Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has drawn much attention in the Christian church today. I wasn’t too interested in reading it until my youngest son returned from college and told me his theology class had read it–not to use it as theology, but to compare Bell’s claims to orthodox theology. His class also evaluated it in light of today’s church, in which error, misstatement, and outright heresy slip in, even into some mainstream churches.
While I read Love Wins, I couldn’t help but underline and take notes, because he makes some pretty amazing claims about God that I just cannot find in scripture.
I teach my students that the standard of measurement regarding what we know about God, about the universe, about man, and about truth, is the Bible, God’s word. New claims that redefine any of these are just plain heresy, because they depart from that absolute measurement of God’s word. So from that perspective, I can tell you a few things that shouted at me from Bell’s book. If you do not agree with my presupposition, you can stop reading here.
In his preface, Bell says, “Jesus responds to almost every question he’s asked with…a question. ‘What do you think? How do you read it?’ he asks, again and again and again” (ix-x). Really? Does Jesus ask us what we think about things? Or does he say “You’ve heard it said…but I say…”? (See Matthew 5 for several examples.) My opinion has nothing to do with whether what God says is valid or true or right or applicable. Does he really believe Jesus, Son of God, took a popularity poll?
Chapter One is full of questions about what saves you. He lists one thing after another that people have said, and that the Bible has said, and these just raise more questions. His faulty logic leads his reader to believe that Christians sit around waiting for the life hereafter, not doing anything because they’re waiting:
So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus. (6, emphasis his)
This kind of logical fallacy is intentionally planted to convince his readers that Christians only care about the life hereafter and not at all about their fellow man today. He continues his discussion, ignoring the fact of the fruits of the Christian faith, exhibited all over the world, throughout history. He does, however, take time to mention a story about a group of Christians who rounded up some Muslims and shot them. So what is his point?
Bell spends a chapter on heaven. He wants his reader to know that heaven will be a future period of time on earth when everything is made perfect. We can participate with God in preparing for this future heaven on earth by what we do now. If we work to bring clean water to a place with no drinkable water, we are “participating now in the life of the age to come” (45). He has spent a chapter telling us that “the age to come” is when God says “enough!” and this earth becomes a perfect place for everyone.
Heaven may not be eternal as we think of it, he says, because the Bible doesn’t describe eternity in terms of forever, time without end. So what is it?
Bell cannot connect the idea of a completely good God with a God who allows people to be tormented in hell forever, and he spends a chapter on that. This, I believe, is his main point. He creates a picture of a god who doesn’t really mean what he says.
Bell confuses the topic of hell, which is no surprise after he confuses us about heaven. Hell is not a real place, he insists. It is what we make it, here and now. Eventually, God will restore all things to all people. He lists, out of context, verse after verse from the Bible regarding God’s promise to restore Israel, and uses those verses to show that a time of chastisement will not be forever.
Hell gets a comedic stereotype: “I have a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear, playing Pink Floyd records backward, and enjoying the hidden messages” (70). Treated in such a fashion (not just here but several times), he encourages his audience to laugh along with him about the unbelievability of hell as a literal place at all.
Bell admits we all have a choice–to say yes or no to God. But he refuses to tell us the consequences of saying no, because he does not believe in a literal hell (177).
His main point in the chapter about hell is that yes, we all will answer for our wrongdoings, but that God will eventually restore everyone. We Christians create an exclusive “we” and “them” wrongly, about what happens to non-Christians, he says. We will all end up in the same place, praising God together, he says. Here he leads his audience into what follows, which is his universalist theology: all paths lead to the same place.
After denying hell, he then denies and decries the exclusivity of Christianity: “Muslims, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” all will be saved. You know, this is true–IF they have named the name of Jesus as their savior.
Here is the point of his book, I believe: “given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God” (107). In other words, what God has said in scripture isn’t really what God meant, and Rob Bell will redefine it for us.
Bell doesn’t like that we only get this present life in which to choose to follow Jesus, because it does not fit with a completely loving God. (He chooses to believe in a completely loving God while ignoring the truth about God’s justice. It’s both/and, rather than either/or.)
We will get what we want in the end, Bell says, because God loves us, and love wins. If we want everlasting peace, we’ll get it. And we don’t need to get that everlasting peace just through Jesus. Because all religions present that same truth, he says; it’s only Christians who say that Christians are the only ones saved. However, we are told, in the Bible that he quotes, that the only way to the Father is through the Son, Jesus Christ (John 14:6). He is the gate to that heaven Bell describes. If Jesus is the only way to the Father, then that means there are paths that do not lead to the Father–and those paths are the ones that claim other paths to heaven!
A pastor in Michigan wrote an excellent commentary refuting Bell’s claims, and I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt:
What’s wrong with this theology is, of course, what’s wrong with the whole book. Bell assumes all sorts of things that can’t be shown from Scripture. For example, Bell figures God won’t say “sorry, too late” to those in hell who are humble and broken for their sins. But where does the Bible teach the damned are truly humble or penitent? For that matter, where does the Bible talk about growing and maturing in the afterlife or getting a second chance after death? Why does the Bible make such a big deal about repenting “today” (Heb. 3:13), about being found blameless on the day of Christ (2 Pet. 3:14), about not neglecting such a great salvation (Heb. 2:3) if we have all sorts of time to figure things out in the next life? Why warn about not inheriting the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9–10), about what a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31), or about the vengeance of our coming King (2 Thess. 1:5–12) if hell is just what we make of heaven? Bell does nothing to answer these questions, or even ask them in the first place. (Kevin DeYoung, thegospelcoalition.org)
To appeal to his audience Bell refers to social justice issues, as if non-Christians and his parishioners have the exclusive claim to caring about them. Again, he ignores the fact that Christians have been in the forefront, for centuries, in caring for the poor, for justice, and for peace.
He uses nice-sounding phrases that appeal to people who have grown up into postmodern thinking: “We shape our God, and then our God shapes us” (184). What is that even supposed to mean, and how is it supported in scripture? “Our beliefs matter now, for us, and they matter then, for us. They matter for others, now, and they matter for others, then” (184). Nice-sounding but empty. If all people eventually go to heaven, why should beliefs matter?
Bell sets up many straw-men and other logical fallacies that destroy his credibility. He demeans his audience by talking down to them. To his credit, he appears to genuinely care for the broken and hurting folks of this world, but he simply yanks any semblance of a foundation out from under them by plying them with nice-sounding platitudes that, when held up to the light, are empty and meaningless.
The real story is that God is fully love and fully just. His nature is such that he cannot look on sin, and that sin demands payment. Jesus paid that debt by dying on the cross and rising again to life. Those who believe in him will have everlasting life.
In the end, God wins.