Rob Bell’s Love Wins

| July 29, 2011 | 2 Comments More

Well, the cat’s out of the bag now: Rob Bell is officially a universalist. 

To date, I’ve kept out of the arguments over the Emergent Church and the theology and methodology of Rob Bell. As a pastor, professor, teacher, and writer – and one who passionately loves Christ and cares about His gospel – I now feel compelled to give my evaluation – not of Rob Bell himself, but of what he’s written for all to see in “Love Wins.” I took vows as a priest to drive away all erroneous doctrines from the Church, and I guess that includes cyberspace!

Because I’ve written a negative view, I want to begin by affirming what’s good about “Love Wins” and Rob Bell’s writing. I want to thank him for having written about the issues of Hell, God’s story, God’s love, and universalism in such a way that Christians are actually awake and talking about important issues rather than the latest trends in entertainment or pop culture. A lot of what he rightly criticizes is, in fact, a modernistic notion of Christianity, the Church, the Bible, and how salvation works. He writes as a postmodernist and has some valuable insights into how Christians have gotten things wrong in recent centuries. Finally, by writing from a fresh perspective and with an engaging, questioning, and even provocative style, Bell has opened up endless discussions about things that truly matter. In so doing, he’s challenged me to see many issues in a new light, even if I often disagree with him. For all of this, I give him thanks and credit.

However (and you knew there’d be a “however”!), “Love Wins” portrays partial truths from the Bible while misreading others. I truly to appreciate the way that Rob can make us see the story of the gospel with new eyes, and the lens he uses does correct many misperceptions, or wrong “stories.” But ultimately, Rob Bell is wrong about Hell and salvation.

Who am I to say that Rob Bell is wrong? After all, everyone’s entitled to his own opinion. My criticism of Bell’s writing is based on what the clear teaching of Scripture is, as well as on the majority, historical, traditional understanding of theology. While there are many issues the Church has and will always dispute, there are also issues to which the Church has always given clear answers. The question is, therefore, not “Who is Charles Erlandson to say that Rob Bell is wrong?” but rather, “Who is Rob Bell to say that the Church has had things wrong for 2000 years and that Rob Bell is now here to tell us the real truth?” In fact, Rob himself has recognized the need (in “Velvet Elvis”) to interpret the Bible (which doesn’t come pre-interpreted) and even affirms the need for a community to interpret. The problem is that he doesn’t state which community and is instead willing to overturn the consensus of the church for 2000 years if necessary.

Rob directly contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible, as well as the Church’s historical interpretation of the issue, beginning with the early Church and agreed upon by both Roman Catholics and Protestants of all stripes. It’s not just a few fundamentalists that Bell thinks are wrong: it’s the majority of Christians who have ever lived or taught.

Rob Bell begins in Chapter 1 by saying that the Christian story has been hijacked and that he’s here to tell it the right way. How has it been hijacked? Bell rejects the belief that someone like Gandhi is in Hell or that God would condemn most people to Hell while a select millions would make it to Heaven. He clearly dislikes the idea that some people are in and some people are out. Bell also challenges the idea that the Christian message is only about getting to Heaven and has nothing to do with this life (which, by the way, very few Christians actually teach). Rob’s entire first chapter is taken up with questions about how one gets to Heaven and how, and he intends to challenge us to think about our received notions of Jesus and Heaven.

In Chapter 2, Rob correctly argues that Heaven is something that begins here and now. In this way, what he writes serves as a corrective to much misguided thinking and teaching about Heaven. He teaches that the Jews believed in a restored earth where there would be peace and that the eternal life begins now. While all of this is true, Rob seems to conflate Heaven and earth so much that the future earth he envisions is not much different from the present earth, except, of course, more perfect. He claims that Jesus isn’t interested in questions of who gets in or out of heaven but only in transforming us to be the kind of people fit for heaven. However, Jesus clearly talks about who is in and who is out and that He is the on who will judge or separate the sheep from the goats.

Chapter 3 is on Hell and begins with a useful reminder that the Jewish concepts of life and death are much larger than just the actual moment of living or dying physically but are instead related to two ways of relating to God. Rob says without hesitation that he believes in a literal Hell, but the Hell he has in mind is the hell of the Rwandan genocide: in other words, a completely earthly Hell. Rob’s answer to all of the times that Jesus speaks about Hell is to reduce them to an agonizing metaphor to explain the kind of agony we create for ourselves on earth. It turns out, according to Rob, that when the Bible uses the word “eternal” it doesn’t literally mean “eternal.” Obviously, he’s heading the direction of there being no final, eternal punishment for sinners. Bell says, “We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible, evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.” That’s it for Hell: it’s not about eternal punishment at all.

