Love Wins: A Review

Love Wins generated heated denunciations before it was even published. It is Jesus-filled, hopeful, and inspiring – and just as the conservatives warned, it points toward a (Christocentric) universalism – without quite unequivocally endorsing it.

In typical Rob Bell style, Love Wins is a generous pastoral… ramble (in the best sense) through salvation and eschatology… or ‘heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived’. He has written this book because

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it, is in essence, to reject Jesus. This is 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. (4)

Bell pulls apart this idea – what qualifies you to be one of the few? Does your salvation depend on having a youth pastor ‘who relates better to the kids’ when you’re a teenager? On the missionary who is coming to bring you the good news not having a flat tyre? If we grant that God might show mercy on children (because even most conservatives find it impossible to send children to hell) who die before the age of responsibility, wouldn’t the most loving thing to do be to kill every child? (8)

Bell goes on to set out his understanding of Christian hope for eternal life (‘the life of the age to come’) and the bringing of heaven to Earth. It will require judgement, the banishing of evil and injustice. He imagines heaven as a place of ‘learning how to be human all over again’ (29), a place of soil and rewarding toil as the prophets looked forward to. He writes:

It’s not about a life that begins at death;

It’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death. (33)

 

The flipside of this is hell, which Bell says we know is true because we see it in the world today. Examining the sayings of Jesus about hell, he says that rather than talking about hell to convert pagans, Jesus ‘talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.’ (44) Judgement, Bell says, precedes restoration; the prophet Ezekiel even has a vision of a time when God ‘will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters’ (Ezekiel 16) – the story isn’t over even for Sodom and Gomorrah (45).

Chapter 4 is called “Does God get what God wants?”, and Bell demonstrates God’s universal salvific will  – ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2). He draws on the picture of God as the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep –

The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. (52)

Bell uses a similar style of teaching to Jesus – a lot of questions, which point in the direction of universalism, without insisting on it. He tells of no-one less than Martin Luther being open to the idea of a post-mortem opportunity for salvation; Bell goes on to ask:

And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes, in other words. At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. (55)

As if he hadn’t tackled enough big issues, Bell moves on to suggest that God is at work in Christ everywhere, beyond the boundaries of the church. It is an inclusivist perspective, finding God at work wherever there is truth and goodness (as opposed to exclusivism) and that God’s work is through Christ (as opposed to pluralism which would see religions as independently valid) – he calls it ‘exclusivity on the other side of inclusivism’ (78).

Bell’s most confronting words come in the context of a chapter about the prodigal son’s older brother –

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians. They don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable. (85)

This is the god, Bell says, who loves every person so much but will eternally punish someone in hell without any hope if they die in a car accident without accepting Jesus. ‘Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?’ (85) Many Christians’ conviction that God does leads them to be secretly terrified of God. He sums up the entire book well in this passage:

When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.

Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world. (87)

He goes on to say that we do not need rescuing from God and his wrath; God is the one who rescues us from death, sin and destruction (89).

Bell says in the preface that there’s nothing in his book which hasn’t been taught before; the historic, orthodox Christian faith is ‘a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years’ (6). He’s right, of course, and his book popularises ideas recently presented by Gregory MacDonald in the Evangelical Universalist as well as some (but not the universalism) from Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. But the suggestion of universal hope is not one which has been flowing in the evangelical stream, not by a long shot, and Rob Bell has become a major evangelical figure. Nineteenth century devotional writer Hannah Whitall-Smith has routinely had chapter 22 of her autobiography excised for its embrace of universalism. ‘Gregory MacDonald’ wrote under a pseudonym to protect his position at an evangelical publishing house. When conservative pastor John Piper tweeted ‘Goodbye, Rob Bell’ and sparked the pre-publication frenzy, he was surely farewelling Bell from evangelicalism. I think there are many middle of the road or slightly right of centre evangelical churches which will farewell Rob Bell, adding him to the suspicious list and no longer playing Nooma DVDs in their youth services. Of course, he is already on the suspicious list for New Calvinists, the evangelicals in the mould of John Piper. But there will also be many of Bell’s readers who have felt so blessed by his deep love of Jesus and communication of God’s love that they will stick with him, and feel both challenged and liberated by this latest book.

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7 thoughts on “Love Wins: A Review

  1. Nathan, universalism is a bridge too far for me I’m afraid, Christocentric or otherwise. Reading this I find myself wondering how well Rob Bell would deal with some of my self identifying NeoPagan friends who both understand the Jesus message yet still reject it. Would he (a) insist they’ve misunderstood the Jesus message, thus insulting their intelligence or (b) insist that they’ll come around eventually given God’s infinite patience, thus denying they have any real choice in the matter? It’s been suggested by Anabaptist author Bryan Stone that this desire for universal Christian faith is a subtle holdover from Christendom. Because I affirm freedom of religion I feel compelled to affirm people have a real choice to reject Christ into eternity.

    1. Good questions Matt. I am not a convinced universalist, but I probably align myself with the quote from Karl Barth John shares below. There’s a paradox in holding to a ‘narrow way’ of discipleship in the Anabaptist tradition and also having a wide hope for salvation.
      I hope Rob Bell is right when he imagines God never giving up on people until hell is empty. This is still real choice, even if everyone ends up recognising Jesus’ lordship. Could it be that your neopagan friends are clouded by bad experiences of Christianity (not so much a misunderstanding; more a not having seen Christ’s transforming power)? Could it be that they need to experience God in a fuller way (postmortem?) in order to turn toward God?
      I don’t know. Your objection is a good one.

  2. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

  3. Hi Nathan,
    This question of universalism needs to be considered as one option among others, even if you end up rejecting it. I lean towards annihilationsim, but am open to the possibility of universalism. Karl Barth said that “if we are forbidden to count on this [ i.e. universalism] … we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for this”. (C.D. IV/3, p. 478)

    Two interesting posts I have come across recently are:
    http://www.gregboyd.org/blog/rob-bell-is-not-a-universalist-and-i-actually-read-love-wins/.

    Anabaptist theologian, Ted Grimsrud has just written a very interesting post on universalism. http://thinkingpacifism.net/2011/04/03/whats-really-at-stake-in-the-debate-about-universalism/.

    Many thanks for this review Nathan,

    John Arthur

  4. Hey Nathan, Thanks for the review. My first thought is good on you Rob for writing something which will probably lose him more fans that it gains. I suspect I won’t find anything new here, apart from the realisation that I may have more in common with some parts of mainstream US Evangelicalism than I first thought.

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