Book Review of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

26 Jan

Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived. San Fransisco: Harper One, 2011.

After hearing Rob Bell speak in Manchester, England in 2014, while on his new book promotion tour through the UK, I thought I would go back and write a review of his highly controversial book Love Wins. Bell has certainly received quite a bit of heat over this book since it came out in 2011. Much of the initial controversy came out even before his book was released, with a variety of Christian bloggers and prominent pastors on Twitter contemptuously blasting his apparently heretical and false views.[1]

In preparation for this review, I read six reviews of his book from academic journals, some of which are more sympathetic to his arguments, while others scathingly denounce his efforts.[2] In essence, then, rather than being a book review about Love Wins, then, this post will focus upon the reviews of the reviews: those written by those who reviewed the book, as that proved to be a fascinating case study. The major issues that his harshest critics have with his work seem to fall into three categories.

 

1. First, some reviewers take exception with Bell’s exegesis of Scripture, citing numerous examples where they accuse him of ignoring the Bible’s overarching story, misinterpreting the text, taking verses out of context or fundamentally misunderstanding the point a particular biblical author was trying to make.

2. The second issue lies with Bell’s treatment of historical theology, since many reviewers take exception to his citing of allegedly historical examples of Christians throughout the centuries. According to Bell, many theologians int he past have held to a much more universal understanding of salvation.

This claim is flatly denied by his critics, who hold (perhaps not unsurprisingly) the exact opposite view: that historically, Christians have in fact never held to such a position. Moreover, they allege that apparently Bell does not give sufficient historic evidence to back up his claims.

3. Finally, the third problem his critics have is with his theology, which they hold is at best unclear and merely distorts historic orthodoxy, or is at worst outright blasphemous and heretical. Bell is charged with denying the exclusivity of Christ, the righteous judgment of God and the literal and eternal nature of hell. Therefore on these grounds and more, some critics claim he is a definite universalist who has “jumped off the final rung of the Christian ladder” and into an abyss of hopelessly subjective feel-good liberalism, in which everybody winds up in heaven in the end, regardless of the life one has led–apparently no matter how evil, there’s every chance that even Hitler will end up in heaven.

Therefore, from many of his critics’ points of view, Bell is playing fast and loose with Scripture, historic Christianity and orthodox theology. His harshest detractors scorn his apparently “simplistic and unsophisticated” use of theology, history and Scripture, and what appears to be a wide variety of ostensibly logically fallacious statements based upon sloppy theological reasoning.

Are there any positive statements made by his reviewers? Some grudgingly admit that he “makes a few good points here and there,” such as the reality that one can point to numerous historic examples, in which much harm has been done by Christians in the name of Christ. Unfortunately, however, his critics claim that this reality has merely coloured Bell’s current attitude toward the current institutional church, which would explain why (according to their point of view) he seemingly has such a chip on his shoulder.

Also, some reviewers admit that oftentimes Christians have indeed been guilty of the sort of religious snobbery demonstrated by the Old Testament prophet Jonah, who arrogantly looked down his nose at the pagans around him wallowing in their ignorance and sins. Some critics, although disagreeing with his apparently universalist stance, nonetheless agree with Bell that even today there are all too many of those sorts of Christians dotting the landscape, and doing much harm with their condescending attitude toward non-believers. Oftentimes such Christians appear to have all their theology “nailed down,” and are eager to defend it at all costs with multiple biblical proof-texts, since they obviously have a corner on the Bible’s truths regarding pretty much everything.

Despite such negative examples, however, Bell’s critics note that at the same time this does not mean that God cannot use even these misguided and supercilious Christians to bring lost people into his kingdom. Of course, what the book’s harshest critics fail to mention concerns their own levels of arrogance, as they smugly sit back and contemptuously deconstruct the book until they have “proven” to their satisfaction that it is indeed flat-out heresy, and that moreover Bell should probably be excommunicated. Exactly who is doing the excommunicating, though, remains to be seen. It’s probably lucky that Bell isn’t living during the period of the Spanish Inquisition, or wasn’t a Cathar in 13th-century France.

Since all of these points have been made (in some cases, exhaustively) by others in these reviews, I will leave it up to you to read them if you want to find out what Bell’s critics have to say about Love Wins. I want to focus on the point I made earlier: the very firestorm of controversy around the book, along with the many voices raised in harsh and condescending criticism condemning it, ironically proves the very point Bell makes in the book. History has shown us time and time again that virtually any “select” group of people, once they have even a tiny bit of power over other groups, oftentimes set about abusing that power in order to stay in charge. For example, we could point to the example of Syria, where the minority Alawite party (only 13% of the entire population) have been in charge since installation of President Assad the early 1970s. Since that time this minority group have committed a staggering variety of human rights violations in order to maintain their grip on power.

