Review of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

“I have written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomachs to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’” (Rob Bell, Love Wins, from page viii of the Preface)

In this statement, Rob Bell describes the reason he wrote the book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harper One, 2011).  This statement also defines the reason that many have been critical of this book, even before it was released. 

Those familiar with Rob Bell (founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan) know that he is very comfortable functioning in the grey areas of life.  His previous books and videos have typically given a fair hearing to the honest questions raised about issues related to Christian faith and message (especially from those outside or on the margins of the Christian church). 

In fact, in his three minute advanced video promoting the book, Bell does little more than ask some tough questions.  He doesn’t answer those questions.  He doesn’t reject the objections these questions bring to the forefront of dialogue and debate.  He also refuses to offer the pabulum of pat answers from the typical evangelical playbook.  Instead, he allows the questions to be heard, to sink in, perhaps to fester a bit in people’s thoughts and reflections. 

What Bell began in this video he continues in the entire first chapter of his book.  The questions are intense and raised in a rapid fire way, interspersed with biblical references that seem to raise the same types of concerns.

“Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?”

“If there are only a select few who go to heaven…How does a person end of being one of the few?”

“Some Christians believe that up to a certain age children aren’t held accountable for what they believe or who they believe in, so if they die during those years, they go to be with God…(The age of accountability is thought to be anywhere from conception to about age twelve.) …What happens when a fifteen year old atheist dies?  Did he miss his chance?”

The questions just keep coming.  Bell raises issues such as the following:

What group does a person have to join to be included in salvation?

What groups can you not join if you want to be included in salvation? 

What about people who reject the message because of clergy abuse?

What if the missionary gets a flat tired on her way to preach the gospel?

What does it mean to “get saved” anyways?

Does it happen cause of something you believe;

something you accept;

something you pray;

something you do;

some tribe you that belong too? 

And if any of these things earn your salvation, how is it a work of grace?

By raising these questions as he does, Bell allows the objections to really be heard – as well as giving voice to those who raise the objections.  These might include those labeled as seekers, agnostics, or even atheists.  Or it may be somebody who has been called an apostate – a former “members in good standing” who has now rejected their former faith tribe and confession. Others in the crowd of questioners might even be called pastor, preacher, professor, pew sitter, or parish lay-leader. 

Bell is comfortable with questions– and he makes others feel comfortable with their questions, thereby opening a door that can engage them in discussions about faith.  Before the book was published, I shared the promotional video with a friend, an avowed agnostic, who contacted me, saying:

 “Bill, I love that video … does your interpretation of the Christian bible corroborate his interpretation?  Bill what is your opinion specifically on the notion of love being your ticket to heaven…?”

My friend illustrates the importance of having faith communities which are safe places to raise honest questions while still being profoundly respected.  As Bell writes:  “There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion to volatile, no issue too dangerous.”

If churches could simply learn the importance of hearing and dealing with tough questions without casting judgment or practicing exclusion, I believe that the witness of the church to Jesus and the life he brings would be revolutionized.  Sadly, the firestorm that was ignited about this book before it had been release illustrates that many churches – and many so-called “respected church leaders” – are simply not mature enough for such a discussion.  A large percentage of the fundamentalist and Calvinist churches (and their leaders) evidently have a problem with honest and open questions.  Rhetorical questions are fine, provided they are immediately answered by what is considered “right doctrine” by their pastors, teachers, or leaders.  Once declared, it (their understanding of the truth) should not be questioned.  To illustrate this sad reality, one critic tweeted his response to Bell’s book (without having read it) saying, “Farwell, Rob Bell.”  In so doing, he not only was building a wall between himself and Bell, but he was also saying to others:  “If you are asking the kinds of questions Rob Bell is asking, you are not fit for inclusion inside the our Christian tradition.”

With all that said, there is a “third-way” type of response that might be made to Love Wins.   It is a response that is only possible NOW that the book has actually been released, and only possible from those who have actually read the book.  That response would be to respectfully engage with Bell by dealing with the questions raised and the responses made.  Such an engagement might include agreement, disagreement, or some mixture of both.  In this book and the several interviews that have surrounded it, Bell has indicated that he welcomes all such responses.  His aim has been to open a new thread of discussion about “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who has ever lived.” 

Before addressing the central theme of the book, let me dispel just a few of the myths that have been propagated by Bell’s opposition.

First, despite comments to the contrary, Bell is not a Universalist.  Bell does not believe that God will wave a magic wand, after which everyone who has ever lived will suddenly be swept into God’s eternal presence.  For God to act in such a way would not be loving thing to do since it would force a destiny upon people which they might not want to accept.  Love doesn’t act that way, and, as Bell communicates by the very titled of the book:  Love Wins!

