Note: This post is long. You can go here for a PDF version of the 20-page review.
Love Wins, by megachurch pastor Rob Bell, is, as the subtitle suggests, “a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Here’s the gist: 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 for 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.
Bell correctly notes (many times) that God is love. He also observes that Jesus is Jewish, the resurrection is important, and the phrase “personal relationship with God” is not in the Bible. He usually makes his argument by referencing Scripture. He is easy to read and obviously feels very deeply for those who have been wronged or seem to be on the outside looking in.
Unfortunately, beyond this, there are dozens of problems with Love Wins. The theology is heterodox. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.
A Few Preliminaries
Before going any further with a critique, a number of preliminary comments are in order. A few opening remarks may help put this critical review in context and encourage productive responses.
One, although Bell asks a lot of questions (350 by one count), we should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising. Bell did not write an entire book because he was looking for some good resources on heaven and hell. This isn’t the thirteen-year-old in your youth group asking her teacher, “How can a good God send people to hell?” Any pastor worth his covenant salt will welcome sincere questions like this. (“Good question, Jenny, let’s see what the Bible says about that.”) But Bell is a popular teacher of a huge church with a huge following. This book is not an invitation to talk. It’s him telling us what he thinks (nothing wrong with that). As Bell himself writes, “But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (19).
Two, we should notice the obvious: this is a book. It is a book with lots of Scripture references. It is a book that draws from history and personal experience. It makes a case for something. It purports one story of Christianity to be better than another. Bell means to persuade. He wants to convince us of something. He is a teacher teaching. This book is not a poem. It is not a piece of art. This is a theological book by a pastor trying to impart a different way of looking at heaven and hell. Whether Bell is creative or a provocateur is beside the point. If Bell is inconsistent, unclear, or inaccurate, claiming the “artist” mantle is no help.
Three, I’m sure that many people looking to defend Bell will be drawn to a couple escape hatches he launches along the way. As you’ll see, the book is a sustained attack on the idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins. This is the traditional Christianity he finds “misguided and toxic” (viii). But in one or two places Bell seems more agnostic.
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires. (115)
These are strange sentences because they fall in the chapter where Bell argues that God wants everyone to be saved and God gets what God wants. He tells us that “never-ending punishment” does not give God glory, and “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts” (108). So it’s unclear where the sudden agnosticism comes from. Is Bell wrestling with himself? Did a friend or editor ask him to throw in a few caveats? Is he simply inconsistent?
Similarly, at the end Bell argues, rather out of the blue, that we need to trust God in the present, that our choices here and now “matter more than we can begin to imagine” because we can miss out on rewards and celebrations (197). This almost looks like an old-fashioned call to turn to Christ before it’s too late. When you look more carefully, however, you see that Bell is not saying what evangelicals might think. He wants us to make the most of life because “while we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again” (197). In other words, there are consequences for our actions, in this life and in the next, and we can’t get this moment back; but there will always be more chances. If you don’t live life to the fullest and choose love now, you may initially miss out on some good things in the life to come, but in the end love wins (197–198).
For anyone tempted to take these few lines and make Bell sound orthodox, I encourage you to read the whole book more carefully. Likewise, before you rush to accept that Bell believes in hell and believes Christ is the only way, pay attention to his conception of hell and in what way he thinks Jesus is the only way. Bad theology usually sneaks in under the guise of familiar language. There’s a reason he’s written 200 pages on why you must be deluded to think people end up in eternal conscious punishment under the just wrath of God. Words mean something, even when some of them seem forced or out of place. Take the book as a whole to get Bell’s whole message.
Four, it is possible that I (like other critics) am mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel. But voicing strong disagreement does not automatically make me any of these. Judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments. The same Jesus who said “do not judge” in Matthew 7:1 calls his opponents dogs and pigs in Matthew 7:6. Paul pronounces an anathema on those who preach a false gospel (Gal. 1:8). Disagreement among professing Christians is not a plague on the church. In fact, it is sometimes necessary. The whole Bible is full of evaluation and encourages the faithful to be discerning and make their own evaluations. What’s tricky is that some fights are stupid, and some judgments are unfair and judgmental. But this must be proven, not assumed. Bell feels strongly about this matter of heaven and hell. So do a lot of other people. Strong language and forceful arguments are appropriate.
Five, I am not against conversation. What I am against is false teaching. I did not go to the trouble of writing a review because I worry that God can’t handle our questions. The question is never whether God can handle our honest reappraisals of traditional Christianity, but whether he likes them.
On the subject of conversation, it’s worth pointing out that this book actually mitigates against further conversation. For starters, there’s the McLarenesque complaint about the close-minded traditionalists who don’t allow for questions, change, and maturity (ix). This is a kind of pre-emptive “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach to conversation (cf. 183). In essence, “Let’s talk, but I know already that the benighted and violent will hate my theology.” That hardly invites further dialogue. More practically, Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when he is less than careful in backing them up.
Six, this is not an evangelistic work, not in the traditional sense anyway. The primary intended audience appears to be not so much secularists with objections to Christianity (á la Keller’s Reason for God), but disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with. Bell writes for the “growing number” who have become aware that the Christian story has been “hijacked” (vii). Love Wins is for those who have heard a version of the gospel that now makes their stomachs churn and their pulses rise, and makes them cry out, “I would never be a part of that” (viii). This is a book for people like Bell, people who grew up in an evangelical environment and don’t want to leave it completely, but want to change it, grow up out of it, and transcend it. The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.
Over and over, Bell refers to the “staggering number” of people just like him, people who can’t believe the message they used to believe, people who want nothing to do with traditional Christianity, people who don’t want to leave the faith but can’t live in the faith they once embraced. I have no doubt there are many people like this inside and outside our churches. Some will leave the faith altogether. Others-and they are in the worse position-will opt for liberalism, which has always seen itself as a halfway house between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief.
But before we let Bell and others write the present story, we must remember that there are also a “staggering number” of young people who want the straight up, unvarnished truth. They want doctrinal edges and traditional orthodoxy. They want no-holds-barred preaching. They don’t want to leave traditional Christianity. They are ready to go deeper into it.
Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions-back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.
Where to Begin?
With those as preliminaries, you know this won’t be a brief review.
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