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Love, Holiness, and Eternity: Some Reflections on Rob Bell, Part 2

Love, Holiness, and Eternity: Some Reflections on Rob Bell, Part 2

In my first post about Rob Bell's book Love Wins, I told of my concerns and indicated my direction. As I mentioned, I think you should read Kevin DeYoung's review for a comprehensive response. (His review is about ¼ the length of the actual book.)

Bell has responded that some have slandered him (and some have responded to his response). To those responding to Bell's response by getting upset at Bell because of this complaint, let's remember two things:

1. He probably is not talking about you (and, sorry, he did not read your blog) and
2. I have seen a lot of the normal bad criticism that reminds me of my early comments on criticism. Rob's response here does not really address good criticism, but it does make a good point at the end--you generally should not criticize books you have not read.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, I think Rob's position is wrong and unhelpful, but he also has been slandered. Both are true.

In my brief critique, I wanted to respond with more than just review. As I see it, Bell has the intention to give insight into the character of God, but I find his view difficult to defend from a biblical perspective. Again, many others have made a point-by-point rebuttal of Rob Bell's optimistic inclusivism but I don't intend to do that here. Rather, I hope to respond rather than review--and I will hopefully make my points from the scriptures in a way that is helpful.

As I mentioned in Part 1, in 2008, I coauthored the book Compelled by Love with Philip Nation. It was not controversial and Sally Quinn did not offer to interview me about the subject matter. ;-) Yet, since both Rob Bell and Philip/I have written a book on the love of God, it seemed worth mentioning.

Leadership Journal was kind enough to include it in their Missional Family Tree that placed it in good company with other (more) significant writers. For that I was grateful, because the hope in writing the book was twofold. First, it was to present a biblical case for missional living. Second, it was to show love as a primary motivator for missional living as it is within the revealed character of God. So, I do believe love wins--but it wins, that is it saves lost men and women, as we live on mission compelled by the love of Jesus. The love of God must be tied to the mission of God.

In Bell's book, he opens up by saying that the very narrative of God's redemptive plan has been lost. He wrote, "The plot has been lost, and it's time to reclaim it" (Bell, vi). It is certainly true that God's plan can be misconstrued, but to say that we have collectively lost the plot is certainly putting hyperbole into overdrive. Bell maintains that the church simply does not understand the divine plan for redemption. But, his book is the answer to the problems. Perhaps, this is where Bell's view and mine depart from one another.

But if we say that the plot is lost, then what do you do with the Bible? If there is a need regarding the reclamation of the story, it has much more to do with our reverence for and submission to the authority of Scripture than anything. It is not that the church has lost its moorings about its mission, but that we have simply not submitted to our responsibility.

Obviously from the title of Compelled by Love, the book is centered on the following verses:

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 (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

Though I do not wish to characterize the entirety of scripture to hang on these two verses, it is nevertheless an ample starting point to understand the plotline of God's redemptive plan.

Bell maintains that the orthodox view of hell as physical and eternal punishment for the sinner presents a weak God, not fit for the allegiance of man. He sees it as "devastating ... psychologically crushing ... terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable" (Bell, 136-7). In the face of a poor and pathetic deity, I would concur - if I believed that Bell was right about God. But God is not this pitiable entity unable to stand in the face of evil. In fact, he stands against it and chooses to dismiss it from his presence.

Regarding God's just dismissal of sin and sinners, Philip/I wrote:

All people outside of a relationship with God are placed under judgment. His wrath will come upon them in a manner more horrible than the human mind can imagine--a total separation from any relationship with Him due to their sinful nature. On earth, we suffer without His personal presence but enjoy a common grace given to all human beings. In eternity, however, His absence will be felt in a place of never-ending pain, sorrow, and darkness--a place in which not even a wisp of His grace is present. (Stetzer/Nation, 54)

I don't write that with glee. To be honest, I am not particularly thrilled that it is true. But, I can't escape the scriptural teaching that points to it. And I cannot avoid that it is rooted in the holiness of God.

So, because of the love of God, we must live "compelled by love"--Christ's love--to tell what is "of first importance" according to 1 Corinthians 15:3. It is that Christ has died and has risen so that, by grace through faith, we might avoid the punishment that is necessary and just for sin. That is not the totality of the gospel, but it is certainly central to the orthodox understanding of it.

On the whole, I believe that Bell portrays God as different from the best reading of Scripture. And, I know that he would disagree with me on that point. But I would maintain that the removal of the idea that God will judge those outside of salvation when they appear before Him after death is contrary to the Scriptures. In the end, I do not believe that "love wins." Rather, I believe that God wins because redemption is offered, restoration will occur, judgment will be satisfied, and His glory will be known.

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

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