Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, has recently hit the shelves and will no doubt stir a lot of debate. The remarkable thing is that many who claim the title “evangelical” will champion it … a point I find remarkable for the reasons I give here. I purchased the book yesterday, devoured it and am posting my review. My response to “Love Wins” is a bit lengthy but still does not come close to touching all of the concerns I have with this book.
Wow! Where do I start? In fact, since I so soundly disagree with most of his book, should I even set out to write a critical review in the first place? Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote Titus. He commanded Titus to appoint elders in every town and one thing these elders were do was … “holding to the faithful message as taught, so that he will be able both to encourage with sound teaching and to refute those who contradict it.” In this book, Rob Bell very clearly contradicts the “sound teaching” of Scripture and so, yes, this review is appropriate.
I commend Rob on his writing style. He is engaging and knows how to craft sentences and paragraphs in such a way that a 21st century reader finds easy to read and enjoyable. While there are a few other positive things I could say, let’s get right to the serious stuff.
The author begins the book in such a way that I was left thinking I should be glad that he had arrived. He seemed to be like Mighty Mouse who had come to save the day … or at least clear up all of the “false teachings” that have characterized orthodox Christianity for centuries. He writes, “I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.’”
Now, on the surface, we may want to agree with him. Don’t we want to have a belief system that is embraced by others, in fact by everyone? In our age of political correctness and where everyone wears their feelings on their shoulders, aren’t we becoming programmed to shy away from all that is “offensive?” Who in their right mind would tell others something that would make their “stomach churn” unless, of course, it was intended to be that way? After all, 1 Corinthians 1:23 says, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” In fact, Galatians 5:11 refers to the “offense of the cross.”
If the Gospel was supposed to be a message that kept people’s pulse rates from rising, stomachs from churning and hearts from being turned off by it, then the Apostle Paul failed miserably. He failed so miserably that he kept getting beaten, stoned, whipped and such. Maybe he had the wrong approach. Maybe Rob Bell’s book was written 2,000 years too late. In fact, we would have to conclude that Jesus failed, too. He spoke the Good News so effectively that he was killed for it.
Further, in his Preface, the author wrote: “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” Now, I must plead ignorant as to where the author gets this information. I can’t imagine where he hears that fewer people will go to Heaven than Hell, unless of course it was from Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.” This is just one of the first of many times that the author sets forth a view that is plainly contrary to Scripture that most people are familiar with.
Another problem I had with the book was the author’s practice of asking question after question after question, ad nauseum. If you read the book, you’ll understand my comments on this matter. It seemed as if the author enjoyed asking questions more than he did answering them. Yet, from the vantage point of his sympathetic readers, his incessant questioning was effective in deconstructing much of what has characterized orthodox Christianity for years. In doing so, it enabled the author to reconstruct these views in his own way for his own purposes.
The author also did hermeneutical gymnastics on numerous occasions. He took passages out of context or simply read into them things that were never intended by the original writers of Scripture. The author didn’t let the original intent of the New Testament writers get in his way, though, of using those texts to “prove” his point Scripturally.
One example: The author references Exodus 17 where the Israelites received life giving water from the rock while wandering in the wilderness. On that occasion, God made clear that Moses was to strike the rock with the staff he used at the parting of the Red Sea. When Moses did this, water gushed from the rock to satisfy the thirst of the Israelites.
From there, the author references 1 Corinthians 10:4 where the Apostle Paul wrote: “and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.” Now, any logical minded reader who has any desire at all to accurately interpret God’s Word would know what Paul was saying. He was saying that the rock illustrated Christ. There are many similarities but a few are: 1) the rock was hit by a wooden rod and Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross; 2) the result was water to satisfy just as Jesus told the woman at the well that He had living water (forgiveness/eternal life) to satisfy her; 3) it was intended to meet the needs of the Israelites just as Jesus satisfies those that belong to Him; etc.
However, the author doesn’t get this meaning at all. Not even close. He has another point he wants to make and so he changes the significance/meaning of the rock. Instead of saying that the rock illustrates Christ, he says, “Jesus was … the rock. According to Paul, Jesus was there. Without anybody using his name. Without anybody saying that it was him. Without anybody acknowledging just what – or, more precisely, who – it was. Paul’s interpretation that Christ was present in Exodus raises the question: Where else has Christ been present?”
What’s the author getting at? He’s opening the door wide to show that people can be saved by Christ even if His name isn’t mentioned and there is no knowledge of the Gospel. The Hindu engaged in idol worship, having never heard of Jesus or seen a Bible, can believe enough on his own to worship Christ and be made a recipient of the living water. (One is left to wonder why Jesus told us to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send laborers into His fields [Luke 10:2]. Why “waste” our money on missionaries if people don’t need the Scriptures to believe?) Clearly, the author is a universalist in his understanding of who makes it to Heaven. In the final chapters, this allegation becomes undeniable.