Second, Bell does believe in heaven and hell.  He believes that they are both honest-to-goodness real places that can be found someplace in the economy of God.  He believes this, partly, because the Bible says such places exist – but only partly.  (An assertion that “the Bible says so” is pretty meaningless anyways, if you are not a part of a faith tribe that ascribes some sort of authority to the Bible.) 

Bell’s assertions about heaven and hell are more closely akin to what I understand of C.S. Lewis views on such matters.  Bell postulates the reality of such places because he sees foreshadows of them in our time and place.  He sees the hellish pain and suffering we experience in this world when we make choices which are rebellious against goodness and godliness.  He also sees the dawn of heaven in the world as people make decisions in response to God’s love that honor the goodness of God.  

When handling the text on these matters, Bell is careful not to build a theology around poetic images not meant to be taken literally (such as “pearly gates” and “streets of gold”).  Further, he rejects the pictures of hell that reveal more the influence of “Dante’s Inferno” than biblical theology.  Still, for those worried that Bell was denying the reality of actual places as heaven and hell, take a deep breath.  Or, to put it in rhyme:  “There is a hell!” – Rob Bell).

Third, Rob Bell has not rejected “historic, orthodox, Christian faith.”  He has, without question, frustrated a large segment of the even larger spectrum of that confession, but what Bell presents is this book is not new.  In fact, as he says himself, he has not written anything here that has not been “taught, suggested, or celebrated” before.

That means that Bell in not alone in addressing these questions or offering possible responses.  He has in his corner the thoughts of contemporary evangelical scholars like Eugene Peterson; emergent church type folks like Greg Boyd and Spencer Burke; and ancient church leaders like the Capadocian Fathers.  His theological leanings would fit comfortably within the framework of Trinitarian theologian like Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, James Torrance, and C. Baxter Kruger.  So, these issues are not new.  They have been discussed and debated frequently within the “historic, orthodox, Christian faith.”

These issues are also played out in scripture.  Bell spends a great deal of time in the early chapters of his book sharing these differing perspectives.  Just this morning, in a community Lenten Bible study here in Richmond, a study participant asked about the teaching of salvation in John 3:1-17 (the story of Nicodemus) in contrast with the teaching in Mark 10:17-22 (the story of the rich ruler).   

Many might be immediately tempted to explain away the apparant contradiction.  Not Rob Bell.  He refuses to engage in any sort of hermeneutic gymnastics to try to harmonize such vastly differing biblical perspectives.  Instead, he celebrates the diversity and mystery of both, living in the tension and allowing it to prompt further discussion.

Now that my mini-apologetic for Bell is complete, let me move on to a discussion of the central theme or thesis of the book.   Bell’s desire is that we be called to reconsider the prevailing story of Jesus.   Bell writes:  “Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere” (page 1).

Unfortunately, says Bell, the 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.”  

I understand Bell’s point, having lived the early part of my years where the preaching of the Jesus’ story made God appear to have some sort of multiple-personality disorder.  This story was tied up in a view of atonement called “penal substitution.”   This view of atonement sees one part of the Trinity as  being angry with us (the Father) while the other part of the Trinity (Jesus, the Son) as being loving and gracious toward us.  Redemption, in this version of the Jesus story, sees God as angry with us because of sin and ready to pour out wrath upon us in judgment.  In this story, if God’s anger is not appeased we will be damned for eternity.

Salvation, then, is a “legal process” – a penalty that must be paid.  For those who are convinced that this is THE (all caps, implying that it is the ONLY) story of Jesus, any discussion about the nature of God or the mechanics of salvation must begin with “law” not love.  Those who might write a theology of salvation based on this story might title it:  “Law Wins.”  The law is such a powerful and controlling force in this version of the Jesus story that even God must submit to its dictates.  Put another way, God MUST punish lawbreakers.  God has no choice.  God is stuck.

While Bell hedges his bets (i.e. he never really allows himself the pleasure of becoming bombastic or dogmatic) it is obvious that he has no great love for this version of the Jesus’ story.  He writes:

 “God has 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.”  (184) 

So, then, if “penal substitution” is not an acceptable view of atonement, what is preferable for Bell?  That’s a good question.  Bell does not clearly explain a theory of atonement.  Rather, depending on which page you are reading and how you are feeling at any particular moment, you might see any of number of atonement theories (all of which have found voice, by the way, in “historic, orthodox, Christian faith.”)

Sometimes Bell seems to be leaning towards a “Christus Victor” which teaches that in the death of Jesus (as expression of love), God defeated all the powers of evil and sin in which held humankind in bondage.     

At other times, Bell seems to advocate the “moral influence” theory of atonement which teaches that through Jesus Christ, God provided such a positive moral example that eventually it will influence humanity toward moral change. 

At still other times, Bell seems to advocate a substitutionary theory of atonement (though without the “penal” / “legal” baggage added later in church history).  In this view, Jesus serves as a vicarious stand-in for the human race, fixing in himself  (and for all of us) everything that was broken in Adam.

