I don’t normally read popular Protestant books. However, several of my Protestant friends have read and been disturbed/intrigued by Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Some have said that it reminds them of some of what they have heard about Orthodox Christian understandings of heaven and hell.
To set the record straight from the beginning, I have to say that there is not a well-defined Orthodox Christian understanding of heaven and hell: except that there is heaven and hell. Various Fathers of the Church have talked about heaven and hell in different ways, in different contexts and for different purposes. The reason why a firm dogma on heaven and hell is impossible is that heaven and hell are realities of another age, an age that has already begun and is also not yet. In his book, Rob Bell does a good job of discussing this problem of ages.
In the Bible, the word aion (age) is often translated “eternal.” This leads to a common misunderstanding that “eternal life” and “eternal judgement” are references to life or judgment that does not end--in the sense that there is no change, day after day after day, forever. Here “eternal” is misunderstood as an adjective describing duration. However, aion refers rather to another age. Eternal life and eternal judgement are the life and judgement of the age to come, the age of the Kingdom of God. You might even say that “eternal” is a quality word, not a quantity word. Eternal life refers to a quality of life, a kind of life--the life of the age to come--not to an unending continuance of life as it is commonly known.
Rob also does an excellent job of pointing out that this life of the age to come is not something that begins after one dies; rather, it began at the Cross (I would say at the Incarnation). All human beings are called to enter eternal life now. Similarly, the torment of hell is not something postponed until the afterlife. Torment and the judgement of the age to come begins now. Every person who continues to despise and abuse his or her neighbor is already building a “great gulf” (c.f. Luke 16:26) and is already beginning to experience a burning torment, although drugs from adrenaline to alcohol and from endorphins to heroin, along with unending distraction, keep us from noticing it too much--until the drugs and distractions are taken away.
Another excellent point Rob makes is that not everyone who is saved by Jesus Christ, knows that it is Jesus Christ. The image and name of Jesus have been so terribly distorted by those who wish to justify their own perversions that some people may be honored by Jesus Christ for rejecting the Jesus Christ their culture or experience presented to them. Wars are fought in Jesus’ name. Witches have been burned, Africans (and others) have been enslaved, girls have been raped (c.f. Mormon fundamentalism), and children have been mercilessly beaten all in Jesus name. Truly some Jesuses must be adamantly rejected as false.
In Love Wins, Rob takes his readers on a tour through some of the biblical passages that demonstrate that God’s ability to save is not limited to one specific way of “accepting Christ." And he points out that Christ is able to call everyone to salvation, even those who have never heard of Him, and even those who have heard of only a perverted version of Him.
What Rob doesn’t do well, in my opinion, is present the more challenging aspects of Christian life: what Orthodox Christians call asceticism. Using the parable of the Prodigal Son as a template, Rob spends the last couple of chapters of the book arguing that all that is necessary to “join the party” is to trust God’s version of the story of your life. It’s as if he skips the repentance part of the story of the prodigal and jumps right to the “let’s party” part. In Love Wins there seems to be no place for transformation, for disciplining our body to bring it into subjection (c.f.1 Cor. 9:27) or for obedience (e.g. Heb. 13:17).
To be fair, no book can cover everything. My criticism is merely what I think needs to be emphasized along with the rest. After all, a party at God’s house wouldn’t be much fun if you didn’t want to be with Him. Asceticism is teaching ourselves to enjoy being with God.
Nevertheless what I think Rob wanted to say, he says very well: salvation and heaven and hell are much broader concepts than many Protestants (and Roman Catholics and Orthodox, for that matter) imagined.