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)
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.