Book Review: “Love Wins”

It’s official: Rob Bell and his new book called Love Wins has entered the “Charlie Sheen” zone (and that was 3 weeks ago). I imagine by now you either don’t want to hear/read another thing about the topic or you cannot get enough information on the subject. I apologize for adding to the slew of information floating out there, but I feel this subject is worthy enough to weigh in on. If you want me short and sweet answer (so you can move and stop reading) on what I think about the book, here it is: I do like Rob Bell, I do not think he’s a heretic, and I did not love the book, and I will not be recommending it as a resource to others. If you want more information on the book and my opinion of it, you can keep reading…

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…Ok, you must be a glutton for punishment, but here we go. Initially I was going to do a two-part blog. One part was going to address why I believe this debate is happening and why it’s been a long time coming, and then I was going to actually review the book itself. Upon further reflection, I think there has been enough out there on this subject, so I’m just going to give my thoughts on the book itself. With that being said, here’s where I landed before this controversy took center stage. I’m somewhat caught in the middle because I really respect and admire some of our Reformed friends (like Matt Chandler and Tim Keller) as well as Rob Bell. I’m one of the ones that would like to be found in the center, not on either polar extreme. I also believe this is getting increasingly difficult to do. This is because the evangelical world has been polarized for some time now, and this book brought everything to a head. It has drawn battle lines. It is demanding that people pick sides or be labeled as spineless. Eugene Peterson points out this fact in a recent interview when he says, “There’s so much polarization in the evangelical church that it’s a true scandal.”[1]

The bottom line is I do not believe this book has lived up to the hype surrounding it. I don’t think the circus surrounding its release was reflective of the content in the book. I have read everything Rob Bell has published, and I would say this is his least effective project to date. I do, however, think there are some redeeming qualities in the book that should not be lost in the shouting. So, here are my thoughts after reading Love Wins:

The Good

Many people have created an “all or nothing” dichotomy with this book rejecting it outright or slurping it all up. I believe it is extremely important to be able to glean the good or sacred from any source, much less a book by a Christian (despite what Pope Piper says). There are many redeeming qualities about the book that fall squarely within orthodox Christianity, including a few of the following:

  • God loves everyone: Rob says in the preface that the basis of the book is built upon the idea that God loves everyone and wants to save everyone. These are very basic principles of the Christian faith that are hard for anyone to argue with. These two ideas are born out of verses like John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4.
  • Heaven is a real place: Many times people misunderstand the Biblical picture of heaven. Love Wins does a great job of constructing a more accurate picture of heaven. Rob says heaven is not a never-ending church service (page 25) and is a very real place (page 42). These descriptions are Biblically sound and are much more helpful than the “floating on the clouds and playing harps” images often portrayed. These are also thoughts that ultra-conservative author, Randy Alcorn, talks about all of the time.
  • Death to Life: There is a chapter called “Dying to Live” (pages 121-137) which talks about the pattern of death to life. This is something that is core to New Testament theology and is something we talk about a lot at Harris Creek. This pattern of death to life comes into play in other places outside of the “Dying to Live” chapter. A clear example is in the middle of his interpretation of the story of Lazarus and the rich man (page 76). Luke 9:23 is one great example in Scripture that talks about the importance of this concept. It is core to following Christ and is an important part of Love Wins.
  • Classic Theology: Rob has plainly said in numerous interviews that he is not a Universalist and does believe in hell. Nothing is more annoying as a pastor than when you say plainly what you believe and people say, “No you don’t!” After reading the book, I’ve got to say there is a good amount of the theology Rob seems to subscribe to is lockstep with classic freewill theology. There is a lot of the book that is similar to C.S. Lewis’ theology on heaven and hell. These parts of the book are extremely orthodox and widely accepted by evangelicals (including myself). This strand of theology can be basically summed up in one sentence like, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” This simply means someone gets hell (or eternal separation from God) because it is what he or she wants. Rob hints at this theology when he says, “Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspective.” (page 50). The problem is Rob takes this classic theology two or three steps further and ends up being incoherent, in my opinion. Which leads me to…The Bad.

