A Pastoral Review of “Love Wins”

lovewins.jpgRob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has been reviewed almost ad nauseam.

The most thorough and informed review to date is Kevin DeYoung‘s on his TGC blog. I won’t take the time to review the events leading up to the release of the book and the subsequent brouhaha that resulted because that has been done elsewhere as well.

I’m a pastor who has, for the most part, given up blogging because it has too often distracted my  focus from my family and the church family, the two most important groups of people in my life (Sorry, former TWOG readers. You came in third. …Or fourth…). That said, a large part of my pastoral responsibilities are bound up with 20- and 30-somethings and, for better or worse, 20- and 30-something evangelicals love Rob Bell. Not all of them. But most of them. And those who don’t love him are intrigued by him. And those who aren’t intrigued by him read him anyway because he is a Christian (yes, I still believe he is one) author who has the #6 selling book on Amazon.com. All of which to say, I should probably say something about the book. At least for the sake of the people who still look for new posts from this blog. Both of you.

Here’s what I’d like to say about Love Wins: It’s good.

And it’s bad.

And it’s ugly.

When it’s good, it’s really good. So good that I wish I could hand just the good parts to everyone in my congregation and require them to read it. Not that I have the power to require people in my congregation to read things. Man, wouldn’t that be great?

When it’s bad, it is really bad. Startlingly bad. Bad on so many levels. And when it’s ugly, it is sinister. I know young evangelicals have almost no capacity whatsoever to stomach strong words like “sinister,” and are more likely to side with a person under attack who is wrong than a person attacking who is right but, as I’ll try to demonstrate, “sinister” is the right word to use. Maybe “malevolent.” They’re both fun to say. Like “cacophony” (what Bell has caused). And “bamboozle” (what Bell does in Love Wins).

The Good

To state what is obvious to most who have tuned in, Rob Bell is an magnificent communicator. He’s not a particularly magnificent writer. His prose itself is in no way outstanding. In fact, some of it gets to be pretty tedious (e.g. the one word and one sentence paragraphs). But as in video so in print, Bell deftly creates compelling word pictures and striking real-world illustrations that jolt the reader into engagement with his writing. As a matter of fact, it’s when Bell begins to try to wax eloquent (as in most of chapter 7) that he really loses me because it seems as if he’s merely stringing words together, but not actually saying anything with any discernible meaning.

For example: “We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell” (177). What does that mean? Think about it.  Put it in your own words. … I guarantee that if I asked you this question in person, your response would begin with the phrase, “Well… um… I think he means…” Because I’ve read it six or seven times and I don’t know what it means. And you don’t either. Bell might not. But I digress… This is “The Good” section.

Chapter 2, “Here Is the New There,” is marvelous. Bell paints a picture of heaven that is missing from most of contemporary evangelicalism and desperately needs to be recovered. He paints a picture of a heaven that is coming here. A heaven that will one day fully answer the plea, “Let your kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” A heaven that will come to us and transform the groaning creation and create a heaven of this place.

Bell is pushing back against the tendency among some (not all) evangelicals to think that this world is not worth investing in because, as they say, “it’s all gonna burn.” In other words, if you think “it’s all gonna burn” it’s unlikely that you’ll invest much time and energy in art, medicine, environmental conservation and the relief of human suffering in practical ways because you’ll only be concerned with making sure people get out of “here” and get “there” (i.e. Heaven) someday. But if you understand that the Bible teaches that Heaven is coming here, you will be more likely to invest in things that anticipate its arrival and beautify the world.

Bell also strongly confronts those who say that they can’t believe in a “God of judgment” or a “God of anger.” He responds, “Yes, they can. Often, we think of little else. Every oil spill, every report of another woman sexually assaulted, every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture, imprisonment, and execution, every time we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people, every time we stumble upon one more instance of the human heart gone wrong, we shake our fist and cry out, ‘Will someone please do something about this?'” (38).

I don’t think I seriously disagreed with a thing in the entire chapter. My only real gripe here (but it is a significant gripe. A really whiny gripe) is that it appears to me to be an unashamed, non-footnoted, total N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope rip-off. Clearly Bell has read the book because he lists it at the end of his own book in the “Further Reading” section. And it’s obvious he’s read it. At times the verbiage is so close that if it had been a scholarly work he would have been called out and busted for plagiarism. Wright might have warrant for a copyright infringement case. Wright is too nice a guy to pursue it, though. Bummer. Bell vs. Wright would have made Pay-Per-View.

The Bad

The bad in Bell’s book has already been pointed out by many and has been done much more deftly and thoroughly than I could (see DeYoung’s review). Suffice it to say, Rob Bell’s modus operandi is to “repaint” (to use his word) biblical texts and stories in ways that the original authors would likely not own. It’s not that he always interprets texts badly. Not at all. He just does it when a text needs a little tweaking before it will support his argument.

