Rob Bell’s LOVE WINS: a well-intentioned near-miss

Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Everyone Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) is making waves. Bell – pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – calls the Church to a re-examination of its doctrine of last things. Though there are some admirable elements in Bell’s book, readers cannot help but wonder whether they are getting the whole story. In the end, his book is unsatisfying, a poorly focused, incomplete and at times indecisive treatment of a topic that deserves better.

What is admirable in Love Wins is Rob Bell’s willingness to tackle a difficult topic. His premise is stated in the preface (p. vii):

There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.

In my lifetime, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard a sermon on hell. It is a topic that we usually steer clear from, and relegate to printed statements of faith. The problem with this avoidance is that the handful of “quacks” in our midst – those who truly do not have a pastoral bone in their body – end up filling the vacuum with a caricature of what the Bible says. This might be protestors at a military funeral, or maybe the “turn or burn” crowd handing out tracts on the beach. So Bell’s intentions are good, to address in a straightforward manner a topic that we have too long neglected.

Also on the positive side of the ledger is a helpful treatment of what we as Wesleyans call “prevenient grace,” though Rob Bell never uses the word. He speaks of a Jesus who is always surprising us, since he turns up in the places we would least expect. Like the rock that slaked the thirst of the Israelites in the desert (see 1 Cor. 10), Jesus is already present in the world (p. 152):

There are Christians who have raised support, gathered supplies, travelled thousands of miles into the farthest reaches of the globe to share the good news of Jesus with the “unreached people,” who upon hearing of Jesus for the “first time,” respond, “That’s his name? We’ve been talking about him for years.”

Bell’s claim is consonant with Romans 2:12-16, which speak of the “Gentiles” who have the law “written on their hearts,” who also have a “conscience” that bears witness to the law. Importantly, Bell does not criticize the work of missionaries. Likewise, John Wesley taught that God’s prevenient (or preceding) grace is available to all, giving a preliminary though dim light even to those who have not yet heard the Gospel message. Ours is to clarify and expand upon the initial work done through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who knows no geographical bounds.

A final strength of the book is the focus upon love, particularly the love of God. Bell is absolutely justified in criticizing the warped view sometimes given of God the Father, especially as related to the sacrifice of Jesus (p. 182):

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God had to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then; 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.

But if Bell gets some things right, other aspects of his book must be criticized. These can be classified under three general headings:

1) poor focus

2) inadequate interpretation, and

3) an indecisive style

Poor focus

Love Wins opens with a chapter entitled “What about the flat tire?” The chapter begins in a promising way, speaking about hell, but soon loses focus. Before long he is piling up questions about the various “Jesuses” that Scripture and different preachers present, including diverse meanings of the word “saved.” It is all interesting, but after a few pages, it left me wondering where he was going with all of this. The chapter ends with an abrupt transition (p. 19): “And so, away we go. First, heaven.” If the editor had deleted chapter one entirely, nothing would have been lost, and much gained.

Inadequate interpretation

Besides poor focus, a much more damaging criticism is Rob Bell’s inadequate interpretation, whether of the Bible or historical figures. Where the Bible is concerned, two examples are sufficient to illustrate his weakness. Matthew 25:31-46 tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, where the goats go away into “eternal punishment” (kolasin aiōnion) but the sheep to “eternal life” (zōain aiōnion ) – see v.46. In regards to punishment, Bell insists that “Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever”(p. 93).

Bell’s position is not new, but is problematic. New Testament scholar George Lyons notes that the adjective “eternal” is applied to both the “punishment” and the “life.” If the punishment for the goats is only for a time, then the life for the sheep is likewise only for a time. John 3:16 uses the exact word (aiōnion) to describe “everlasting life.” If we accept what Bell proposes, then the life we inherit in Jesus is not everlasting, but of limited duration. Are we ready to concede as much?

Furthermore, sometimes Rob Bell seems unaware that his word-pictures conjure up biblical images that in-fact teach the opposite of his position. Bell asks (p. 108):

Could God say something to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, “Sorry, too late?” Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: “Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late.”

Does this sound familiar? It should, since it is exactly how the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 ends. Strangely, Bell appears oblivious to the warning of the Parable, instead twisting it to fit his telling of the story. In his defense, Bell does cite the Parable later, but there it is only to encourage people not to “miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities” (p. 197). This is soft-pedalling a dire warning from Christ, that there is a limited window in which we must respond to God’s offer in Christ. When we die, we face judgment (Heb. 9:27).

Apart from inadequate biblical interpretation, Rob Bell makes questionable use of some theological “heavyweights” from history. He quotes Martin Luther in favor of purgatory (p. 106), what Bell calls a “’second chance’ for those who didn’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime” (Ibid.). Fred Hall’s reading of Luther casts doubt upon Bell’s interpretation. Hall notes that as early as 1530, Luther was already rebutting arguments in favor of purgatory. (See Looking into the Future, Baker Academic, 2001, p. 140).It would appear that Bell has selectively quoted Luther, to suit his own purposes.

Another instance of presenting only part of the story is Rob Bell’s citing of Origen as an example of an early Church theologian who “affirmed God’s reconcilation with all people” (p. 107). What Bell fails to mention is that Origen was ex-communicated from the Church, in-part because of his position that everyone, regardless of their response to the Gospel in this life, would eventually be saved. In fairness, Bell is not alone in flirting with Origen’s universalism. Nels F.S. Ferré, the late professor of theology at Andover Newton Theological School, taught that God’s love would empty hell. However, most evangelical churches in our time shy away from such an overly optimistic view, despite the gravity of the traditional (and historically mainstream) position. In any case, Bell is keen to present his view as one equally valid choice among several. He does not make his case. Yes, universalism is present in some early theologians, but it is also historically the view of a tiny minority of Christian thinkers. The reader is welcome to adopt it, of course, but should do so eyes wide open.

Indecisive style

A final criticism of Love Wins is its sometimes indecisive style. The reader can be forgiven for thinking that understanding Bell is like nailing jello to the wall. One thinks they know where he stands – whether you agree with him or not – then he argues the counterpoint!Who is the real Mr. Bell?

Chapter 4 is an example of his having a foot in each camp. The title, “Does God get what God wants?” sets up nine pages of argument in favor of an inclusive position, namely, that God as our loving Father will indeed get what He wants, and what He wants is to fulfill His good purposes: “This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.” (p. 101) Perhaps Bell intuits that an exaggerated view of God’s sovereignty lurks below the service, i.e. that if God is God, how can any one ultimately resist His overtures? To address this, he turns to an explanation of the nature of love, and how it must be freely given: “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” (p. 113).

What Rob Bell has given with the one hand (God will get his way eventually), he takes away with the other (We can resist God, and insist on our own way). Which is it, Mr. Bell? It cannot be both. To leave it as you have is to leave an unresolved tension, and it is annoyingly indecisive. The reader ends up wondering where Bell stands, if anywhere, and may wonder whether he has been toying with them all along.

Conclusion

Rob Bell is to be commended for having the courage to address a topic that many dread to bring up. Love Wins contains some good insights, but suffers from deficiencies that need not be there, particularly since it was written by a person with advanced theological training. Thankfully, more carefully crafted books are out there covering some of the same ground, such as Tim Keller’s The Reason for God (2008), which argues a traditional and convincing view of hell, without giving away the proverbial store, as Bell appears to do. That does not rule out for me a second look at future revisions of Love Wins, if Bell and his editor are willing to do the careful work they should have done in the first place. A passable book could have been much better.

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