Based on my earlier reflection, I am not surprised that Bell didn’t offer a more definitive statement about atonement.  As I said, Bell seems more comfortable than most in the grey areas of life.  As a pastor, that’s certainly beneficial.  That’s where most people find themselves.

If you pick up a copy of Bell’s book seeking to answer the question, “Who is in and who is out?” you will be disappointed.  There are plenty of books, gospel tracts, and sermons about that all over the place.  You’ll find preachers attacking preachers, congregations and denominations suffering schism, and numerous bloggers attacking any theologian who has a substantial enough profile to get their blog noticed on the web – all about this very issue.  In my opinion, the majority of this is small minded and petty – more a product of theological/political correctness than actual biblical and theological reflection.

Whether you agree with him or not, Rob Bell is opening the door to a third option.  The option is this:  Love Wins.  Bell sees in Jesus the picture of a God who never gives up on us.  He sees a God whose nature (DNA) is gracious love, not legal punishment.  He sees in Jesus whose invitation is NOT, “Turn or Burn!”  That makes it seem that God must somehow be appeased before we can be saved.  This inverts the order of grace and creates an environment where fear, anger, and intimidation win, tainting the Gospel.  Instead, the message is this:  “Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken our sin upon himself and dealt with it at the cross.  Therefore, repent and believe the good news.  Come and find life and know this:  Love Wins.” 

As Bell puts it in his epilogue,

“May you experience this vast,

expansive, infinite, indestructible love

that has been yours all along.

May you discover that this love is 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.”

14 Responses to “Review of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins””

  1. Pamela says:

    so Bill….. is it worth the read?

  2. Anna Miller says:

    Bill, I enjoyed your overview… more than I enjoyed the facebook livestream. I think Rob was trying not to get caught in holes that were put in front of him. So he was a little more vague… plus off the cuff isn’t straight to the answer…so he wandered some and wasn’t as clear about some questions/answers.
    Your overview is helpful… I’m awaiting my copy. Hope it gets here soon.
    So much to think about and chew on.

    • billnieporte says:

      I think Rob doesn’t like to be dogmatic about much. He’s a pastor and evangelical, so he wants people to hear about and respond to God’s grace in Jesus. His audience is, largely, those who are either “never-connected” or “disconnected because of pain and legalistic abuse.” So it seems he want to let people have the freedom to ask questions without fear of rejection.

      Unfortunately, that’s not accepted in many places.

    • Thons says:

      I’ve been really excietd to see PV’s mentality change just in the past year from bringing people INTO the church, to encouraging the church to go OUT. This year for Christmas, rather than doing the same Christmas program its done for over a decade, we’ve themed this Christmas Christmas to GO (picture a chinese to-go box as the image . Everyone in the Northland who has ever wnted to see The Singing Christmas Tree has come to PV to see it EXCEPT those who are homeless or in prison. So where are we taking the message of Christ? To the homeless and to prisons. I’m pretty excietd about this I think this is one small way we see the Kingdom of God expanding in a real, and practical way.

  3. Mar says:

    Thank you for a very reasoned, non-hysterical review of this book. I plan to read it starting tomorrow. I am enjoying the conversation it is producing about matters of great importance.

    • billnieporte says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ll be interested to see if you liked it and what you perceived of the theology of the book

  4. Bill says:

    Yes, I think so, Pam. I liked it! Rob is a fun read

  5. Jimmy Barge says:

    Bill – I followed your post on Steve McVey’s FB. Thank you for some welcomed calmness and clear thought on the Rob Bell book. I thank God for the conversation it is bringing about – it leads me to new writers and ways of thinking about God. Great review of the book. I plan on referring back to it as I get into Love Wins. I go to a Baptist church in Georgia – I wish it were more like yours. Everyone around me is really just shouting everything down that they don’t agree with. I really gets me down. Thank you for the post.

    • billnieporte says:

      Thanks, Jimmy. Around me people are shouting about what they think the books says and they are mad about it. If they read the darn thing and had problems, well, okay. Sad commentary on what’s happening in many parts of the church. Still, love wins…

  6. Sisterlisa says:

    Excellent review. I read the book too and I testify that your review is quite accurate and represents the book quite nicely. Thank you for all your additional thoughts as well.

  7. Tim says:

    Thank you. I found myself lost in the Gospel of love even as I read your review. Somehow my thoughts went to the Story of the prodigal son and the father who runs to embrace and kiss his penitent son even before he has uttered a word.
    I like Bell’s God. He sets my heart on fire.

    • billnieporte says:

      Bell spends a better part of one chapter dealing with the story of the Prodigal God.

      Prodigal means excessive, lavish, overwhelming – like God’s love for us. 🙂

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