assumptions and a pastoral reminder for me and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
First, the conviction of assumptions: 1. Love Wins does not promote universalism. It raises questions that are present among those trying to understand the faith; these questions raise possibilities following death, but they do not bring or even suggest resolution to them. 2. The book does not promote a notion that Scripture contradicts itself and we must decide among the contradictions. 3. It does not promote a mentality of ‘everything is okay because love wins in the end’. Love Wins affirms the reality of hell; it even provides a harsh reminder that Christ spoke of hell primarily to the religious elite.
But this conviction is not the reason for my comment on the book. I find that the greater value in the read is not as much a matter of content and conclusions (both of which I believe the LCMS largely would agree with) as it is the process and the inquiry. Here we find a pastoral reminder for us; here I believe we have something to learn.
Simply put, Love Wins asks questions and struggles with them. It raises questions largely revolving around matters of heaven and hell; it raises questions that attack the ‘if you died tonight’ evangelism that uses the fear of hell to scare people into heaven (a tactic that Lutheran theology, even if not ‘Lutheran’ practice, agrees is futile as we recognize that the gospel brings life not the law). But again, it is not as much about the content as about the willingness to struggle with Biblical theology and ask questions.
To be clear, Love Wins is not an exegetical work. It is a polemic that dabbles in exegesis, yes; but it is not an exegetical work. Others can dissect Bell’s exegesis, but I do not think that an exegetical masterpiece is his goal. I certainly feel that he pushes the envelope of speculation regarding the interpretation of specific texts, e.g. Luke 16 or Revelation 21. But he also avoids more difficult passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:29; 1 Peter 3:19; and 1 Peter 4:6, passages that might raise more questions. He is not presenting closing arguments to convince people of a doctrine of heaven or hell. Rather Bell uses his interpretation to invite questions; to invite struggles; to invite the reader to see that the emphasis in the Scriptures is God’s desire for relationship with people.
Love Wins is also not a systematic theology. Others can dissect his systematic theology, but a comprehensive look at heaven and hell does not seem to be his goal either. It is not presenting an argument for what will happen to those who do not believe after death. It raises questions for consideration and encourages humility in that consideration; it reminds us that we do not have all of the answers. Bell invites people to think about such things and struggle with them; he is not trying to establish a box to fit his thoughts. In the midst of such struggles with Biblical theology he points people to what is clear, namely that God desires for people to be brought to him by his love manifested in the Christ.
Here in what it is not is a brotherly admonition to our church body to be encouraged by what it is. Love Wins is a display of incarnational struggle with folks in their questions, and an effort to lead them in the midst of their questions to see the Father who has sent the Son to suffer, die, and be raised for the world, to see the Father whose love is powerful, persistent, and personal. In this struggle we learn how to walk with persons not seeking to be told what to believe but rather desiring to believe, to grow in the faith God is working in them.
In this endeavor, I believe Love Wins becomes not only a polemic against ‘scaring people into heaven’ but also a reminder of another law based religion into which we at times fall prey. While we tend not to have the problem of making hell the main thing, at least in theology even if not in practice, we can at times make doctrinal purity the main thing rather than the gospel; we at times forget that it is through the gospel we see the whole counsel of God and in it the natural purity inherent to it. We can approach doctrinal matters as issues of right and wrong and fail to see that doctrinal matters relate to people and exist for people, with which people struggle, for which pastors should be willing to struggle with their flock and their fellow undershepherds. Sometimes we can even treat matters as easy and settled, although they are not, as if we were the church body that suggests that councils and popes cannot err.
Might we be encouraged by this polemic to consider our understanding? to listen to questions and ask along with those struggling rather than to provide immediate answers? to continue our learning in this faith that is deeper than one lifetime can gather and rejoice in?
As I see university students struggling with questions of heaven and hell, of plurality of teachings within the Christian umbrella, of implications of teachings within their circles of relationships, etc., I see folks wanting to work through questions so that they can digest the truth and rejoice in it; I do not see folks wanting or even tolerating just a right answer. And my gut tells me that is not just a reality on university campuses; it is a reality among many Christians and non-Christians looking to be encountered by the living faith.
Love Wins highlights a patience, a fellow struggling, and a love that helps people do just that. In the midst of its shortcomings in our world of exegetical, systematic, and historical theology, it does what Christians have been called to do: walk with each other in the challenges of the faith. And I believe, it trusts that the Gospel will ensure that God’s truth will come through to people in the midst of all of the questions. Yes, I believe there is something to be learned, or at least reminded of, from Love Wins.
Greg Michael is pastor of Christus Victor Lutheran Church and Student Center, Athens, GA (on the campus of the University of Georgia). He earned the M.Div and S.T.M. degrees from Concordia. He is too modest, apparently, to have a photo of himself posted on his congregation’s website.