Love Wins? (My take on Rob Bell’s controversial new book)

I just finished reading Rob Bell’s new and very controversial book, Love Wins. Full disclosure; to date, I have totally embraced all that I’ve read from Bell.  Velvet Elvis (2005) was a very timely and formative read for our church community and last year I desperately chased him down for two months trying to get an endorsement for my book (I didn’t get it).  

And now I’m wondering if that may have been a good thing.

I get why Bell would see the need to write a book like this; there are lots of big questions and scary misconceptions on the topic of hell out there.  And I applaud him for taking the risk.  But I’m not sure he got it right.  Not sure at all.

The way I see it, this book is an attempt to present a view of hell that stands in opposition to the thinking of the ‘turn or burn’ crowd (the hyper-evangelizing, uber-judging, Christian stereotype that uses hell to scare people into heaven).  Only, by pushing back against that caricature, I think Bell has swung too far in the other direction; into what clearly appears to be universalism (the belief that God will eventually save everyone – that there is no eternal hell).   

While I’ll admit that I love the possibility of this being God’s plan – that his love and grace are indeed big enough to include everyone – I just can’t square it with either the bible or 2000 years of God-held, kept and led Christian tradition.  Parables of rich men and beggars, foolish virgins, and sheep and goats all seem to speak of a point of no return, of some kind of eternal hellish reality (along with a few other biblical texts).  Surely the church hasn’t been totally wrong on this issue for all these years; has it?

Yes, there are all kinds of scriptural references that seem to support a more universalistic perspective (many include the phrase ‘all things’ like “I am making all things new” Rev 21:5). And yes, there are just as many verses that seem to support an eternally hot and fiery hell. So what’s a thoughtful Christian to do?

Perhaps the Bible’s ambiguity is meant to point us to a greater truth; that none of us can know or understand the mind of God when it comes to the mystery of his eternal election (why he would choose some and not others).  Even as eternal-hell-believing Christians are wrong in thinking they definitively know what God thinks on the matter (just four easy steps and you’ll be safe), so too are the Universalists who insist that God would only love in an all inclusive kind of way. 

How in the world do they know?

God is a mystery. He’s all powerful and good and yet he allowed evil to infiltrate his good creation. God then solved that problem of evil by mysteriously taking on human flesh (fully God and fully man – explain that with words), and then let himself be inexplicably crucified. God is totally sovereign even as he has given us free will (can anyone explain that reality?). He’s three even as he is one. 

Everything about who God is and how he thinks is fraught with mystery.  So who are we, on either side of this hell issue, to make a judgment on what his take is on such a weighty eternal matter? 

By taking a side, and hubristically calling it God’s side, both sides err. 

I get the sense, that in writing this book, Bell took some bait that he should have ignored. 

Yes, ‘hell on earth now’ is a tragic reality that Christians should fervently work to abate, but that doesn’t negate the possibility of a more eternal hell.

Yes, many of Jesus’ judgments were aimed at real time, then and there, realities, but this fact doesn’t necessarily cancel the future oriented, prophetic, eternally judging application of his teachings.

Yes, it would seem like the best story God could tell would be one where everyone is eternally saved, but (and I really don’t want to make this argument) what if God doesn’t define ‘best’ is this same way? 

Yes, Christ died for all things, people’s souls and the rest of his good creation, but this fact does not necessarily negate the possibility of an eternal hell. 

Yes, Jesus is at work in the lives of all people, both inside and outside of the church, but this does not speak to the matter of whether or not there is a hell.

Yes, Jesus’ love is bigger and wider and longer and deeper than we can ever imagine, but so is his holiness and justice.   

And now I’ll stop, before the irony of claiming to understand how this all works becomes too overwhelming.

I hope Bell’s book stimulates all kinds of healthy dialogue regarding the doctrine of hell. And I pray that, as we engage this complex and mysterious topic, humility wins.

7 thoughts on “Love Wins? (My take on Rob Bell’s controversial new book)

  1. Zaakistan

    Just finished the book, this post, and all the comments. I love this discussion!

    A few things.

    Mystery – yes! Love it. We can’t define exactly what the New Jerusalem/Heaven/New Earth will be, nor can we define Hell.

    Bell speaks over and over about choice, so I don’t see him endorsing the Universalist doctrine at all. (for reference: Bell Comes Clean) He talks about a purifying fire, which is also mentioned in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions – and from my understanding, no one is forced to be purified in this doctrine.

