“Love Wins” by Rob Bell – A Review

Those of you who follow this blog may wonder why I’m doing a review of Rob Bell’s book when I told you I was asked by the publisher not to until it was released. Well, this week I was given the green light to go ahead and do it if I wanted. I won’t speculate on why but just get into my review. This is a long review. Part of the length is due to numerous quotations from the book which I tried to keep as long as possible to preserve the context although I could not do this consistently lest the review go on forever.   

A Hijacked Story

Love Wins is a fairly quick read but that can be deceiving since Bell is covering some heavy issues and at many points you will want to stop and seriously consider what he has to say. Honestly, I found myself at times wanting to throw the book against the wall and other times I thought he raised some interesting points.  Bell starts his book with a relatively simple premise: “Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” But, says Bell, this story has been “hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling because they have nothing to do with what he came to do.” (v, vi) One of these stories is the one about some going to heaven while others, perhaps billions, go to hell. This story Bell labels as “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” (vi) Another way to view this story is to see it in terms of “rescue.” Bell describes this story as

“God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer.”  (184) 

The premise is an intriguing one because according to J. A. Baird (The Justice of God in the Teaching of Jesus) “The Synoptics record Jesus saying well over twice as much about the wrath of God as he ever spoke about his love.” (59-60) Don’t run to your concordances and look up wrath in the Synoptics. The statistics are drawn from numerous passages which express God’s divine hostility without using the actual term “wrath.” (See Tony Lane “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God” in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better edited By Kevin Vanhoozer.)

A Better Story

But Bell has a story to tell and he says

“some stories are better than others.” “Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. It is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes. Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for what God longs for. . . To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.” (112-13) 

Initial Observations

I want to make two observations. Just because we can think of a “better” story doesn’t necessarily make it true. I can think of a better story than the unfolding events on 9/11 but that won’t remove the ugly story that actually occurred. The decision as to which story is “better” is very subjective. I imagine a Muslim or Buddhist would not see Bell’s story as any better than their own.

Secondly, Bell slips it in that to “shun, censor, or ostracize” someone holding this view is failing to extend grace. But is it extending grace when Bell describes the God of those who hold to a traditional view as a “cruel, mean, vicious tormenter” and who, if he were an earthly dad, should be reported to “child protection services immediately”? (175-76) This God is further described as “angry, demanding, [and] a slave driver.” (185) This

“violent God creates profound worry in people. Tension. Stress. This God is supposed to bring peace, that’s how the pitch goes, but in the end this God can easily produce followers who are paralyzed and catatonic, full of fear.” (186)

Bell never acknowledges that those who hold to this less inspiring story have tomes of literature on the mercy, kindness and love of God and which describe this God as sacrificing himself in order to save those he loved so much. He does at one point acknowledge that some church websites have extensive affirmations of the goodness and greatness of God.  Of course, he notes, these same websites state that the “unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.” In response, Bell offers the lone statement “Welcome to our church.” (98) The sarcasm can hardly be missed. Also notice that for a traditionalist to say that God offers peace is lowered to little more than a “pitch.” The language employed by Bell here is unhelpful at best and borders on blasphemy at worst for if he’s wrong this is strong language in which to describe God.  

Anger and Judgment of God

Bell does talk about the anger and judgment of God. He astutely, and I think correctly, says that those who say they can’t believe in a “God of judgment” actually can. He says,

“Yes, they can. Often, we can think of little else. Every oil spill, every report of another woman sexually assaulted, every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture, imprisonment, and execution, every time we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people, every time we stumble upon one more instance of the human heart gone wrong, we shake our fist and cry out, ‘Will somebody please do something about this?’ We crave judgment, we long for it, we thirst for it. Bring it, unleash it, as the prophet Amos says, ‘Let justice roll on like a river’” (37-38)

The same is true for anger. He asks “How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply?” (38) But Bell is quick to point out that in the midst of the prophets talking about God’s anger and judgment are passages which offer “promises about mercy and grace.” (39) As Bell continues his discussion the judgment and anger of God seem to get eclipsed by God’s mercy without explanation. “Justice and mercy hold hands, they kiss, they belong together in the age to come, an age that is complex, earthy, participatory, and free from all death, destruction, and despair.” (39-40) So God’s anger and judgment are real but are canceled out (?) by his grace and mercy?  Bell quotes from Isaiah 1 where God says “Come, . . . though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”  But the passage continues “But if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Is. 1:19-20)

What about Hell?

