Review of Love Wins
Rob Bell has written another interesting little book that raises important and difficult questions. Central to the book, as nearly everyone in the evangelical world knows, is the question of people’s eternal destiny, particularly whether such a thing as “hell” however one conceives of it, exists.
Before I give my comments let me tell you two things about myself that you may or may not know. I live about 5 miles from Bell’s church and have been acquainted with Bell’s ministry since its beginnings at my parents-in-law’s church in Grand Rapids. Many of our friends belong to or have belonged to his church. I have read one of his other books, watched most of his nooma videos, attended his church, and listened to some of his sermons. Much of what he does is good. Some is not, much like the rest of us. That being said, I tried my best to open the book with a positive attitude and give it the best possible read, despite my own past and present with his ministry and the media blitz surrounding the book.
Second, I am a member of a church that confesses the orthodox, historic Christian faith as expressed in the historic creeds of the church. But I am also someone within that broad stream who speaks with a Reformed accent.
So first, what I like about the book. It is short and easy to read. Although I spent about 5 hours reading the book because I was taking notes, I think it could be read in less than three hours without any problem. So if you are curious about the book, read it.
Bell is correct about how heaven and hell have often been presented by folks in the church. Like him, I have frequently run into people who seem to think they know precisely who will be “in” and who will be “out.” While we can know from the Bible certain things about what criteria God might use for making such decisions, we cannot know the condition of the hearts of individual persons. Only God knows that and God has the final word. To Bell’s point then, sticky notes about Ghandi’s eternal destiny and ‘if-then’ methods of evangelism are based on assumptions about a decision that is God’s alone. Best to keep our mouths shut.
Bell is also correct about popular misconceptions some people have about where humans will spend eternity. The Christian church does not profess belief in a disembodied afterlife in some ethereal and rather boring place. The Christian church believes in “the resurrection of the body and the life in the world to come.” The world to come is nothing other than the new heavens and earth, a real physical place with buildings, dirt, plants, animals, etc. It is creation restored to God’s original intent for it.
Now for some criticism. Bell frequently blurs the lines between popular understandings of the Christian faith and the actual teachings of the faith. It is never clear whether he is responding to popular misconceptions of hell, or the actual teaching of the church on the subject. He does this especially through the questions he raises in the book. That sort of blurring of the lines throughout the book actually leads to more distortion of the actual teaching, not less. Some call that provocative. I call it misleading.
Bell wants people to understand that heaven and hell are not just something in the future, but here and now. As he frequently points out, people make their own heaven and hell by the choices they make. True enough as far as that goes. But once people choose their path and do not decide to deviate from that path but only become more entrenched in it throughout their lives, will they really have another chance or, as Bell suggests, numerous chances to change after death?
I can’t see how the Bible suggests any such thing.
Bell does use the Bible throughout the book to try to make his points. The problem is that he frequently ignores not only the immediate context and audience of the texts he is working with, but also the larger, overarching story of the Bible as a whole. For example, Bell offers Sodom and Gomorrah as evidence of second chances citing (incorrectly) a story in Matthew 10 where Jesus refers to Sodom (the story is in Matthew 11 and Luke 10).
But Jesus is not talking in any way about second chances. He is talking about the degree of punishment Sodom and Capernaum can expect. Capernaum is in big trouble, so it seems, because their punishment will be worse than that of Sodom. Why? Because they did not repent. The parallel text in Luke is even more clear. Rejection of the disciples is equivalent to rejection of Jesus and rejection of Jesus is equivalent to rejection of God. The message is clear: ‘If you think the destruction of Sodom was bad, yours will be worse because you have rejected me.’
Bell not only reinterprets statements like that in Matthew 11, but he also seems to carefully avoid clear statements by Jesus in the gospel that suggest that the future doesn’t look so good for those who reject him in this life. For example, just a few paragraphs prior to the Capernaum/Sodom text, Jesus tells his disciples as he sends them out that this job will not be easy. Many will reject the message they are bringing. People will hate the disciples because of the message of the kingdom. And then Jesus tells them that whoever acknowledges Jesus in front of humans beings, Jesus will acknowledge before his Father in heaven. And whoever rejects Jesus in front of humans, Jesus will likewise reject.
The issue of how Bell uses the Bible is also apparent with the various prophetic texts that he cites. It is not new news that the prophetic texts regularly speak words not just of judgment but of restoration. But every single text he cites on pages 86-7 are prophecies to God’s covenant people, not to people in general. God is promising that God is true to who God is. God keeps his promises.
But it is also not new news that these restoration texts nearly always refer to a “remnant.” The size of the remnant is unknown, thus one cannot play the numbers game. But what is clear from remnant language is that not all of God’s people will be restored and restoration awaits repentance, a turning to God.
