I’ve just finished reading Rob Bell’s
new book, Love Wins
and this review comes on the first day of its release. I have mixed reviews and emotions about this book. If reading it will do anything, it will make you think about why you believe some key concepts of the Christian faith. These are important issues for Christ followers and those seeking to follow Christ. They aren’t to be treated flippantly. If you do anything, my encouragement is to not just take what Bell says at face value. Instead, research and study the texts that are in question. See what historical Christianity has always stated and agreed that these text mean. Don’t believe inside the vacuum of one book.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Is Rob Bell a universalist? (the belief that every person that has ever lived will be saved) According to his own words Bell says, “No.” Although he alludes several times to the fact that “Salvation is realizing you’re already saved. We are all forgiven. We are all loved, equally and fully by God who has made peace with everyone. That work is done. Now we are invited to believe that story and live in it.” (p. 174) He also claims that because God ‘wants all people to be saved,’ (I Timothy 2), God will get what He wants. (p. 99). Because if billions of people weren’t saved, God wouldn’t be so great, he would ‘fail in the end.’ (p. 99-100).
Does he believe in a literal hell? Again, according to his own words, “Yes.” But he has a different interpretation of what hell means than historic Christians which I’ll talk about below.
Let me share what I thought was good about the book.
(1) At the core of my being, I believe the truth about the greatness and the magnificience of God’s love. There isn’t a stronger message in the Bible. Bell does a great job highlighting this fact. He paints vivid and unique pictures regarding how high and wide God’s love is. This is truly good news and news that the entire world needs to hear shouted from the rooftops.
(2) What is the reality of heaven? To me, Bell’s understanding is heavily influenced by the theology of N.T. Wright. The second chapter “Here is the New There,” is basically a repeat of what Wright talks about in his book, Surprised by Hope
. The idea here is that we begin eternity now. God’s kingdom is coming to the earth now and will finally culminate in the restoration of the earth. Heaven isn’t in the by and by somewhere in glory, we see glimpses of it in what we do today. Bringing about God’s justice, loving our neighbor, caring for the poor are all examples of us living this new life.
Now a few areas of concern.
(1) Rob Bell is attempting to give different viewpoints on some of the most important, historical historical doctrines of the Christian faith with little or no backup. Footnotes, expert opinions, etc.
(2) His approach is a bit trivial in matters of Christian theology that really matter. As an example regarding hell he gives the interpretation of the word for hell, Gehenna, being a garbage dump that was on fire and then says, “So the next time someone asks if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, ‘Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere.” (p. 70) That hardly answers the question and I’m pretty sure hell has nothing to do with you taking out your garbage.
(3) On that note, he reinterprets the doctrine of hell. Bell says he believes in a ‘literal hell’ (p. 72) then says, ‘Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs. Have you ever sat with a woman while she talked about what is what like to be raped?’ (p. 73). Then mentions several other horrible earthly scenarios. For him it seems, hell is confined to the bad things that happen on earth. “Hell is giving us what we want.” (p. 74)
(4) Bell introduces some sloppy thinking about God simply because “it tells a better story.” (p. 112) My question is according to who? The world? TV? Movie plots? Just because he thinks there’s a better story in the idea that God will eventually bring everyone into heaven (Except those who completely reject heaven. Not by rejecting Christ, but continuing in their own bad behavior) doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s his opinion and his is one of millions of others. What makes it true or untrue? What the text says in whole and the truth of what has been handed down from Biblical scholars throughout the centuries as a starting point. I can make up all kinds of stories. Harry Potter’s adventures is a great story but just because it is so doesn’t make it true.
(5) In numbers of places within the book, Bell takes specific verses and makes them say what he wants them to say without looking at what the text is saying as a whole. One example in the chapter on Hell (and there are dozens of others) is his argument for Sodom and Gomorrah. He argues from Ezekiel 16:53 that the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters will be restored and end in restoration. In other words, Bell says their story isn’t over, what appeared to be a final smoldering, verdict regarding their destiny wasn’t over (p. 86). But this has nothing to do with the people that existed during the judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah back in Genesis 19, that was 1500 years previous. They weren’t getting a second chance, it was the city itself that was to be restored, that’s what Ezekiel was talking about, again 1500 years later. To suggest otherwise is just, well, silly and bad biblical exegesis. This is a classic example of the isogesis of the text vs. the exegesis. Isogesis takes one text out of context to make it say whatever one wishes it to say. Exegesis takes a look at the passage as a whole and compares it to the rest of what is occurring in the Bible so there is a holistic view and interpretation. The isogesis of scripture is king in Love Wins.
(6) In Bell’s interview on Monday night, March 14th, he ended by saying that he wasn’t smart and he wasn’t a theologian. But he’s seen the Good news in action and it’s about love. I’m sure he was trying to lighten the content and be a bit self-depracating. But if his statement is true, then perhaps he shouldn’t try to single-handedly reinterpret Biblical traditions that are thousands of years old and have been verified by countless numbers of Christian scholars. To reinterpret core Christian principles based on feelings, or a ‘better story’ might be a way to sell thousands of books, but in the end all it happens to be is Rob Bell’s opinion.
I was excited to read this book. Especially because of the emphasis on God’s love for the world. As I’ve said, this should be the message ringing clear from the mouth of every person that says they are a Christ-follower. Bashing Rob Bell or anyone else who disagrees with you on a Biblical issue by calling them an idolater, heretic, liar, etc., is of no profit to anyone. We should be able to have these conversations in a civil manner and hear both sides of the argument in an environment of mutual respect. But in the end, it’s not my truth that matters, it’s the truth o
f the ages, the truths that have gone before me and have stood the test of time.
As I continued reading, I did cringe regarding the number of attacks levied on historical Christian beliefs without any scholarship, research, primary or secondary sources. In the ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) I received, there wasn’t a single footnote listed.
If you read this book, think for yourself. Do your homework about what the text means. There are plenty of research materials available online. Truth does matter and ideas do have consequences. In life and at the end of time we alone are responsible for what we say, what we know, and what we profess to be true.
Pilate knew the importance of truth when he said in John 18, “What is truth?” Why did he ask this question? According to Ravi Zacharias
, “Intent, in the pursuit of truth, is prior to content, or to the availability of it. The love of truth and the willingness to submit to its demands is the first step. But second, Jesus said something even more extraordinary. After identifying his Lordship in a kingdom that was not of this world, he said, ‘They that are on the side of truth listen to me’ (John 18:37). Jesus was not merely establishing the existence of truth, but his pristine embodiment of it. He was identical with the truth. This meant that everything he said and did, and the life he lived in the flesh, represented that which was in keeping with ultimate reality. Therefore to reject him is to choose to govern one’s self with a lie.”
“I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus, John 14:6.
Click here to subscribe to Red Letters. Click here to follow Tom Davis on Twitter.