Rob Bell, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” (New York, Harper One, 2011)
reviewed by Karl Dahlfred
When the controversy over Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” exploded on the blogosphere prior to its release, I quickly realized two things, 1) This is going to be big, and 2) I need to read this for myself. A lot of what I heard about “Love Wins” made me concerned. But I wanted to make my own evaluation rather than rely solely on the judgment of others.
So I read the book.
My goal was to listen to what Bell is actually saying and make a balanced assessment of both the good and the bad. There are lots of other reviews out there, some of which give much more analysis than I do here. But for the sake of those who have not read the book, the goal of this brief review is twofold - to give a summary the most significant points, and provide a brief evaluation of those points.
In the preface to “Love Wins”, it is clear that Bell has written an evangelistic book, intended to win back those who are disgruntled with Christianity. It is for people who’ve heard a version of Christianity that has made them say, “I would never be part of that” and are repulsed by the “misguided and toxic” belief that a select few go to heaven and the rest of humanity will be tormented in hell (viii). He presents his book as a place where the difficult questions can be asked, unlike “some communities” that “don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most” (ix). With the postmodern skeptic in mind, Bell accepts as true the most common negative characterizations of Christianity, neither nuancing or answering the criticism. He shows his intended reader that he is on their side and that he is as equally disgusted as they are by what traditionally passes for Christianity.
Bell’s line of argumentation runs like this: God loves the world. God wants to save everybody and reconcile all things to himself. Because God is God, he always gets what he wants, therefore everyone will ultimately be reconciled to God through Christ.
A Fantastic Vision and an Unfortunate Strawman
Rob Bell’s passionate desire that all people know God’s peace and love is the biggest strong point of the book. It is a fantastic vision and one that I heartily agree with. As Bell points out, God wants all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Against all of the violence, cruelty, and suffering of this world, Bell longs to see God’s peace and justice rule and for people to be reconciled to God, renewed, and restored. Everyone who loves the Lord Jesus should feel the same way. Because of this desire, Bell is uncomfortable with the idea that God would send anyone to hell. It is right that he should feel this way. I too feel uncomfortable with the idea of hell and the fact that anyone whom I love would ever go there.
If there are any Christians who are comfortable with this idea or can glibly talk about such weighty truths, then there is something horribly wrong in their minds and hearts. Yet it seems that there are many Christians who have a superficial belief in heaven and hell. They are far too fine with people going to hell. And they see believing in Christ as merely a “ticket to heaven” that doesn’t impact their life in the here and now. It is against such unbiblical glibness that Bell unleashes his scorn. Many of Bell’s criticism of this compromised Christianity hit the mark. Like Bell, I am unimpressed by such one dimensional faith.
However, Bell takes this warped perception of Christianity as the “traditional” view, and not as the watered down perversion of the Biblical faith that it is. Thus, I have found it difficult to assess his arguments because the traditional evangelical Protestantism that I believe doesn’t correspond to the popular stereotyped straw man of the “traditional” view that Bell sets up and then knocks down. Nonetheless, if more Christians longed for people to be reconciled to God as Bell does, the church would be much better off. And if more Christians seriously grappled the doctrine of hell, the church would be making great strides in overcoming the superficial self-absorbed version of Christianity that prevails in so many places.
Strawmen not withstanding, Bell is to be commended for his desire for all people to be saved and his distaste for shallow Christianity.
Bell on Heaven
Although popularly discussed as a book about hell, “Love Wins” also makes a significant statement on heaven. After his introduction in chapter 1, Bell spends chapter 2 ridiculing the stereotype of heaven as mysterious place “out there” where you float around on clouds, playing harps, and singing praise songs all day. The way that heaven has been traditionally portrayed is not very attractive, and even sounds “hellish” to some (25).
Not accepting the “traditional” view of heaven, Bell sets out an alternative understanding of heaven, asserting that heaven is more about the here and now on this earth. This age and the age to come are earthly existences (43), and will ultimately culminate in worldwide shalom. Bell never directly says that there is no heaven in an otherworldly traditional sense. He seems to believe that there is something “beyond”. However, far more important than figuring out how to “get to heaven” is working for peace, love, and justice in this world because this is where we will ultimately live in “the age to come”
In his vision of heaven, Bell seeks to correct those who are so concerned about “going to heaven” that they fail to participate in living out the implications of their Christian faith in this world, namely loving their neighbor and working for peace and justice. His criticism is valid but he swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. Jesus and the Biblical authors clearly thought about heaven as “out there” and that there are requirements to go “there”. Indeed, without a firm conviction that there is something better beyond this life, Christians would not have the perseverance to patiently endure suffering in this life (see Hebrews, ch.11).
