A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 10, 2013
1 Corinthians 13 NRSV
Some months ago, I delivered a sermon titled “Rob Bell and the Question of Hell.” The sermon was based on Bell’s new book titled Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the book, Bell questions the existence of Hell. The New Yorker stated, “The central message of ‘Love Wins’ is that the church needs to stop scaring people away; in publishing it, Bell hoped to spark a movement toward a more congenial, less punitive form of Christianity. The book became a best-seller, even though a number of Christian bookstores refused to stock it.”1 Bell also questioned the evangelical teaching that “only those who believe in Jesus Christ go to heaven.”
At the time, Rob Bell was pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, a mega-church in West Michigan boasting an attendance of 7,000 every weekend. Bell had founded the emergent evangelical congregation himself in 1999. He became one of the most influential evangelical Christian leaders in the country. However, as you might imagine, Bell’s book was not embraced by everyone, especially many evangelicals. Bell immediately began receiving a “vast amount of criticism for his book,” and his church began losing members right and left. Bell’s critics accused him of “being a heretic, a political liberal, and a Universalist, among other labels.”2 (Labels which some of our United Church wouldn’t think to be so bad, perhaps.) The book divided the evangelical community. The criticism got so bad that Bell’s wife, Kristen, stopped attending church because she could not stand to hear all the criticisms her husband was receiving because of the book. The fallout eventually resulted in over 3,000 members leaving Mars Hill Bible Church.
Well, eventually Bell and his wife decided they had to leave the Mars Hill Bible Church that they had founded and grown to love. The experience forced him on a “search for a more forgiving faith.”2 Bell contended that he never meant to be controversial in the book. I think he probably hoped to initiate a dialog in evangelical circles. I want to be clear that this sermon is not about whether there is or is not a hell. It is about the fallout that Bell received because of the book. It needs to be stated that in Love Wins Bell is true to the scriptures. He did a great job looking at the entire Bible and researching and explaining all the texts in the Bible having to do with the concepts of Hell, Hades, universal salvation, and the like. Bell doesn’t say anything in the book (in my opinion) that is in opposition to true biblical teaching—if you really study the passages in their historical, cultural, and literary contexts. Bell rightly notes that “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”3 You see, many of the conceptions that many people have of hell and the afterlife don’t actually come from the Bible. They come from popular literature, like Dante’s Inferno. But those conceptions, nevertheless, are held to be sacred. But here is the point: In the end, being true to the faith Bell had come to embrace himself cost him tremendously. It cost him a painful departure from the mega-church he had built.
Bell and his family moved to Orange County, California, where he has started a new life. A few weeks ago I ran across an article by Martin E. Marty (that served as the spark for this sermon, in fact) that talked about Bell and how he is now pastor of a 50-member, start-up church that he has gathered. Bell is also a part of a group of pastors worldwide “who are searching for ways to move beyond old-fashioned worship.”2 Marty noted, “He now goes surfing off the California coast, and is as devoted to the fifty-member mini-church as he was to the mega-church.”4 As I read that article, I thought to myself, From a church of several thousand to a small fellowship of fifty. And the question immediately formulated in my mind, Does love always win? It is sort of ironic that in writing Love Wins, Rob Bell lost; he lost the former life he knew and the mega-church he had founded.
Let’s leave Bell for a moment as we turn to that passage of scripture that I read from 1 Corinthians. “Love rejoices in the truth,” Paul wrote (1 Cor. 13:4-6). In writing these words on love, Paul established love as the essential element of the life of faith. In ministering to the church at Corinth some twenty-five years after Jesus’ death, Paul realized that the Christians at Corinth were not dealing with one another in love. Paul realized that there were those in the Corinthian church who were proud, envious, arrogant, boastful, rude, and domineering. And so, Paul wrote what has come to be known as the “love chapter,” one of the favorite passages in the entire Bible. Many have sought to expound upon Paul’s words and render them in more contemporary language. For instance, someone has written that love is:
Slow to suspect—quick to trust.
Slow to condemn—quick to justify.
Slow to offend—quick to defend.
Slow to reprimand—quick to forbear.
Slow to belittle—quick to appreciate.
Slow to demand—quick to give.
Slow to provoke—quick to conciliate.
Slow to hinder—quick to help.
Slow to resent—quick to forgive.
Someone else has said: Love keeps on loving when others don’t love back. But as Paul points out, sometimes love—true love—is difficult. True love is not easy. True love is patient. True love is long-suffering. True love bears all things. True love endures all things. These four words alone—patience, long-suffering, bearing, and enduring—indicate the challenges and difficulties that love sometimes faces. As Rob Bell found out, love can be costly.
I am sure when he published Love Wins, Bell was committed to the principle that “love rejoices in the truth.” But loving the truth, or proclaiming the truth, or standing up for the truth, is not always easy. It can prove to be costly.
For instance, following the tragic shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in 2008, they began a response called “Standing on the Side of Love” that has become a denomination-wide movement. It is a commitment to not repay hatred with hatred, but to counter hated with love and attempts at greater understanding. Love is not always easy. But love rejoices in the truth.
You know, I really did not know much about Rob Bell before he published Love Wins. I had heard of him, and I knew he was pastor of a mega-church, but that is all. And I had heard of the Mars Hill Bible Church. But after I read the book, I felt like I got to know him a bit and I have a much greater respect for him. And now that his life has been turned upside down because of it, I wish I could sit down with him and talk about his experience. I would like to ask Rob Bell some questions. Questions like, “Are you glad you published the book? If you had it to do over, would you still do it? Have you found your experience to be liberating in any way? Do you still believe that love always wins?”
I think as persons of faith, as followers of Jesus, when all is said and done, we have to come down on the side of love. We have to give love and the power of love the benefit of the doubt. We must believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, stronger than hatred, stronger than evil, stronger even than death, as Paul puts it in Romans (8:38-39). Regardless of the short-term consequences, we have to believe that ultimately love wins. For as Paul himself so eloquently puts it, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.
1Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker, November 26, 2012, p. 56.
2Katherine Weber, Christian Post Reporter, December 3, 2012 .
3Rob Bell, Love Wins. New York: HarperOne, 2011. P. 109.
4Martin E. Marty, “Sightings,” The University of Chicago Divinity School, December 3, 2012.