Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
New York: HarperOne, 2011
Review: Usually, I do not succumb to the pressure of reviewing new, flash-in-the-pan books. I figure that in a year I’ll be able to buy the book for a buck in a bargain bookstore somewhere. Also, a year seems to allow enough time for the smoke to clear and a better perspective gained. Well, I caved! Probably, in a year from now, I will be looking in a bargain bookstore, see Love Wins for a dollar, curse at myself for paying full price, pick it up, flip to the contents and controversy, and think, “Oh, yeah, I remember this book… it’s by that guy, Rob Bell, who used to be an evangelical but became a universalist…although he denies it... I can’t believe I paid full price for this book a year ago.” That’s usually how it goes…
BIO: I normally separate my summary from my evangelical evaluation, but I decided not to follow that pattern for this review. Who is Rob Bell? Well, I can’t really tell you that, but here is some biographical information that I can tell you. Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI and has authored several books such as: Velvet Elvis and Sex God. He completed his education at Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Since its publication, this work, Love Wins, has been the center of a storm of controversy and accusations – some true; some false.
Preface/Chapter 1: The laborious exercise of reading the Preface and Chapter One caused me to take a break before reading further. After being hit by his machine gun spray of, sometimes ridiculous, questions and implied answers, I just needed to dress my wounds and recover for a time. Admittedly, he raises some real questions, but for me, the immediate problem of the preface and chapter one does not involve the questions as much as how he will arrive at his answers? In the preface, Rob Bell says, “And then, last of all, please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught suggested, or celebrated by many before me” (X). So, his comments are meant to say that nothing taught in this book is outside the scope of historic, orthodox Christianity. When I read statements like this, my immediate thought is “I hope so!” My follow-up thought, “Great, I probably need to brace myself for what’s coming!” Usually, those who use that line are going to present a minority opinion at best.
Chapter 2: It speaks of heaven. There is much to commend in this chapter. He challenges the notion that heaven is somewhere else. Also, he identifies the conservative preoccupation with who’s in or who’s out at the expense of how we live in relation to God now. According to Bell, we should begin to live now as we will live in the age to come. He says, “What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now” (46). Agreed! So, we should seek to constantly grow in our relationship to God and others now. Where Bell hints at something “hinky” going on is when talking about our being a part of the age to come based upon what we do now (51-54). In speaking of the thief on the cross who responds positively to Jesus, Bell’s illustration in this section unintentionally highlights that it is who you know that makes the difference (54-55), but that tends to counter his point about life lived now making the determination of eternal life. Much of what Bell says in this chapter is basic to Kingdom Theology concerning the “already, but not yet” concept. Much of the current teaching on Kingdom Theology originated with George Eldon Ladd, longtime professor at Fuller Seminary, which is where Bell went to seminary. Obviously, Ladd died in 1982, and this is pure conjecture, but I wonder how much of his theology remains?
Chapter 3: What the “Hell”? Yes, I just had to say it. Chapter Three covers Rob Bell’s view of hell, “Bell’s Hell”? While I thought that there were some vague hints of this earlier, Bell makes more of his position explicit. Hell is restorative punishment, retributive justice (85). From what he has said already, it seems that our actions in this life do have eternal consequences, but ultimately only good consequences? In this chapter, he begins by tracing the scriptural history of hell. The Old Testament does not have much to say about it, but the New Testament is another story. Bell says that he believes in a literal hell, but then proceeds to make it “hell on earth” instead of eternal punishment (71). He redefines and personalizes it. Frankly, I find much implied and hinted at, but not much explicitly said in this chapter until toward the end of it (83ff.). So, he argues for the redemption of Sodom, which rests on Ezekiel’s and Jesus’ comments, but his interpretations are debatable. Again, his interpretation of Paul’s handing various ones over to Satan (1 Timothy; 1 Corinthians) is also highly dubious. Even more doubtful is his translation of Matthew 25. Concerning his interpretation of “‘aion’ of ‘kolazo’” (91), New Testament scholar, D. A. Carson, says, “But in apocalyptic and eschatological contexts, the word not only connotes ‘pertaining to the [messianic] age’ but, because that age is always lived in God’s presence, also ‘everlasting’” (522). In my brief survey of commentaries, these words simply do not mean what Bell claims. His case is repeatedly constructed on highly suspect interpretations of Scripture.
Chapter 4: In Chapter Four, two things become very obvious, very quickly. First, Bell continues to build upon his previously distorted interpretations of Scripture (chapter 3), and second, he initially ignores his own principle of human free will (72) only to return to and say that all people will ultimately, freely choose God (116ff.) after multiple chances. His basic claim in this chapter is that unbelievers’ choosing to reject God and going to hell is incompatible with the character of God. Because of God’s love, he accomplishes his purposes by giving people multiple chances to be saved, even after death. I believe that this emphasizes God’s love to the neglect of God’s holiness. Bell’s “Multiple Chance Theology” after death (which is what makes it a form of universalism) sounds good and is very appealing. What Christian doesn’t want their unbelieving family and friends to ultimately be with them in heaven? Yet, the problem is that it contradicts Scripture. Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). I wish this was not true, but truth is not dependent on what sounds acceptable to me or our culture. We die and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27).
Chapter 5: After reading four chapters, I am finding that I do not trust Rob Bell, so to read chapter five and to find general agreement with it makes me feel like he’s somehow setting me up. Of course, he emphasizes verses that speak of God reconciling “all,” which in light of his previous chapters, does not require much imagination to figure out what that means. Also, he continues to rip Scripture out of context at will. We’ll see!
Chapter 6: This chapter speaks of Jesus’ presence in this world. From my own experience and others’, I agree that Jesus can and does make himself known in a great variety of ways. We can agree with much of what is said in this chapter. How does Jesus Christ relate to culture? That’s a question that the church constantly struggles with. The classic work on this is H. Richard Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture. The most alarming statement in this chapter is Bell’s statement, “He [Jesus] doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him” (154). Bell does not present a scholarly case for much of what he says. He is a popular writer writing popular books. If one is to hold this position, then they should at least be familiar with Clark Pinnock’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy. While there are many areas of agreement, I continue to find areas that deserve serious, scholarly discussion instead of his “pop” talk.
Chapter 7: Once again, there is much to commend this chapter. Using the multifaceted story of the Prodigal Son, Bell tells of God’s love for us from multiple perspectives. I like the idea that God retells our story according to the Gospel. His continuing discussion over hell still highlights some deficient views of God’s character. Bell presents it as a change in God’s character from love to hate if we die without a relationship to him, but this misses two things. First, while God is love, God is also holy. Grace and mercy, and righteousness and justice go hand-in-hand. Second, those, who reject God’s love, experience judgment after death. This does not indicate a change in God’s character, but a change in the type of relationship possible between God and that person. Rob Bell seems to refuse to accept that there is a point where our relationship to God is settled once-and-for-all.
Chapter 8: Saved by the Bell? I appreciate Rob Bell ending by offering an invitation to accept God’s love for us. In light of much of the previous discussion, I find the “infinitely urgent” (196) to be a contradiction since I will have multiple chances even after death to accept God’s invitation, but still, he provides an excellent presentation of the Gospel in this chapter.
Conclusion: Admittedly, I hate this style of writing. I find its stylistic nature (the actual words on the page of the book) irritating, but that’s simply a personal preference. More problematic, quoting a quantity of verses out of context does not make a book more credible, although it may seem that way to some. Another issue for me is the lack of scholarly depth. So, while there are many things with which we can agree with Rob Bell, there are many things over which we must disagree.
Bell, Robert H. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: Chapters 13 through 28 of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995).
THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible: New International Version.