Bell on Hell
Bell finds no clear references to hell in the Old Testament, indicating that the Hebrew term sheol merely refers to the place of the dead. He also asserts that the word hades when used in the New Testament carries the same vague notion of the place of the dead as does sheol in the Old Testament. Bell is unimpressed with a mere twelve uses of the word hell (Greek: gehenna) in the New Testament, which referred to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Bell concludes, “And that’s it. Those are all the mentions of ‘hell’ in the Bible” (65). Clearly underwhelmed, Bell’s implication is that the traditional doctrine of hell is formulated on a very flimsy biblical foundation. Bell believes that a better understanding of hell in the rhetoric of Jesus is a time of intense correction (91). This conclusion is based in part on Bell’s understanding of the Greek phrase in Matthew 25:46 which is typically translated as “eternal punishment”. Bell believes that this phrase is better translated as “a time of intense correction.” Bell’s reasoning and use of Scripture to come to this conclusion has the air of sense. However, it goes against a plain reading of the Bible to reduce all mentions of hell to mere hyperbole.
The general pattern of God chastising his people with the aim to correcting them is extrapolated by Bell to preclude any judgment or punishment on the part of God that doesn’t have ultimate reconciliation and restoration in mind. Bell says that because love requires freedom, God will not force anyone to be reconciled with himself. However, he allows them as much time as they need to change their mind, and submits people to intense times of correction both in this life and, if necessary, beyond this life.
Bell’s speculations about what happens after death to those who have still not repented may seem similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory but I don’t think that Bell would see either this life or the next as occasions for God punishing people. Rather, it is a time of correction that may seem “hellish” for the person being corrected, but it is a “living hell” of the person’s own making.
Biblically, it must be admitted that God does correct people and often lets them go their own way for a time in order to bring them to repentance. However, Bell goes beyond Scripture by speculating that this opportunity to repent extends on indefinitely, even beyond the grave. Hebrews 9:27 says that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). From a human perspective, it would be nice if God gave us all the time in the world (and in the next world) to repent. But Scripture seems to indicate that we only have from now until we die to repent. While Bell’s speculation is borne out the good desire that people will be reconciled to God, believing such an claim gives a ready excuse to everyone who wants to put off considering the Gospel. In Bell’s scheme, there is no urgency in repentance. And in an age that is scared of offending others, his vision presents give no urgency in evangelism.
Is Rob Bell a Universalist?
Because Bell says he is an evangelical, and gains his greatest audience from among evangelicals, the accusation that Bell is a universalist kicked off a huge controversy in the blogosphere even before “Love Wins” was published. In interviews, Bell has denied that he is a universalist. But whether Bell is a universalist or not depends on your definition. Bell is not a universalist in the sense that everyone is saved no matter what you believe or what you do. Bell is very clear that people must be saved through Christ and that our reconciliation to God depends upon a free will decision to turn away from our sin and turn towards God. However, Bell is a universalist in the sense that he believes that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God, whether that happens in this life or the next. Also, Bell suggests that it may not be necessary to know the name of Christ to be saved. He asserts that Jesus doesn’t say “how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know they are coming exclusively through him” (154). Passages such as John 6:29 (“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”) would likely carry little weight in countering this assertion as Bell makes clear in his first chapter that the Bible is full of competing and conflicting statements about what you need to do to be saved.
For one whose overarching hermeneutic is “God is love” it is surprising how little love there is for those with whom he disagrees. Towards those who have been burned by “traditional” Christianity, Bell is pastoral and sympathetic. However, one of the ways in which he meets them where they are is by heaping scorn on traditional Christianity as he characterizes it. Those who may disagree with Bell’s views believe in a “violent God” and “the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do” (183). For such a serious issue as hell, it is unfortunate that there is no charitable attempt to appreciate how one could disagree with Bell and yet not have sinister Inquistion-quality motives.
I am fairly certain that Bell’s primary motivation in writing “Love Wins” is to help people and to restore their faith in God. I disagree with many of his conclusions and some of his tactics but I don’t want to judge Bell’s motives when I can’t know them for sure. It would be nice if Bell extended the same courtesy to those who disagree with him rather than marginalizing everyone with broad brushstrokes and inflammatory words.
In “Love Wins”, Bell exhibits an impressive rhetorical ability in leading his readers to conclusions without always stating them outright. In places he shows a love for people and in other places contempt. At times he makes good biblical points but at other times he strays far beyond the bounds of Scripture to come to the conclusion that he wants to be true. Bell has written a book that has power to persuade the masses, blending sarcasm and biblical knowledge with an engaging writing style that is difficult to disagree with unless one enjoys being labeled with with unpleasant epitaphs based on well worn stereotypes. While Bell brings up some good issues for discussion and inspires one to struggle with the difficulties in believing in hell, many of his conclusions fail to do justice to the whole of Scripture and thus do a disservice to the God of Scripture.