A Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

In my lifetime, how ever short it may be, I cannot remember a book being as controversial, and as highly discussed, as Love Wins by Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell. Days leading up to the book’s release by HarperCollins, the book had already started a firestorm over concerns that it promoted heretical ideas about heaven and hell. At the forefront of the controversy stood two individuals – John Piper and Justin Taylor, both Calvinist Reform leaders, who argued that Bell was promoting heresy before the book even came out.

It is with this controversy in mind that I bought a book that, in normal circumstances I probably would not have bought. Perhaps Bell and HarperCollins can thank Piper and Taylor for what will, undoubtedly, be increased first week sales that is destined to put Love Wins as a New York Times bestseller.

The book, itself, is a quick read, even for this self-admitted slow reader. The 198-pages of text is mostly a conglomeration of questions and answers that includes a heavy use of poem narrative to convey Bell’s main point. There are parts of the book that are worth praising, parts of the book that are worth questioning, but taken as a whole it is not a horrible book, but it is a weakly argued book, as well.

However, I do not believe Bell is writing with the theologian in mind. As you read the book, it is clear that Bell’s heart is with those who have been turned off from the Christian message because of pastors and religious leaders who come off more judging than loving in their interactions with the world. This is an important critique of the method of some religious groups and leaders have undertaken in promoting the faith. If our actions are unloving to the world, then how do we ever expect them to recognize the God who is, by definition, the source of all love?

But, in writing this book, and taking on the subjects that he does, Bell is essentially stepping in the deep end of a theological debate that has been ongoing for centuries about the nature of heaven and hell. His basic argument is that we are called to experience heaven now, in our lives today, and that a loving God would not punish someone for eternity. The entire argument is wrapped around this questioning the notion of eternal punishment for those who failed to recognize God, claiming that how can someone be eternally punished for what amounts to a very short time on this planet.

This conversation is one many are having, and continue to have. What is hell? What does it look like? Am I going?

About the conversation on heaven and hell, Bell 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 (78-79).

He writes in a way that conflicts with Calvinism and Reformed theology, which argues that God has elected some to eternal salvation, and others to eternal damnation. This idea of soft determinism is what Bell spends most of his time debating, with the idea of how do we know who is going to hell and who is not going to hell?

It is an interesting question, and one that should not be taken lightly. However, Bell main critique of Calvinism comes at the expense of his own argument. He writes that, in hell, people will be given an opportunity to experience God and come into relationship with God for all eternity. The argument goes that a loving God will offer people an opportunity to be reconciled to him even in hell, because a loving God does not stop loving. Where the argument fails is that it allows for the argument that one can live their life however they want in the here and now, and have no consequences for their actions. Thus, this life does not matter if we are ultimately going to get another shot at seeing God when we die. By making the case for a loving God, Bell discredits the life we live today and the implications of our lives here, and especially with whether we recognize the face of the Risen Lord today.

God’s love as author Frank Viola points out also includes judgment and wrath, which is at the heart of the Old Testament. There will come a time when we are judged for how we lived this life, and the opportunities and blessings that we were given, in this life.

Bell’s argument, then, is that hell is disbelief – yes, true – but that it is only for a moment, and we live in our hells today.

Bell also argues, and perhaps rightly so, that this life does matter. We are called to live the fullness of how God has called us to live, and embrace the love of Christ. It is the idea that heaven can be experienced in the here and now, and also the eternal. It is an argument that depends heavily on the arguments made by N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It is an important point, and perhaps the strongest and best that Bell makes in the entire book.

Had Bell only written about experiencing heaven on earth, and critiquing those who argue that some are elected to heaven and some elected to hell, the book would have been strong. I recognize that Bell also depends on C.S. Lewis for his views on hell, especially The Great Divorce.

One of the weakest, if not the most disheartening, aspects of Bell’s book is that it argues that Jesus Christ can be found in all religions. He writes:

And then there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum (155).

Yes, Jesus is relevant to various cultures, and we should immerse ourselves into the cultures to present a indgenious  portrayal of the Christian message that is appropriate for that culture and people. This isimilar to the efforts of St. Patrick and what he did in Ireland. However, the argument can be extended to argue, from his idea of inclusivity, that you can be a Buddhist and believe in Christ. That is not Scriptural. There is a call to respond to Christ and to understand what that message means. We cannot follow Christ, and sill worship our chosen gods. While God redeems all the world, there is an importance in understand how that redemption takes place. One must be careful to not go too far in arguing love that it ignores truth and the importance of belief.

In all, Bell’s book is one that should be read if only to understand the views of a highly popular pastor. While he makes some strong points, his arguments fall ontop of itself based on his poor reasoning and inability to think through his beliefs.

6 thoughts on “A Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

  1. Sha Bo,

    Thanks for the review man! Someone who has actually read the book! Wow what a concept. I particularly liked the bit about how to be indigenous Christians in different cultures. (Tennent says exactly the same).

    I must say that I have been supremely disapointed in the way the Christian community has responded to this book. Eugene Peterson (whom I admire and respect a ton) is calling evangelicals who disagree with Bell’s book Pharisees, and more reformed theologians are calling Bell a heretic..

    It was refreshing to read a review that was well thought out AND actually had to do with the content of the book. A quite similar review was written by my friend Nick Buck. http://godisthegap.wordpress.com/

    I must admit part of me (a rather large part if I am honest) really hopes that Bell is right and that folks will always have the opportunity to choose Jesus, and perhaps all eventually will. What gets me is that somehow the HOPE (not the expectation or doctrinal belief) but somehow the HOPE that all persons will choose God in the end is somehow heretical? Doesn’t God wish the same?

  2. Chris,

    Great to hear from you, buddy!

