So, I'm a little late to the party on this one. Rob Bell's Love Wins caused something of a tidal wave when it was first released. A tidal wave of support AND a tidal wave of condemnation. I was content to live with my assumptions about the book and what I heard from others about the book. But, I decided that I needed to be fair and read it for myself. Over the years, Bell has marked himself as a master of communication from Nooma videos to his engaging writing style. Because he is so good at communicating, it becomes important for readers and viewers to pay attention to what is actually being said, or not said.
Bell quotes from John 3:16 in his introduction to Love Wins by saying, "For God so loved the world." For bell, this is the heart of "Jesus's story." The thought of a loving God sending people to hell, for Bell, raises the question, "can God do this and still be a loving God?" But, even in quoting John 3:16, he cuts off half the verse - "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life." Bell asserts that God is, in essence, loving. Many hold to this because 1 John tells us that "God is love." However, the Bible also says "God is" several things. In fact, it is only His holiness that is repeated three times in the declaration, "holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty." More on this later.
Much of Bell's "questions" seem to be less about Biblical truth and more an attack on Calvinism (predestination) and an attack on what he perceives as loveless Christianity. He questions the concept of a person responding to Jesus and entering into a "personal relationship" with God, because (he argues) such a phrase is never used in the Bible. In fact, he argues that responses such as confess, believe, repent, etc. are all verbs - things that we do, which contradicts the very notion of the grace of God. He plays great word games to exclude any necessary response to the grace of God. However, from John 3:16 and on, such responses are unavoidable through Scripture. A response to God does not equate as a work which negates grace any more than receiving a gift ceases to make it a gift.
As Bell discusses the issue of heaven, he puts the emphasis on heaven focusing on life now, rather than life someday. He asks, "How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution?" While he makes a fair point that eternal life includes then and now, he seems to undermine that both are equally true. He does raise a fair issue that too many evangelicals seem content to neglect "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." For Bell, heaven should impact how we live on earth. He adds to this by stating, "eternal life doesn't start when we die; it starts now." He argues that when the Bible talks about "eternal," it doesn't always mean "eternal." We must be careful about shaping major doctrines by possible, remote definitions of words. Just because a word can mean something, it doesn't mean it always does. Context determines meaning.
In his chapter on hell, Bell opens with the lack of Biblical references to "hell" which was sparked by "turn of burn" protesters outside of a place where he was speaking. He then states he believes in a literal hell, but follows that up with stories of human pain and suffering. He deals with the story of the rich man and Lazarus, not as the rich man suffering in hell, but as the rich man still wanting Lazarus to serve him. Arguing against hell because the word is not frequent in the Bible is like rejecting the Trinity because the word is not found in the Bible. The question isn't about a particular word, but whether the concept is taught in Scripture. Bell conveniently ignores references to the "lake of fire." He fails to admit that John 3:16 brings forth the possibility of eternal life, along with the possibility of eternal perishing.
He states, "Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death." That is a fair point. But it should not be either or, but both and.
Bell then turns his attention to verses that talk about ultimate restoration. He asks the question, "Does God get what He wants?" His point is that, if God desires all to be saved, either God is great enough to make that happen or God is not great and He does not get what He wants. Bell now begins to show his hand and offer his conclusion - ultimately everyone is reconciled to God, even if that happens after they die. He writes, "At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God." He argues that this makes for a better "story." However, he does add that there is always the possibility that some may continue to refuse God's love in the next life.
This is nothing more than Christian Universalism - the idea that, because of Jesus, everyone gets to be saved in the end. While he admits that there may be a few who still resist, it is hard to imagine even Hitler content to suffer in hell rather than give God a chance.
Near the end of the book, Bell states, "We do ourselves a great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates we we call hell." I believe Bell has set up a false scenario here. He presents the notion that people go to hell because they reject the love of God. He shares his troubled heart at the thought of God loving a person one minute, but sending them to hell the next minute because they died. Such a thought, for him is psychologically scaring. Nobody goes to hell for rejecting the love of God. From Genesis to Revelation, the human problem is sin and rebellion against God. Sins that must be punished by a just and holy God. Yet God's love and God's holiness are not at odds with each other, rather they work together. If I was a judge in a court of law and someone I loved deeply stood trial for murder and the evidence against them was clear, I would serve justice. That is not to say I would rejoice in it. It would break my heart. But dismissing their crime would be neither just nor loving.
In Love Wins, Bell raises some questions and issues that deserve attention among evangelicals. Namely, how can we be so flippant about hell? How can we seem to take delight in the eternal suffering of human beings? Why are so shut off from the suffering of human beings in this life? I am in favor of wrestling through challenging issues. I am OK with a book that makes me take a hard look in the mirror, even if there is a good deal of content I disagree with. This book does make me look in the mirror, but I cannot overlook the problems on every page, and problems exist on just about every page of this book.
Bell builds his entire premise on possible definitions of terms and focusing on some Biblical texts while ignoring others. Again, I am fine with a book giving me a hard yank in a direction I am out of balance in. I compare it to a chiropractor. If you back is out of alignment, the chiropractor gives your spine a hard yank in the other direction. This enables you to settle in a balance. If you stay on the side of the far yank, you will be out of balance on the other side. Some books like The Tangible Kingdom and Prodigal Christianity gave me some hard yanks in areas where I was out of balance. But, having been yanked, I don't camp out there, I settle into a balance. But I suppose there is always the possibility that your chiropractor, if they don't know what they are doing, could potentially yank your spine hard enough to snap it. Rob Bell has reacted to some imbalances in Christianity. But I believe, in this book, he has yanked to the point of snapping the spine.
This is the only book of his I have read. What I took away from the book is that he loves God, or at least the idea of God he has settled on. I also believe he deeply loves people and is grieved by human suffering and pain. My point here is not to join the debate as to whether he is a true Christian or not. I will just say that this book presents a teaching that will hinder others from salvation. My take away from the book was, "Life is so much better with God, but you don't have to worry about Him if you don't want - He'll let you into heaven anyway." In this book, Bell strikes me as a doctor who loves his patients so much he can't bring himself to break the news that they have cancer. And to make it easier, he has convinced himself that cancer doesn't really exist.
Sure, there are some good discussions that can come out of this book, but those discussions can come out of much better and much "safer" books. Some books are like picking up a brand new dollar bill from the bank. Some books are like picking up a dollar bill off a dirty floor. Others are like picking up a dollar bill off a public restroom floor. Sure, there is some value to that dollar, but it's not worth the germs you will pick up in the process. For me, this book is not worth the risk. Yes, Rob Bell is a master communicator. But what is he really saying? Think of the loved ones you are trying to share the Gospel with. This book is telling them it's OK to ignore you when you share with them their need of Christ.