His treatment of the Lazarus story in Luke 16 is particularly bad. Bell ignores most of what the story is clearly and obviously saying and focuses on his conjecture about what the story could be saying. Bell concludes that the Rich Man’s problem is that he still views himself as better than Lazarus because in the story he’s expecting Lazarus to serve him (in that he asks him for a drink of water to cool his tongue in hell—which, paradoxically, Bell doesn’t really believe in. Or at least he doesn’t believe anyone is really there. Even… the Rich Man?). The “chasm” fixed between Lazarus and the Rich Man, then, is the Rich Man’s hard heart (75). So, Bell concludes, “What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (79).

Is that really what Luke meant? Is it really what Jesus meant? Is it really what Luke thought Jesus meant? Something’s fishy here.

The Ugly

Look. I’m a pretty forbearing guy. Or at least I’d like to think I am. You can disagree. There is a “comments” section on my blog for a reason. I can deal with people who do poor exegesis. Who just don’t handle their Bible very well and get carried away in fanciful interpretations and, from time to time, indulge in a little eisegesis (i.e. reading things into the text that aren’t there). I mean, come on: The preacher who is without exegetical sin, cast the first stone.

What I cannot abide is deliberate deception. This goes beyond intellectual ineptitude or intellectual dishonesty. Inept people don’t know what they’re doing, and the dishonest aren’t always trying to persuade. But deception implies an intent to mislead, and it’s exactly what Bell seems to do at the heart of his book. When paired with the gravity of the topic he is addressing and its proximity to some central truths of the gospel, this deception is (here it is) sinister.

The way Rob Bell deceives is no new trick. But he employs it proficiently. The form it takes is omission. At several crucial junctures throughout his book, Bell simply omits key biblical texts that would clearly and powerfully counter his arguments. It would be one thing if he raised these texts and used the ol’ trick: “I know it looks like Paul disagrees with me, but he really doesn’t…” and proceed to offer more bad exegesis/eisegesis. But Bell simply omits them. And he does it as he’s speaking (by and large) to his primary audience: 20- and 30-somethings, who just so happen to represent the most biblically illiterate generation in the history of the church.

Bell is really smart. He knows who he’s talking to. He knows their deficiencies. And I suspect he knows that he doesn’t have to raise key texts that oppose his positions because his primary audience doesn’t know the Bible very well. Bell knows these texts are in the Bible. Because he’s really smart. He may even know that these texts would cut the legs out from under some of his key arguments. At the very least he knows that they are pertinent to the topic. But he seems deliberately not to mention them. And I call that sinister.

I’ll give a representative example. Chapter 4, “Does God Get What God Wants?” is a lynchpin in Bell’s main argument. In it he argues very convincingly that, yes, God always does get what he wants. Bell musters text after text after text to demonstrate that God always gets his way. His plans are never frustrated. He always accomplishes his purposes, because he is sovereign and omnipotent and omnipotent sovereigns always get what they want. For much of this chapter you’d think you were listening to John Piper, exuberant hand gestures in full effect, convincingly declaring the absolute sovereignty of God.

So, what does God want? Bell’s answer is 1 Timothy 2:4: “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (97). Bell writes, “So does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great. …Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” (97-98).

Bell thus draws the conclusion that in some way everyone must end up “saved.” If that’s what God wants (and God always gets what he wants) then everyone must end up saved. If not before death, then after. And here, by the way, Bell gets very hazy. As he begins to explain whether and how people might come to embrace Christ after death the conjecture thickens and, as many have already pointed out, he contradicts himself several times. But he concludes, “The heart of this perspective is the belief that, 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).

So, how can I disagree? Bell is absolutely correct and on solid biblical ground when he says that God always gets what God wants. Bell is also absolutely correct and on solid biblical ground when he says that “God desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Here is my question to Rob Bell at this point: Is that all God desires?

What about God’s desire in Romans 9:22-24? Paul writes, “What if God, desiring [same word as in 1 Tim. 2:4] to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

Did you catch that? It sounds like Paul is saying that there is something else that God desires. Yes, he desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. And he also desires to demonstrate his wrath and make known his power on some whom he has prepared for destruction. Why?! Why would God do that?! How could a loving God do that (as Bell asks several times in chapter 1)? Paul’s answer: So that God could make known the riches of his glory in mercy to those who will receive mercy. Bell doesn’t like that answer. Which is why he wrote the book (see chapter 1).

Now, I grant that not everyone reads Romans 9:22-24 the way I do. I am convinced that this reading is what Paul actually intended. But I grant that Clark Pinnock and others read it differently. That’s not my issue with Bell. My issue with Bell is that he doesn’t even mention Romans 9. And I suspect that he knows most of his audience won’t know any better. And that’s deceptive. And when you’re deceptive as you’re teaching millions of people about heaven and hell, that’s sinister.

A Word of Qualification

..Or a few. First of all, not to take out the shot gun and broaden the target, but Bell’s book is not as dangerous as Joel Osteen’s books and too few pastors are getting up in arms about Joel’s books being on their people’s night stands. The silliness (that’s a scholarly word) and contorting that marks some of Bell’s Bible work is on par with The Shack. And evangelicals generally loved The Shack. Moreover, I’m convinced that Bell’s book will introduce people to Christ and the gospel. The gospel is there in Love Wins, to be sure. The danger of the book is not so much in what it affirms as in what it denies. I hope and pray that it does exactly that and that many are led to Christ because of the broad readership of this book. I hope and pray that they end up in solid, Bible-teaching churches that can partner with Rob Bell in watering them, trusting that God will give the growth.

