Review of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

DISCLAIMER: My intent here is to satisfy the requests I got for my take on the book. I welcome discussion, and value the input of anyone who would take the time to read this post, or the book itself. -Jeff

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So, Love Wins. Heard of it?

For weeks now, controversy has swirled, whirled, and convulsed all over the internet about Rob Bell, heaven, Rob Bell’s theology, hell, Rob Bell’s theology, love, God, Rob Bell’s theology, and heresy. One side is calling for Bell’s head. He’s a heretic, he’s theologically unsound, and he needs to be burned at the stake (Ok, maybe not that far. Maybe.) The other side agrees with him, agrees with his assessments of heaven, hell, the afterlife, and love, and doesn’t see what the fuss is about. Somewhere in the mix there are those who don’t care, but seemingly, either you love Bell, or you hate Bell. There’s very little middle ground in this debate.

One of my biggest gripes about the storm of controversy that was drummed up by John Piper’s tweet and Justin Taylor’s blog was the fact that while many…..so many, were passing such authoritative judgment on Bell, very, VERY few had (at least up to that point) actually read the book. Personally, I found it disheartening that so many would jump on a work they had never cracked the cover on, and if I’m being honest, it kinda made me want to jump to his defense just to be a counterbalance to all I’d heard. Instead, I tried to convey and ask that judgment be reserved for when the book actually released, and could be read by all. I saw little of that take place.

It was in this spirit (the one of actually reading it), that I decided to do a review for myself. Buying and reading the book was never an issue for me. I’ve been a regular reader of Rob Bell since the days of “Velvet Elvis”, and like many, I’ve seen his NOOMA videos, as well as his DVDs like “The God’s Aren’t Angry” and “Everything Is Spiritual”. I’ve listened to countless podcasts of his sermons as pastor of Mars Hill Church, and even had the opportunity to briefly meet him during his “Drops Like Stars” tour two years ago.

I say all that to say this: in this discussion/debate/argument, make no mistake; everyone is coming in with preconceived ideas and notions. If you weren’t a Rob Bell fan before, you just got 200 pages worth of material by which to further dissect him, his theological stance, and whether or not what he’s posing in his books/sermons/videos/lectures should be considered heresy. If you were a Rob Bell fan, you’re probably approaching this book with similar intent to his previous work, and likely with more grace and latitude. That’s not to say that being a detractor of Bell equates to being grace-less, although, in this specific instance, I personally saw little evidence to refute that point.

As someone who’s more often than not fallen to the “grace” side of Bell’s books, teaching, theological stance, I didn’t want to discount the countless warnings (and judgments) being cast by my friends and acquaintances who were more critical of “Love Wins”. It was in this spirit (and the fact that numerous peers asked my opinion of the book) that I decided to not only read it for myself, but also comment on it.

I’ve kicked around the best way to try approaching this book to accurately and succinctly convey not only what I believe Bell is trying to get across in the book, but also my thoughts as well. The best way I can think to approach it is to pick out some main points that he’s driving at and address those. This is not an exhaustive review, and there’s likely going to be many points I don’t cover here. My intent isn’t to cover everything, but to point out my interpretation of some of the more pressing issues. In the process, there may be some spoilers.

There. You’ve been warned. 🙂

THE SETUP
Kevin DeYoung posted a 20-page dissertation on “Love Wins”, viewed many I spoke to as a level-headed, impartial approach to a book so many find contentious to the Christian faith. In the beginning he states, “This is a theological book by a pastor trying to impart a different way of looking at heaven and hell.” I could not agree more. Anyone who’s followed Bell or read his books knows that Rob Bell EXCELS at viewing Christianity through a different lens. He typically takes Christian thoughts and ideas, and much of what evangelical Christianity has accepted as the status quo of systematic theology, and turned it on its ear. That’s not to say he has tried re-inventing Christianity, but he approaches topics from different angles than typical apologists and theologians have. Sometimes it garners praise; most of the time, criticism. I’ve said it numerous times in conversations, and I will say it here: Rob Bell is criticized most often for what he doesn’t say, rather than what he does.

THE FLAT TIRE
The first chapter asks the questions posed through Bell’s preview video, as well as some of what was spelled out in interviews preceding the book’s release. Much of it had to do with our view of Jesus, as well as culture’s view of Jesus. A perfect example would be talking about the non-Christian who was invited to church, only to reveal that “Christians” had rounded up all the Muslims in the eastern European village he was from, herded them into a building, and shot them. Or the woman who grew up in a home under the hand of family members who sexually molested her while reciting prayers and hymns. I believe the book, and Bell, ask valid questions about this, as so much of what people believe about Jesus is shaped by what they experience of those who call themselves “Christian”, and there’s no doubt that for as many are wonderful ambassadors for the name and sake of Christ, there will always exist those doing things “in the name of”, who will do more harm than good in the name of “Christ”. It’s vital to address these issues and mindsets, because it is a reality.

