Extended review of "Love Wins"
Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the fate of every person who ever lived
by Rob Bell
(Review by Krish Kandiah)
Love Wins put a knot in my stomach from its first page to its last. Firstly because any book about hell is not likely to be comfortable reading; secondly because I have been blessed by Rob Bell’s ministry and I didn’t want to discover that some of his views were far from orthodox; and thirdly I was nervous that if I did like anything in the book, I would be branded a heretic. But finally, and more importantly, I am concerned about this book’s potential to divide the Christian community.
Let me offer a brief synopsis, although bear with me as Bell writes in a conversational and questioning style rather than using logical, linear arguments.
‘What about the Flat Tire’ is a preamble questioning the fairness of the seemingly random factors that influence whether someone accepts or rejects the Christian faith, and their eternal destiny.
‘Here is the New There’ follows the line of thought popularised by NT Wright in the excellent Surprised by Hope’ regarding our understanding of heaven not as a place we go to when we die, but about eternal life that begins now and carries on forever.
‘Hell’ begins with an overview of the Bible’s teaching on Hell and a pretty dismissive caricature of what it means to hold the traditional view. In the context of a description of the Rwandan genocide, Bell asks: ‘Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course… there is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’ (p89) He finishes with a fair challenge: ‘the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.’ (p86)
‘Does God get what he wants?’ is the most controversial chapter, as Bell mocks the doctrinal statements found on many church websites. The nub of the issue is ‘Is history tragic? Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment.’ (p110) There is a lot of proof-texting demonstrating God’s omnipotence and love, which leads to a freewill defence of Hell: ‘Love demands freedom… we are free to resist, reject and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have as much Hell as we like.’ (p121) Although the existence of Hell may not be in question, Bell does seem to imply that Hell may be ultimately empty as: ‘no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt the hardest of hearts.’ (p116)
‘Dying to Live’ is all about the cross and resurrection. Bell explores different models of the atonement, arguing that the sacrifice metaphor is the most prevalent in the contemporary church, yet possibly most irrelevant for our culture.
‘There are rocks everywhere’ argues that Christ makes himself known in a wide variety of ways: ‘there is an energy in the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into. The Greeks called it “zoe”, the mystics called it “spirit” and Obi Wan called “the force”… The energy that gives life to everything is called the “word” of God and it is for us.’ (p.153). This chapter seems to be advocating a form of universalism (though Bell denies this) such that everyone can be saved through Jesus’ death:
‘As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists…, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true. What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody…. People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways… Sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t.’ (p. 163)
‘The good news in better than that’ uses the prodigal son parable to question whether the loving Father God who searches for could after death then become ‘a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor’. (p.182) Bell argues strongly that ‘we do not need to be rescued from God.’ (p.190)
‘The end is here’ offers a conclusion that challenges the reader that whatever they have heard about the end of their lives, time and world, ‘Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today.’ (p205).
Just Asking Questions?
It is good to raise questions and Christians should not be afraid of asking the most difficult ones. Through his questions, Bell helps us to check that what we believe is based really on the Bible, and not on a tradition or a mistaken understanding of the Bible. He helps us to ask whether the gospel we are communicating is consistent and intelligible to those outside of the church.
Some have defended this book arguing that it ‘is just asking questions’ but the tone in which questions are asked is just as important as the questions themselves. In this book though, Bell seems to ask leading questions with an air of cynicism and criticism, caricaturing and attacking other views, with selectivity in his use of biblical texts (as so many Christians on all sides of these debates often are) and without attempting to reconcile his conclusions.
In the past, Bell has given us warm, perceptive, challenging preaching. His Nooma series redefined Christian engagement with video technology, helping visual learners engage with the Bible and his books have been engaging and refreshing. But this book seems to be reactive, and perhaps not without cause.
Bell recounts how people have actually picketed outside his talks, and even before this book was published around 2500 blog posts had appeared from critics with knives sharpened ready to cut the book to pieces and stab Bell in the back. Some high profile Christians have been extremely dismissive, and one tweet that went out to 180,000 followers was particularly ungracious. But this escalation of aggression is not a helpful way for us to deal with our disagreements.
I am concerned that the church will react to Bell’s reaction by signing up either to the anti-Bell witch-hunt, or to the pro-Bell band-wagon. Instead, I believe we should guide this conversation, whether in print, in person or in cyberspace, by a gracious tone that leads to a firmer grasp of what the Bible teaches about salvation through Christ alone, an understanding of why Hell is real and judgment is final. All this should be done in an attempt to lovingly reconcile Christians from across the evangelical spectrum.
Rob Bell, in his inimitable conversational and poetic style, has written a polemical and deliberately controversial book. Although he raises important questions and provokes dialogue, there is a flippancy and a deliberate demonisation of other views which makes the book in my opinion an intentional touch paper for offence and polarisation.
Love Wins questions the finality of hell, the necessity for personal belief in Christ before death for salvation and the suitability of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross as an appropriate metaphor for western culture: core doctrines of the Christian faith. I disagree strongly with the tone, direction and conclusions that Rob Bell delivers in this book, however I encourage Christian leaders to look at it for themselves rather than perpetuate hearsay. I advocate discernment regarding its contents, and I appeal for grace in our conversations.
Reviewed by Krish Kandiah, Executive Director, Churches in Mission at the Evangelical Alliance.