Bell noticed a piece of paper that a church member had attached to the work: "Reality check: Gandhi's in hell."
Bell wrote Love Wins as a rebuttal to that statement, lovingly reexamining the dizzying and confounding mix of Biblical messages about "salvation."
For his trouble, he has been vilified by John Piper and many other evangelical leaders, who ultimately side with the smug and snide writer of the anti-Gandhi note.
There are emotional reasons for such leaders to take the narrow view of whom a creator God would reward and punish. Humans have a tribalistic nature that was apparently placed there from the outset. Study after study has shown that humans enjoy joining one group in order to battle outside groups.
So if you want to build a big, passionate church, you will generally need to create a sense of "us versus them." The fact is that many people enjoy the notion that the "out group" will burn in hell. (Think of Eric Hoffer's observation: Not every mass movement has a god, but every mass movement has a devil.)
But Rob Bell's critics protest that the Bible is on their side. They argue that their scripture clearly states that all persons are in a state of sin and deserve to be separated from God forever -- unless they hear and receive a message of good news through Jesus Christ. To their minds, this leaves Gandhi and Siddhartha Gautama out in the cold, weeping and gnashing their teeth forever.
This is indeed Christian orthodoxy, and its contemporary defenders argue that Bell "cherry picks" Bible verses that take a rosier, more sentimental and lenient view of divine justice.
For his part, Bell catches them in their own cherry picking. In Love Wins, he shows the tangled, contradictory views of salvation within the Bible. He shows Jesus attempting various analogies at various times regarding "who's in and who's out." Even Paul, the emblem of evangelism, seems at times to imply at least the possibility of universal redemption, in which all creation shall be restored and every knee shall bow before truth as Paul defined truth.
Critics claim Bell is a damned universalist who dismisses hell entirely. They miss the point. Bell in fact takes hell very seriously, but only as a concept in which human error and evil eventually yield to the full force of cosmic justice, not as a silly concept in which God thirsts to see every last Buddhist squirming in everlasting torment.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
-- Matthew 23:13-15
The critics of Bell are modern Pharisees, holding biblical authority up as an idol without caring much for the character of the biblical message. They are traitors to Jesus -- but within their faith tradition they have the upper hand.
Consider that many passages in the Bible imply that the earth is flat. We now can say that the world is fairly round, without negating the larger wisdom of the ages stored in the Bible.
In the same way, the Bible's view of salvation and punishment should be understood in terms of what was known and unknown at the time. If Paul had been able to pull up the wisdom of the Buddha and Lao Tzu on the Internet, and if Paul had been able to see the Dalai Lama on a speaking tour, I suspect Paul would have found common ground with those figures and framed his message of redemption accordingly.
But Providence did not leave that fate to Paul. He left that to today's Christians. Yet many of the supposedly orthodox leaders merely parrot the approach of the Pharisees that Jesus condemned. Their narrow, outdated, "flat-earth" approach to salvation, within our pluralistic times, proves themselves far more mean-spirited than Jesus or Paul ever intended.
Jesus called his followers to be in the business of discipling an entire world in his teachings, not to be in the business of converting people in all nations to the Pharisee-like form of civil religion that American evangelical thugs accommodate.
Christ's central idea was that a truly Christly life is a richer and more abundant life than what "those who are in darkness" are experiencing. Here, many Christians become agnostic about what Jesus said; failing to see themselves living larger than the competition, they smack their lips in expectation of eventually seeing the competition burn forever. They'll be damned if Rob Bell lets any of the competition off the hook, and they'll be damned if anyone's about to give credit to the wisdom of anyone from another faith tradition.
Here is the peculiar reality: Many, many evangelical leaders -- pastors and theologians -- secretly side with Bell, but they can't say so publicly. Privately, they concede it's ludicrous that God would incinerate those who seek divine truth according to whatever light is available to them; they leave plenty of room for Gandhi and the good Samaritan and the humble tax collector and the strong-willed Roman centurion to achieve "eternal life," whether or not they knew to "confess Jesus of Nazareth as sole lord and savior."
But these persons are ultimately cowards: They say such words privately, to assure you they are not as unreasonable as the John Pipers of the world. But they would never break publicly with a John Piper, or rebuke Piper in the way that Piper has condemned so many of those who offer a more "generous" orthodoxy. That makes Rob Bell, by comparison, a very brave Christian leader, and an all-too-rare one.
The fact is that Christian faith may only be a generation away from irrelevance, in an era marked by a wondrous intersection of ancient faiths and philosophies and the newest psychological insights and scientific discovery. If Rob Bell and his small band of supporters do not succeed in rescuing Biblical wisdom from the accretions of an obsolete orthodoxy, Jesus may well find himself isolated.
Rob Asghar is the author of Lessons from the Holy War: A Pakistani-American Odyssey.