First thing to say is that I think Rob Bell is a very genuine guy. I think he is very generous and is really seeking to show in his words and actions the love and grace of God. The book is good to read and it is engaging. I think he is asking questions to challenge us all to think and to ask for ourselves. And that is a good thing. I don't think the book is perfect or a classic, but it is well worth reading.
Ok, first things first, does Rob Bell believe in universalism (the belief that all people will one day be saved/redeemed/rescued etc)?
When I finished the book it seemed obvious to me that he does not believe in universalism. He does ask some serious questions about the nature of God and the concept of heaven and hell, but he does not come out and say that all people will be saved. He is universalistic in his belief about Jesus' death on the cross and that it was for all people because God WANTS all people to share in the divine nature for all eternity (2 Peter 1:4), but he is quite clear that not all people will want to be with God in this way.
And I would want to affirm this. I believe that Jesus died for all people because his desire is that all people would discover and embrace the life, love and hope that is found in Him. I believe God's heart is that all would be rescued from the disorientation and contamination of sin.
He affirms throughout the book the uniqueness of Jesus and the Christian belief that Jesus is the only way to the Father. He does ask questions however of whether there will be those who do not recognise that it is Jesus that has led them to God.
His chapter on heaven comes across as nothing new. When reading it I could trace that some of his thoughts stem back to Irenaeus and the idea that creation is on a journey to perfection but lost its way. NT Wright has said much about heaven and these thoughts are echoed in Bell's book. I said to Sarah that Rob Bell has simply said things simply. What he is saying about heaven are the things I believe.
His chapter on hell is again nothing new, but written well. He wrestles with the idea of hell being a place of purging and that imagery of fire is to emphasise how God seeks to refine and cleanse. He rejects the understanding of hell being a place of fire and torture, something that I have rejected too. Bell suggests that hell is a place that people choose for themselves having chosen hell like behaviour here and now. So they continue to pursue pain and reject love. Hell then is something people choose for themselves and not something God chooses for us. I think it was C.S Lewis who said a similar thing when he said that there would be two types of people when Jesus returns, those who say to God 'Thy will be done', and those to whom God says 'Thy will be done.'
Bell does say that we need to leave room for questions about if whether one day God will restore all people or will people eternally choose to resist God. He doesn't answer the question as such but wants room to be left open for the question. And throughout the book there are a lot of questions that he asks without answering them. This is the style of his writing, and I'm comfortable with that. I think we need to allow more room for mystery and questions. Too often people want to answer everything, and the reality is that there are some things we simply do not know.
My criticisms are that I felt it 'floated' at times, in other words, there are times I was reading it and it felt a little like Bell was getting a bit side-tracked and wandering away into a bit of a dreamy place with his own thoughts. And I'm not always sure that some of the questions he asks are the right questions and become more of distractions.
I enjoyed reading it and was not disturbed by it. It's not ground breaking in its theology. It's not the best written book. It won't define the church. And it is worth a read.
So why call it 'Love Wins'? The choices we make today are significant. The end of the book concludes that in the end God loves each of us enough to give us what we truly want. So if we really don't want Him and if we are adamant that we don't want to be a part of His love and new creation, then God will give us what we want because he loves us enough to do that. God loves us so much that he will seek us out every moment of every day in order that we might know and embrace Him and His love for us. Yet He loves us too much to override our freedom of choice because in the end, Love wins.