Bell further confuses the issue by suggesting that these prophetic messages are not just for Israel; they are for all nations, suggesting that all will be saved. Yes and no. The message of anyone turning to the worship of the one true God for salvation is in the Old Testment just at much as the New Testament. Anyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved, not just ethnic Israel. Numerous examples of this are available in the Old Testament but perhaps the two most memorable are Rahab and Ruth. The point is not about physical descent from Jacob. It is about trust in and worship of the LORD. Nonetheless, salvation still entails turning from trusting other gods to the worship of the only true God.
As for final destruction for those who steadfastly refuse to turn to God, one need look no further than one of the prophets Bell cites: Nahum. The verse Bell cites from Nahum is indeed a word of comfort but only for Israel. Nahum is a difficult book to read because God’s judgment against those who have rejected him, in this case Ninevah, is clearly severe. It is not instantaneous like that of Sodom. It is painful, tortuous destruction. And it is final. “Nothing can heal your (Ninevah’s) wound; your injury is fatal.”
The most interesting thing about Nahum is that we know from Jonah that Ninevah had been told about life in relationship to God. Ninevah, “that great city,” had been called to repentance and worship of the true God and had turned, much to Jonah’s chagrin. Apparently this didn’t last long. They were back to their cruelty and idolatry in no time. The result would be final destruction – no restoration.
One of the more disturbing parts of the book is Bell’s suggestion that “Jesus” is basically whatever you make of him, positively of course. He affirms that Jesus “is saving everybody,” but says that no one should try to box in what/who the word ‘Jesus’ means/is. He even says that “sometimes people use his name and sometimes they don’t” and that’s ok. The implication seems to be – and Bell does not say this directly – that no matter who you call on, if you are sincere in your calling and living a good life, you are basically calling on Jesus.
The logical fallacies in that sort of thinking are too numerous to go through. The larger issue is whether an idea like that has any Biblical merit. I can’t see how it does. If the name of Jesus were unimportant, why do the disciples insist on using it to tell the story? They could have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble by avoiding the name of Jesus. They wouldn’t have offended the Jewish authorities in the various towns they went to, they wouldn’t have been chased out of town or jailed, and they wouldn’t have lost their lives.
Now Bell could argue that all this was because the people, whether Jewish leaders or Roman officials or philosophers in Athens, did not like the radical message that came with the name, a message of salvation through belief in the person and work of Jesus. How does one go about separating the name, something that identifies the person, from the work? Well, the Christian tradition says that you cannot; so much so that written theologies do not separate the teaching about Jesus Christ from the work of Jesus Christ.
Aside from the obvious theological difficulties this separation between Christ and his work presents, the book as a whole is disturbing because these sorts of difficulties that run throughout the entire book. Bell is not clear. His theology is sloppy. The book has polarized so many people because of this sloppiness. I was told by a friend from Bell’s church that last week when the book was released Bell stood up in church and told the congregation that he is not a universalist. The fact that he had to announce this after just completing a book on the topic of heaven and hell demonstrates the lack of clarity in the book itself.
Lack of clarity in theology is not helpful. It is potentially harmful, particularly if people are left with the notion that believing in the saving work of Jesus Christ is optional or that however they construe “Jesus” is ok if they are good people. This is not the message of the gospel in the Old Testament, Jesus’ words, the Pauline epistles, the pastoral epistles, or the vision of Revelation.
The life God has promised – the life God intended for human beings – is available only through belief in Jesus Christ. Might God have an alternate route after we die? The Bible does not tell us and only God knows. That said, we should leave speculation about who is not in God’s presence alone. Conversely, what we can and do know is that if we acknowledge ourselves as sinners, confess our sins to God, and believe in Jesus Christ, we will (no ifs, ands, or buts) enjoy a taste of the life God intended already in this life, and look forward to abundant life in God’s presence in the life to come. Our impulse to invite people to share in that life should pervade our lives.
The final words of the book indicate that Bell believes this too. Unfortunately the arguments in the book as a whole give very little impetus for those on the fence to join us in the yard of faith.
A couple of final words now. Bell talks about the church tradition, even naming the church fathers but provides no backing, even in his “for further reading” section, for his claims. Not helpful.
Someday I would like to know why Bell has an Empire State Building sized chip on his shoulder about the institutional church. The church is redeemed, called to be holy, but frequently fails. A brief glance at church history will uncover stories of great harm done in the name of Christ. But it will also uncover stories of great good – more I think than those harmful stories. The church is also a mixed bag made up of those who truly believe and hypocrites. The Christian tradition does not deny this; it affirms it. Many of the things Bell says about people in the church are true – and unfortunate. Good teaching and theology that urge good practice in cooperation with the Holy Spirit will continue to help move us in the right direction.
If you are interested in some really clear and good teaching on the subject of heaven and hell, I would suggest two books that Bell also suggests: N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The first is a straight theological treatment of the subject, the second is metaphorical picture. Both are avoid the theological sloppiness of Love Wins.