The Bad

While there is good that can be gleaned from Love Wins, I ultimately will not recommend it as a resource to others when it comes to this subject matter. The reason why, primarily, is because it is full of incoherent thoughts not well thought through. There are much better resources and people to lead this discussion outside of Rob. Here are a few reasons I think Love Wins is not a worthwhile read:

  • Incoherency: I am someone that can appreciate tensions and paradoxes presented by the Bible. For instance, I believe God has foreknowledge yet allows us to maintain freewill, which makes my philosopher friends mad. Many would contend this is simply not possible. That being said, I believe Love Wins never settles some paradoxes that Scripture does. Rob has said in a number of interviews that he is not a Universalist. I will take him at his word, but this sentence is probably the most discussed sentence in the book: “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts.” (page 108) To be fair, Rob does not explicitly say he subscribes to this view; he says “an untold number of serious disciples” have held to this view. He does, however, go on to ask questions in and draw conclusions that show he certainly leans this direction.
  • Life Matters: Speaking of inconsistencies and incoherent thoughts, one of the biggest questions one is left with after reading Love Wins is, “Does this life matter in your theological system?” (Side note: The same question could be asked to a 5 point Calvinist.) Rob was directly asked this question a number of times in a widely-viewed interview (see it here) and could not give a clear answer as to why it matters if, indeed, God will eventually “melt the hearts of everyone.” He says it matters, but it’s hard to see how or why it would in his system after reading his book. I actually side with Martin Bashir here and have to understand why this life matters if he breaks with classic theology and everybody eventually repents. I believe in free will, but I also believe some are on such a track that they will choose eternity apart from God. That’s why this life matters: What you choose in this life will carry over into the next. Rob’s inconsistencies leave us with more questions that aren’t really helpful at all.
  • Sloppy Exegesis: I’m not going to dwell here long, because this review is getting long and many others have belabored this point. Let me just say Rob is extremely flippant with Scripture and how he uses certain texts. Just a few examples are his conclusions about Jesus being the rock from 1 Corinthians 10 (page 139-following), his interpretation of the gate in Revelation never shutting (page 114-115), and his lack of a full treatment of texts that might go against his points (one being the “Parable of 10 Virgins” in Matthew 25 versus the gate never shutting).
  • Pet Peeve: Can we please…PLEASE…get people in the Emerging Church to stop using the argument, “This word doesn’t appear in the Bible.” This is something Brian McLaren does often and it is a tool used to upset people’s equilibrium. We’re supposed to go, “What?! The Bible doesn’t use the word ‘Second Coming?!’”[2] Rob does this when he says words like “‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible.” (page 10) He also does this with the word eternity saying that eternity does not necessarily mean forever (page 31 and 91). These are half-truths when you stare at particular words or phrases alone, but completely false when you put it in the context of the whole canon. If we’re going to use the argument that this or that word does not appear in the Bible, we need to start with the word recycling.[3] And that’s just the beginning of the list. Can we please stop propping this up as a valid argument to defend our positions?
  • Deconstruction: My last problem with Love Wins is a problem with its “tone.” I feel there is far too much deconstruction. The point of chapter 1 seems to be solely intent on deconstructing evangelical faith by asking as many questions as possible. This is fine for those who are capable of putting the pieces back together. This is not ok for those who are skeptical and looking for easy excuses to dismiss the other side of the discussion. I will also argue there are good answers to many of questions, and God is not a God of confusion.