In Chapter 4, Rob argues that God gets what He wants: for all people to come to Him. He cites verses such as Psalm 65 “all people will come to God.” It’s funny how for Rob Bell what Jesus says about Hell must be figurative but what the poetry of the Psalms says about all people coming to God must be literal. It’s also funny how Rob parses so many words and seems unconcerned that words like “all” in the context of the Psalms may not be literal. It’s funny what he notices and what he doesn’t. Rob states that the Bible insists that God will be reunited and reconciled with all people, because this is His will and He is powerful enough to make it happen. Rob claims that an untold number of disciples from the past have taught that ultimately no one can resist God’s pursuit for others, mentioning the names of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. It would have been nice if Rob had actually quoted these Church Fathers, because that certainly isn’t the main way Augustine, for example, would have argued. If you’re going to mention the Church Fathers, then you should probably actually quote them and look at all that they wrote and mention that the majority of the Church has believed in a literal eternal Hell. By the way: these are the same Church Fathers who said, “There is no salvation outside the Church.”

Ultimately, Rob believes his story of universal redemption (yes, he’s revealed himself to be a universalist by this time) because it is a “better story” than one where billions of people go to Hell.

In Chapter 5, Rob briefly presents a large number of issues where the Bible seems to present complex images for certain doctrines, such as the cross, sacrifice, redemption, and justification. He rightly says that it takes this many images to portray the enormity of what God has done, and he rightly says that certain images have been dominant over others during certain periods of Church history. This, too, is a useful corrective to various misreadings of the Bible. The rest of Chapter 5 is actually fairly standard material and not particularly noteworthy (even though the topic is not!)

In Chapter 6, Rob begins by presenting Christ as divine, the One at work in creation. Most importantly, however, he interprets Jesus’ words from John 14, “No one comes to the Father except through me” as meaning that the Father may save many through Christ without them knowing it. This, however, is in contrast to the many teachings of the Bible that to be saved we must call on the name of Christ (see Romans, for example: How can they hear unless they are taught and someone is sent). Once again, Rob has taken Scripture out of its entire context and not examined all of the biblical teaching on a topic deeply enough. He says that the door is open to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, even though these may be people who have clearly heard Christ and rejected Him. After all, Rob says, people come to Jesus in many different and mysterious ways. What Rob doesn’t do is offer an adequate explanation of how this happens, something he should have done if he was going to raise the issue.

In Chapter 7, Rob teaches that “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Once again, Rob focuses so much on the “story,” as Rob tells it, that he ignores a lot of what the rest of Scripture teaches and what the Church has taught for 2000 years. “We create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.” This is true, in a limited sense. But Hell is also much more than this, and Rob refuses to admit this.

Hell is not just something to which man consigns himself: Christ is the “judge” of the living and the dead, and He is the one who will separate the sheep from the goats. Man cannot have created Hell as a place for evil men: it has to have been God’s creation, which is only right for a just and holy God to do. Bell seems to elevate God’s love above His righteousness, holiness, and justice. In fact, throughout the book, Rob elevates certain attributes about God over others, the very thing he accuses most other Christians of doing!

What Jesus Himself actually says is this, in Matthew 25:31-33: -“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”

And from Matthew 25:41-46 -“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Many other passages bear out the traditional understanding that Jesus Christ will judge the world; that He will separate the sheep from the goats (the righteous from the unrighteous); and that there will be those who Christ sends away to eternal punishment. If you want to see for yourself, look up Matthew 13:41-42 and 49-50; Revelation 20:11-15; Revelation 21:8. Or read 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 about those who will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. See also Ephesians 5:5; Matthew 7:21-23.

In summary, Rob Bell has written a challenging and provocative book. I pray that it will stir up many to search the Scriptures and read them with new eyes. But the truth is that whatever else Rob Bell does, he does not deal faithfully and carefully with the entirety of the Bible. He self-consciously has a breezy, provocative style that is good to get people fired up. But he still has an obligation to deal faithfully with the Scriptures, and he has not done this in several important places. THIS IS THE REAL ISSUE concerning the controversy surrounding Rob Bell and his writings.

The truth, and the biblical story, is that Jesus Christ will come in judgment to judge the living and the dead. There is a Final Judgment, and not all will be saved.

It’s been said that Bell writes primarily for postmoderns and that his style must reflect this need. This explains his breezy, provocative style that emphasizes story. While it’s important to bring the gospel to the culture in terms it can understand, by writing “as” a postmodern Bell is only feeding into the ambiguous, universalist, non-exclusive tendencies of postmoderns. I believe it’s possible to write to postmoderns and appreciate their perspective while still clearly proclaiming biblical orthodoxy. What Rob has not done is to engage deeply with all of the biblical evidence.

Instead, in reading “Love Wins,” I feel like I’ve been part of a drive-by shooting. Rob has taken a lot of shots but not adequately demonstrated his points. If he’s going to go against the traditional, historic teaching of the Church, then he owes us a deeper discussion than the one he presents.

I truly appreciate Rob Bell’s ability to provoke thought about Christ and Christianity. But I fear that too often he is the blind leading the blind. In all of this, I don’t doubt the sincerity of Rob Bell. But ultimately it’s the truth, and not sincerity, that really matters.

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Comments (2)

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  1. I learned a lot from this post, much appreciated!! 🙂

  2. Charles says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it and hope you’ll keep coming back as I post more things.

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