Facing Death and Reading Love Wins

Over the fourth of July weekend I have had a time of reflection, prayer and thought. On the morning of July 4th I left Fort Worth to drive up to Oklahoma to be with my wife, Jolynn.  Jolynn was in Oklahoma with her mother, who has been battling a variety of illnesses (including pneumonia twice, a broken hip and a serious infection) since mid-January. We have loved, watched and prayed as she has slowly slipped downhill. The week of the fourth, Jolynn entered her mother in a hospice program. Prior to leaving I’d stopped by my local library to get some books on CD to listen to while I drove. I grabbed a science fiction novel and then an audio version of a book I had been intending to read caught my eye. It was Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. For those of you who do not know, Rob Bell is a prominent evangelical pastor who comes out of an Independent Bible Church. His Amazon website accurately reports, “At age 28 he founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, and under his leadership it was one of the fastest-growing churches in America. In 2011 he was profiled in Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people.” When Bell’s Love Wins came out it was instantly deeply controversial. The topic is essentially about who is saved. Or, put differently, who goes heaven and who goes to hell. Many quickly scorned (or embraced) the book as implying some aspect of universal salvation. Such a reading is both shallow and unfair. Rob Bell has a talent for asking tough questions; many of which he doesn't answer. Those same probing questions are being asked by secular non-religious and non-Christian society. We would do well to sharpen our thinking, and Love Wins along with Will Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved? are good places to start (start not finish!). Bell keys off the work of C.S. Lewis. As one reviewer put it: “They both believe that a person can go to hell but they have to really want to go there.” The essential thesis is that it is God’s desire to save everyone but that love is never forced. Heaven and hell are choices made (let’s hear it for a Wesleyan understanding of human agency!). Furthermore, Bell rightly understands the concept of eternal life as involving both the here and the hereafter. Heaven and hell are real and real places but they are so much more (both good and bad!) then the stuff of childhood legend. It is an easy read (or listen) and I commend it to you. For me, the impact is magnified standing next the bed of a loved one as they begin the move from this world to the next. Simple answers containing harps and pitchforks don’t help. The immense undying resurrecting love of God in Christ does. “But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” (Romans 8:37-39)