In the chapter on hell he recounts a time when he was in Rwanda and was driving from the airport to his hotel. On the way he saw a child about ten or eleven with a missing hand standing by the side of the road. Then he saw another who was missing a leg and another in a wheelchair. He then asks: “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” (72-73) And if we want hell we can have it. “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.” He is firm in stating “There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (81) But couldn’t someone turn the tables on Bell at this point and ask him what kind of love would allow children to bring hell on themselves simply to respect some notion of freedom? Bell thinks the word hell best captures the most horrendous aspects of our lives and the graphic language that accompanies it is meant to picture that horror.  The chapter is filled with exegetical analysis of key passages but lacks any kind of supporting documentation which made it hard to know where he was getting his information.    

Does God get what God wants?

A pivotal chapter is chapter 4 “Does God get what God wants?” Here he says churches acknowledge the mighty power of God and who claim that this God is “in control” but still purport that billions of people will spend forever in hell. But, he observes, “even though it’s written in the Bible that ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’ (1 Tim. 2) ( 99) He asks quite simply, “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” (100) Bell continues,

“How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great. . . Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” (100)

First there is not much of an argument here. It is a series of questions designed to get us to quantify greatness by how many are saved or not. He starts with assuming that the interpretation of 1 Tim. 2 is self evident with no alternative interpretations. He doesn’t even alert the reader that traditionalists have long wrestled with this passage and while Bell may not agree with their conclusions it’s not quite fair to simply throw the verse out as a slam dunk irrefutable text. Bell offers a powerful chapter tracing the themes of God’s redemptive powerful love but ends by considering another question: “Do we get what we want?” The answer to that is

“Yes, we get what we want. God is that loving. . . . If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.” (118-19) “Yes, there is water for thirst, food for that hunger, light for that darkness, relief for that burden. If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.” (120-21)

What about universalism?

Is Bell a universalist? Tim Challies says yes and Greg Boyd says no and both have read the book. I suppose much depends on how you define a universalist. The passages Challies points to may be better construed as supporting pluralism rather than universalism. Bell is sure to eschew any labels but I think a “hopeful universalist” might fit. Bell leaves far too many questions open that leave plenty of room for continued conversation. In the end I wonder what place the proclamation of the gospel might have. He writes:

“The father has taken care of everything. It’s all there, ready, waiting. It’s always been there, ready, waiting. Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God’s version of our story doesn’t bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is. On the cross, Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23). Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it. Done. Taken care of. Before we could be good enough, before we could even believe the right things. Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up—God has already done it.” (190-91)

The message Bell implores for us is to “say yes to this love of God, again and again and again.” (196) “Jesus invites us to repent, to have our minds and hearts transformed so that we see everything differently.” (198) What does this look like? “It will require a death, a humbling, a leaving behind of the old mind, and at the same time it will require an opening up, loosening our hold, and letting go, so that we can receive, expand, find, hear, see, and enjoy.” (198) 

 Are billions going to hell?

One final thought. Bell is stuck on a particular figure of how many are doomed to perish in the traditional scheme of things: billions. The number appears over and over again in the book. Again, there are no references to any writers who use this number. I’m guessing Bell thinks this is a necessary corollary to the traditional view. But is it? I’m sure someone out there thinks billions will die and go to hell but is this necessary to believe if you believe in the traditional view? Maybe it’s those Calvinists who are ready to consign billions to eternal damnation.  But I can think of three staunch Calvinists who taught that, in fact, a majority of the human race will be saved! Who are they? B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge and W. G. T. Shedd. (See Paul Helm’s essay “Are They Few That Be Saved?” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell edited by Nigel M. S. Cameron.)

