Rob Bell, CS Lewis, and the Real Argument at Hand
After a couple of weeks of dialogue it is clear to me that the primary issue in the debate over Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is not about what Bell is saying, but how he says it.
I suspect many felt poked in the eye by the way Harper and Rob decided to market Love Wins. I suspect Bell intimidates some because he is part of a culture they do not understand and cannot control (that culture is urban, postmodern, and discovers the truth more naturally through questions, sarcasm, and intuition than through the systematic presentations of the top Christian publishing house).
And let’s not kid ourselves, I suspect the fire behind the debate is often about envy and resentment of a very talented man, about our own inability to get a hearing in the public square, and about the fear that new ways of talking about Jesus might trump what some have preached for decades.
These issues are big, but they are not only about doctrine. The issues at hand are about culture and control, about how the theology of emerging Christians will be defined, and about the continuing fight between postmodern and modern expressions of Christianity. This seems clear to me now, for I would like to defend the following claim:
There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, CS Lewis.
Lewis and Bell hint at a number of theological possibilities in their writings that cut against what we might call the majority opinion, including: the possibility that those in hell might journey toward the grace of God after death, the possibility that those who have not heard the name of Jesus might find salvation in and through the image of Christ in their own pagan stories and myths, the possibility that some will eventually receive God’s grace freely after death, the possibility that hell is about bigger things than God’s wrath, the insistence that the metaphors describing what Jesus’ cross accomplishes and how his work is applied to us are culturally subjective, and that some ancient pictures of the atonement may be too confusing to help us right here, right now. All of these lines of thought were in Lewis’s writings before they were in Love Wins.
Let’s look at one example. Though I [Jeff Cook] do not hold the following position (I’m an annihilationist regarding hell), consider how Lewis, like Bell, advances the possibility that those in hell might one day journey toward the grace of God after death. Lewis writes, “I would pay any price to be able to say ‘All will be saved’ but my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’” Notice in this and other quotes like it, the salvation of a soul is not dependent on God’s will, but the will of the damned. In the same vein, he wrote, “I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given” (The Problem of Pain, 110). This is a confession that God wants to save all and would provide such roads if God thought they’d work.
As such, Lewis’s leaves the gates of heaven wide open through the way he structures reality in The Great Divorce. He frequently insistented that Hell is locked from the inside, and continually insists that hell is self-chosen—all of these point to the possibility that one day some of the damned may choose to be restored, and that God may welcome them like a prodigal son through the saving work of Christ. In fact, both Bell and Lewis argue, “Humanity is already ‘saved’ in principle; we individuals have to appropriate that salvation” (Mere Christianity 156). As such, I see every reason to think that Rob has an identical ontology of hell to CS Lewis, Rob however has more faith in the ability of some to eventually repent, that is the only real difference between them—and it is a belief about people not about God and God’s desires.
So I ask, Is there one idea in Love Wins that is not already grounded in word or metaphor in the writings of evangelicalism’s best-selling author? If not, then certainly Lewis—a far more substantial and influential thinker than Rob to modern American Christianity—has been worthy of our fire for decades now.
But that’s just it. The debate over Love Wins is not actually a fight only about doctrine. It is about angst caused by different cultures and philosophical precommitments. It’s about language and how we articulate what is real. It’s about the acceptance or rejection of postmodern ways of expressing what is most vital to us. It is about two cultures crashing together like a cold and warm front and causing a storm. Sure Rob is throwing theological hand grenades in that trailer and on the back cover, but as he rightly says in the intro to Love Wins, he’s not claiming anything new. We would be wise to pursue the real dialogue—the more important dialogue—at hand in American Christianity. We need to openly converse about postmodernity and modernity, their effect on doctrine, andespecially how Christians who assume very different epistemologies can actuallychampion each other instead of drawing pistols every time they disagree in this new century.
Jeff Cook is a professor of philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and the author of Seven: the Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes. *