Never having read any of Rob Bell’s previous books I wasn’t sure what to expect; the vitriol poured in his direction suggested it wasn’t going to be good.
My overall impression is that there isn’t anything in the book which is fundamentally objectionable or not said by someone else before; so why all the fuss? If the charge against the book is that Bell is a universalist then the charge is not proven. Maybe he is but it is not explicitly stated and doesn’t have to be read that way. One of the book’s weaknesses is it is so full of questions with fairly superficial argument that it is not always clear what Bell thinks. The book’s basic premise is the Jesus’ story has been hijacked so the message of God’s love has been lost; the focus on story being a feature of many emerging church writers. Yet whilst story and narrative are important, there is a need to articulate the details of the story with precision as well as scope the overarching themes and Bell avoids detail (making him an easy target for those who would disagree with him).
In essence the book’s aim appears to be that of the sales person (or perhaps NLP practitioner) who looks to redefine the argument in order to make their sale. Thus the issue is not who goes to hell but the issue is how wide God’s love is. (As a salesperson might say the issue is not the cost, the issue is whether this does what you need it to do). Although it is a book designed to encourage the reader to think more deeply about the love of God to me it reads like the preacher who never gets to the point or one who sprays proof texts about without ever adequately exegeting them. The basic strategy is to ask questions which build emotional agreement with the claim that gospel is more interested in love, grace, restoration and reconciliation than eternal torment. But it does this by largely avoiding questions of God's wrath and judgement.
If I were to have lunch with Bell I would press him about the degree to which he thinks heaven and hell are discontinuous with the current world order and whether he anticipates some decisive act of God which heralds the fulfilment of the kingdom and what he understands hell to be post that event (which is I hope a gracious way of suggesting that what he has written is at best deficient, after all I would like lunch to last a while). I would want to delve more deeply into his apparent presumption that people’s rejection of God is the over riding issue rather than the freedom of God. At times it appears he has replaced an arminianism which relies on our faith, or our praying the prayer, with one which is based on our not rejecting or not pursuing evil; both of which fail to take sufficient account of our fallenness, God’s faithfulness and God’s sovereignty. This would I suspect take us into Bell's understanding of the atonement and his hermeneutics more generally. I would also like to challenge the assumption that many churches and Christians believe that most people are going to hell which has the feel of a 'straw man'. Most of the pastors I know preside at funerals where they focus primarily on the grace and love of God and claim no special insight into how God might judge the person who died; indeed most seem to work on the premise that God may well be more gracious and generous than we are.
I suspect the controversy will continue. Those who are suspicious of Bell’s motives and theology will not be convinced by his argument (or lack of it). Those who are sympathetic to his style will commend it as a tool to get people thinking and will welcome the emphasis on the love and grace of God as well as the links between what we believe and how we should live. In the end your view will probably be determined by whether you think detail and precision are important or whether you value rhetorical force and the relative weight you give to each.
If you want a fuller review of the book read Steve Holmes excellent series interacting with both the detail of the book and the wider Christian tradition. here