Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (2011), argues hell doesn’t exist—as it’s been understood for centuries—that God is a god of love who couldn’t possibly punish sinners for eternity, and that eventually everyone is saved and goes to heaven. Why? Because “love wins,” that is, God is love and “God always gets what God wants.”
Bell says the traditional presentation of the Gospel in which some are saved through faith in Christ, while those without Christ are damned to eternity in hell, is “misguided and toxic.” The doctrine of election is clearly on trial in this book.
Bell complains that evangelical or fundamentalist churches don’t permit people to ask questions, so he asks them here. He paints a jaundiced picture of such churches and then claims there are a “staggering number” of people who don’t like the biblical message or the “vicious,” “cruel” God these churches present. He says the traditional story of historic orthodox Christianity, which he still claims to represent, is not a good one and that “the Good News is better than that.” t;/p>
Bell believes in hell, although given the varying ways he defines hell it’s difficult to be sure what he believes. He uses the term “hell” like one might use the word “hellish.” It more or less describes anything evil, bad, or discomforting.
When General William T. Sherman famously said, “War is hell,” he meant it metaphorically. That’s what Bell is doing with the word—and a lot more. He says there are “all kinds of hells.” For Bell, hell is genocide in Rwanda, it’s “what we want,” it’s individual hells, communal, society-wide hells, hell now and later, it’s refusing to trust. Whatever it is, for Bell hell is a lot of hellish things other than the Lake of Fire referenced in Scripture.
Bell says failure is not final and hell is not forever. He conceives of hell as something akin to the Catholic belief in purgatory, an undefined but apparently limited period of time when some people experience a “period of pruning” or “internal experience of correction.” However long the time in this netherworld, in Bell’s theology, people do not stay forever. He says there’s hope for Sodom and Gomorrah and suggests Mahatma Gandhi might be in heaven (though there is no record in Gandhi’s voluminous writings that he embraced the Christ of Christianity; in fact, there’s the opposite). He even suggests people can be saved after death.
Rob Bell clearly possesses a gift for communication. I’ve heard him speak a number of times, enjoyed his ability to take listeners through a long list of Scriptures without losing them, and appreciated his teaching talent. I’ve also wondered how long people could sit under his youthful shtick or imbibe his perpetual flippancy, particularly as he grew older and the shtick didn’t align with his age.
Bell’s gift for communication shines through in Love Wins. For example, he coins a creative and thought-provoking phrase like “garage full of nouns” to describe the excesses of materialism. The man can write and he can teach, no question. His ability to create word pictures is why he’s highly regarded as a speaker, why his Nooma DVD series are best sellers, and why he’s attracted a large following.
But now comes Love Wins. The book saddens me, not only because it presents a watered-down, which is to say false, version of biblical teaching, but also because it will undoubtedly mislead a lot of people. I’ve read Bell’s earlier books. In those he attempted to re-think tradition, something the conservative church always needs. This book is different. In Love Wins, Bell attempts to re-think doctrine, central teachings of the Bible and the Christian faith.
Bell’s book is one long reconstruction of the Christian faith in terms he thinks postmodern sensibilities can handle. While he quotes a myriad of Scripture, he picks and chooses, curiously omitting entire passages relevant to his topic. So the primary evidence for his claims, especially those related to how people respond to the Church, is his own experiences and perceptions.
And therein lies an odd point: I’ve read many books written by people who grew up in the fundamentalist church. Many times the authors work very hard to demonstrate how they’ve grown beyond their spiritual roots. It’s almost like a rite of passage—in their effort to say, “I’m not like that” they bite the hand that fed them. Bell’s book is another example of this sort of public therapy session.
Bell is clearly wrestling—I’d say struggling at some points—with his spiritual heritage. He claims he’s not saying anything new, that he’s part of a “deep, wide, diverse stream” of “historic orthodox Christianity.” Then he proceeds to debunk his own caricature of evangelical Christianity and turn historic orthodox Christian doctrine upside down. He’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. He keeps implying, “I’m one of them,” while at the same time hinting, “I don’t believe what they believe.”
Pre-publication controversy about this book, and much of it since, centered on whether Bell is a “universalist.” There are varying versions of universalism, a belief that all people will ultimately be saved, escape hell, and live in heaven eternally. Universalism is not historic orthodox Christianity. Bell has repeatedly said in interviews that he is not a universalist, yet his entire book makes a case for just that.
His first chapter is entitled “What about the flat tire?” This is his dumbed down way of not dealing with the sovereignty of God and of ostensibly demonstrating how a person’s spiritual fate might turn upon whether a missionary got a flat tire on the road to share the Good News. Herein he deconstructs scriptural teaching indicating people must hear the Gospel in order to respond to it (Romans 10). He says he agrees; yet he doesn’t. He basically says it doesn’t much matter. Eventually, whether a person heard or not, whether a person responds in faith to the Gospel or not, people will be saved because love wins.
Bell does not deal coherently with the holiness of God or the biblical teaching of judgment. He talks about sin, believes it exists, yet somehow whitewashes it in terms of a sentimentalist version of God he considers palatable for contemporary culture. He works hard to rewrite Christianity as a “good story.” In the process he reveals an astoundingly underdeveloped theological understanding of the sovereignty of God.
After writing a book like this, I don’t know why Bell bothers to ask, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
This transparency, it seems to me, evidences confusion and makes the fact he argued as he did an even greater theological and spiritual train wreck. First, he makes a case for not believing (affirming “the story”) in foundational doctrines of the biblically Christian faith. Then, with this last set of questions he indicates he’s not sure of any of it. So he’s done the classic postmodern thing—he’s deconstructed an argument only to toss what’s left into ambiguity. He doesn’t believe like he used to believe. Now he’s not sure what or if he believes at all? So where does that leave all those who follow him?
Love Wins strips God’s love and the Gospel of the power and majesty Bell wants to provide spiritually bereft people. Sadly, he teaches error and leaves them adrift.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011
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