Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne (March 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780062049643
  • Amazon.com
  • HarperOne

 

Many thanks to HarperOne for a review copy of Love Wins by Rob Bell.

An Overview

If you’ve read Rob Bell’s other works like Jesus Wants to Save Sinners, Velvet Elvis, then you’re familiar with his format and conversational, poetic style of writing.  From the Preface: “If this book, then, does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity—well, I’d be thrilled.  “This vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity” is what Rob Bell explores in the eight chapters that make up the book.

Ch. 1.  What About the Flat Tire? Bell asks questions about various texts of Scripture that people often ask—questions that many of us will find both troubling and uncomfortable, especially in what it means to be saved.  Ch. 2. Here is the New There.  Bell takes on heaven.  “For all of the questions and confusion about just what heaven is and who will be there, the one thing that appears to unite all of the speculation is the generally agreed-upon notion that heaven is, obviously, somewhere else” (p. 24).  Ch. 3. Hell.  Now, this is where a lot of the controversies in the book are.  Well, let me quote a central passage, so you can see what Bell really believes: “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”  Bell continues, “There is hell now and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (p. 79).  Ch. 4. Does God get What God Wants? Bell builds on 1 Timothy 2:4: “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?”  Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end? (pp. 97-98).  Bell then explores that concept of “restoration and reconciliation” that we find in Scripture and offers: “Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.  Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t.  Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t” (p. 108).  Ch. 5. Dying to Live. Bell begins this chapter at a 2010 rap concert, featuring the Detroit famed rapper Eminem.  But there’s a point to the story.  This chapter is potentially controversial since Bell is calling for a change in how we talk about what Christ did on the cross, in terms of “sacrifical metaphor,” “blood,” and people who “offer animal sacrifices to gods.”  Bell writes, “People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways.  But most of us don’t.  What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand” (p. 129).  Ch. 6. There are Rocks Everywhere.  Bell develops the Exodus narrative of water from the rock and Paul’s interpretation of it to refer to Christ, who was present with Israel.  This chapter then becomes controversial as Bell explores matters of exclusivity and inclusivity.  Ch. 7. The Good News is Better than that.  The story of the Prodigal Son is engaged along the lines of the various stories that the father, the younger son, and the older son are telling.  Bell eventually returns to a discussion of hell.  Ch. 8. The End Is Here.  Bell begins this chapter retelling his own conversion story while an elementary school kid.

An Interaction

1.  Does Rob Bell believe in Hell? First, we need to define our terms.  If we’re talking the traditional belief in conscious, eternal torment, then no.  Rather, Bell believes in hell now, in the sense of hellish living, and even hell in the age to come.  I’ll say more about this.

2. Is Rob Bell a Universalist? In a recent interview with Martin Bashir Rob Bell says that he is not a Universalist.  But what does his book, Love Wins, say?  Well, in the chapters “Does God Get What God Wants?” and “There are Rocks Everywhere,” the discerning reader will find some answers.  In “Does God Get What God Wants?” talking about the new city, the new creation, Bell, having developed his doctrine of restoration and reconciliation at this point, has everyone in the new city but then adds, “Love demands freedom.  It always has, and it always will.  We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us.  We can have all the hell we want” (p. 113).  This is Rob Bell’s version of hell in the age to come, if you will.  In fact, Bell interprets the gates of Revelation 21:25, in the new city, thus: “But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out.  If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go” (p. 115).  But then Bell asks, “Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom?” (ibid).  Bell himself concedes tension here and says “we don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t…”

3. Is Rob Bell an Inclusivist? In chapter 6, “There are Rocks Everywhere,” commenting on John 14:6, Bell says, “And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God.  But it is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (p. 154).  What does he mean?  After challenging the exclusivity that most evangelical are use to, and the inclusivity that we were all trained to reject, Bell answers, “This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus that will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.”

Concluding Thoughts

Toward the end of the book I was compelled to ask, What kind of image of God do I really have?  Has my image of God been shaped by an accurate reading of the Scriptures, or has it been shaped by someone else’s reading of God that I’ve bought into?  And what version of God’s story am I sharing with others?

If this was partly Rob Bell’s goal in writing this book, then I’d say he has accomplished it, at least to me.

Shame on that church for dismissing their pastor for endorsing Rob Bell’s Love Wins.  The board certainly didn’t read it.  And if they did, it’s probably because they’ve got it all figured out already.

I recommend Love Wins, not because I agree with everything that Bell says, but because Rob Bell has asked some tough questions.

And I have no problem putting it in the hands of new converts.

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This entry was posted in Creation, Earth, Heaven, Hell, Revelation, Rob Bell, Universalism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

45 Responses to Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell

  1. Michael Metts says:

    Farewell TC.

    j/k…

  2. Brian LePort says:

    It sounds like it would be a good book for someone whose faith may be at stake over this question. It at least gives them freedom to explore it. It seems that is all Bell does in the book anyways.

  3. T.C. R says:

    MM,

    I like your Piper impression, though. 🙂

    Brian,

    Yep, “freedom to explore it.”

  4. Penny says:

    T.C. R. I’ve been awaiting your review and really had no idea where you would come out.
    As a non-Calvinist (I seriously hate being defined by what I am not, but alas, that is best I can do since I do not strongly identify as Arminian), I just assumed all Calvinist would trash this book, but I had a sneaky feeling you’d read it and give a more charitable and fair review. I need to stop lumping everyone into one group.

    Loved every line of your review and agree. But your ending, just blew me away.

    “I recommend Love Wins, not because I agree with everything that Bell says, but because Rob Bell has asked some tough questions.

    And I have no problem putting it in the hands of new converts.”

    Seriously, thanks for this. Because of all the controversy, I’ve second-guessed giving the book to a friend who I think really could use it. I need to trust my instinct.

  5. Ferg says:

    TC – this is why I read your blog. Not because you agree with Rob Bell or anyone for that matter but because you are fair and above all appear to want to honour the Lord, and be loving at the same time.

  6. kenny chmiel says:

    I have a friend who went to a YWAM school of ministry in India, he said this was where he lost his faith. His main reason was hell and the multitudes of people who would never be saved, this he said, was too much for him and he had a huge breakdown which led him to reject The God of Christianity completely. I met him while I was in seminary and we drank beer together and saw Black metal shows together and obviously we talked and talked about God. He said he wanted to believe in Jesus again, but couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus would allow people to go to hell. So one night at a Mastodon concert we were talking and the same topic came up and finally I told him, “If hell is keeping you away from Jesus and following him, you can choose to not believe in it, many Good theologians don’t anyway.” He just didn’t think that was an option. So TCR I agree with your conclusion about giving this book to new christians, in fact when this whole thing started I sent him Bells Video. I personally think Bell is way off on hell, but if he can help people who are super sensitive come to the king I will put a million “love wins” in peoples hands. Good review and good word.

  7. TC,

    I was given this book to read. And I spot read it pretty well (going back to read it again, several times). But, I so completely disagree with your assessment! Again, when you really unpack any of this book, it says really nothing about the Biblical Doctrine of God! The questions and just nature of the book are a waste of time, to me. The biblical and hopefully Evangelical Christian who reads his Bible, and listens to solid biblical preaching and teaching, simply knows better. And he/she certainly doesn’t need this book!

    Finally, as Anglican I have seen what happens to a historical Church, when they open their doors and minds to the winds of culture, and even old so-called ideas like Origen’s. It ends in what the Scripture calls apostasy! We are warned in Scripture over and over! (2 Timothy 3) I am all for asking questions, but questions that are driven by the Word of God, and led by the Spirit of God. There are always some questions that God will not answer in this life, if ever even in eternity. And we don’t want to be like those that the scripture says are: “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2 Tim. 3:7) This in fact appears to be the nature of our time also, but as we note also in 2 Timothy chapter 4, verses 3 &4: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (NIV, 2011) And let us make no mistake, we are certainly living in and seeing those days before us!

    Sorry, got a bit of “peachy” there. But one old pastors thoughts. 🙂

    • We should note that the doctrine of Hell is another subject, besides the reality! It’s not just about God getting his pound of flesh, but HIS justice & righteousness! (Rom. 1:18 / Eph.5:6) It is simply hard for sinful minds to enter in here.

      • Dan Reeves says:

        Fr Robert, I was thinking about this and had a question for you regarding your Catholic background. I went to a Fireside chat at a Catholic parish in my community a few years back. I have spent all of my life in Protestantism in various forms, and I wanted to learn more about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, vs a Protestant one. It was hosted by a Monsignor, which I believe denotes a certain amount of doctorates acheived? Anyway, the discussion got to hell and judgement, and he noted that he believed the Catholic church officially believes in a kind of inclusivism…basically if someone in a far flung culture has never heard the word of God, they are still covered by the general (universal?) grace of Christ and would be allowed into heaven, basically because they have heard no gospel to either accept or reject. When I read “Arminian Theology” by Roger Olsen, I believe I remember him saying that this belief is also held in many pockets of Arminians, although not all. My first question for you is this – is this an accurate picture of Catholic theology? Can anyone who is an Arminian who is familiar with classical Arminianism verify if this is accurate of Arminian belief also?

