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Part 1 of this series. Also check out my review of Love Wins

I’ve already written over 3,500 words about Love Wins, so I won’t be writing another in-depth interaction with Rob Bell’s critics. I was only able to interact with five critics in part 1. I tried to prioritize the earliest published reviews. There are many significant reviews I wasn’t able to get to. Here I’ll only provide a short summary of each review though.

Richard J. Mouw, “The Orthodoxy of Rob Bell” (March 15, 2011)

Part 1 was somewhat one-sided. Only one of the five critics cited, Greg Boyd, maintained that Bell was not a universalist. Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, joins Boyd in endorsing Bell’s eschatology. He writes that Love Wins is “being widely criticized for having crossed the theological bridge from evangelical orthodoxy into universalism. Not true… Rob Bell is calling us away from a stingy orthodoxy to a generous orthodoxy.” Mouw presents a few possible excerpts from a hypothetical theological essay on “The Eschatology of Rob Bell.” If this really were the eschatology of Rob Bell, I wouldn’t have any problem with Love Wins. For the most part, I agree with the eschatology Mouw lays out; I just don’t believe it’s the eschatology Bell actually presents in Love Wins.

Russell D. Moore, “The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell” (March 15, 2011)

Moore’s essay is the most insightful review of Love Wins I’ve read so far. If you don’t read any other review of Love Wins, I recommend you at least read this one. Moore is Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s not Bell’s eschatology that surprised Moore. “What caused [Moore] to gasp out loud though was Bell’s dismissal of the blood of Jesus.” Bell wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never lose its power’ and ‘nothing but the blood will save us.’ Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods” (128). Moore counters, “The gospel is all about blood.”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology” (March 16, 2011)

Another voice from Southern, Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler states that Bell appears “to argue for outright universalism on some pages” but also recognizes that he backs “off of a full affirmation.” Like Mark Galli for Christianity Today, Mohler detects a trajectory toward Protestant Liberalism in Bell’s work. “[W]e have read this book before. With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism.” And I love Mohler’s concluding line—it is well worth quoting: “The problem begins even with the book’s title. The message of the Gospel is not merely that love wins—it is that Jesus saves.”

Brian D. McLaren, “Will ‘Love Wins’ Win? We’re early in the first inning…” (March 21, 2011)

This is where the conversation Bell sparked really starts resembling a conversation rather than disparate voices each voicing their own opinion. McLaren, no stranger to controversial books himself, responds directly to Mohler’s review. McLaren joins Bell in saying he “can’t in good conscience defend [the traditional view of hell] any longer” but also that he won’t condemn those “who can’t in good conscience stop defending it.” He hopes we will “see the conversation continue and deepen, and Dr. Mohler can be thanked for getting the first inning off to a strong and exciting start. If we seek true understanding and give one another a fair hearing all along the way, knowing we’ll all strike out sometimes and even commit an error or two from time to time, whoever ‘wins,’ love will win.”

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “A Theological Conversation Worth Having: A Response to Brian McLaren” (March 23, 2011)

Then Mohler responded to Mclaren’s response: McLaren’s “essay is a welcome addition to this important conversation.” Mohler feels McLaren “is to be credited with taking theology seriously, with making clear arguments, and with a willingness to engage the conversation. I return his candor with my own. [T]his conversation must continue.”

JR Woodward, “Divided by Hell? An Assessment of ‘Love Wins’ by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment” Part I (March 18, 2011), Part II (March 19, 2011), Part III (March 20, 2011), Part IV (March 21, 2011), Part V (March 22, 2011), Part VI (March 23, 2011)

