There is no shortage of reviews on Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins, so I am almost apologetic for writing another. But it is because of my work in apologetics I find myself compelled to participate in the conversation. My concerns go beyond his conclusions on matters of heaven, hell, and salvation because it seems that many of his probing questions depend upon a view of human logic that does not properly account for the noetic effects of sin.
Love Wins is a difficult read—not to imply it was written for an academic audience, certainly it was not. The portrait of God in scripture is a bit more complex than the picture that Bell has painted. Scripture communicates different senses of God’s will (perceptive & decretive), different senses of God’s love (general love for creation, special love for the elect), different types of God’s self-disclosure (general & special revelation), and the aspects of God’s personality that show him to be both just and merciful without moral compromise. Bell’s rendition of God appears to be flat, and that is what makes the book so difficult to read. What I mean is that Bell is very often unable to comprehend how it is that God is perfectly able to transcend human limitations of rationality and being. This is because his starting point appears to be that God is simplistic (not to be confused with the doctrine of divine simplicity) therefore there aren’t different senses of God’s love or God’s will. For example, since Scripture teaches that God desires for all men to be saved, Bell argues (through his use of question) that according to traditional views of heaven, hell and salvation, what God desires cannot be achieved.
There are those…who put it quite clearly: “We get one life to choose heaven or hell, and once we die, that’s it. One or the other, forever.” God in the end doesn’t get what God wants, it’s declared, because some will turn, repent, and believe, and others won’t. (p. 103)
He does not say who it is specifically that is declaring God doesn’t get what he wants, but clearly he is attributing this declaration to those who hold to an exclusivist viewpoint and that God “in the end doesn’t get what God wants” is a logical outcome of their view of salvation. If this is an overstated speculation, it is because Bell provides little in terms of footnotes or even in-text references, but I believe the whole book provides ample evidence to back up my claim. Bell’s statement serves as an excellent example of how many attempt to understand a passage of scripture, attempting to save God’s reputation by going beyond the biblical text to resolve perceived problems by subjecting them to the rationalized conclusions.
Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father—or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father? (102)
That God must be this way or that way is a false dilemma and, if permitted to stand, makes vulnerable a host of other doctrines. If God cannot be friend, provider, protector and judge, certainly God would also struggle to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, this flattened view of God’s nature prevents him from embracing the God who revealed himself in scripture. He is challenged to let scripture speak for itself.
For any Christian who has ever engaged a skeptic, much of what Bell has written appears to be a validation of the questions they often pose, but seeing them asked by one who professes faith in Christ is a bit disorienting. With many of these questions, you can almost hear the whisper of ridicule: Christianity rooted in a literal interpretation of the Bible is foolishness. In example after example, Bell tries to force a resolution or rejection of the content with little, if any, theological engagement. He does address interpretive issues in terms heaven and hell, but many of the questions he poses do not hinge on the accuracy or inaccuracy of his understanding of those terms but whether the human mind can actually reconcile views of God and ultimate reality that, on the surface, seem to contradict.
So I have my own question: How is it that Bell can stand on the boundaries of Christianity and evaluate it through the eyes of young or unbelief? While it might seem noble to adopt this vantage point, helping young or unbelievers by trying to look at Scripture the way they do, I fear his methodology has backfired. Because his overall theology does not consistently take into account the mystery and majesty of God, Christianity can’t help but to look ridiculous. In this respect, he has conceded to the natural man that their perceptions of Christianity are correct –it is foolishness. What follows are examples that make this point:
Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know? Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves. Why them? (p. 88)
Lurking behind his effort to reframe the conversation on heaven and hell, Bell accomplishes a great deal more. Questions similar to these are often raised by unbelievers intending to impugn the internal consistency of Christianity by suggesting that our view of God is inherently flawed because it makes no sense that God would create humans only to destroy them. During the first reading of the book, I found myself waiting for Bell to say something like “its man’s sin that ultimately separates him from God.” That’s how many of us would respond to anyone else asking these same questions. Sadly, Bell never went there.
And whenever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed—and everybody else isn’t—why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s “in”? Have you ever heard people make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not part of that group? Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her, “So there’s no hope then.” No hope? Is that the Christian message? “No hope”? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is this the sacred calling of Christians—to announce that there’s no hope? (p. 3)
While I’m quite sure the scenario described here isn’t the best Christianity has to offer, it is hardly helpful to conflate this tasteless interaction with the exclusive claims of Christianity. This is a tactic of distraction used frequently by those set out invalidate Christianity, but Bell has validated the tactic and empowered those who use it by offering it up for his own use.
So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus. If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it. If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived. (p. 6)
Bell’s point here is a little lost. His suggestion is that if we really believe what he says we believe, we would be less focused on the needs of others. It’s a bit confusing what Bell is doing here, but his assertion is that people who are so other-wordly, awaiting their “evacuation” from this planet, have little motivation to help those in need. And while the world does have millions of people who are “starving, thirsty, and poor,” I am apt to recoil in defense, but I know Christians can always do better—I just don’t think that the failures of the Church have anything to do with belief in the realm of heaven. Without saying it, Bell seems to be suggesting that one cannot hold a traditional view of heaven and also hold that it matters how we live on earth—another false dilemma.
“How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” And I wholeheartedly agree, but that raises another question. If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us—what happens if they don’t do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire? This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else’s hands? Which raises another question: Is someone else’s eternity resting in your hands? So is it not only that a person has to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do—but also that someone else has to act, teach, travel, organize, fund-raise, and build so that the person can know what to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do? (p. 179)
Here is a critical example of Bell agreeing with the natural man that Christianity is foolishness. The problem is, natural man can’t rightly critique spiritual matters, which is why he will miss (or dismiss) the theological category of providence. This raises for us very serious questions: is Bell’s conception of God so flat that his theology doesn’t allow for an all powerful God that can work out his plans his way? Is Bell’s God actually limited by the weaknesses of fallen creation, or at least their hindrances to travel?
Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or the other, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it … forever. Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives. (p. 110)
This quote is the crux of his argument, not so much that we believe Bell’s way on heaven and hell (even though he wants us to), but that it ultimately does not matter what you believe because Christianity is “big enough” for all of our beliefs. The next question one might ask is, what about the deity of Christ? Bell would say he makes no compromise on this, and I believe him. But the deity of Christ has no relevance in the here and now if he need not be worshiped by the “good people” represented by various worldviews.
Then there is inclusivity. The kind that is open to all religions, the kind that trusts that good people will get in, that there is only one mountain, but it has many paths. This inclusivity assumes that as long as your heart is fine or your actions measure up, you’ll be okay. And then there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true. What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. (p. 154)
With few words but packed with lots of meaning, Love Wins is not an easy read. This should not be recommended reading for young or unbelievers, not just because of what it says, but how it models a method of theological thinking that suspends the authority of scripture and replaces it with a rationalistic approach to biblical interpretation. Don’t underestimate the ability of this book to actually shape not just what people think, but how people think about God and man’s relationship to him.