A Review of Rob Bell’s Book: Love Wins

Rob Bell’s bestselling book, Love Wins has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy. He’s done this by asking questions in ways that cut deep, exposing raw muscle, bone and tendon. For instance, he asks, “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves. Why them? Why you? Why me? Why not him or her or them? Are there only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?” (p. 2-3).

These questions are just the opening salvo of a book with hundreds of such questions. Questions that cause the reader to challenge the very idea that a loving God could send people to a horrible place like hell.

But it’s not just Bell’s questions that surface hidden tensions in the Christian faith. So does his commentary. After talking about the idea that millions have been taught that if someone doesn’t believe in the way the person telling them the gospel does, and if they died later that day, “God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good” (pp. 173-174).

I’ve seldom read a book that surfaces crucial issues in such an emotional and powerful way. The questions come so fast and furious that it would take a volume much longer than Bell’s to provide answers that counterbalance the weight of his conclusions . . . conclusions that imply hell is here on earth in the here and now as well as something experienced after physical death.

Conclusions that indicate such a God would be a monster, worse than a parent who abuses a child.

It’s not that Bell says God is a monster, but his questions and commentary lead the reader to conclude a God who sends people to a place of eternal torment would be a monster.

And if that’s the glaring conclusion a reader would reach, and since God can’t be like that, then there must be another meaning of hell that is consistent with a loving God. There must be a way to heaven that “leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He (Jesus) is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation” (p. 155).

While Bell is often fuzzy about what he believes, one thing that’s clear in his writing is that he craves answers that will sit well with people because they show God as an all-loving father who would never hurt anyone. In order to do this he took biblical passages and words and changed their meaning so they would say what he wanted them to (p. 31-32). And this he did without supporting references while ignoring the combined translations of the world’s greatest biblical scholars.

He claims he’s not a universalist (believing Christ died for all and so all will be saved), but the book indicates he thinks everyone will have a chance to believe here on earth and other chances after death. He says there is a “place” called hell, but it’s certainly not a place of torment as it’s been historically viewed.

Bell believes Jesus Christ is the only way to God but he said that Jesus, “doesn’t state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him” (p. 154). What does that mean? The reader is left to ponder the question because Bell doesn’t explain what he means.

For the person troubled by the idea of a loved one, or even a stranger, spending eternity suffering in a literal hell—and who isn’t—Bell’s message offers comfort: God is love and love always wins either in this life or the next. Of course, winning for Bell means God gets what he wants, which is for every person to end up in heaven. He defends this idea by quoting 1 Timothy 2:32, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (p. 97).

That verse is followed by these questions: “So does God get what God wants? 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. . . . Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, marvelous God fail in the end?” (pp. 87-98).

Bell wants the reader to conclude that since God is so great he’ll make sure everyone gets saved. After all, that’s what God wants.

His use of 1 Timothy 2:3-4 illustrates how he distorts the meaning of a verse in order to prove his point. While I suspect Bell knows the difference between the sovereign/certain will of God and the desires of God, he makes no attempt to make the distinction when referencing this passage. How much different would 1 Timothy 2:3-4 appear to the reader if Bell had pointed out that the sovereign/certain will of God refers to the fact that God ordains everything that comes to pass  (Ephesians 1:11;  Acts 4:27-28). This doesn’t mean God causes everything to happen. Instead, it acknowledges that he permits everything to happen and everything that happens is a part of his sovereign will. The desires of God speak of what God, as a person, desires. Could a father want his son to follow in his vocational footsteps without forcing him to do so? Of course. Similarly, God desires all men to live righteous lives without sin. Yet, people sin daily. Does the presence of sin in the world mean God is weak. Not at all.

Let’s apply that line of reasoning to salvation. God wants all men to be saved. But the Bible teaches all men will not be saved (Revelation 20:11-15; Matthew 13:47-50).  Accepting God’s offer of life is up to the individual and many people choose not to embrace God’s gift. Does this make God less great? Not at all. It means God does not impose his wishes or desires on his creatures.