In a series of posts, Woodward, co-founder of a network of neighborhood churches, hones in on two specific questions: (1) What is universalism and is Rob Bell a universalist? (2) Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave? On the question of universalism he concludes, “If we understand universalism as ‘the belief that eventually all human beings will be saved,’ that ‘only one destiny awaits, namely, salvation in heaven,’ then Rob Bell cannot be called a universalist. In Love Wins, Bell passionately declares that God’s love is universal, yet he never does away with people’s freedom to choose” (Part III). On the issue of whether postmortem salvation is heresy, he quotes Alister McGrath that heresy “is ultimately a teaching judged unacceptable by the entire church.” Therefore, something like Arianism is heresy whereas Calvinism and Arminianism are not because both are accepted by at least some in the church. He also quotes a nineteenth-century German pietist who said, “Anyone who does not [hope for] belief in universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass” (Part VI). He agrees with Hans Shwartz that “[o]nly those who are already in this life connected with eternity in time, with Jesus Christ” can have assurance (Part VI). His conclusion is that “[I]n light of the fact that it seems like universalism has been a minority voice in the church since the early days, and the fact that some in the past have gone further than Bell on this matter, I do not think we can call Love Wins heresy…” (Part VI, italics in original).

Ben Witherington, “Do Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls… A Chapter by Chapter Review of ‘Love Wins’” (Part One, March 23, 2011)

Witherington is one of my favorite bloggers and authors. He writes so many scholarly books (particularly on the NT—his specialty) that I sometimes wonder if he’s not an android who never sleeps rather than a man. To keep this short, I’ll only be summarizing the first part, but I recommend you read the entire series. His review is an excellent example of how to remain generous and balanced even when you disagree with the conclusions of the author you are reviewing. He praises Bell’s gift of teaching but with that “comes the need to do his best not just to ask good questions (which he is a master at), but also to seek to provide good and helpful answers where possible. Beyond that, one should say—‘I don’t know’.” In reference to Bell’s disclaimer in the preface that “nothing in this book has not been claimed before within the parameters of the broad stream of historic orthodox Christianity” (x), he writes, “As it turns out…this is actually not quite accurate, if one is referring to creedal or confessional or conciliar orthodoxy. If one means no more that some church father somewhere at sometime said something like this before, whether we deem him to be making an off-handed comment or not, then perhaps this claim can stand.” In the first part of my interaction with Bell’s critics, I pondered if Bell was even asking the right questions. Witherington chimes in on this as well, “Most of the various objections raised, allegedly about Jesus in Chapter One, are actually objections to Christians behaving badly, not objections to Jesus himself. This is a category mistake.”

Roger E. Olson, “The Promised Response to Bell’s Love Wins” (March 25, 2011)

Olson is an author I respect, and I always pay attention when he has something to say. He, like Boyd and Mouw, is emphatic that Bell is not a universalist: “[I]t is obvious to me that early critics of the book were wrong and they owe Bell an apology. Nowhere in the book does Bell affirm universalism.” But he does voice some disagreement with Bell: “One thing I disagree with in Love Wins (and I disagreed with it in The Shack) is Bell’s affirmation that God has already forgiven everyone through Jesus Christ. I believe God has provided everything for forgiveness, but forgiveness depends on acceptance of God’s provision.”

Carl Trueman, “Easy Virtues and Cruel Mistresses,” (March 2011)

This isn’t a review of Love Wins. It is a response to how Bell used Luther in support of postmortem salvation. Bell wrote, “[T]here must be some kind of ‘second chance’ for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime. In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: ‘Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?’” (106) The controversy surrounding Love Wins started well before the book even came out. The publisher released a promotional video in which some critics felt Bell was endorsing universalism. Others felt they should wait until the book came out to draw any conclusions. Bell wanted people to wait until they had read his book before drawing conclusions about his theology; it only seems fair that he should, in turn, not use an out-of-context quote to make a theologian appear to support an issue he does not. Trueman writes, “[T]here is a basic problem of historical method here: it is illegitimate to take a small quotation from a single letter and use it to extrapolate to a person’s general theology.” Enlisting the support—even of a long-dead theologian—to support an issue he most certainly would have disagreed with seems at best unfair. Trueman points out, “Even the briefest reading of, say, Luther’s Larger Catechism would indicate that his mature position allows no space for such postmortem second chances.” Trueman argues that Luther’s question doesn’t mean what Bell indicates it means. According to Trueman, Luther was employing a common medieval rhetorical technique. Luther “asks if God could give somebody faith after death and justify them on that basis. Yes, he replies, he could do so; but there is absolutely no evidence that he does do so. It is akin to asking ‘Could God have made the earth without a moon?’ The answer is ‘Yes, there is no logical contradiction in that claim; but he did not do so.’”

