Love Wins

Love Wins

Rob Bell

HarperCollins, London, 2011. 256pp.

Rob Bell—the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids—is certainly no stranger to controversy. His groundbreaking Nooma series of short films and his first book Velvet Elvis were greeted with adulation by some, and something nearing revulsion by others. In fact, he seems to court controversy. He—or his publishers—certainly knew what they were doing when they engaged with the new media about the release of Love Wins. In a beautifully produced YouTube preview of Love Wins, Rob asks:

Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that is the case, how do you become one of the few?… This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith—they see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say: why would I ever want to be a part of that?… What you discover in the Bible is so surprising and unexpected and beautiful that whatever we have been told or taught, the good news is actually better than that—better than we can ever imagine. The good news is that love wins.

That video, together with the calculated release of some of the most inflammatory parts of the book, created a perfect storm of tweets and blog posts that virtually guaranteed it would top Amazon’s best-seller list before it was even released, and it then debuted at number two on a New York Times bestseller list.

Partly his style is what polarizes reactions. He asks questions others are afraid to ask. He’s a master of putting into words the half-formed discomfort and doubt at the back of many minds.

For example, he opens by posing the key question: “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (p. 2). Two chapters follow on the topics of heaven and hell. After this, the final five chapters return to the big, underlying questions about God’s character and purposes, as well as how to present the gospel in contemporary culture.

These are some of the deepest questions—set against the broadest possible backdrop—and it’s easy enough to sympathize with Bell’s pastoral concerns. Is it fair for a decision in this life to have implications for eternity? Is it coherent to imply that someone’s eternal destiny depends upon others? We’ve both sat with people asking just these kinds of questions, wrestling seriously, painfully, and almost desperately with whether or not the Christian God is just. They are questions well worth taking up and thinking through. Anyone who wants to affirm God’s justice in judging needs to wrestle with what God has shown himself to be like and how the Bible leads us to understand the relationship between his love and his wrath.

In chapter two Bell paints a compelling picture of the biblical hope for a new creation:

One of the most striking aspects of the pictures the prophets used to describe this reality is how earthy it is. Wine and crops and grain and people and feasts and buildings and homes. It’s here they were talking about, this world, the one we know—but rescued, transformed, and renewed. (p. 34)

This ‘earthiness’ is a vital and often underemphasized dimension of the Bible’s vision of the future. Bell understands that what we believe about the future should impact how we live here and now. In terms of Love Wins, this is about engagement with physical needs, such as the desperate need of many in our world for clean water, just as much as it’s about developing the kind character that will be ‘at home’ in the age to come:

Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere. (p. 45)

So why all the fuss?

Unfortunately, the wheels start to come off as Bell wrestles with God’s love and justice. Bell argues that God’s judgement will ultimately lead to the rehabilitation of the offender; that anything else would be incompatible with God’s love. As he sarcastically puts it at the start of chapter three: “God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy—unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever. That’s the Christian story, right?” (p. 64).

In some ways it’s easy to see how God’s love for his good creation rightly expresses itself in a settled, holy hostility towards all that threatens to damage and mess it up. Bell would agree. But what is harder to get our heads around—and what Bell wants to question—is how God can display love towards unrepentant sinners by punishing them eternally in hell. This is why he wants to see judgement as ultimately restorative. He claims a “movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life” (p. 85) in some of what the Bible says about the proverbially wicked (and judged) cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, as well as in many of the things the prophets say about God’s own people Israel.

However, there are a few things to say at this point: one has to do with Bell’s grasp of the overall shape of the Bible’s story, and two have to do with the view of God Bell seems to be working with.

A different story

Rob Bell wants to extrapolate the prophetic hope that Israel would be restored after judgement, claiming that “the prophets are quick to point out that this isn’t just something for ‘God’s people’, the ‘chosen’, the ‘elect’” (p. 88). From here he argues that all people will eventually move from judgement to restoration. But the problem is that he skips over the most important part of the story—Jesus. God does promise that blessing will come to all nations, but it will come through Israel, and specifically through ‘the offspring’ of Abraham—Jesus (Gal 3).

So the promised restoration will come to all nations, but only to those who are united by faith with Jesus. Which means that retributive justice isn’t ruled out! But we need to explore the retribution/restorative question further by probing Bell’s view of God.

A different view

Love Wins consistently seems to underplay God’s majesty and holiness as our creator, and therefore how singularly worthy he is of our worship. To turn our backs on our creator is no minor matter: it is an ultimately evil act. For God to simply ignore this wouldn’t be loving, just as it wouldn’t be loving for a parent to turn a blind eye to the persistent disobedience of a wayward child. Indeed, the loving thing to do would be for God to show us just how evil what we’re doing really is. So rather than ruling out eternal punishment, in the face of human rebellion I think we can say that God’s love actually requires it.