Bell goes on in the chapter to ask what exactly it is that saves you. While this can seem contentious or treading on dangerous ground regarding the atonement and work of the Cross, I believe it injects important thoughts into the dialogue of redemption, showing passage after passage recounting Jesus’ interaction with humanity during his time on earth.

HELL
The question of hell has probably been one of the hottest talking points of this whole discussion. Even Rob Bell, on the Sunday before the book released, spoke to the members of his church and stated, unequivocally,

“Am I a universalist? No. Do I believe in heaven? Yes. Do I believe in hell? Yes. Do I believe in heaven after death? Yes. Do I believe in hell after death? Yes. Do I believe in the Bible? Yes.” (emphasis mine)

Without a doubt, Bell was trying to get a point across. That point, however, never alluded to a stance of “no literal hell”. Again, Bell, in 32 pages, never once asserted that there is no hell in the afterlife. What he did do, however, was list reference after reference of mentions in the Bible on the topic, giving historical and cultural context, especially in the case of the words of Christ. I believe this is also where Bell’s Arminian (or “free will”, for those not familiar with the sides involved) roots start to come to the surface.

Bell is very clear here: He wholeheartedly, undeniably, believes that we choose to accept or reject Christ. There are many theological streams that come into the picture here, all falling under the banner of the free will/predestination discussion. Do we choose God, or does He choose us? Do we choose to reject Him, and by doing so, heap upon ourselves the result of separation from God? Does God pursue those He calls relentlessly until they surrender to Him?

Beyond that, though, a thought is presented that has brought both criticism and praise. What if *some* of what we consider “hell” is the injustice that goes on in the here and now? No doubt this may be where part of the problem lies in how Bell is interpreted by different sides. If you know of Bell’s work, it’s no surprise that there is a component of what he does that ties very closely in with social justice. In these pages, not only does Bell spell this out, but he spells it out while still acknowledging the real, literal hell to come. From the book,

“There are individual hells, and communal, societal-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (pg. 79)

Clearly he is not discounting one or the other, but just as in the chapter on heaven, he is unpacking that part of heaven is bringing some of heaven to earth in actions that are Christ-like, just as part of hell involves actions that are part of the fall, sinful in their existence, and against everything Christ is or wants us to be.

DOES GOD GET WHAT GOD WANTS
Easily the most problematic chapter for me, and honestly I feel extremely unqualified to defend of dissect exactly what Bell is saying here without much more thought, study and research than finishing the book 24 hours ago will allow. Bell poses many questions here, but chief among them is this: Can a person be relegated to an “in this life only” decision to accept or reject Christ? Do you get another chance after you die? If so, how many opportunities? And for how long?

I find myself asking few, if any, of those questions. This delves far deeper into realms I think are more of an excuse to not critically examine oneself in the light of Christ, and rather ask “If I do get to choose, how long can I wait?” It does very little in helping navigate questions of faith and knowing God, and instead comes off as a proverbial “what if” of when salvation through faith in Christ is possible. I don’t disparage the question being asked though, as I personally don’t think many will sway to these extremes regarding sanctification. It smacks to me of the hyper-Calvinist approach to evangelizing that says, “It doesn’t matter who I share the Gospel with, because God’s going to choose or not choose them.” Whether you believe God chooses people or not does not negate your responsibility to fulfill the Great Commission, and whether or not you think there is validity to Bell’s question of the timeline of choice doesn’t negate your responsibility to choose Him (if indeed you believe it is your choice). The one thing I would say though, purely from conjecture, is that it seems Bell might be approaching these questions from a desire, based on his interpretation of Scripture that no one is left out, and that God’s desire is that “all would come to repentance.” Still, that leaves out the idea of accepting or rejecting Christ’s gift of salvation (or being elect), which seems less practical when tested against Scripture, and more of a “pie in the sky” idea of sanctification.

Again here we also see the idea of choice come into play, as Bell discusses our freedom to accept or reject Christ, when he says,

“Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.” (pg. 113)

Obviously Bell is, again, coming from a free-will perspective, one that says we can freely and openly reject God’s gift of salvation offered through the Cross. Ultimately, Bell contends, “Love Wins” because God loves us and gives us the freedom to choose. And because that freedom is demanded by love, we can have what we want, be it heaven, or hell. There’s much more here, but there’s more to talk about.

