I’ve just finished reading Love Wins, a book by Rob Bell that has stirred considerable controversy among evangelicals because of Bell’s suggestion (coyly framed more in questions than in direct statements) that hell doesn’t exist and everyone (possibly with a few rare exceptions) will be accepted by God.
I read much of the book in a Borders in Augusta, Georgia (alas, several weeks before the Masters started), and the rest in a Borders outside of Philadelphia. The second Borders has a sign on the door saying “Rumors of our demise are exaggerated. Our landlord rocks. We aren’t going anywhere.” I didn’t want to buy the book, so I tried to offer a little support for Borders by buying a few extras with my coffee—mostly cookies.
In my view, Bell rightly criticizes the suggestion that the rest of a person’s life is irrelevant so long as she asks Jesus for forgiveness, and the tendency to assume we can know a person’s eternal destiny (Gandhi, in this case). But his story doesn’t seem quite true to Scripture.
Bell’s exegesis of the parable of the Prodigal Son nicely summarizes the perspective that runs through the book. According to Bell, the prodigal son had one story for his life—he had squandered his inheritance and didn’t deserve his father’s love; while the father had another story—that he would never stop loving the son and would welcome him back with open arms. Bell seems to suggest that that we should simply discard the first story and embrace the second, and that hell is the misery we experience if we refuse to accept God’s retelling of our story.
In my view, treating the two stories are unrelated misses an important dimension of the beauty of the salvation offered to us in Christ. The first story isn’t irrelevant. It’s true. We don’t deserve the Father’s love. But so is the second story, that the Father loves us nonetheless.
The same point can be made in another way, using the language of debt that Jesus so often used. Suppose I learn that a major debt of mine has been forgiven. If it turns out I didn’t really owe the debt (I was mistaken about the obligation, say, or I was defrauded into incurring it), this is nice news. But it’s nicer by far, almost too good to be true, if I truly owe the debt, but someone (perhaps the creditor himself) decides to pay it on my behalf.
If our sins were “simply irrelevant,” as Bell says in the same chapter, the love the Father offers us would be sweet. But how much sweeter it is when we know both that our sins do matter, and that the price has been paid by Jesus.