But that’s not all. Lying behind this misunderstanding is an even more fundamental problem with Bell’s view of God; he has a tendency to overlook how decisive Jesus and his cross should be for our view of God and salvation.

One example of this (which could stand in for many) is Bell’s reading of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. Jesus tells the rich man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Bell majors on the first part of this, but passes over “come, follow me” in silence. The biblical call to entrust yourself to Jesus is just not that decisive for Bell.

The inattention Bell shows to the centrality of Jesus, as well as his failure to reckon with God’s majesty and the depth of our human plight, surfaces elsewhere in Love Wins, most notoriously in his tilt towards universalism (chapter four: ‘Does God get what God wants?’). On his reading of Scripture, God is both sovereign and will attempt to save everyone. So after floating the possibility that God might not get what he wants because he can’t force anyone to love him (since love is free by nature), Bell settles on the option he favours: God will get what he wants, and that will happen through post-death conversion. Under this scenario, people will always have the opportunity to turn to God, and we can hope that God’s love might eventually melt every hard heart—although it’s possible that some might always choose to spurn God’s love.

A few things need to be clarified straight up. Bell is right to argue that the Bible presents a God who is both sovereign and desires that all people be saved (1 Tim 2:4). But the Bible never affirms that all people will be saved. Bell’s exegesis really lets him down here; for example, he cites Isaiah 52:10 (“All the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”) as an example of God’s intention to save all. But in context, Isaiah is telling us about how the whole world will witness God’s salvation of his people.

Yet we do need to deal with the legitimate problem Bell identifies—that is, how the sovereign God can desire something and not achieve it. God desires a lot of things he doesn’t get. For example, the works of Satan don’t correspond exactly with what God wants. That doesn’t mean that God’s not in control. It just shows us that there is a valid biblical distinction between what God desires and what he sovereignly achieves. Moving from God’s desire to save all to insisting that it must happen (as if there were no other factors in play) is a fallacy.

Furthermore, in his anxiety to emphasize the present implications of following Jesus—and that hell is more about experiencing now the consequences of rejecting our God-given humanness—he’s in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He seems (inexplicably) to suggest that being saved isn’t even an issue in the Bible! The constant theme of biblical teaching is that God’s grace in saving us is the engine room for how we should live. That’s how it was supposed to be with Israel; the laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are littered with references back to how God had delivered his people and how that should motivate distinctive living. That’s how it is to be with Christians too. Jesus says as much in Mark 10:43-45:

Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The cross shapes faithful Christian engagement with our culture because it ransoms us, enabling and motivating our new lifestyle as saved people.

A different cross?

As we read Love Wins, we kept finding that a lot of Bell’s missteps could be traced to his view of the cross, and his treatment of it in chapter five was deeply disappointing. He seems to have a desire to move beyond traditional articulations in order to engage with current culture in a fresh and relevant way. He starts by highlighting the sheer diversity of metaphors in the Bible, showing how they describe what happened on the cross as being like:

a defendant going free,

a relationship being reconciled,

something lost being redeemed,

a battle being won,

a final sacrifice being offered,

so that no one ever has to offer another one again,

an enemy being loved. (p. 128)

He’s not only saying that there’s more than one way of speaking about the cross, but that the biblical metaphors themselves are being taken too literally. He argues that these metaphors tell us something about what happened on the cross, using language that the original listeners and readers would understand, but are not the definitive way to think about it. We are free to come up with new metaphors better suited to today, as long as they communicate the one key point—that Jesus’ death brings life. That’s why Bell believes that the dominance of the sacrificial metaphor in today’s world is so crazy—we don’t live in a world where animals are sacrificed to gods, so why keep using it?

This ties back into Bell’s overarching project of urging Christians to engage with and change their culture, rather than simply sitting back and waiting for heaven. But we have to recognize that the atonement metaphors the early Christians employed were not as incidental as Bell makes out. The sacrificial metaphors, for example, weren’t used by the biblical writers simply because people back then knew about sacrificial rituals. God himself instituted the sacrificial system, and he designed it to be a copy of the ‘true things’ (Heb 9:24). God gave the Israelites the sacrificial system so that we could more accurately understand how Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice for our sin. Rather than having to search for suitable metaphors, the biblical writers used the patterns God laid down in the Old Testament to expound the reality that they pointed to all along. That is why the New Testament writers can mount arguments using the details of these metaphors; they accurately, though not exhaustively, capture the reality and richness of the atonement.

There’s clearly lots to think about after reading Love Wins. Yet for a book that wants to tell us about God’s incredible love for this world—and how that love should drive us to love our world right now—its failure to present God’s love in all its fullness is so disappointing. If anything is going to motivate God’s people to love this world, surely it has to be God’s self-sacrificial love that saw Jesus die on the cross.

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