THERE ARE ROCKS EVERYWHERE
Bell uses the story from Exodus about Moses striking the rock to bring forth water, and then parallels it with Paul’s mention of it in one of his letters to the Corinthians, and how that rock was a symbol of Christ. He recounts numerous stories of different ways people have come to Christ, including a drug user and someone with a near-death experience who both turned their lives over to Christ. Taking a macro approach to the chapter, I’m not sure what (if any) fuss there was in what Bell is saying. He sums up the chapter in three (basically) brief points at the end.

1. Don’t be surprised at how/when/where people stumble upon the mystery of Christ, even when they aren’t necessarily looking, and don’t get offended when they use the exact language or terminology we (as Christians) use. As Bell puts it, “People come to Jesus all sorts of ways.” This isn’t a universalist creed of “all roads lead to heaven”, rather, it is the idea that all of our stories of a salvation experience are unique and diverse, all showing God’s grace and forgiveness.

2. None of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will. I would hope, since we know that we can know Him, but not exhaustively (after all, we are finite while He is infinite), we would agree on this point, regardless of background.

3. It is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies.

I would sincerely, sincerely hope that on that third point we could see more unity in the body of Christ than dissension. But in every case, there are valid ideas presented. How many times have we looked down on someone because they didn’t understand the “Christianese” we speak to one another? How many times have you corrected someone for using a term, in your head if not out loud, because it didn’t match up with “the lingo”? And is it really impossible to think of a way that an individual can come to Christ? If we say “all things are possible with God”, doesn’t that mean that….ALL things are possible with God? Can any of us really say we know all there is to know about the mystery of Christ? Even the Apostle Paul makes mention of this mystery. And finally, do any of us really know with certainty what eternity waits a person when they die? Is it even for us to say? It’s not a matter of a discussion about where you go when you die, or what happens after we leave this temporal flesh. It has everything to do with matters of the heart, and the inward things we can’t see about each other while we judge the exterior things we can see.

THE GOOD NEWS IS BETTER THAN THAT
Anyone who’s read “Velvet Elvis” knows this chapter already. In “Velvet Elvis”, Rob Bell states the following:

“Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for. The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust. Ours or God’s.” – p. 146

This is the heart of the chapter, and if you’ve read “Velvet Elvis”, you know that much of what he’s saying here is an expounding on what he said in that book. This causes monumental problems in many camps, as it jumps headfirst into the discussion of penal substitutionary atonement (that is, that Christ bore on Himself the iniquity of us all). I’ll be honest in telling you that I’m still digging around in this point of Bell’s book more than anything else, because I want to fully grasp and comprehend what he is saying, rather than take what either side asserts and embrace it as my own. Herein lies the point of contention from the book, as well as the counter-point to what Bell has said, provided from Kevin DeYoung’s review.

““Let’s be very clear, then,” Bell states, “we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer.” (pg. 182) I see no place in Bell’s theology for Christ the curse-bearer (Gal. 3:13), or Christ wounded for our transgressions and crushed by God for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10), no place for the Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), no place for the Savior who was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), no place for the sorrowful suffering Servant who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sake (Mark 14:36).”

I’m not entirely sure I follow there, as I view this a bit differently than DeYoung. I see it that because God rescues us, He provided a sacrifice in His Son that was the curse-bearer, wounded for our transgressions, gave His life as a ransom for many, etc. It’s not in spite of this that He rescues us, it’s because of it. I do, however, understand the assertion that “not needing to be rescued from God” lends itself to a God who is not full of wrath for sin and wrong, which is where the jury is still out in regards to Bell and what he puts forth here. Still, it seems a finer point of a more basic theological debate between limited and unlimited atonement, and one that involves more reading into than actual poor theology. I’m no theologian, though, and so I give myself the space to be wrong here. As I hear this point discussed, though, it definitely seems to come down to a reformed/non-reformed theological point. I’ve not heard many outside reformed circles take issue with this point. I’ve heard tons of reformed guys take issue. That’s not a criticism, only an observation.

Bell contends (based in his belief in unlimited atonement) that Jesus died for all, regardless of if they acknowledge Him or not. This has been a point of contention since “Velvet Elvis” came out, and will continue on long after this book is no longer discussed on a daily basis on the internet. The argument comes from two different camps in Christendom. It isn’t the first time atonement has been debated, and it won’t be the last.