    One of the issues with this controversy is that it exposes the reach of postmodernism in the church. We are unable to wrestle with what happens when we disagree. Both sides want to be right, both sides want to believe they are right, but both sides are really unable to handle disagreements in a constructive way. These are important issues that need serious conversations.

    I think we would all like for Bell to be right, but part of me wonders if you can support that deep of a hope from Scripture, and does that hope ignore the hells that are on earth, the lives people live now, and a response to the blood of Christ today. This life we live does matter, and we have to work with that.

    But, let’s have the conversation, instead of denouncing people without taking a second to read the book. This is a problem, I’m noticing a lot on campus as well. It shows a lack of concern for their education and growth as ministers. We cannot just read what others have said on this. We must be able to read, engage, and think critically.

  3. In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell says he believes that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to rethink the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

  4. Ron,

    Thanks for your comments.

    What Bell wants is not just a rethinking of the Christian Gospel, but an entire rewriting of its message. That is where the problem lies. What needs to be rethought, and where I stand in agreement with Bell, is the nature of condemnation that exists among many, especially within the evangelical wing of the church. John 3:17, the verse after perhaps the most cited in all of the New Testament, is where Jesus, himself, says that he did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world from its sin (disobedience to God).

    I would direct you to some great commentary on this subject by Tim Tennent at timtennent.com. He is doing a fabulous job of dissecting some of the root problems that exist within Bell’s book.

    And, while mysticism is not a topic of this blog, nor a topic of Bell’s book, I will leave your comments to rest as they are, but to suggest that you read Thomas Long’s book Preaching from Memory to Hope and his discussion on gnosticism.

  5. Dear Ron,
    Thank you for actually reading the book and giving a review. I believe it brings dishonor to the cause of Christ to “prejudge” anything before reading it. I also have read the book and do not consider it to be a heavy theological dissertation. I believe that you correctly identified Rob Bell’s audience with your statement, “those who have been turned off from the Christian message.” I very much liked the conversational style of the book and consider this an introductory book and those of you who are Bereans shouldn’t be afraid to search out opposite points of view.

    Rob Bell asks the really tough questions that most of Christendom is unwilling to even acknowledge exists. As followers of Christ, we need to be able to give an answer when asked about any subject. 1 Peter 3:15, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:”

    I am appalled by those Christians who are unwilling to examine anything “controversial” or different than what they currently believe. We need to be constantly learning and growing, not remaining stagnant. As a friend’s bumper sticker says, “Do you know why you believe what you believe?” and please do NOT tell me to talk to your pastor when you get stumped. It is your job to give an answer, not your pastor.

    Rob Bell shares a very important truth that most of Christendom does not know:

    “In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyassa and Eusebius believed this as well. In their day Jerome claimed that “most people,” Basil said the “mass of men,” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God.

    Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t….

    Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, “God’s love, of course.” …

    At the center of 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.”

    For those who are truly Bereans, I highly recommend a follow up book, Hope Beyond Hell The Righteous Purpose of God’s Judgment by Gerry Beauchamin Gerry covers every verse in the Bible on this subject and does it in a very easy to read style. His comprehensive study is a must for all Christians and is also free on the Internet at hopebeyondhell.net.

    As Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:10-11,

    10 For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. 11 These things command and teach.

    Notice Paul did NOT say only those that believe.

    As another friend pointed out, “Paul spoke of us as “ambassadors for Christ,” and he gave us the central message that we are to present to the world: “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and has committed unto us the world of reconciliation.” (2 Cor. 5:19) Yet somehow the Church settled on a new message: “Turn or Burn.” Which gospel do you think will be more effective? Which evangelistic message better reveals the heart of God? Is this why Paul’s letters do not even refer to hell (Hades) except to establish God’s victory over it? (1 Cor. 15:55)”

    May more people learn of this world of reconciliation and become truth ambassadors for Christ. As Christ said to Pilate in John 18:37, “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.: and He also told us in John 3:17, “ For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (NIV)

    May more people listen to the voice of Truth. As the Casting Crown’s song says, “But the voice of truth tells me a different story The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!” And the voice of truth says, “This is for My glory” Out of all the voices calling out to me I would choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”

    Search the scriptures for yourself and you will find that there is Hope Beyond Hell and that Love does truly Win.

  6. Martha,

    I believe you are referencing your comment to me, so I will apply as I can. Thank you, first, for your thoughtful comment and your interaction with my blog. I always enjoy hearing from new people, and various perspectives.

    First, I believe, as you note, some of the criticism of Bell’s book has come from people who are unwilling to engage that for which they do not agree. It is a major problem here, at my seminary, where students will argue “I don’t have the time,” or “I already know what he says,” in order to argue against reading. As a former journalist, I find that excuse, which has also been used by many leaders, as a deficient excuse to engage an important topic.

    That being said, as you note in my blog I do find places of agreement and disagreement with Bell. I believe Bell raises some interesting points and makes some good points, especially in regards to love. However, where I break with Bell is his lackluster approach to the totality of Scripture, especially the Old Testament. We cannot ignore the Old Testament’s treatment of judgment, sin, and life, and claim that we are only New Testament people. The people of the New Testament knew only one book and that was the Old Testament. Even more, the entire Scripture is a continued narrative of God’s continued work of salvation throughout creation, so we must work with the Old and New Testament together.

    With that, it is important to understand that there is hell, there is judgment, and it is not just here in this moment. Do we always address his comment appropriately? No, and I think this is something that my Calvinist brothers and sisters harm themselves, by their focus on condemnation instead of repentance and acceptance.

    As I did with Ron, I would suggest further reading on this topic by a man smarter than I and Tim Tennent’s take on this topic. I think you will find his critique of Bell’s book educational, and will help to put into perspective some of the rebuttal that has taken place by, myself and others, who have read the book and find points of disagreement.

    Thanks again for reading!

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