Finally, it’s not Bell’s fault. Well, it’s kind of his fault. But it’s not mainly his fault. What I mean is that if thousands of people are misled into believing that what Bell is teaching about hell and salvation is what the Bible teaches about hell and salvation, evangelicals will need to admit that we are complicit because we have not done enough to help people read the Bible well, read it consistently and read it thoroughly. If we had, most of the people reading this book would see most of it as silly. God help us. We need to do better.


17 thoughts on “A Pastoral Review of “Love Wins””

  1. Brian– I haven’t read Bell’s book yet, and so I ‘ve not commented on it yet either, but i would like to say that I think your blog has done more justice to the topic than anyone else who has written on it. I thought it was charitable, but not in a gooshy way. You also exegeted it and cross referenced it. I haven’t heard or seen anyone else do that.

    Most blog comments are mere lovefests, but I thought you did a great job.

    Hope all is well with you and your family,
    Michael Mauriello

  2. You really think today’s 20-30 somethings are the most illiterate believers in church history? You know there was a time in church history where the majority of Chriatians in the world didn’t have Bibles in their own languages right? I think that might be a slightly pessimistic interpretation of the times. I think you might mean that some people who claim Christ in America don’t really give a rip about Jesus or the Father or Holy Spirit out side of Sunday morning and therefore don’t read their Bibles often or at all. Let’s help those people encounter Jesus first and then worry about their bible reading habits. I might simply be takin offense to being included in the 20 somethings that your statement was directed toward (which doesn’t describe me at all). I also might be reacting to the “get a theology degree if you want to be a good Christian” stance, which is not at all what you are saying, but somehow my ears heard a hint of it. Okay, I’m done now.

    1. Nate: I don’t think there’s need for you to take offense, bro. The population of the U.S. is now the most obese in history (so I hear). That doesn’t mean you’re obese, right?

  3. Thank you for a level headed review of this Paris-Hilton-esce-famous book. While you could have just chomped down on what you didn’t like, you gave it its chance to speak a bit. That is admirable.

    That sentence that you couldn’t wrap your head around, while it could have been writen more concisely, is not that hard to understand. Here is my re-phrase of it:

    Thinking that the love of God and the result of rejecting the love of God are the same thing is a bad thing to do and causes suffering.

    BTW: ‘Sinister’ is latin for left-handed.

    I personally am against universalism, but I do believe in the posibility for post-resurection salvation. Regarding God always getting what He wants, I just don’t see it scripturally. God always fulfills His plans, but His desire may not be the same as His plans. For Exhibit A of God not getting what He wants, I present to you the nation of Israel.

    All the same, I don’t lend my faith to any preacher, and Bell is no exception. While I haven’t read the book, I can’t imagine it is very erudite.

    1. Lyle: As if to make my point, brother, I have no idea what your rephrasing of Bell’s sentence means either. Seriously. I’ve read it 4-5 times. What does that mean?

      1. It means:
        Don’t think that God’s acceptance and and what comes out of our rebellion are the same thing.

        In essence he seems to be challenging the notion that condemnation by God is just another form of God’s love for the lost. This notion is common in Christianity.

  4. Thanks for this Bryan. I appreciate your writing style as well as your review. I have to say that I am more concerned with the Christian response to this book than the non-Christian response. If we are easily swayed away from Biblical truth by someone like Rob Bell, perhaps we are heeding too lightly Paul’s warnings in 2 Corinthians about false apostles and Satan’s servants who masquerade as “servants of righteousness”(11:13-15). And, as you say, perhaps we have not inspired and taught our flocks how to enjoy studying the Word of God.

    My pastoral response to this book – I gotta get back to work.

    Happy to be in the ranks with you, Bryan. Blessings.

  5. Silly and sinister… a perfect way to describe it. I think that Robbed Hell video quite poignantly pointed out the silliness of it all.

    “Bell’s book is not as dangerous as Joel Osteen’s books and too few pastors are getting up in arms about Joel’s books being on their people’s night stands.”

    That’s a good point. I’m not sure if Osteen’s books are more dangerous in content, but they are definitely more subtle, which I guess may make them more dangerous in effect. Tons of American (as well as African, sadly enough) churches would instantly recognize the errors in Bell’s teaching but have no issue with TD Jakes and Joyce Meyers.

    1. Osteen’s books are dangerous. Which is why we used to shelve them in the “Adolescent Fiction” section instead of “Christian Living” at the christian bookstore I worked at. It was a humorous way to convey our beliefs, but was short-lived once the manager found out.

  6. “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” (97-98).”
    It’s the classic round triangle. Unfortunately, Mr. Bell wants to se only one shape, while it’s both. God does get what he wants and not all people are saved. In the contradiction is the truth.

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