This is one instance of how Bell uses an inaccurate meaning of words and verses to build an unstable foundation upon which he constructs a view of heaven, hell and faith.  As I read the book I spotted scores of instances where Bell failed to apply sound expositional and research principles to his explanations. While I enjoyed Bell’s book, he is wrapping a belief in universalism in the jargon and cultural views of the 21st century.

My desire isn’t to write an exhaustive review of Bell’s book, since other have done an excellent job. I just wanted to state my impression of his work in order to give you a basis for further study yourself.

If you’d like some more extensive reviews check out the following links:

http://www.bloggingtheologically.com/2011/03/09/book-review-love-wins-by-rob-bell/

http://shawnwoodwrites.com/blog/a-review-of-love-wins-by-rob-bell/

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/lovewins.html

 

 

Comments

  1. Carl pettus says

    While it is nice to think the way of Bell in reguard to lost souls
    I feel his greatest damage could be done to believers early in
    their walk or when facing the loss of an unsaved loved one.
    The questions are some asked by most people christans or not
    Myself included. I however have different conclusions than him.
    I also know lots if people thatcwoukd never read his book
    Once they found out what it is about for fear from whatever.
    Gid’s peace to you

  2. Bill Perkins says

    Carl,
    Good to hear from you. The book could easily mislead someone who isn’t that familiar with the Bible. All of the biblical references are impressive the problem is he uses the Bible to prove his points rather than letting the Bible speak for itself.

    • Graham says

      I haven’t read the book so I was just wondering; Is it a book of beliefs he holds or more a train of thought that poses big questions? Is it designed as a sort of challenge to make you inquire more or increase your view of God/challenge our current view of God. Historically Rob Bell has been pretty amazing in communicating the heart of Jesus. Has he lost the plot or just expanding us spiritually?

      • Bill says

        You’re right about Bell’s skill as a communicator. But this book isn’t a train of thought so much as it is an attempt to comfort people with the idea that we create our own hell her on earth and after death, unbelievers will be given another chance. The problem is Bell takes words out of context, distorts thier mearning, and then uses them to prove his point. You may want to click on the reviews I noted above. They go into quite a bit of detail.

  3. Jordan says

    A few thoughts come to mind;

    Which is greater?
    A world where no evil exists or a world where both good and evil exist where good conquers evil?

    Can God force people to freely choose him?

    There are times in history where the Bible tells us that God changed his mind. With Nineveh when God declared that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. But how can God change his mind? I believe that God did not change. He was not telling Jonah what would happen, instead, he was foretelling his servant what could happen if there was the city did not repent. By the same token, can God change his mind about Hell because of something those who did not accept him do? If so, then he maybe God did not tell us what would happen. He simply told us what could happen.

    • Bill says

      Interesting line of reasoning, but I didn’t get the sence Bell used that argument to disprove the idea of hell as it’s historically been taught. Besides, in the case of hell, the opportunity to decide to believe in Jesus is made before death, not after. Hebrews 9:27-28 says, “It is appointed unto men to die once and after that comes judgment.”

      • Jordan says

        I was not trying to say that Bell was trying to disprove the historical hell and I agree that the opportunity to divide to believe in Jesus is made before death. My questions is; could God change his mind and choose to judge in a different, perhaps softer way?

  4. says

    I have not read the book and really have no plans for it since I was unable to even get part way through Velvet Elvis. Of the many reviews I have read though, Bill, this is one of the finest and fairest and heart-felt ones I have read. Clear. Concise. Not overly emotional. Well done.