    I really liked how Bell brought up the general reaction to the typical pop-christian Dante-esque view of hell: How can God torment people eternally for sins they committed in a lifetime on earth? I don’t believe he does, but that’s because I don’t believe the “damned” (I don’t think Rob Bell or John used this word, but come on! It’s the one place you can use it legitimately!!) inherit eternal life (in flames) because they inherit death. God’s gift is eternal life, if we don’t choose to accept it, we keep our mortality. My understanding anyhow.

    My favourite bit from the book was that there are many ways to Jesus, and Jesus is the only way to Salvation.

    I disagree with the belief that a healthy understanding of heaven is not that important. We pray that God’s kingdom would “come here on earth as it is in heaven.” The resurrection of Jesus and promise of heaven are the reasons we choose to live as though we are already there (the justice, love, peace, community, restoration, etc.).

    It was a good book. “Surprised by Hope” by N.T. Wright was better (and is recommended by Rob Bell at the end of “Love Wins”).

  2. Mark

    Thanks John. Nicely done. Can’t wait to read the book. My sense is Rob is being true to his “brand” in the best sense of that word. He talks in Velvet Elvis about our faith being like a trampoline and that every generation should test those “springs” to discover what it means to be a Christian today. What’s true will hold; what’s not true won’t. I agree with that principle. The challenge, of course, is how do we do that in a way that honors and upholds God, his Word, and his big idea–the church and its creeds and confessions.

  3. Allan Kirkpatrick

    Human hubris ……. well said !!

    Tis true – God and His sovereign mysterious divinity plans out things far better than we can think or imagine.

    I believe as John pointed out that God’s love and God’s glory will be perfectly matched in judgement.

    I also believe there will be ‘surprises’ in heaven where God’s grace supersedes our expectations and judgement. When we get there there is likely to be a lot of Homer Simpson type comments — d’oh (as in of course THAT makes sense now !!)

  4. Mary

    This is a fair review, but I have not read the book. Jesus himself says that the ONLY path to eternal life – whatever eternal life looks like – is through the belief in Him and His death on the cross. I firmly believe that God has alternative plans (Hell, whatever that is) for those who did not confess that Jesus is Lord in this life. Even if there’s the slightest chance that Hell isn’t as bad as we think it may be, Heaven will be FAR better. I choose Heaven because I love Jesus!

  5. Lucretia

    Interestingly enough – I hadn’t heard about this book until today, and three times now I’ve happened upon it, in three very different blogs. The other two blogs seem to have loads of controversy going on (ugly, heated debats!)and I get the impression that this book is creating quite a stir.

    I appreciate your take on it John! I honestly don’t think anyone could ever fully comprehend the truth about heaven and hell while living here on this earth and at the same time I’m thankful that we’re free to discuss and debate these heavy issues and differing opinions. I find Heaven and Hell fascinating topics to consider and I’ll admit I’ve spent my fair share of time thinking about it all. I’m curious to find out what Bell has to say… guess I’ll have to get my hands on a copy soon!

  6. Kayleigh S.

    Heaven and hell are a huge mystery. I’ll admit I definitely lean toward the “God eventually saving all of his children” side of the debate. I just can’t imagine God ever completely leaving something he created with deep love.

    But I fully admit that I don’t know, and can’t know the truth of what happens after we die.

    I don’t even know what this “heaven” is. I don’t know if God has another world for us to go to, or if he gives us new work on this world, or if he lets us rest until the second coming, or something I have never thought of or imagined.

    It’s like Charles Wallace says in “A Wrinkle in Time”: If you went to a planet where no one had ever seen it would be impossible to explain to them what seeing was like. So perhaps that’s what dying is like. We go somewhere or do something that simply can’t be explained.

    I’ll also be the first to admit that I am okay with not knowing. I realize this can be a huge stumbling block for some, but for me, as with most things that are seen as “big issues” this really isn’t a huge issue for me. I know that whatever happens after death is firmly in God’s control. That’s all I need to know.

  7. Meg

    Thanks for this, John. I haven’t read the book, but I have to agree on you about this issue ultimately being a mystery. I, for one, am thankful for that. I don’t want to fully understand God or His plans, because then He wouldn’t be God. And honestly, heaven and what it means would somehow seem “less” to me if everyone got to go there…(and I know that thinking might really offend some people, but that’s how I see it).

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