A Final Comment

By the end of the book I’m not sure whose hijacking whose story. Bell seems to do a fair bit of hijacking himself in that he consistently puts the worst possible spin on the traditional view and omitting from it any references to the love and mercy of God which are more numerous than we can count yet which he rarely acknowledges.  When a traditionalist speaks of God’s love it is reduced to a sales pitch, but when Bell does it it is an inspiring story.  I’m all for having a conversation but I would like the traditional view (my own if you haven’t figured that out yet) to be portrayed with the courtesy, respect, and accuracy it deserves.   

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45 thoughts on ““Love Wins” by Rob Bell – A Review

  1. Hey Louis: I knew you’d come up with a great review of this book. I started reading it and will finish it later. I believe you have a lot of great points and I hope people will be discerning enough to stay away from this heretic!! Hope all is well with you and Jan!

    • I hope I will be discerning enough to stay away from people who so flippantly throw around the term “Heretic”… which I think is WHY he had to write this book. Pretty sure a lot of sheep are getting separated from goats from writings such as these.
      I thought this review was very fair and not biased. But it’s comments like these with the H word used… that REALLY make me (and MANY OTHERS I am finding) wary of Christianity as a religion.

      • I realize I am responding to this late. I have read the book, and am doing research for it on a series here at my church. While I myself am always hesitant to call someone a heretic, I think it should be pointed out that Bell said just as bad things to people on the other side of this view. He calls the traditional view toxic to Christianity. That is some pretty harsh language. Bell already drew the line in the sand. When people disagree with him over this major of a topic then I can see why they feel the word “heretic” fits.

        As to the author, great review. I thought you handled yourself very well, and touched on the bigger concepts without getting bogged down in the needless details.

        • Chris,
          Bell does use some very strong language in his description of the traditional view. Given that, I’m still not sure “heretic” quite fits here. His view (as near as we can pin it down) is at best a minority position within the church and not quite as prevalent as Bell leads his readers to believe. I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I tried hard not to make this a personal attack but to stick to the issues. I wish you well in your research.

  2. I’m very interested in seeing some quotes from Warfield, Hodge and Shedd regarding the salvation of many. Do you have any off-hand or know where I could find them on-line?

  3. And, thank you for doing this review! Very good.

  4. Pingback: Bell on Hell « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (in Christ Jesus)

  5. Thanks for this review, Louis. You make good points that I hope others will pay attention to.

  6. Brilliant. Thank you.

  7. Louis, I thought this was a very perceptive and even-handed review. You give criticism a good name 🙂

  8. Pingback: Rob Bell Book Review « Fraser Murdoch

  9. Louis – I enjoyed your review but I think it missed the most important point of the book. It was written as a challenge to traditional thinking. Rather than get tied down re: who is right or wrong or who was well-represented or not, I think Bell writes (from the little I have read in your blog) to challenge our thinking. Through the process we either 1) strengthen our current beliefs or 2) change them given new information, a new view point or an interpretation that is different from the one we previously held. IMO for far too long Christians have been allowed to get away with holding contrary beliefs re: a just, loving God that sends newborns or those who are unaware of the existence of Jesus to eternal hell. Another one is the conflict with a belief in Creation versus the scientific evidence of evolution. These are great discussions to have and shouldn’t be avoided. They aren’t mean to tear faith down but to build it up. I hope all of the readers responding to your review at least read the book. Probably not fair to brand Bell a heretic until after a thorough examination of his work.

    • “the scientific evidence of evolution”? Like what?

      • Not trying to get into that debate in this forum but you can spend 5 minutes in the Natural History Museum in D.C. and come to the realization that life as it exists today didn’t just “pop” onto the scene. Just to be clear, I was referring to what I consider the less inflammatory elements of evolution from, say, dinosaurs to birds rather than what science likes to point to such as “man from apes.”

    • Already you have illuded to 1. Problems with God’s judgment and 2. A disbelief in the biblical creation account. Both you and Bell are misleading when you say “you ask questions to strengthen faith.” Faith is strengthened through communion with Jesus, through meditating on His Word, through prayer and fasting. The byproduct of asking questions, or doing what it really is, which is calling into question biblical truths using human logic – leaning on your own understanding – is to bring people into a foggy ambiguity about the person of Christ and the truths of the Bible. That’s not helping anyone.