There are many more great reviews out there. Bell has started an important conversation about universalism. As even Bell acknowledges, that conversation is not new; he just brought it to the forefront again. And the conversation will go on well after Love Wins is forgotten.

In this two part series, I tried to summarize both the earliest, significant reviews and reviews from authors that I respect and seek out when dealing with a controversial issue. Another such author I seek out is Scot McKnight. He is one of my favorite writers. Anytime he writes something, it is well worth reading. He has promised a review of Love Wins sometime early in April. When it comes out, seek it out (you’ll probably be able to find it on his blog). I promise it’ll be worth it!

Part 2 of this series. Also check out my review of Love Wins

Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has started a conversation. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, that is a good thing. Talking about our beliefs about heaven and hell helps us clarify what the Bible really says.

I’ve already written what I think about Love Wins. A lot has been written about the book. Much of it was written before the book even came out. I’m not interested in that. The reviews I summarize and interact with in this article are all written by people who have read the book and are reviewing Bell’s actual words—not a blurb on the back of the book.

There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

Your elementary teacher was wrong. There is such a thing as a stupid question. Search engines have taught us that. Unless you ask the right question (enter the most relevant search terms), the search results won’t be helpful. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything is 42. They had the answer, but they still had to figure out the question.

How the question is framed effects the answer you come to. Bell asks a lot of questions and gives what he thinks is the answer to at least some of those questions. But is he asking the right questions? Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd answers that question with a resounding yes.

Love Wins was available to the general public on March 15, 2011. The earliest review I’m aware of from someone who had actually read the book is Boyd’s “Rob Bell is NOT a Universalist (and I acutally read ‘Love Wins’)” posted on his blog on March 4. Boyd had been given an advance copy. He is a pastor and one of the chief evangelical proponents of open theism. He writes that “Love Wins masterfully raises all the right questions, even if one ends up disagreeing with some of Rob’s conclusions.” Boyd thinks it’s the questions—and not the answers—that are important:

Rob is first and foremost a poet/artist/dramatist who has a fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought. Rob is far more comfortable (and far better at) questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers than he is at constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion (italics in original).

Another early review came from Tim Challies, a Reformed author known for his insightful book reviews. He posted a review based on an advanced copy on March 9. He challenges the validity of how Bell frames the questions, “They say that the person who frames the debate is going to win the debate. That is especially true when the debate is framed in this way, through these particular questions.”

Boyd argued Bell is more interested in the questions than the answers. Kevin DeYoung, who pastors a church just about an hour from Bell’s church and author of several books himself including Why We’re Not Emergent and Why We Love the Church, thinks the answers—not just the questions—are important. In a March 14 blog post titled “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True,” he writes:

[A]lthough Bell asks a lot of questions (350 by one count), we should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising. Bell did not write an entire book because he was looking for some good resources on heaven and hell. This isn’t the thirteen-year-old in your youth group asking her teacher, “How can a good God send people to hell?” … This book is not an invitation to talk. It’s him telling us what he thinks (nothing wrong with that).

Although DeYoung doesn’t reference Boyd’s review, it’s clear he’s read it and has it in the back of his mind while he writes his own review:

Bell means to persuade. He wants to convince us of something. He is a teacher teaching. This book is not a poem. It is not a piece of art. This is a theological book by a pastor trying to impart a different way of looking at heaven and hell. Whether Bell is creative or a provocateur is beside the point. If Bell is inconsistent, unclear, or inaccurate, claiming the “artist” mantle is no help.

It’s a Question of Worldview

Here’s how Bell frames the question:

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? (2)

NT scholar Denny Burk writes in a March 14 blog post “Revising Hell into the Heterodox Mainstream” that “Bell likes to make assertions that are cloaked in questions.” There is a worldview implicit in how Bell’s question is framed: People are basically good. Nobody deserves to go to hell. This is an unbiblical worldview (Romans 3:10, 23).

