I’ve always liked Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day.” He plays Phil Connors a weatherman who has made his way to Punxsutawney, PA to see if the groundhog—also named Phil—will see his shadow or not. Phil the weatherman is not pleased about being there. He’s covered this story for four years running and can think of a gazillion other places he’d rather be. He covers the story, tries to get out of town but is unable to due to a blizzard, and can’t wait for February 3 to arrive when he climbs into bed that night.
Except it never does. Phil Connors wakes up back at the morning of Feb 2, and the whole thing begins again. For everyone else it’s as if the day is new. For Phil, it’s a living hell. He remembers the day fully, what happened, what people did or said. He’s an automatic repeat. And it keeps going. He wakes up the third day, and fourth and… you get the picture (or remember the film).
Early on he gets so depressed, he just does himself in at the beginning of the day so he doesn’t have to live through it again. He wakes up the next morning back at Groundhog Day. Then he tries to use his previous days’ experience to his benefit, trying to get his producer into bed with him or robbing the armored car.
Until he turns the corner, and starts realizing that if he is doomed to live this day over and over and over again , then he will make it the best day ever. He saves the person who is choking. He shows up at the right time with a jack and a spare tire for the old woman who gets a flat. He is compassionate and merciful and exudes joy and care. He’s in heaven.
I say all of this as a lead in to Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins because I think Bell is saying some of the same things. His main thesis is that many of those in Christendom focus on getting to heaven, that faith is a ticket out of here for some place in the future, after our lives are over. But they forget about today unless it’s about making conversions, helping others to get the ticket to heaven. And today and what we do now is really, really important to Rob Bell.
Bell argues that we can make our own heaven and hell right here, right now, by the choices we make. And often these choices seem disconnected to faith. He writes, “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” Those hells on earth are places of famine, war, brokenness in our own lives, hatred, greed. It is the stuff of individual and corporate sin, and it does create hell on earth.
Where Rob goes with this—and the point at which many of his detractors leave him (if they even read his book; I think many didn’t give him that courtesy)—is by saying that the creation of heaven and hell based on our actions and choices continues past our earthly death. In other words, while many Christians say that this life is all you get to make a decision about being a follower of Jesus, Rob argues that God’s love is so expansive that there will still be time after death to respond to that love. (By they way, Bell gets this from that most beloved of Christian authors of the last century, C.S. Lewis (see The Great Divorce or even The Last Battle)) It helps him come to terms with the reality of untimely deaths (like a teenager killed in a car accident) or those who’ve been harmed by the church and cannot accept Christianity for whatever reason.
Rob Bell is full of compassion in this book. And that might make some people edgy because many of us want to have clear definitions about who is in and who is out. When you start muddying the waters like that, some want to get defensive (and they have), and some even claim Bell is destined to hell (ironic, given his book, but there you are).
There is a full chapter devoted to asking a simple but profound question: Does God get what God wants? He asks this because Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, if God wants this, and God is all-powerful, does God get this desire? Of course, Rob balances this with God’s biggest gift to us: our freedom to choose life or death.
Is Rob Bell a universalist? Not really. He even says as much when he writes, “As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true” (155, emphasis mine). Jesus does matter. But, and this is where many get tripped up, maybe not Christianity.
Jesus the Son of God matters. Christianity the institution and religion, not so much.
Do I agree with him? In some ways, yes. This work, while quick and written from a high and general level, gives some clarity for me. And I would whole heartedly agree that Jesus is the way. That he matters. That through his work on the cross and by his resurrection life and love are extended to all. Will that continue on past this life? Rob makes a biblical case that it does (again, C.S. Lewis says so too), but I need to chew on that one.
I think at the end I need to, as a professor of mine once said, put this in my theological pipe and smoke it for awhile. This book and its emphasis on love will be a balm to many damaged by the church, by Christianity, by friends or relatives whose view of Christ has been dominated by anger. And if that is what it does, then I believe Rob has done work for Christ in bringing healing to a broken world. In other words, love does win.
I hope you’ll read it. You can get a copy at Amazon or the local library (which is what I did). And I’d love to talk more about this, so leave your comments.