      • I’m not questioning God’s judgment just believers who fail to reconcile inconsistencies in their belief system. I agree wholeheartedly with what you lay out as ways to strengthen faith as I have always and will continue to do the things you describe. I would hope you aren’t suggesting that through your acts of building faith you have been privy to the “right” answers and through mine I haven’t. As an aside….when you see something like a woolly mammoth perfectly preserved in Siberia or a “picture” of a fossil from an animal that we’ve never seen or even contemplated it should be only natural to have an inquisitive nature re: the awesome world God created.

      • If you do firstly believe God to be all powerful, then is it too hard to believe in Creation firstly and a God-induced evolution? Therefore Hod allowed and made possible an evolution. To say that he could not do this, I believe you then say do is not an all power, all mighty God

        • Not hard to believe that at all. In fact, it makes sense to me to think God works within the natural laws he designed(although he’s not confined to them). So, I too ask the question of why then couldn’t there have been a “God-induced” evolution? However, a “Creation firstly and God-induced evolution” view is very different from the traditional Creation view.

      • Joanna, Asking questions is a very important part of any type of growth. Asking questions has always been a part of the system of things. When Jesus was a boy and was found in the temple, it says he was asking questions. The old jewish teachers would ask questions instead of stating fact to their students to make sure they comprehended what they were being taught. If a person really believes what they say they do then any and all questions would do more to strengthen their beliefs then do harm.

  10. Pingback: Rob Bell Round-up | Cheese-Wearing Theology

  11. Louis, Chris sent me this link and I’m so glad she did. Excellent review. And I’m glad you pointed out the difference between Challies’ review and Boyd’s review, especially concerning whether Bell comes across as a universalist. I agree with you (in so far as I haven’t read the book yet myself) that from what I’ve seen Bell seems more to me to be an inclusivist/pluralist in his understanding than a full blown universalist. I do consider universalism to be heresy, but I consider the other two views to be sub-orthodox, but not heresy, in that they still have Christ at the center of salvation (more so obviously of the inclusivist view than of pluralism).

    What I find most annoying about Rob’s style is his constant vagueness. I’m all for holy ambiguity, insofar as there are many passages of scripture that are hard to understand and are indeed ambiguous, but Rob and most other emergents seem to revel in constant ambiguity beyond what’s appropriate.

    So while I’m not ready to hurl the heretic epithet at Rob quite yet, I have reached the conclusion that his teaching is dangerous and ought to be avoided.

    I hope the next time I’m in West Michigan I can stop by and say hi. And send my regards to Jan!

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  13. I enjoyed the review. What I have gathered from his interviews and comments, (as I have not read the book,) was exactly your take. I feel like he misrepresents the views of traditionalists. He talks about how he starts with a God who isn’t distant but is close, connected and feels. Well as a traditionalist so do I. That’s not an exclusive view that he holds. Most Christians see God that way. In the end, he often comes off sounding superior in his interpretations compared to us traditionalists.

    He also seems to dodge the questions that everyone really wants answered, the questions that will really tell us where he stands. He’s certainly done a masterful job of hyping and selling his book.

  14. I don’t understand. How can you be a traditionalist and not believe in this number? It is MULTI BILLIONS who will be subjected to Gods hatred for all eternity. I’d be surprised if 1 billion people WERE saved right now. Only about 11% of the world (500 Million) considers themselves Protestant and 250 Million, Easter Orthodox. Remember, traditionalists generally believe Roman Catholics are not saved, so I did not include them.

    Most of the people in these numbers are from America. And as we know, most people in America are not true believers. Just in name/title, only. So the number of true believers who follow Gods word and live according to it is probably down to 5% at MOST. I’d say most likely 2-3%. Throw in some Catholics who might be saved too… you have about 6-10% of the human population that is saved, at MOST. That leaves about 6 billion people headed to eternal suffering. You can see the stats here Christian Stats

    It’s a pretty grim picture and Rob Bell is actually correct on this matter. If you are going to defend traditionalism, you need to fully embrace the number and let people know that yes, God created and told us to multiply, knowing full well that meant that eventually billions would be created simply for the purpose of tormenting them. This cannot be disputed, since the Bible says names in the book of life have already been written.

