Love Wins? Rob Bell Book Review

imageI dreaded reading Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions. It has stirred up so much controversy – online, on the radio, on American television, on John Piper’s twitter, apparently – that I almost felt that I had already read the book before I opened it up.

I dreaded reviewing the book even more, because it seems to me the way the debate about the book has been framed is that you must either come out for or against Bell and his positions. As Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have aptly observed, that’s something people who are involved with or have sympathies with ‘emergent’ Christianity are reluctant to do. 

Anyone who has remotely followed the controversy surrounding the book will know that the biggest question it has provoked is whether Bell is a ‘universalist.’ In other words, does he believe that everyone will be saved? That everyone will go to heaven? That no one will end up in hell for all eternity?

In short, yes (though Bell resists the label ‘universalist’). But there’s a longer explanation for why Bell thinks this is so. I suppose that is why he has written an entire book to elaborate on it.

Love Wins is not tightly reasoned apologetics. It is rather like a poem, words that were written to be read out loud, to be listened to. You can get a feel for this in the promotional trailer for the book, where Bell recites portions of the opening chapter.

LOVE WINS. – Available March 15th from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

But there is some exposition. For example, in the chapters where Bell discusses ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, Bell argues that the way the writers of the Bible thought about heaven and hell is very different from the way we have come to think about them today. Accordingly, he thinks we should adjust the way we think about heaven and hell. This allows him to root his position in scripture (the book jacket describes it as ‘a deeply biblical vision’).

Though Bell’s exposition is elaborated through stories and through posing awkward, pointed questions, his position emerges clearly enough. I think DeYoung – who has written a 20-page rebuttal of Love Wins ­– represents Bell’s perspective fairly, so I’ll reproduce his summary here:

‘Hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. Hell is both a present reality for those who resist God and a future reality for those who die unready of God’s love. Hell is what we make of heaven when we cannot accept the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But hell is not forever. God will have his way. How can his good purposes fail? Every sinner will turn to God and realize he has already been reconciled to God, in this life or in the next. There will be no eternal conscious torment. God says no to injustice in the age to come, but he does not pour out wrath (we bring the temporary suffering upon ourselves), and he certainly does not punish for eternity. In the end, love wins.’

Is that true or false? Both Bell and DeYoung are claiming that theirs is the deeply biblical vision, the one that is right. Both claim precedent for their positions, drawing on the words of the church fathers that support their positions. Both think that their vision of heaven, hell and the nature of God is the healthy, holy vision – the one that God intended and that will most help humanity here, now and in the hereafter.

Spokespeople for the emerging church, like Bell, have been criticised in the past for failing to take positions. Love Wins, at least, has taken a position, though it has done so in a soothing, poetic way – in the soft style of much of the emerging church.

But can we move beyond questions such as whether Bell is indeed a universalist? Must we frame our debate in terms of whether we agree wholeheartedly with a Bell or a DeYoung? Can we allow ourselves to ask harder questions about what their competing words say about how we think about heaven, hell and God?

And can reflecting on these questions in any way enrich the life of the wider church?

9 Responses to Love Wins? Rob Bell Book Review

  1. wesley Ellis April 26, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Rob’s views are more palatable more acceptable to many than the truth that those who reject Christ will spend eternity in hell, why wouldn’t they be? I know if I could reject the clams of Christ, live like I wanted to live and still have a “get out of jail free card” I would feed my baser instincts, maybe setup a dictatorship and horde money marginalise the poor, take advantage of others and maybe do all and anything to get what I wanted. Sure what the hell, Love wins in the end, I’m going to heaven!!

  2. anonyjonnny April 26, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Wesley, if you lived out the lifestyle that you postulate, all the while cynically calculating that God will reprieve you in the end, then that is the antithesis of love, in either divine or human relationships. That’s not what Bell is talking about; I’d argue that it’s disingenuous to equate the two visions. It certainly serves as a less-than-adequate rebuttal of Bell (if that was your intention).

    There are several models of atonement in Christian theology. Bell is presenting one of them.

    Likewise, there are a lot of ways of interpreting the ‘claims of Christ’. It’s never been as simple as either accepting or rejecting them.

