Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins (HarperOne: 2011) has become a choice target of those who condemn universalist tendencies within the emerging church, so I downloaded a copy to my Nook to see what all the hubub is about.

Ironically, Bell’s book says little about the afterlife. He doesn’t repudiate the idea of life after death, but believes the Bible reveals little or nothing about it. He writes:

…When the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will “get into heaven,” that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club.

The good news is better than that.

Bell focuses instead on what we can know about “eternal life,” “abundant life,” “the kingdom of heaven,” and “the kingdom of God” (which he believes are simply different terms to describe the same experience: living in Christ).

He contrasts this with being in “hell,” “outer darkness,” “perdition,” etc. (all describing how we feel when we try to earn God’s favor apart from Christ). Colorfully, he calls this kind of living “the gospel of the goats.”

Some Bible commentators say that Jesus, like any other good first-century rabbi, taught that death consigns us all to Sheol or “the pit,” a kind of eternal boneyard where our spirits are “gathered to our fathers.” If that were true, we should read all of His teachings about heaven and hell as allegories about our relationship with God here and now, as Bell does.

But I doubt it. 

The simple fact that people called Jesus a “rabbi” doesn’t prove He was a typical first-century Jewish teacher.  A first-century rabbi would not have taught about His own return, as Jesus did, or predicted that the “Day of the Lord” envisioned by Old Testament prophets was just around the corner. (Bell suggests that such passages refer to a decisive moment when God begins His eternal reign on earth and instantly purges all of His creatures of everything which might hinder that reign. But he doesn’t attempt to develop this idea in the present book.)

There’s great value in Bell’s emphasis on the present consequences of rejecting God’s love. Many of us waste our lives trying to earn God’s favor when He freely offers it to us. We need to understand that God’s grace comes with no strings attached.

On the other hand, Love Wins will not resolve Evangelicals’ questions about Rob Bell’s teaching. He’s just trying to tell a good story…God’s salvation story…in a fresh way. I believe the book is worth reading for that.