    So even though God is a longsuffering God, it’s actually worked against humanity, if traditionalism is true. If He had come in the year 1000, multi billions would of been spared eternal suffering. But the longer he waits, the bigger our world population will get, and the more people born who will suffer endless misery.

    For traditionalists, that must include the child/teen prostitutes throughout the world who were forced into the streets and have been killed. It includes the retarded and mentally diseased. It includes the millions of children who die daily from starvation. It includes those who never heard the TRUE gospel to respond to. Traditionalists who disagree with this want it both ways. But wowhere in scripture does it say Children get a free pass. It says all have sinned. Once you allow for the mentally handicapped or children to come in, you have to now allow for everyone who never was able to hear and understand the gospel. Either way, it’s a big mess… unfortunately.

    • wow. your response was intense…and actually made me want to vomit with the reality of your words. my heart breaks…

  15. This was such a helpful review in the midst of so many people just hammering on Rob Bell without giving much explanation about the book itself. Thanks for being an even-handed, honest, and faithful reviewer!

  16. Pingback: Debate and Rob Bell « Xaris

  17. At one time I was drawn to both McCleran & Bell and other emergent church writers, but no longer. It seems that their life goal is to have no unpublished thought. A little success can make us enamored of our own voice. I suspect as much of these two with the copious amount of green screen clips, books, blogs, downloads, cool eye-wear, and other self-promoting merchandise. Sometimes we need to walk away from it all and come back many years later in order to have anything at all worth saying.

  18. It is easy to determine that the Word of God is not the source of Rob Bell’s beliefs (nor that of others who have commented on this site as well). Should we expect anything otherwise from one who stated 6+ years ago that he does not view the Bible as “divine fiat”. Our thinking ought to start from and be based upon the Word of God, not our own opinions (which are constantly subject to change).

  19. Does Baker have a standard for the product that it will or will not carry?

    • So your idea is to slam any debate or potentialy meaningful and enlightening conversation (both pro and con) by having Baker (or you or someone else) determine what is suitable for the Christian reader? I have to say that way of thinking has gotten Christians in a very bad place at times over the centuries. It also gives a wide berth to the radical thinking of other ideologies.

      • What I am saying is that there should be a standard or source that is the basis of the debate. Without one anything goes.

  20. From the books that Rob Bell references in “Velvet Elvis” as well as Bell’s description of God as a force, I think that what Rob Bell is actually promoting is New Age Spirituality and then garbing it in Christian language. But I think there are huge problems in evangelicalism in general that make Bell popular. I blogged on this today: http://lambonthealtar.blogspot.com/2011/03/love-wins-by-rob-bell-or-story-of-star.html It’s the story of Velvet Jesus Vs. Star Wars Jesus.

  21. Pingback: Resources to help Sift Through the Bell, Hell & Universalism Discussion « Theology for the Road

  22. Pingback: Does God Have the Right to be Unfair? | 14jesus

  23. As someone has said Bell’s Hell is a great piece of rhetoric and an average to below average exercise in theology. My thoughts, too.

  24. I would suggest looking at this resource as well. It isn’t published yet, but coming in early July the site says. Same topic, bible focused viewpoint. Also, search on iTunes Video podcast for Cornerstone Simi and there’s an episode (the latest one as of right now) called Erasing Hell. It’s about this too. I can’t wait to see this book released. I agree with many here, and dis-agree with many. When it comes to this book, I see Bell stating his own opinion of what he thinks God and Hell are like, and then trying to use the Bible to back it up. And he does it fairly well at time. I do agree with several statements he makes, but I feel he probably doesn’t want to get into any of them in depth because most of them would prove his point wrong.

    Anywasy, everything’s been said here that I would say, so I’ll leave it at that. Please follow this up with looking at Francis Chan’s book and sermon on iTunes.

    http://www.francischan.org/#/erasing-hell

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  28. Pingback: Love Wins? The Irony of the Rob Bell Universalism Controversy | Two-Handed Warriors

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