Recently, there has been an explosion of attention focused on Rob Bell and his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, which was released in March 2011 by HarperOne. The buzz surrounding this book began when Bell posted an introductory video to his book which contained strong statements concerning heaven, hell, and the love of God. The blogosphere has exploded; responses have been written and given via video; conferences have had panel discussions to discuss Bell’s book and the related issues; and Bell has appeared on various television talk shows discussing his book and the huge attention it is receiving.

With the publication of Love Wins Bell has been accused of many things including being a universalist, preaching a false gospel, and ultimately serving a false god. Bell pastors in Grand Rapids, Michigan a church which averages 10,000 attendees per week. It is reported that up to 50,000 receive Bell’s sermon podcast each week. Love Wins has become a New York Times bestseller (this is not the first successful book Bell has written). Also, Bell has helped to produce a series of popular short films on issues of spirituality. Bell has considerable influence and attention directed toward him which warrant, at the least, that we take a closer look at what he is saying and make a few decisions concerning his claims.

 

Summary of Love Wins

Bell writes his book for those “who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s [sic] story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling” (vii). Bell says he is writing  “for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that cause their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that’” (viii). So, what is it that has been  hijacked? Bell answers:

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear (viii). 

Bell wants to give responses to the questions that are asked about salvation. Many of these questions are real and difficult, but important. Bell wants to know what is heaven; what is hell; the kind of God who is behind that; how salvation ought to be understood; how exclusive is Jesus; and what is the gospel.

What is heaven? Bell sees the word “heaven” as a substitute for the name of God. Bell also sees heaven as the future reality of the age to come. Bell’s third conception of heaven is his focus. It is the idea of heaven as a present reality. It is “our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come” (58-9). Bell has defined eternal life in a very specific way: “Eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God” (59). So, heaven and eternal life are referring to the possibility of a certain kind of experience now and in the age to come.

When Bell talks about hell he refers to the times when love, grace, and humanity are rejected, whether in this life or the next. For Bell, hell is not a place of torment, it is not final, and it is not eternal. Bell summarizes what he means by hell:

We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.

And for that,

the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it (93).

Bell asks the question: “Does God get what God wants?” (95). Bell presents a view of God which says that because God is loving, all will be reconciled to him. Without that reality, God would be less than great. Bell says that God gets what God wants and we get what we want. If we want hell or heaven, it is ours because we are completely free.

Salvation, for Bell, has to be cosmic in scope and is essentially the new creation. Bell argues that the metaphors of salvation (reconciliation, redemption, etc.) are merely ways that first century believers described the cross and the resurrection. They tried to describe the “epic event” (129) of Jesus making all things into the new creation. Jesus has started the ball rolling toward the reconciliation of all things which is a restoration of the original plan of creation.

So, if God is undoubtedly reconciling all to him and Jesus has started this at the cross, is Jesus the only Savior? Bell claims that he holds to an “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (154). Bell explains John 14:6:

What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him (154).

So, Jesus is the way, but you may not understand that it is Jesus you are coming though. You may come through the mechanism of Buddhism or Hinduism or anything that actually teaches any part of the truth. There is a “mystery present in all the world” (157), Christianity merely names it correctly.

What then is the gospel? Bell argues that it is not about entrance into heaven but about joyous participation in it. Bell does not want to frame the gospel in terms of entrance because this a “destructive, violent understanding of God” (183). Bell argues that when we make God to be one who determines (based on a decision) who enters where, then God becomes  a terrible slave driver who demands sin to be punished by his wrath (183). Bell says: “We shape our God, and then our God shapes us” (182-4). The gospel is not about how to gain entrance because that contains connotations that God would become all that Bell has just called bad. As Bell says: “The good news is better than that.” Grace and love, for Bell, simply are (187-91). The gospel is that all are forgiven. What we believe or do does not get forgiveness, “it just is.” Salvation is becoming aware of the forgiveness that is already yours.

Bell ends his book with this invitation:

Whatever you’ve been told about the end–

the end of your life,

the end of time,

the end of the world-

Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today.

Love is what God is,

love is why Jesus came,

and love is why he continues to come,

year after year to person after person.

Love is why I’ve written this book, and

love is what I want to leave you with.

May you experience this vast,

expansive, infinite, indestructible love

that has been yours all along.

May you discover that this love is as wide

as the sky and as small as the cracks in

your heart no one else knows about.

And may you know,

deep in your bones,

that love wins. (197-8)

 

A Short Response:

It is difficult to critique Bell’s writings because there is so much with whichto disagree. Kevin DeYoung has written a very helpful review of Love Wins (“God is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True,” available at: 

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/). 

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” (Ibid., 2). DeYoung goes on to spend 20 pages meticulously showing the faults of Bell’s book, and even he admits that he is selective in his critique. To pick and choose what to talk about is very difficult. However, a few general issues are worth considering. 

The Importance of Context. It is possible to pick up Love Wins and read something out of it that sounds very good. Bell is quite adamant that he is orthodox. If you read Love Wins you ought to read the entire book and understand what he is saying in light of the context of the book and how he has defined words and concepts (that advice transfers to his videos). For instance, Bell denies being a universalist. He would argue that there is a real hell that people go through if they reject Jesus. But, what he means is that rejecting Jesus is simply not realizing that you are already forgiven and not living like it. So, hell can be now or in the next life. It is not a place of torment. Also, hell is not final and does not last forever (88-93). He believes you do not have to believe in Christ in this life in order to get past hell (110). In the end, God will reconcile all things. Somehow everyone will accept their forgiveness and God’s love and will move past their self-inflicted hell. In other words: Love Wins! Bell denies that hell is everlasting for anyone. He affirms that everyone will eventually become saved (which is simply to realize you are already forgiven). While Bell contends that he is not a universalist (because he has redefined it), how can he not be considered one?

Unfounded Claims. If you read Love Wins you need to take Bell’s own advice: wrestle with it to see if it is correct. A major frustration I have is that the majority of the book makes claims which are not founded, and yet many will simply accept as true! As DeYoung highlights in his review, Bell makes unfounded assumptions on issues of evangelicalism, history, exegesis, eschatology, Christology, the Gospel, and God. Bell misrepresents positions such as the nature of traditional evangelicalism and the major positions of historic Christianity concerning the redemption of all things. Bell argues: “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” (109). Bell may be able to find a few who take these positions, but the reality is that Bell’s version of universalism is nowhere near the center of historic orthodoxy! Bell also provides questions which misrepresent a certain position and make it sound absurd. For instance, Bell asks: “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2). Bell questions on what basis God would choose these people and then questions what kind of God that is. Bell continues his questions page after page. Through similar questioning tactics, Bell misrepresents many viewpoints. 

Essential Beliefs. When Bell presents his views of the gospel, of Jesus, of God, and of the nature of Christianity (which are far removed from orthodoxy), he proves to be heterodox. What you believe and teach is essential because it does impact people for good or for ill. Bell’s gospel teaches an errant path to God which has massive consequences for the souls of those who accept it.

Many have been enraged that Bell is labeled as a universalist and that his teachings are called heretical and heterodox. They argue that Bell is trying to be a good Christian and love people. This response to Love Wins is not an attack on Bell as a person, it is an exercise of calling false what is not the truth. True love will tell a person the truth. The truth is that sin is real. Hell is a real place of torment. Jesus makes exclusive claims (Acts 4:12). The wrath of God does abide on those who do not believe (John 3:16, 36). There are areas of belief where charity is important, but there are also areas where lines must be drawn. When faith, God, and the gospel are redefined and re-explained the line has already been drawn. It is truth that is at stake!