CONCLUSION
I walked away from “Love Wins” neither embracing every page, nor rending my clothes in disgust. I think he has asked questions that we need not be afraid of, and even some questions that NEED to be asked. The thing about Rob Bell is that he’s not just the pastor of a church. He’s an artist, he’s a poet, and he’s speaker. When you put that combination of expressions together, things become less straight-forward. Some cannot reconcile that. I’m not defending it, and I’m not saying its right, I’m saying it happens. Bell has always had a flair for the artistic (NOOMA anyone?), so for him to ask left-of-center questions should come as a shock to no one. To hear him phrase things in such a way as to rub against the grain of the “ordinary” should come as a shock to no one. It’s Rob Bell, it’s how he’s always been, and he’s not likely to change anytime soon in that regard.

I have wondered numerous times in the last few weeks, though, if this is, at its base, a question of free will vs. predestination. I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s a question of reformed vs. non-reformed theology. Perhaps that’s not even a correct assessment, but it’s as close as I’ve come up to this point.

I wonder what the longstanding effect of so much argument really is, or if it even does any good. It appears that neither side of the debate is going to relent, or even surrender any middle ground. But I also have to assume a few things as a result of God’s sovereignty. I have to believe that He controls all things and is in all things. Nothing comes as a surprise to Him, and anything that is not of Him will not stand. So if this age old argument and the assertions of Bell are false, will it not wither and fade away? Furthermore, if God calls whom He will, wouldn’t anyone whom He had already predestined to accept Him do so anyway, regardless of the teachings of someone like Rob Bell? To even take it a step further than that, what if any of what Bell is saying is true? It seems some of his approach is a hope that God is big enough to do all those things we would think of as unthinkable. Again, while I may not agree with everything he’s asserting, I certainly won’t disparage the asking.

Conversely though, I also wonder what impact this is having on the world outside Christianity looking in. Because again, if God chooses whom He will, His sovereignty will reign and men and women will be drawn to Him by His Spirit, regardless of the infighting we do as believers. But to a world watching the actions of those who claim to be followers of Christ, it appears, at least on the surface, to be a bunch of family arguing that results in very little. It’s a family thing, something that they cannot relate to and that they may not even understand. In the end, we’re called to be a light to those who are in need of the same grace we are, provided through Christ. Is the best way to exhibit that by fighting with one another over things we believe will wither and fade away and not stand the test of time?

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Comments

  • Jeremy Ritch  On March 21, 2011 at 11:56 am

    Great job. I enjoyed your review and your level headedness.

  • Scott  On March 21, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    Great review, Jeff. I haven’t read the book yet but this is the first thing I’ve read that actually made me want to. In fact, I can hardly believe that the book you reviewed and the other reviews I’ve read could be talking about the same thing! Really, really interesting that you couch this as a (possible) debate between reformed and not-reformed theology. I keep thinking, “really? Could that be the whole thing?” then I think about all I know about Christians and then think – yeah probably is. But anyway, I am gonna read the book now. Thanks, man! Talk more this week!

  • Darryl Ford  On March 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Very thought provoking bro. I am still working through the book so I will reserve judgment until I finish it. I will say that it may be a bit simplistic to assert that this issue is a Reformed/non reformed one. There are several Arminians that take issue with Bells books. Arminian Today is a popular Arminian blog that serves as an example http://arminiantoday.blogspot.com/2011/02/quick-thoughts-on-rob-bell-stuff.html.

    Also, in fairness, I’m not sure that the issue of Christian “infighting” is altogether a reason not to speak out against (what one may believe to be) false teaching. Imagine what the Roman world thought when Paul called out Hermenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:20. Or Phyletus in 2 Tim 2:17. I’m not saying that DeYoung, Taylor, Piper were necessarily right to do it, again I’ll have to make that determination upon reading the book in it’s entirety.

    I think you ask good questions in your conclusion. One additional one that I have is, what if his views (whatever they may be) on Hell are incorrect? If so, how can/does that affect people’s view of the Gospel? Arminians and Calvinists alike take issue with topic and they both exalt it to a pretty high status.

    Either way, I hope that those who disagree with Bell, do so lovingly. If one surmises that he is a false teacher, I can understand their passionate polemics against him. Scripture says that false teacher are under a greater condemnation, however, I hope that before coming to a conclusion, they choose to take the seemingly objective approach you have – and actually read the book first.

    I’m sure I’ll have more to say upon completing it myself.

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