  5. Brad says

    Bill,
    I loved your temperate and respectful response to Love Wins by Rob Bell. I’ve read the book and honestly, I’ve heard Rob Bell speak live. He is an excellent communicator and very intriguing. I actually like some of what he says in the book. As I read the book part of me was saying, YA, YA! YES! But then in other parts I’m thinking No, NO! NO, NO, NO! NO WAY Rob! In those parts, Bell actually rips Scripture out of context and makes it say what he wants to say. Just one example is where Bell talks about Jesus bringing Heaven to earth, which I really liked part of that. But then he goes to Matthew 20 where Bell cites the the mother of James and John who asks Jesus that each one of her sons sit on his right and his left, when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Now, as a pastor who is also a student of the Bible – I mean, not to flaunt credentials, but I have an Masters in Divinity – I wasn’t prepared for how Bell interpreted this passage. This is what he wrote: “In Matthew 20 the mother of two of Jesus’s disciples says to Jesus, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’ She doesn’t want bigger mansions or larger piles of gold for them, because static images of wealth and prosperity were not what filled peoples heads when they thought of heaven in her day. She understood heaven to be about partnering with God to make a new and better world, one with increasingly complex and expansive expressions and dimensions of shalom, creativity, beauty and design.” Page 47
    Now, I read that… and I wrote in the margin of the book – “Come on Rob, that’s exactly what she wanted!” She absolutely wanted bigger mansions and piles of gold for her sons and for herself. Her request was totally self-centered! And, frankly, you don’t need a Masters in Divnity to see that. You just need to read the context! It’s clear! Anyone should be able to see that So, I’m really concerned. I’m concerned that Rob leads a church of 10,000 and they buy this stuff. I’m concerned that he influences at least 100,000 or more Christ-followers around the country. I’m concerned in a number of other areas that he’s created an image of God that dillutes the love of God, because in the book he bascially hits the eject button on God’s Holiness and Justice and Sovereignty, which in my mind and heart and theology cannot be separated from God’s love. And, Bell also caricatures and mocks other vibrant Christian ministries who apparently have hijacked the message of Jesus. Bell doesn’t name them, but if you’ve been around you could easily fit some names in. Some of these are ministries who are led by faithful, kind, high integrity leaders who are motivated and weep at the thought of people actually heading to a Christless eternity. One last thing I’ve very concerned about. It appears Rob Bell has an authority problem. He doesn’t really submit to the authority of Scripture, he creates a God in his image and he may not really submit to any church authorities as well. That’s a problem. I’ve heard it said, when God begins to look too much like your pastor, the congregation is in trouble. Seems like Rob Bells God is looking too much like him. That’s a concern don’t you think?

  6. Bill says

    You’ve raised an interesting question. Regarding whether or not God changes his mind I found an excellent article by Robert B. Chisholm Junior in BIBLIOTHECA SACRA. Here is his conclusion:
    “Does God change His mind? It all depends. If He has decreed a certain course of action or outcome, then He will not retract a statement or relent from a declared course of action. Verses stating or illustrating this truth must not be overextended, however. Statements about God not changing His mind serve to mark specific declarations as decrees. They should not be used as proof texts of God’s immutability, nor should they be applied generally to every divine forward-looking statement. If God has not decreed a course of action, then He may very well retract an announcement of blessing or judgment. In these cases the human
    response to His announcement determines what He will do. Passages declaring that God typically changes His mind as an expression of His love and mercy demonstrate that statements describing God as relenting should not be dismissed as anthropomorphic. At the same time such passages should not be overex-
    tended. God can and often does decree a course of action.” For the complete article go to: http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/02-exodus/Text/Articles/Chisholm-ChangeMind-BSac.pdf

    Based on Chisholm’s exegesis I think God made declarations about hell, not announcements that could be changed. Your statement about God choosing a “softer” way of judging may not capture the essence of how he currently judges. According to Romans 9 the issue shouldn’t be about a just God harshly condemning some people. Rather, the focus should be on a just God mercifully saving some people who don’t deserve it. I suspect when we stand before God we won’t be thinking he is a monster for condemning some, but a lover for sending his Son to offer salvation to all and giving it to any who believe.

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