Love, Holiness, and Eternity: Some Reflections on Rob Bell, Part 1

Much to my frustration, I was not able to publish a review of Rob Bell's Love Wins for you along with the swarm of others when it came out. I had received the book about a week or so before it was published, read it twice, and had prepared a somewhat lengthy review (not compared to Kevin DeYoung's reviewum opus). But nonetheless it shared some thoughts about several elements of the book. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that it was lost in technology world-- and I still have not figured out what happened. Sigh.

Either way, since much of the detailed reviewing has been done, I have not reproduced my original writing. The need for that has seemed to pass. Instead, I will share a few thoughts over the next few days about the concepts of love, holiness, and eternity.

It probably goes without saying that it is a well-written and engaging book. Though I don't find it particularly theologically hefty, it certainly is creative, fast-moving, and attention grabbing, as all of Rob Bell's writings tend to be. However, I think it has some fundamental premises that simply are wrong. I will try to critique them briefly (but hopefully fairly), and then present some alternative ideas in the coming days.

Martin Bashir's interview interview hit at a key issue of the book (though I found his interview style to be a bit abrasive). The book represents a desire, and certainly a well meaning one, to recast Christianity in a more favorable light. Coming from a non-Christian family, I find that appealing. I want it to be true. I want it to work. Yet, I think that project will ultimately fail. Actually, I think it has already failed in mainline Protestantism. It requires us to reject too much scripture to fit into our cultural sensibilities. Rob Bell's views may be more appealing in contemporary culture, but it falls short of faithfully proclaiming what the scriptures teach--just read Jesus' frequent comments about the afterlife and eternal consequences.

I think the clear and overwhelming rejection of Bell's views by orthodox Christians (with often lengthy scriptural responses) indicates that this is clearly in error on several points. I actually had originally prepared a list of those, but as others have done so aptly, there is no need to repeat that process here. There have been few defenders in orthodox Christianity of Bell's thesis--and rightly so. Even Mark Galli, tentmaster of evangelicalism's "Big Tent" (Christianity Today) believes it is a bridge too far. Galli's right.

If there has been one well-known evangelical defender who has engaged on the subject, it has been Richard Mouw. I must confess, I find his comments confusing. To say that an optimistic inclusivist view (some might say a "mostly" universalist) is well within the realm of orthodox Christianity is odd. It has been present, but as a small minority. And, it would be even "smaller" in evangelicalism. Perhaps Mouw's comments point to the shift that has been experienced in segments of evangelicalism. I will be writing more on that in the days to some. Others have written about an "evangelical tipping point" represented by this moment and I think they are right.

Yet, I would agree that there has always been a minority tradition within the Christian faith that Christ saves everyone regardless of the response they give to Christ in this life. However, the position has been considered to be in error by the vast majority of orthodox Christians (and just about ALL evangelicals). For that matter, I don't think that Love Wins is the most compelling statement of that view. You would find a more compelling and better-written thesis (with some differences) in A Wideness of God's Mercy of Clark Pinnock or some of the writings by John Sanders.

Now, that is not to say that we cannot learn from our mainline friends. I read many mainline thinkers and find their scholarship strong and their thinking challenging. Yet, I think Lisa Miller of Newsweek asked the question that needed an answer. She asked Rob Bell, "Aren't you just a mainline Protestant posing as an evangelical? Aren't you just saying what Episcopalians have been saying for fifty or sixty years?" (Be sure to read the whole interview here. I don't think he answers the question she asked, but his answers and ideas are worth reading)

Bell has largely recast and tweaked the view that many mainline Protestants have held for a hundred years: that because of God's love, he saves everyone, regardless. This is not new. This is not groundbreaking. This is not revolutionary.

In many ways, Rob Bell's Love Wins is simply mainline Protestantism with better haircuts and cooler music. Similar statements could have been made at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 or later (with some modification) in Karl Rahner's concept of the Anonymous Christian.

I do think you should read the book-- it addresses questions your friends are asking. And, it will be influential. And, you should wrestle with the scriptures for the answers and be compelled to act by what you find.

With all of that stated, I think that what Rob Bell has written is outside of the realm of the historic Christian view and more in line with the mainline Protestant view (and, yes, I am saying that the historic Christian view is not the modern mainline Protestant view). Since Bell relates to evangelicals and is read by many in the evangelical tradition, it appears that the book is geared toward (in part) persuading evangelicals. Thus, Love Wins seeks to provoke and persuade us to a new view that I (and other evangelicals) see as theologically problematic. And, as such, it is unhelpful to the church and ultimately accomplishes little of what he intended. (I will explain more in the coming posts.)

Yet, Bell appeals to the love of God. And, I love the love of God and consider it worthy of our consideration.

My exhortation (to all of us) from the Bell conversation is that we (re)learn how the scriptural truths of the love of God and the holiness of God are held simultaneously in the scriptures. Unfortunately, I think Bell comes up short in considering their partnership and instead pits them against one another. Furthermore, I think that we might consider how our view of love impacts our view of the work of God.

Now, it's probably no secret, and I should reveal my own bias early on, that I have a different view of what the love of God does and how we are to understand it.

I think the scriptures teach us that we are compelled by love in how we are to live out our faith and God's mission. In 2008, I co-authored a book on the subject with Philip Nation. Over the next week or so, I'll offer a few more blog posts reflecting on Rob Bell's view of God's love with a response to it. Along the way, I'll use excerpts from my book, Compelled By Love.

But for now, I'll simply leave you with a thought for the next installment. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Paul wrote, "For Christ compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised." I believe the best understanding of God's love is that it does not teach us that all are saved but it does teach us that God's people are sent to announce the good news of the gospel to all. We will explore that distinction and others in the coming days.

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay's Missiologist in Residence. Adapted from Ed Stetzer's weblog at