Bell thinks the traditional Christian narrative that “a few committed Christians will ‘go to heaven’ when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death” (110) is not a very good story. He thinks “everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story” (111).

By what measure or objective is Bell’s story a better story? Christianity Today published a review of Love Wins, “Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far,” on March 14. According to senior managing editor Mark Galli, Bell’s story is essentially the story liberal Protestantism has been telling:

To be fair, many people become Christians as a result of hearing the liberal gospel. And one suspects that Bell’s book will have this effect for some. But liberalism has never been able to win a large following for Jesus. Too often, its Jesus sounds like an ideal people already believe in, so why bother? Just in this generation, we’ve witnessed the steady and dramatic shrinking of liberal Protestant churches, while Pentecostal and evangelicals churches—which preach substitutionary atonement, hell, and other doctrines supposedly offensive to modern ears—have been exploding in growth worldwide.

The traditional Christian narrative is a good story. If we were to judge by the numbers, it is the better story. But the better story is not the story that attracts the greatest numbers; the better story is the story that is true—something Bell does not seem to be concerned with. Bell thinks, “Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it” (111). If I’m reading that right, even if universalism isn’t true, a Christian should long for it. In trying to improve the gospel, Bell has succeeded only in creating, as Challies puts it, “a gospel with no purpose.” DeYoung eloquently expounds:

In Bell’s theology, God is love, a love that never burns hot with anger and a love that cannot distinguish or discriminate. “Jesus’ story,” Bell says, “is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love and it is for everybody, everywhere” (1). … There’s no good news in announcing that God loves everyone in the same way just because he wants to. The good news is that in love God sent his Son to live for our lives and die for our deaths, suffering the God-forsakenness we deserved so that we might call God our God and we who trust in Christ might be his children. The sad irony is that while Bell would very much like us to know the love of God, he has taken away the very thing in which God’s love is chiefly known: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

So the Question Is: Is Bell a Universalist?

I opened my review of Love Wins by stating that Bell is not a universalist. That was an oversimplification, but for brevity’s sake, I didn’t expand upon it. First of all, Bell does not make it easy to pin him down. He’s intentionally elusive, which is compounded by the fact that he doesn’t bother with footnotes or cite his sources.

Challies shares the frustration I expressed in my review that “Bell turns to the original languages but he quotes no commentaries, points to no sources.” DeYoung states, “Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when he is less than careful in backing them up.” Galli repeats the common refrain among Bell’s critics, “Given the complete lack of quotes from any other writer or tradition, one is led to the unfortunate conclusion that what makes one extraordinary biblical claim a time-bound metaphor and another literal truth is that Bell says so.” I acknowledge the difference between a popular and an academic work, but contrary to what many publishers seem to believe, a footnote here and there is not going to scare away general readers. One of the big publishing surprises of 2010 was the bestseller status of Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This meticulously researched, heavily footnoted, 608-page tome should have only been of interest to a select few history nerds.

Of the reviews I’ve interacted with in this article, Boyd was the sole reviewer who maintained that Bell is not a universalist. Love Wins, Challies suggests, “reveals [Bell] as a proponent of a kind of Christian Universalism. He would deny the label as he tends to deny any label.” Bell seems to propose a Protestant version of purgatory, but unlike purgatory, DeYoung points out, Bell’s “‘period of pruning’ is for anyone, not just for Christians who die in a state of grace as Catholicism teaches.” Burk adds, “While Bell does not want to be labeled a universalist, this book does more to advance the cause of universalism at the popular level than any book I have ever seen.” And Galli concludes, “After reading the book, it’s hard for me to believe that Bell doesn’t espouse universalism, but to be fair, he never formally affirms such belief.”

“Is Bell a universalist?” can’t really be answered with a simple yes or no. At times Bell seems to be espousing universalism. But then, at other times, he inserts little escape hatches for himself, such as: “[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). And Bell obviously doesn’t consider himself a universalist—he has said as much in interviews. His position is definitely a sub-universalism just a step, a step Bell does not seem willing—yet—to take, away from universalism. I think the best term for Bell’s position in Love Wins is postmortem salvation.

Reviews Referenced in This Article: