Rob Bell’s book Love Wins – an excellent review by a friend

Folks, I know this is considerably “late to the party,” but I just discovered my friend Edwin Woodruff Tait’s recent review of Rob Bell‘s controversial Love Wins, and I believe it’s worth pointing you all to. This is in part because the kerfuffle over Bell’s book has not yet entirely died down, as thoughtful evangelicals (and many polemicists) are still discussing (hurling vitriol at) the book and its author. [For an excellent historical “backgrounder” on the issues raised by Bell in his book, see the article by Christianity Today managing editor Mark Galli here.]

First, the review link, so you can look at it yourself, and then a few clips.

The review may be read here. (And may I add: Edwin, I’m proud to know you!)

Now a few clips (of course, several links of several logical chains are missing in what follows–if you are interested in the whole argument, you should go to the link above):

As I understand this broader argument, it works something like this:

1. Salvation is God’s redeeming and transforming work in the world, overcoming our sinfulness and restoring us to a right relationship with God, one another, and creation.

This seems like it shouldn’t be controversial to me, but certainly many evangelicals speak as if salvation was simply about having our sins forgiven and going to heaven.
. . .
Modern American evangelicalism, of course, is typically not very Augustinian. As Calvinists would agree, evangelicals have turned “faith” into a human work by speaking of salvation as dependent on a choice to “accept Jesus.” In philosophical terms, most evangelicals believe in “libertarian free will” (though the Calvinist minority is quite large and exercises influence far beyond its size). It is by our choice to believe or not that we place ourselves either among those whom Jesus has saved or among those who are damned. As Bell points out (still on pp. 10-11), it seems contradictory to say both “nothing you do can save you” and “you will be saved if you believe and damned if you don’t.”
At this point in his argument, it appears that Bell is indeed heading for universalism. If God desires the salvation of all, and if nothing we do saves us, then it seems obvious that all are saved regardless of their actions. But it becomes clear later in the book that Bell affirms libertarian free will strongly. This is why some readers have suggested that his position is incoherent. Logically, it seems that Bell must say either that all will be saved or that in fact what we do makes the decisive difference between being saved or not.
. . .
3. “Heaven” is the realm where God’s will is done; “hell” is the realm where God’s saving purposes are stubbornly rejected. Thus, both heaven and hell may refer to states of affairs existing right now. However, only in the “age to come” will heaven be fully implemented on earth.

This part of the argument clearly owes a great deal to N. T. Wright (particularly Surprised by Hope, which Bell mentions at the end of the book). There are some differences, partly but not entirely due to the fact that Wright is a good deal more careful. While Wright speaks of salvation as a present reality, I don’t recall him speaking of heaven or hell on earth in quite the way Bell does (58-59). Indeed, Wright resists speaking of human beings “going to heaven” and does not describe the coming Kingdom as “heaven.” Wright does a better job of maintaining the distinction between this age and the age to come. Bell also gives the body relatively less importance than Wright–he speaks of the disembodied dead enjoying “heaven” now, and the reception of new bodies in the final resurrection almost seems like an afterthought (at least compared to Wright, for whom it’s the other way round). However, in this Bell is actually more traditional than Wright, and I like his emphasis on enjoying the presence of God. Wright’s afterlife (or excuse me–life after life after death!) seems terribly busy to me, and I think Wright’s hostility to Platonism leads him to miss some of the more contemplative, mystical themes in the NT and in Christian tradition.
. . .
4. God’s wrath and judgment are always directed against evil and not against persons themselves, and thus are always directed toward the final goal of repentance and restoration. Kevin DeYoung (author of a thorough review of Bell’s book from a conservative Calvinist perspective), accuses Bell of denying God’s wrath: “In Bell’s theology, God is love, a love that never burns hot with anger and a love that cannot distinguish or discriminate.” This is plainly false. Bell says:

When we hear people saying they can’t believe in a God who gets angry–yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (38)

(Note: the view that God literally feels wrath is just as marginal in Christian tradition as universalism, but clearly both Bell and DeYoung are treating wrath as synonymous with judgment, and we don’t need to get into the “does God have emotions” question here.) What Bell denies is a “wrath” consisting of final retributive judgment that closes off the possibility for repentance. Bell insists that the door is always open on God’s side. I understand that for conservative Calvinists and perhaps some conservative Arminians this is an unorthodox position, but it’s one shared by C. S. Lewis and many others.
. . .
DeYoung seems to assume that Bell regards the resurrection of Jesus simply as one manifestation of the “divine energy” present in the universe. (This is certainly a valid concern in the contemporary theological context: see the 2001 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, which criticizes versions of Catholic theology that reduce Jesus to “one of the many faces the Logos has assumed” (chap. 2).) But that’s not what Bell says. Bell consistently speaks of the resurrection of Jesus in the terms quoted above–as an event that matters decisively for the entire universe. Bell’s paradoxical claim that Jesus is “as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (155) is a claim about the centrality, not the relativity, of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Bell’s point appears to be that this Jesuswho walked around in flesh and blood is the eternal Logos present everywhere and at all times. This is not heresy. It’s orthodoxy.
. . .
So what about universalism?
. . .
Bell’s final position, then, seems to be that
a. we cannot know for sure whether anyone is damned;
b. if anyone is, it will be because they persistently refuse God’s offers of grace; and
c. the door for return always remains open (see especially his interpretation of the open gates of the New Jerusalem on pp. 114-15).
To my mind, b is unquestionably orthodox. I would also defend a. I am less optimistic about this possibility than Bell appears to be, but I do not think it can be considered heretical. The most dubious claim is c. I like Bell’s interpretation of the open gates, and I certainly agree with Lewis that “the gates of hell are locked on the inside.” I agree with Bell heartily, in other words, when he says that God always stands open to forgive anyone who repents. The question is whether a person can become simply incapable of repenting. Bell seems unwilling to say this (though he doesn’t rule it out), and he certainly doesn’t seem to think that death ends the possibility of repentance. I’m unwilling to throw out the idea that this life is unique as a place where we can be converted from the way of death to the way of life. This traditional view, ironically, stresses the importance of this life, which Bell wants to do. I think there are good reasons for Christians to believe that death does in fact “fix” our spiritual condition in some way. And I wish that Bell had discussed this and many other issues more carefully and rigorously.
. . .
As I said in my earlier blog post, the big question lying behind this controversy (as behind the open theist controversy) is: what is our standard of orthodoxy? Bell’s is too vague and loose, admittedly. But the standards being deployed by his critics are themselves questionable. When you have people claiming that Bell has abandoned the essentials of Christianity in this book, you either have people who are misreading Bell, in my opinion, or people who have the wrong definition of the “essentials” in the first place.

2 responses to “Rob Bell’s book Love Wins – an excellent review by a friend

  1. Pingback: Universalism? Annihilationism? A reflection on Rob Bell’s latest book, by CT managing editor Mark Galli | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Speaking of Universalism… « The Revealer

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