Love Wins Review

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Also check out my two part series, “Rob Bell and His Critics,” in which I summarize and interact with what critics of Love Wins have been saying: Part 1 and Part 2.

Title: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
Author: Rob Bell
Year Published: 2011
Pages: 202

You may have heard that Rob Bell espouses universalism in Love Wins. He doesn’t.

Okay, we’ve got that out of the way. Now we can proceed to what I agree and disagree with in the book. This book has been out for less than two weeks, and there have already been volumes written about it. I just finished the book yesterday, so I haven’t even begun to read and digest any of the many, many reviews yet. Evangelical magazines Christianity Today and Relevant have both already published reviews. Influential Christian writers Tim Challies and R. Albert Mohler, Jr. have chimed in. I plan to write a follow-up review where I’ll interact with some of these other reviews, but for now I just want to write what I thought about the book.

I’ll start with the positive: I love the chapter about heaven, “Here Is the New There” (Chapter 2). Bell’s observations on heaven are spot on. I would recommend reading Love Wins for this chapter alone. At the end of the chapter, he summarizes:

There’s heaven now, somewhere else.
There’s heaven here, sometime else.
And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place (62).

That is exactly how it appears in the book. Idiosyncratic line breaks and all. You may find Bell’s style hip and engaging. I find it annoying. That’s the last I’ll say about his style, and I will not preserve his line breaks in any following quotations. Now on to the content of the quote:

It’s orthodox, evangelical belief about heaven and kingdom of God. Pick up any book about the kingdom of God by a leading evangelical author at your local Christian bookstore (there’s hundreds to choose from), and you’ll read much the same thing.

Jesus talked more about the kingdom of God than he did about any other single topic. Where is this kingdom? Is it some ethereal place you go when you die? Or is it here and now? Sometimes Jesus talked about the kingdom of God like it was a long time away. Like it would be established at the apocalyptic end of this earth when he returns in the clouds ushering in the new earth. Other times he talked about it like it was here now.

Which is it? Both. Some people call this “already/not yet.” If you want to get really theological, it’s called inaugurated eschatology. One day Jesus promises a new heaven and a new earth. This is the “not yet” or what Bell calls the “heaven here, sometime else.” But Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated this kingdom here and now. When you accept Jesus as your Savior, you are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This new creation is a preview of that new earth. This is the “already” or what Bell calls “Jesus’s invitation to heaven here and now.” The new earth the Bible speaks of is not going to be disembodied souls floating around in clouds as popular culture often depicts heaven. You will have a resurrected body (1 Corinthians 15:42). And it won’t get sick or old like the body you have now. But we won’t receive this body until the coming of the new earth. Both Jesus and Paul seem to teach that we’ll join Jesus immediately when we die. Bell writes that prior to the new earth “after death we are without a body” (56). This is what Bell calls “heaven now, somewhere else.”

When you realize that heaven is about more than where you go when you die, it has important theological implications. When you realize Jesus extends an “invitation to heaven here and now,” it impacts how you live your life. Bell points out, “A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it” (46). A beloved teacher of mine teaches that eternal life isn’t the life that begins when you die; it’s God’s life that he gives you the moment you trust in Jesus. Or, as Bell puts it, it’s “less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more bout a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God” (59).

The chapter on heaven is followed by a chapter simply titled “Hell” (Chapter 3). I won’t spend a lot of time discussing this chapter because, frankly, it is vague and unclear. Maybe Bell is intentionally vague, but the chapter needs a major rewrite to make the key concepts more clear. Suffice it to say that he seems to believe in a literal hell where unrepentant sinners exist in torment and separation from God.

What I do want to spend a little time on is Bell’s discussion in the last few pages of the chapter of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. In verse 46, the King banishes the goats to “eternal punishment.” At least that’s how the TNIV, ESV, and HCSB—all versions translated by large teams of scholars within the past decade utilizing the newest tools and scholarship—translate it. The Greek is κόλασις αἰώνος (Bell’s transliteration is aion of kolazo). According to Bell, a better translation is “a period of pruning” (91). Here’s where his lack of footnotes frustrates me (a similar frustration I had with Velvet Elvis). An assertion like that should be backed up with citations of journal articles and commentaries. Even if the translation is in question, the context seems to indicate an eternal punishment. Verse 41 says the goats depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Here the Greek (τό πῦρ τό αἰώνιον, to pur to aionion) is definitely “eternal fire” or “age of fire.” It’s the next phrase, however, that offers the most support for “eternal punishment.” This eternal fire is the same place prepared for the devil. And in the Book of Revelation, the devil is “thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (20:10, TNIV).

So if Bell believes in hell and believes unrepentant sinners go there, where do the accusations of universalism come from? After laying out his theology of heaven and hell, he says some people “insist that there must be some kind of ‘second chance’ for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime” (106). Although the word purgatory never appears in Love Wins, he seems to be proposing a Protestant version of purgatory. This is not universalism. He believes unrepentant sinners go to hell. He even asks, “[W]ill those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility” (114).

Bell is approaching this issue from a pastoral point of view. What do you do when you’re performing a funeral and a grieving member of your congregation cries to you that her deceased father was not saved and asks if that means she’ll never see him again? I understand the impulse to comfort. I really do. But Scripture must still be our guide. Bell quotes verse after verse about God’s love. Painting God solely as a God of love is an incomplete picture though. God is also holy and perfectly just. These attributes exist in tension with his love. You must look at all these attributes together to get the complete picture.

The proposal of a quasi-purgatory is not even what I found most disconcerting about Love Wins. As Bell says, historic, Christian orthodoxy is “a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences” (xi). Although I believe the biblical evidence indicates Bell is mistaken that the opportunity to trust in Jesus remains extended to us even after this lifetime, unlike universalism, I believe it is within the bounds of historic Christianity. Most Catholics and some Anglicans believe in purgatory. C. S. Lewis believed something very similar to Bell.

What I found most disconcerting about Love Wins was Bell’s repeated dismissal of the traditional Christian narrative as simplistic, quaint, and primitive. He recounts, “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.” He claims that this narrative is “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message” (viii). You find similar denunciations on pp. 95ff, 103, 105, and 173. He seems embarrassed by the Christian narrative—afraid others will see us as barbaric. So to make the narrative more palatable, he constructs a narrative where God loves everybody so much that he continues to extend his offer of salvation even after this life is over.

This time. This book.

What about next time? This time he softened the consequences of sin. What about his next book? What will he be willing to give up then to make the Christian narrative more palatable to a world that is increasingly hostile to Christianity?

Check out other books I’ve read at BookShrub.

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