 

Apparently, however, this is nothing more than typical human nature, as Lord Acton famously stated: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Additional historical evidence can be seen in examples taken from Roman Caesars such as Nero and Caligula, and those of modern-day despots like Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Ghaddafi, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein, to name but a few.

But of course, we would never apply such a phrase to the church. Or would we? And yet… thinking about it, it would seem that ever since the fourth century AD, when Christianity became the state religion of Rome, in the West Christianity has been allied to some form of globalizing power in one form or another. Examples of this include the Spanish Inquisition, and the German Evangelical Church during the Nazi regime under Hitler. In other words, within the European tradition the church has historically enjoyed a constitutional connection with the state, which has meant that for centuries the church has increasingly become part of the establishment ruling from the top down.[3]

This situation was also true of the United States; that is, until the American Revolution resulted in the disestablishment from the Church of England. Since that time, America has famously (or infamously) existed in a society in which there has been both a formal and a legal separation of church and state. Within the last few decades in Europe, the trend has been for certain countries to disestablish themselves from their state churches (Wales), while still others have fought to maintain that formal relationship with a state church (England, Greece and Denmark for example). As a result in much of the Western tradition, even in countries that still have a state church, the church as an entity has nonetheless been pushed from the centre of society, and increasingly finds itself on the margins and running counter to the mainstream culture.[4] Where to go from here?

Therefore unwittingly or not, the harsh critics of Love Wins are illustrating the very point at which the book begins. This concerns the idea that there is a select group of people who are “in,” while the vast majority are “out,” based on a specific prayer or phrase they uttered at some point in their lives. The problem with such thinking, though, is this: what kind of Christian has that sort of teaching created? Essentially, it has created a mentality of “those in power,” since they (the church) held all of the cards. Thus most Christians who believe that way would smugly say, “We’re going to heaven when we die to be with Jesus.” That is, someday we’re going somewhere else, to a better place somewhere up there in the clouds. In the meantime, who cares how badly we treat other people, whether Christians or non-Christians?

So please tell me why then, asks Bell, do we currently live in a world where millions are dying of starvation and thirst, where poverty is endemic and disease and despair is everywhere? Currently the earth is being polluted, violated and exploited on a massive scale, and yet despite this colossal reality, Christians have typically been known as doing very little about all of these problems.

Conservative evangelicals, for example have been accused of not being involved with helping the poor and marginalized of society, because such action could be misinterpreted as being part and parcel of the “liberal social gospel.” Or worse yet, as Bell points out: “If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived” (7).

Ouch.

This is all I want to say about Love Wins. It would be much easier to sit back and contemptuously tear the book to shreds on supposed exegetical, hermeneutical, historical and theological grounds. Then I could “prove” to my satisfaction–like so many of his critics obviously have to their satisfaction–that Rob Bell is indeed a heretic, who should be burned at the stake, or at the very least trashed on Twitter, in a review, a sermon, or on a blog post somewhere. But the doctrinal and theological infighting over this book just once again proves to the watching world what they have suspected or even known all along about Christians: why would I want to follow their Jesus?

To that end we will let Nietzsche have the final say on the matter. He said:

“Christianity came into existence in order to lighten the heart; but now it has to burden the heart first, in order to be able to lighten it afterwards. Consequently it will perish.”[5]

Bibliography

DeYoung, Kevin. “God is still holy and what your learned in Sunday school is still true: a review of Love Wins.” Master’s Seminary Journal 23 no 1 (Spring 2012): 113-131.

Galli, Mark. “Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Christianity Today 55 no 4 (April 2011): 63-65.

Kreider, Glenn R. “Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 no 671 Jl-S (2011): 353-356.

Marty, Peter W. “Betting on a Generous God.” Christian Century 128 no 10 (May 17 2011): 22-23, 25.

Nietzsche, Frederick. Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits. R.J. Hollingdale, trans. Cambridge: CUP, 1986.

Rieger, Joerg. Globalization and Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010.

Smith, Shannon. “No Love for Universalism.” Religion in the News 14 no 1 (Spring 2012): 12-14, 35.

Tennent, Timothy C. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010.

VandenBerg, Mary. “Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Calvin Theological Journal 46 no 2 N (2011): 385-389.

[1] For a helpful review of the furore that erupted around the release of the book see Smith’s article “No Love for Universalism,” in Religion in the News, 13-14, 35.

[2] See the Bibliography for a list of these reviews.

[3] Rieger, Globalization and Theology, 19.

[4] Tennent, Invitation to World Missions, 22.

[5] Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 87.

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