Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. xi+202 pp. Hbk.
There have been few books in recent times as controversial in evangelical circles as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Bell is not some obscure liberal whose views can be easily ignored, but an influential mega-church pastor whose resources are quite popular among evangelicals. Whatever one’s theological position, the contents of this book must be wrestled with.
The opening chapter is titled “What About the Flat Tire?”, a reference to the question of what happens to an unbeliever who fails to hear the Christian message because the missionary gets a flat tire. In this chapter, Bell asks some important questions about salvation, age of accountability, requirements for heaven and how we portray Jesus. Bell challenges evangelical traditions that have systematized how one becomes a Christian, often ignoring the variety of statements by both Jesus and Paul. Many evangelicals would affirm that one receives eternal life by asking Jesus into your heart through the sinner’s prayer, while at the same time struggling to cite a biblical verse in support of this view. This chapter lays the foundation that things are not as clear as many people presume.
The second chapter titled “Here is the New There,” challenges the popular theology of evacuation. Many Christians are proud to say that this world is not their home and they look forward to moving on to heaven. Unfortunately, what heaven is going to be like is not always clear. Bell reminds us that the Bible teaches a very “earthy” view of the afterlife, one that takes the best parts of the current world. Bell also points out that the lines between this life and the afterlife are not so well defined. Heaven is meant to encroach on earth and our ethics should be defined by our eschatology.
Bell does not provide any clever titles for his chapter on hell. Bell takes the reader on a tour of the biblical witness of hell, touching on the concepts of Sheol, Gehenna and Hades. Drawing on his pastoral experience, Bell explains how hell is often present in this life through the choices people make. While acknowledging that there is also a hell in the afterlife, Bell suggests that is not a permanent situation, drawing on Paul’s statements about handing someone over to Satan for correction and on Old Testament restoration texts.
In the fourth chapter, Bell asks the question: “Does God Get What God Wants?” Bell cites many Bible passages that refer to God’s love, compassion and mercy to “all” people. How literally should we interpret “all”? This chapter hinges on 1 Timothy 2:3, which says “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Bell asks the question: If God really wants this, does he get what he wants? God could only get what he wants if everyone will eventually make the decision to accept his offer of grace.
Knowing that this would bring up accusations of the irrelevancy of Christ, Bell deals with Jesus and the cross with his chapter “Dying to Live.” Bell does not deny the importance of the cross, but he does question who receives the benefits from the cross. Is it for just a small minority who subscribe to a narrow set of theological beliefs or is it for a much larger and diverse group?
In the chapter “There Are Rocks Everywhere,” Bell makes reference to Paul’s comment that the rock in Exodus was actually Jesus in some mysterious way (1 Cor. 10:4). Obviously, no one in Moses’ day would have pointed to the rock and recognized Jesus. Bell suggests that many more people are experiencing Jesus every day without recognizing him. As Bell points out, “Jesus is bigger than any one religion,” (p. 150) and so we must be careful with how we attempt to restrain Jesus within specific religions or cultures.
In “The Good News is Better Than That,” Bell contrasts the suffering and evils of the world with the Good News of Jesus. Bell explains that the Good News is better than either the worst things that we can suffer from or our best attempts to be good people. Bell uses the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate the different ways that people see the Good News, suggesting perhaps that exclusivist Christianity may be the older son.
Bell concludes with “The End is Here.” Bell reflects on his own religious experience and how he has attempted to grow from a more naive traditional past. Bell opens his heart to the reader and reminds them of his purpose: “Love is why I’ve written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with.” (p. 198)
While many will reject this book in its entirety as “pure heresy,” there are actually many good things about this book. First of all, Bell is a talented writer and he is passionate about what he is writing. He has a clarity about his writing that will allow his message to be understood by those both with and without formal training in theology. Bell also has a great love, both for God and for people. His reflections from his pastoral experience demonstrate that this is not just idle speculation for him.
Bell also makes some very good points in his book. Within the evangelical tradition, we have worked so hard to have a tight system that sometimes we rely more on our evangelical tradition than the biblical witness. The first chapter of this book should be mandatory reading for all people studying evangelism, as Bell challenges tradition with Scripture. Bell also helps us to reflect on the type of God that we are preaching. Bell reminds us that if we are preaching a God that would prefer to damn everyone to hell but will reluctantly let a few out of the systematic torture if they pray the sinner’s prayer, that our hearers will see through this and likely reject this type of God. Bell does have some good things to say about heaven and hell. As N.T. Wright has recently been stressing, the afterlife is not some ethereal dream world but is something physical, where we will be active (Bell recommends Wright’s Surprised by Hope). Bell is also correct that hell is not a place of systematic torture run by demons, an error that has stayed with us since the time of Dante.
Although Bell does make some very good points, he also makes some significant errors. First of all, Bell begins with what we wish things were like rather than what the Bible says. Most of us likely wish that Bell was correct and that hell will be eventually emptied and heaven will be one big party with not a soul missing. Unfortunately, the Bible is very clear that not everyone will experience eternal life. Bell quotes the first part of John 3:16, but we need to read the full context. “For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16–18 ESV) This is a recurring problem in this book. Bell uses a lot of Scripture but quotes it in isolation of context. Restoration texts from the Old Testament are used as if they meant that God was going to restore people from hell, when they refer to Israel’s exile by the Babylonians.
There are a number of errors in Bell’s biblical interpretation. He misunderstands the use of hyperbole. God’s compassion to “all” does not mean that all will avoid his wrath any more than when we are told all of Judea went to hear John the Baptist preach that every home was empty during his sermons. There is also an error in logic in his use of 1 Timothy 2:3. It is true that God wants all to be saved, but that does not mean that everyone will be saved. Theologians will speak of the difference between God’s sovereign and permissive will, but it does not have to be as complicated as that. We would agree that it is God’s will that people do not commit murder or adultery. The truth is that these things happen many times each day. Does God get what he wants in terms of a lack of murder or adultery? Not in the narrow way Bell puts the question. However, God does get his way in that he wills for his people to have freedom of choice. God’s will that people be saved does not override his will that people choose that salvation.
Rob Bell asks some very important questions and he expresses those questions in a way that this generation can understand. Unfortunately, his conclusion that hell will be eventually emptied as one by one people succumb to God’s grace is both unorthodox and unbiblical. This book is worth reading for the questions, but readers must return to the Scriptures to discover a more biblical way to express the truth that love wins.
Stephen J. Bedard