        I have not read Love Wins, but hope to soon (thanks Amazon – its on the way), but from what little I have read from others who have read the book, it sounds to me like this is pretty consistent with what Bell is saying in his book. Am I on to something here, or way off. Thanks for the discussion everyone. I know where a lot of you stand personally, I am more wondering about it Bell is consistent with Catholic and possibly Arminian thought. Oh, and I am not referring to Arminianism that is actually Semi-Pelagian. Different can of worms. Thanks!!!

      • Dan,

        Yes, this is an old Roman Catholic doctrine even before Vatican II (and further extended after Vatican II), called the Baptism of Desire. It used to go something like this… that those that through great ignorance, or were simply not able to hear or obey the Catholic teaching on baptism, and the graces of the Holy Roman Church, if one had the right desire and heart for the truth of God, and the moral teaching of the Holy Mother Church (Rome). One could through the so-called ‘Baptism of Desire’, find the essence of God’s mercy and grace. This is a poor statement (mine), but I think gets to the original idea.

        This all sounds good and nice, but does the Word of God teach such? I would myself say no, as the Reformation and the Reformed doctrine. Certainly however, there will be a judgment at the “great white throne” (Rev. 20:11, etc.). But there “works” will the authentication of grace and saving faith, and simply if one is “written in the book of life.” (Note, Eph. 2:10 as James 2:12-13; 17-26).

    • T.C. R says:

      Kenny,

      Yeah, I see Love Wins as part of the rethinking on serious issues, especially on how we view God as revealed in Jesus and Scripture.

      Fr. Robert,

      I think many will benefit and learn from this book.

      • TC,

        The problem is not everyone is a theolog thinker, and to dismiss the doctrine of God’s justice and wrath is just not biblical, nor really love in the end. As we can see in Scripture the love and righteousness of God are really intertwined. (Matt. 27:46/Gal. 3:13/Rom.15:3)… The death of Christ was never a mere example or moral Atonement alone! Salvation means just that… “saved from wrath through Him.” (Rom. 5:9, etc.)

  8. Dan says:

    Thank you for your review. This is definitely top of mind in my context…my pastor just this last Sunday showed the promo clip for Love Wins in a very negative light during our morning service. I hope to read the book, and if I find it worthwhile, to encourage my pastor to do the same.

  9. Mike Gantt says:

    TC,

    Anyone who can embrace the truth he finds in John MacArthur one day and the truth he finds in Rob Bell the next is a man who is a respecter of truth more than a respecter of persons.

    You’re a stand-up guy in my book, TC.

  10. david carlson says:

    I recomend Ben Witherington’s multi post series on the book for a more detailed discussion

  11. T.C. R says:

    Dan,

    You’re welcome. Yes, you should give it a read. And it would be cool if your pastor reads it, even if in the end he doesn’t agree with Bell at all.

    Mike,

    Thanks, man. As you know, the truth liberates. 😉

  12. wm tanksley says:

    TC, I like your review, which is very impressive considering that I disagree with your conclusions utterly. I think you’ve cast Bell’s book in the best possible light, and pointed out with accuracy his best questions and points, and I enjoyed seeing those good things pointed out and made clear.

    BUT… I think Bell is badly and baldly wrong in much of his exegesis. One of the worst (I think) is his use of the open gates of the New Jerusalem. Bell and you agree that closed gates keep people in and out. But this isn’t true; Bell is reasoning based on his experience with closed doors, which keep people in and out. City gates have doors in them, and the purpose of the gates is different from the purpose of the doors. Gates keep attacking armies out when they’re closed, and allow a city to prosper when they’re open. Closed gates don’t stop people; they only stop commerce and armies. The open gates of the New Jerusalem therefore indicate civic freedom and prosperity, not the individualistic libertarian ability to change citizenship anytime one wishes.

    But whether you accept my interpretation or not, this picture and the picture Bell paints in the parable of the Prodigal Son have to be freezeframed and blown up 1200x (like in the most unrealistic of the CSI shows) in order to produce a story that allows them to be seen as teaching anything about the eternal state of man’s soul; meanwhile, there are clear passages that actually appear on their face to teach about the afterlife, and Bell skims and dismisses them in the name of maintaining “tensions” with doctrines that he’s invented or supported from emanations of penumbras of texts.

