Love Wins, by Rob Bell
By Ryan Hamm
March 22, 2011
Love Wins is a difficult book to review. Not because it’s hard to read, or hard
to understand or even takes a long time to read. It’s difficult to
consider because how you respond to the book will likely be almost
entirely dependent on what your experience with the Christian faith has
Rob Bell has always been an excellent communicator to those damaged by expressions of Christianity. Velvet Elvis was all about finding space to ask the most vital faith questions; Sex God was a book for everyone who’s ever thought that “True Love Waits” was woefully simplistic; Jesus Wants to Save Christians was written for anyone who was sick of the Christian message being co-opted by tired political rhetoric; and Drops Like Stars was for people who suffer and wonder where God is in their pain.
is a book for people who have been hurt by Christians and who have
formed opinions about Jesus based on those hurts, rather than on a
Savior who loves them unconditionally and pursues them relentlessly.
It’s a book about trying to correct the wrong stories Christians and
non-Christians have heard about hell, judgment and God that have made
them unable to love Him. In the moving first few chapters, Bell wonders
how someone who has been hurt, horrifically abused or exploited by
people claiming to be Christians can ever have a right view of Jesus.
But Love Wins
doesn’t stop with those questions. The front cover says it’s about
“heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived,” and that’s
exactly what the book tries to do. Bell wants to challenge these things,
even if it means upending some closely held beliefs along the way.
A tale of two books
has some of the most moving passages about heaven, hell and God’s love
I’ve ever read. After establishing a group of grounding questions in
Chapter 1 (pretty much every question you’ve ever asked about salvation
and who gets “saved”), Bell moves into his description of a vital heaven
that is both already and not fully come into fruition. It’s basically
N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope
(which I heartily recommend for more on the topic) without the page
count. Bell simply says the goal of the Christian life is to work toward
becoming fully redeemed, restored and reconciled people; people who are
ready and eager to begin their ministries as “priests and rulers”
(Wright’s term) of a New Earth. Bell rightly points out that heaven
isn’t somewhere we escape to—it’s
a fully realized expression of God’s love and presence that comes to
earth to “make all things new.” It’s Good News, and reminds us that what
we do with our lives matters because
we are being changed and molded. It also reminds us we are called to be
people working in Creation and in the lives of others to bring the
fullness of God’s Kingdom to earth.
much of Bell’s chapter on hell is equally prescient. He argues hell is
necessarily a reality, because so many of the evils we see and
experience have no other name. He suggests the future hell will be when
God says “enough” and banishes all injustice and evil from the restored
and reconciled New Earth—that just as people can choose hell or heaven
on this Earth by their actions and engagement with the mission of
Christ, so are the future realities dependent on choice.
in the chapter on hell that it becomes apparent the book might have
some shaky foundations. For as much as Bell bases his ideas on heaven
and the call to Kingdom participation on strong scriptural, contextual
and theological underpinnings, he stretches and squeezes Scripture, Church history and doctrinal consensus to meet his needs in subsequent
chapters. Even though he’s so often excellent at reading and reacting to
the different genres and styles in Scripture (his referral to Genesis 1
as a “poem” comes to mind), he seems to not afford the same measure of
literary criticism to Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 10 that “it will be
more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for
you.” Somehow, Christ’s seemingly obvious hyperbole and metaphor is
literally interpreted by Bell as a promise that “there’s still hope” for
Sodom and Gomorrah. And his usage of the Psalms to “prove” that God’s
ultimate desire and will is for all to be reconciled to Him is curious,
since Bell is usually so careful to distinguish between genres of
Scripture like poetry and wisdom literature. It’s not to say that truth
can’t be gleaned from the Psalms—it’s just difficult to use poetry to
provide absolute statements without a lot of unpacking.
most problematically, Bell really only emphasizes all of the verses
where God talks about His love for the world, and where Jesus, Paul and
other writers point to God’s unceasing love for all of humanity. He
often skirts over and seems to minimize the remarkably uncomfortable
passages in the Old Testament (and a few in the New) that show a
wrathful God, a jealous God and a God whose holiness demands a
sacrificial system that seems bizarre to us. It’s the “Old Testament
God” that Richard Dawkins pokes at in The God Delusion:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character
in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving
control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a
misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal,
pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent
Of course, Dawkins' skewed vision is not the god of the Christian faith, but Bell’s seeming refusal in Love Wins
to wrestle with the explicit difficulties in the biblical text seem as
shortsighted as Dawkins’. It would be easy to imagine a new Christian
assuming Love Wins is an all-encompassing view of God, and then being dreadfully confused
when they read Judges for the first time. Bell’s summation is at least
as non-holistic as Mark Driscoll’s “My Jesus beats people up” image.
It’s disappointing to see Bell fall into the same trap as Driscoll and
some of his contemporaries, when the complexity and paradox in the
character of God seem to be overlooked in the chase to gain points.
Is Bell a Universalist or not? Yes … and yes.
Many people will read Love Wins in order to see if Bell is a “universalist.” The short answer? Sort of.
of his chapter titled “Does God Get What He Wants?” lays out the
groundwork for Christian universalism. Basically, that is the theory
that those who have chosen something other than God (be that self,
injustice, evil, etc.) at the end of the age will be given an eternity
of chances to accept God’s free gift of reconciliation. As the theory
goes, the gift is so good, so loving and so compelling that eventually
hell will be shuttered and all people will be fully reconciled to God
through the saving power of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If
you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, you know the basic gist of this theory (though Lewis was careful to point out how few people would choose God’s love because it meant an excruciating painful death of self; the hell in Great Divorce doesn’t seem to ever empty).