    The Christian vision is a fractured one, a dichotomy, a tension, and a mass of contradictions. It would be realistic to describe it as a community of people who ‘accept’ Christ to be divine, yet see him hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison and sick, yet lift not a finger to help him.

    It is a community of people who worship as divine a man who told his followers to give away their second coat to one who has not coat, yet do not do it, and in fact hoard up coats.

    It is a community of people who worship as divine a man who specifically told his followers to give alms in secret, yet post their fund-raising successes on the internet.

    It is a community of people who worship as divine a man who told someone to sell all that they had, give it to the poor and follow him, and insist that that was either strictly for that one individual, or merely allegorical, yet many of whom insist on believing that the cosmos was created in 144 hours (despite all visible evidence) and ruined by the actions of a talking snake.

    Bell is postulating; wondering; trying to speak the unspeakable. He’s not my favourite author, but what he is trying to do is very human. And we were created to be human.

    I’ll finish with a quote:

    “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.” – Søren Kierkegaard

  3. wesley Ellis April 26, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    My tongue was firmly in my cheek I must state anonyjonnny, yet I do believe that there exists a temptation (for some) to take such a view! I do also believe that many Christians would wish to deter such an idea from being propagated as a way of sidestepping the claims of Christ, who himself taught about an eternal hell, and humans being there!

  4. Martin April 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm #

    Mr Bell wants to sell books. Controversy helps sell books.

    Mr Bell ignores free will: if we are free, we must be free to eternally embrace or reject God. If we all end up with God anyway (whether we like it or not), what happened our free will? Bell’s theory rides roughshod over free will. It makes of each soul an automaton who can’t help but end up in heaven loving God whether he wants to or not.

    Anyhow, love does indeed win in the end. Even in hell, God’s love reigns: the flames of the fires of hell are nothing other than the flames of the fire of God’s love which burn up and torment all that is not love.

    If we love God, we will be saved. We will become love and will burn with joy in the intense fire of God’s love. If we spurn love, love will burn us forever. God is not vindictive: God is love, and He burns, whatever way you look at Him.

  5. anonyjonnny April 27, 2011 at 6:59 am #

    Fair enough, Wesley. I withdraw Kierkegaard, who should only be deployed to counter truly sloppy thinking:-)

  6. Paul McCabe April 27, 2011 at 9:54 am #

    Martin, have you actually read Bell’s book? The last thing Bell does is ignore free will. There is chapter upon chapter about the way people CHOOSE to make heaven and hell for themselves, here on this earth, and maybe for a time in the hereafter. Think you should read what you condemn, before you condemn it.

  7. Martin April 27, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Paul, I know exactly what it is that Bell proposes. An eternal hell is part of the Deposit of Faith. No get out of jail card, no parole. To lull people into any kind of illusion about that is cruel and quite demonic. Hell is real, people do go there, this is what we must make people aware of.

    The eternal nature of hell is stressed throughout the New Testament. For example, in Mark 9:47–48 Jesus warns us, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” In Revelation 14:11, we read: “And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”

    Hell is not just a theoretical possibility. Jesus warns us that real people go there. He says, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14).

    Timothy (2. Tim. 4:3) had this to say:

    For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.

    In 1 Tim. 4 we read:

    Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions through the hypocrisy of liars with branded consciences.

    It’s all there. We have been warned.

  8. Gladys Ganiel April 27, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    A friend on facebook just put a link to this review of the book, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/books/review/an-evangelical-pastor-opens-the-gates-of-heaven.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&emc=eta1

  9. Tanya Jones April 29, 2011 at 12:36 am #

    Without having read the book (I’ve downloaded the sample to my Kindle just now) I can’t really comment, although from your review and those you refer to (there are also some interesting ones on Amazon) it seems to me that Bell isn’t really saying anything other than that which mainstream thoughtful Christian writers such as Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen have said before. (Maybe I’ve been away from evangelicalism for too long.) One point I would like to take up from the most recommended review on Amazon is the connection with The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, particularly the conversation between the narrator and George MacDonald. If anyone hasn’t read it, I recommend it most highly – I think it’s the greatest of Lewis’s books and illuminates the mysteries of heaven and hell unlike anything else. It’s very short, too! Happy Easter, by the way, to you all.

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