    Similarly, the message of the rock is not that Christ speaks through things; the message is that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s workings and God’s people throughout the Old Testament. This is one thing I like about your review — the message you take from the book here is better than the message I’ve seen universalists take. The problem is that your message is not supported by the book’s arguments, and the universalists’ message is.

    -Wm

  13. Jon Hughes says:

    T.C.,

    You are a man of unusual integrity, and I say this as someone who won’t be reading or recommending Bell’s book.

  14. T.C. R says:

    |The problem is not everyone is a theolog thinker, and to dismiss the doctrine of God’s justice and wrath is just not biblical, nor really love in the end. As we can see in Scripture the love and righteousness of God are really intertwined. (Matt. 27:46/Gal. 3:13/Rom.15:3)… The death of Christ was never a mere example or moral Atonement alone! Salvation means just that… “saved from wrath through Him.” (Rom. 5:9, etc.)|

    Fr. Robert,

    Bell engages God’s judgment and wrath. But of course, not in a way you’d agree with him.

    Wm,

    I disagree as well him much of his exegesis. Yes, “the gates of the city” and what they represent is such a place where I disagree.

    Jon,

    Thanks. Give a read anyway. What’s the harm? 😉

  15. T.C. R says:

    Fr. Robert,

    I have that one, but never got to it. I should though. I’ve been putting it off for years.

    Jon,

    Guys like Bell focus on God’s love and social justice and the like.

    But yes, I see a balance in all this, especially in Paul.

  16. TCR,

    This was quite a balanced review. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Tom says:

    Thanks, T.C., for seeing the value in interacting with a controversial book that asks honest questions, even if in the end many differences remain. A book can be considered great or be recommend for other reasons than “you’ve got to agree with everything this book says.” In fact, some of the best books I’ve read are ones I end up radically disagreeing with. It reminds me of N. T. Wright mentioning Albert Schweitzer’s book The Quest for the Historical Jesus and saying it was one of the most formative books he had ever read, not because he agree with Schweitzer’s conclusions, but because Schweitzer’s questions were so powerful. That takes a certain level of maturity a find many folks lack.

  18. T.C. R says:

    Tom,

    As I get older or maturer, I’m seeing more and more the value in interacting with those with whom I disagree. It’s dialogue in community and we should all be open to learning from one another, at least at some level – so I have a bit of understanding of where Wright is coming from.

  19. Ron Krumpos says:

    Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

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  21. Brian MacArevey says:

    Thanks TC,

    This was a very balanced and helpful review. Great job!

    Brian

  22. T.C. R says:

    Ron,

    We’re also talking the “Generous Orthodoxy” of Rob Bell here, which of course many will find problematic.

    Brian,

    You’re welcome.

    • Ron Krumpos says:

      T.C. R,

      My initial comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

      Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.

      • T.C. R says:

        Ron,

        Sorry I missed the fact that you were offering alternative views. As you know, a definition of terms is where much of the problem is in some of these ongoing debates.

  23. Ron Krumpos says:

    T.C. R,

    As one of my friends said “terminology is a trap.” In my ebook is a chapter called “Beyond words” which highlights many of the conflicts created when applying language to that for which no words are adequate. That is why I use “divine” rather than God (an English word usually associated with Christianity). Jews use haShem (the name) in conversation and Adonai (Lord) when reading the Torah.

    A few months ago there was a big flap in Malaysia when a Christian group used Allah instead of God. Etymologically they have the same meaning, but don’t tell that to most modern Muslims or Christians. In Buddhism I have found 35 definitions of Nirvana…a word only used by the Theravada; Dharmakaya is preferred by Mahayana and Vajrayana. There have even been battles fought between use of YHWH vs. YHVH.

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  28. Rom11 says:

    TC – having read a few of your blogs, I was expecting to see a very negative review. You pleasantly surprised me. Great review.

    All the discussions about this remind me of what Paul wrote:
    For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.  What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:11-13)

    I follow the teaching of a Jewish Rabbi, Yeshua. Everyone else is just commentary.

    Soli Deo Gloria

  29. nik4god says:

    I am subscribing to your blog..I have been reading some of your comments and you’ve been informative and fair. I dont agree with Rob Bell’s teaching on hell but I agree that some books can change peoples lives..even when the doctrine is questionable. When I read Left Behind I felt as if someone turned the light and I was beginning to see. It caused me to question my beliefs and consequently I bought a bible and studied for months which of course led me to faith in Christ. So I will continue to check in on your blog!

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