This book was recommended to me by a college friend of mine. She and I both grew up in pretty religious families. She was homeschooled; I went to Christian school. She spent a year with a missionary organization before going to college; I went to Africa and India as a teenager to tell people about Jesus. We both grew up believing that in order to be “saved” and go to heaven, you had to say what’s known as the sinner’s prayer, which basically consists of telling God that you’re sorry for your sins, asking for forgiveness, saying you believe that Jesus died for your sins, and you’d like to go to heaven, not hell, please. Then, BOOM, like JesusMagic, you’re in!
And who wants to go to hell, amiright? That place sounds terrible.
If that sounds kind of trite to you, it can be. If that sounds like something you’ve never read in the Bible, you’d be right. There is no sinner’s prayer in the Bible. But a lot of Christians believe that the sinner’s prayer is their golden ticket to heaven. You say the sinner’s prayer, you’re forgiven for your sins, you go to heaven when you die. And if you reject God, if you don’t say the sinner’s prayer, then you’re doomed to eternity in hell, completely cut off from God.
Rob Bell’s premise, in “Love Wins,” is that heaven is for everyone, that heaven and hell exist right here and now and extend into the future (and the afterlife), and that we choose heaven or hell through our actions now and in the future. It’s not a one-time deal, but a matter of continuing to choose love (for God is love) and life, as opposed to hate, destruction, and hell.
I have to be honest: This is the most religious book I’ve read apart from the Bible, and I haven’t been a practicing Christian in a long time, so I was surprised (and somewhat taken aback) by the number of Bible verses Bell uses to back up his points. As someone who is unconvinced that the Bible is infallible, I had a perhaps more difficult time with this approach, as opposed to more logic and reason. If you’re not already a Christian, I’m not sure that there’s much for you here. If you don’t believe in the Bible, then the Bible verses he uses to back up his points won’t mean much to you. But if you’re questioning, if you’re on the edges, I think Bell’s could be a valuable point of view to consider.
Many of us struggle to understand how “God is love” and yet allows such suffering on earth, not to mention condemns everyone who doesn’t say the sinner’s prayer to an eternity in hell. Many of us think, “If I were God, I would end starvation, poverty, disease…” Life on earth can be hell enough without the addition of eternity in hell after we die.
Bell’s theory (because first of all, the Bible can be interpreted in many ways, and secondly, nobody’s come back from the afterlife to tell us what the deal really is) is that God is love, and Jesus has already saved us all, and when we choose love, we choose God and heaven. Bell doesn’t go into it much, but my biggest question was, “What about everyone who’s not a Christian? What about the Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus who pray and worship and lead good and loving lives? Are they going to heaven without knowing about Jesus?” Mainstream Christianity says no. But there are also a lot of people who espouse mainstream Christianity who I wouldn’t want to go go heaven with, either. I kind of like the idea that being a good, kind, loving person, regardless of which god you worship (or don’t), gets you into heaven, and being a mean, judgmental, know-it-all jerk gets you tossed out of the party. Doesn’t that just make intuitive sense? That how you live your life here on earth informs the kind of life you will have after death, if there is a life after death?
I’ve said before, “If [Christian religious leader] is going to heaven, I don’t want to go.” I meant it, because when I looked at that person, I saw judgment, fear, and hate. Avarice. Meanness. I don’t want to spend a day on earth with a person like that, let alone an eternity. And I have to believe that if there is a God, God doesn’t want to, either.
Personally, I don’t care what you believe in: I care what kind of person you are. I care about empathy, kindness, love, generosity, honesty. Maybe God does, too. Maybe God cares more about how we treat each other than he does about what we say we believe and what prayers we’ve prayed. If God is love, then is anyone who shows love worshiping God, even if they are an atheist or a Hindu? If God can only communicate through us, is everyone who shows love to us also showing God to us?
I like to think of God this way.
But the thing about beliefs is that they aren’t facts. We can’t really know, and so we are all left to our own devices, to think and reason and search and try to figure out on our own what makes the most sense to each of us. We can choose our beliefs. Some people choose to believe in a judgmental God who sends people to an eternal hell. Some people will no doubt choose to believe Rob Bell’s version of the story, that we can choose God and heaven now or later, that the gates of heaven are open to us if we choose to leave those negative things behind, even after death. Some people choose to believe there is no heaven, no hell, nothing after we die.
But I think we can all agree that life is better for all of us when we choose to love one another, care for one another, try to understand one another, and help one another.