He leaves himself an out, though. Near the end of the chapter, he suggests it’s just one possibility,
and Christians who believe in Christian universalism should be
considered just as orthodox as any other type of Christian. He then says
the ultimate good is that we ought to hope for the reconciliation of
all humankind, and to suggest otherwise is distinctly un-Christian.
his latter point: fair enough. The compassionate Christian always hopes
and wishes that God will save all humankind to Himself.
Bell overstates his case for Christian universalism being simply one of
many mainstream thoughts in Church history. His appeal to several early church leaders is somewhat misleading; many of the “universalist”
impulses of these early leaders (especially in the case of Origen) were
rejected outright for much of Church history. Additionally, some of
Bell’s claims about other historical figures have been challenged or
denied by church scholars over the years. While it’s been speculated
that Gregory of Nyssa and Clement may have believed in eventual
universal salvation, it’s by no means Christian historical consensus.
Bell’s use of a Martin Luther quote (“Who would doubt God’s ability to
do this?”) to suggest the possibility of postmortem salvation also
hardly seems fair when confronted with the full context of Luther’s quote.
the end, Bell emphasizes humanity’s choice. We are given a choice here
on earth to participate in the Kingdom and mission of God, and Bell sees
no reason why that will stop after death—and his hope is that many will
choose God in the end. To call Bell a universalist would be to diminish
the vision Bell says God has for humanity, for better or worse. Bell’s
insistence that the choice is up to us
is much different than a pluralistic universalism that assumes a choice does not matter or a universalism that assumes God doesn’t care about
our choices. [Editor’s note: For a much more detailed explanation of the “types” of universalism, click here. For a more detailed look at supporting Scripture for the possibility of salvation after death, click here; for a look at the Scripture passages that seem to counter the possibility of postmortem salvation, click here.]
One of the most frustrating parts of Love Wins
are the points in which Bell brings out the worst qualities of a
particular theological viewpoint he disagrees with, so much so that it
makes it incredibly easy to refute. Bell is smart enough to know there
are godly men and women on the other side of the debate who have done the work to try to make sense of some of the paradoxes Bell points out. His discussion of penal substitution
(a theory explaining Christ’s death on the cross) on page 182 doesn’t
take into account the grace-filled metaphors to define the doctrine that
many scholars have used over the years. His characterization of the
“mainstream” (this term is debatable) evangelical view of death and
salvation on page 173 points out the flaws in that system (which are
there) but also fails to take into account the scriptural support for
that reading (which is also there). It’s unfair to argue against the
worst version of a position and assume victory.
may have been better helped by attempting to take on carefully
constructed systematic theologies in a longer text. As it stands now, he
takes on established, systematic theologies, but only the worst aspects of them. Even if
you agree with his casual dismissal of some ideas (and I agreed with
some of them), you may be frustrated that he gave them such short
shrift—I found myself formulating arguments against his points, even if I
agreed with them, just because some of the questions he’s raising have
been answered by his opponents.
Love really does win
more could be (and has been and will be) said in criticism of Bell. But
that would make this review much too long and far too negative.
Because for all its problems, issues and occasional wrong-ness, Love Wins
will make Christians re-examine their faith and will help them reclaim a
vital and exciting vision of heaven and God’s love. It’s going to make
people say, “What does the Bible really
say about that anyway?” and that has never been a negative thing. It
will make people reconsider their view of God and will encourage every
believer to look at Jesus anew. It ably answers the question, “What’s
this life for?”—in short, it’s for becoming more and more like the
person God has created you to be, a person who will rule in God’s Kingdom.
Bell gives voice to people who don’t fit comfortably in church or even
in mainstream Christianity. Perhaps more importantly, he gives voice to
the people in church
who haven’t felt able to ask these questions, even though they’ve been
plagued by them. The people who habitually disagree with Bell will hem
and haw at his mistakes (and rightfully so), but if they ignore that real people are asking these real questions … well, they do so at their peril.
That’s where your reading of Love Wins
will be somewhat dependent on your experiences. If you’ve found
yourself asking these questions in your bed at night, or in your mind
during church, or in your prayers, you’ll take comfort in the fact that
you’re not alone. If you’ve rarely doubted, or went through a strong
period of doubt and have discovered some assurance in the theories Bell
refutes, you’ll likely be offended. And you might be somewhere in the
middle. Your experiences with the “stories” Bell refers to will markedly
color your reaction to Love Wins.
of whether or not you agree with Bell’s conclusions, his questions are
no less vital for his answers. Whatever you think of him and his book,
you must admit Bell’s articulation of God’s over-the-top, never-stops,
all-consuming love is breathtaking and faith-giving. To properly read Love Wins,
put that at the forefront of your mind—disagree with some of Bell’s
conclusions (for good reason), get annoyed at some of his exegesis, be
challenged by his Kingdom-focused lens for this life … and then make up
your own mind. But in the midst of it, be thankful that someone is
giving voice to questions that haven’t been asked very often in American
evangelical Christianity, and that Bell’s voice is calling all of
humanity to the realization that Christians worship a God who loves
everyone very, very much.