It becomes clear that he believes Hell (and he doesn’t seem to be certain what it is) is a place where God’s love continues to reach out to the lost. The author is convinced that given enough time, those in Hell will choose God’s love over the tormenting flames. Given the option, I can certainly see how they would come to such a conclusion but the real question is whether or not such an option exists. The Scripture speak nothing of this option. The author, however, reassures his readers that such an option actually does exist. Dangerous, very dangerous!
While the author is clear that Jesus and the cross are the way to Heaven, he refuses to believe that Jesus MUST be the object of one’s faith to receive eternal life. He writes: “John remembers Jesus saying, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (chap. 14). This is as wide and expansive a claim as a person can make. What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.” It is remarkable that the author goes for the very text that is clearly exclusive and redefines it as inclusive. Jesus used the definite article when He said, “I am THE way, THE truth and THE life.” Yet, the author isn’t afraid to redefine it as long as it then fits into his paradigm of the kind of Gospel that would readily be received by the masses.
The author’s view of hell is remarkable. However, I’d have to qualify that statement before proceeding. Even after reading the author’s chapter on hell, I’m still confused as to whether or not he actually believes in the “hell” that has been so clearly laid out in Scripture and defined by orthodox Christianity for centuries. He seems to allow for it but spends more time talking about the “hell” that people experience while here on earth. He gives much more attention to this present condition. This would seem to jive well with his view of what Christians are supposed to be doing with their lives. (I thought it remarkable that in a book that spoke of Heaven and Hell and the fate of every person who has ever lived, there would be a cogent Gospel presentation somewhere in the book, at least tucked away in the appendix somewhere. Yet, even though this was strangely absent, there were websites and addresses given for those interested in providing clean water, fighting against social injustice, desiring fewer nuclear weapons and such.) With a paradigm that focuses on bringing Heaven to our corrupt earth, it seems that at least the author is consistent when he speaks of hell being here on earth, too.
Another flaw from which the author operates is a lack of understanding concerning any attribute of God besides His love. It is true that God is love and that it is so vast that we can’t even come close to understanding it and that nothing can separate us from it. However, it is also true that we aren’t the only objects of God’s affections. God also loves justice and holiness and is filled with wrath at sin (just read Ephesians 2:3, Romans 2:5 and Revelation 6:16 for starters).
Yet, operating from a limited view of who God is, the author writes: “Millions of people in our world were told that God so loved the world, that God sent His Son to save the world, and that if they accept and believe in Jesus, then they’ll be able to have a relationship with God. Beautiful. But there’s more. Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.” It’s as if the author has only read what Pollyanna called “the happy texts.” His view of who God is and what He is like is so simplistic against the backdrop of the complex God presented in the Scriptures.
The author continues: “If your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality. Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God.” So, the author argues that if the lost world is to embrace the God we think we know, He needs a good PR man. Christians throughout the ages erred by speaking of the “undesirable” attributes of God and made Him into something that the lost world just doesn’t find attractive. They aren’t drawn to a god that would get angry at sinners and send them forever to a Christ-less hell. Thus, the need to correct those errors and recreate God in a way that focuses on the attributes that the lost world will be drawn to, namely His love. In fact, we’re led to believe by the author that the whole of humanity is simply waiting to respond to that kind of God.
We should all be eternally grateful that someone such as Rob Bell came along and gave God a much needed makeover. It shouldn’t surprise us if now that he’s cleared up the mess that centuries of Christians created, things are going to look up for every believer. Muslims in Iran will soon drop their machetes and replace them with hugs for the Christians in their midst now that they know that God loves them. Hindus will stop persecuting Christians after they read Rob’s book and will burn their idols. Or, Rob has led us to believe that they could continue to worship those idols as long as their heart longs for the true God. In that way, the redeeming work of Christ will fit them for Heaven .. as they continue to bow down to those idols. And by the way, we now know that we don’t have to give of our finances or send out missionaries especially when they go to places that are dangerous. Why send them at all?
Let’s just enjoy the life God has given us and wait until eternity to see if Rob is right (unless we are people of the truth who devoutly believe what God has so plainly revealed in His Word). Since we are people of the truth, we must stand against error … especially error such as is propagated in this book that no doubt will send thousands of unsuspecting men and women to a Christ-less eternity … forever.
I pity the author on the day of judgment unless his retraction of this book is as widespread as the audience this book will get. James 3:1 says: “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment”.