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 been.
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.
Love Wins 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
Love Wins 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.
Similarly, 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.
It’s 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.
Perhaps 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 bully.”
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.
Most 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.
To his latter point: fair enough. The compassionate Christian always hopes and wishes that God will save all humankind to Himself.
But 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.
In 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.
Bell 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
Much 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.
Rob 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.
Regardless 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.