The Ugly

So far I’ve covered the good and the bad about Love Wins. Now I want to cover the ugly side of the book. Rob has mastered a skill that I like to call the “Dennis Rodman.” Dennis was famous in the NBA for provoking his opponents all game long and then acting shocked when they lash out at him like in this clip. As much as has been made about John Piper’s infamous tweet kicking Rob out of Christendom (or whatever “Farewell, Rob Bell” means), Rob knows exactly what he is doing. The way this book was marketed was meant to stir controversy. There are also a few things in the book that are meant to rile people up, such as:

  • Lame Parties: One of the low blows in Love Wins comes when Rob turns into a character from “Mean Girls” in talking about those who see Scripture a different way. He says, “That’s why the Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.” (page 179) Really? What is the point of this statement? I know some people are going to defend it in the context of the Prodigal Son story, but come on! If you find yourself agreeing with this statement or believing it is partly true, I have to say you’re as close-minded as your opponents. Anytime you make generalizations like this you have a personal vendetta that is severely jading your reality.
  • Woman that Wrote Hebrews: Another pointless jab Rob takes in the book is when he refers to the “woman who wrote Hebrews.” (page 10) If this is not a big deal to you, that is fine. All I want to say is this is clearly a political statement and not a theological (or hermeneutical) one. The bottom line is no one knows who wrote the book of Hebrews. Earliest suggestions included people such as Paul, Luke, Barnabas, or Clement of Rome. Adolph von Hornack made a suggestion that Priscilla (a woman) may have been the author behind the book. Some other scholars picked up that idea, but nobody knows. There is plenty of evidence that would point to the author being a male, but AGAIN: NOBODY KNOWS. Even Rob mentions the author of Hebrews later and does not include “the woman who wrote” in his sentence. (page 98) To make such a definitive statement about a topic that is impossible to prove one way or another is simply trying to get under somebody’s skin.
  • Just Asking Questions: In the preface of the book, Rob says he wrote the book to ask the important questions. I believe he has done this and these questions are important. But then he goes on to say on the same page, “Some communities don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most.” (page ix) Is this a true statement? Absolutely. But I don’t think these people happen to be his major opponents since the release of his book. In fact, I would say most people who fall into this category don’t even know who Rob Bell is. What am I trying to say? Just because someone disagrees with the book doesn’t mean they don’t ask the tough questions. Some may ask these questions and land somewhere completely different than Love Wins. My question is, how much tolerance is given to people on both sides of the discussion?
  • Bad Story: Finally, to say you won’t talk about hell in a straightforward manner because “That’s not a very good story” (page 110) is a pretty lame excuse for someone as smart and talented as Rob Bell. If Rob is in fact wrong, then God must not be a very good story teller.

I want to close with a statement about the general tone of this discussion and a few common misconceptions. First, I do believe this conversation is important. I believe it is as important as helping those in need or practicing a spiritual discipline. We are called to love God with our entire lives, including our minds. In the same breath, these are discussions that have gone on for a long time and we should not be so naïve as to think that we are adding many new thoughts to the topic. While I do think this subject is important, what this discussion ultimately does to your heart is even more significant. Because this topic has polarized many people, I would challenge you to make sure you do not demonize either side in the process. There is good in everyone. There is bad in everyone. Everyone, from time to time, acts like a 13 year old and lets the flesh get the best of us. What would be tragic is getting to heaven and finding out you had all of the right theological answers to these questions, yet realizing your heart turned cold towards God and others during the process.

Here are a few other blogs I found to be intriguing on this subject, most of which take a 30,000 foot view of the situation:


[2] This is not an example used in Love Wins. Brian McLaren says this in his book called Everything Must Change, which is a fairly bold title considering we have 2000 years of Church history to learn from.

[3] Why did I use this example? Rob preached a sermon series a few years ago where he focused in on our role of being stewards of the whole world. Many of his examples were leading people to practice recycling.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: “Love Wins”

  1. Thanks, Brady. I was interested in hearing your take on all of this. In the first sentence of “The Bad”, did you mean to “recommend” or “not recommend” the book?

    Since the book demands “that people pick sides or be labeled as spineless”, which side are you on? Or are you spineless? 😉

  2. Hey Brady,

    Saw this via FB. I haven’t read the book or kept up with all the controversy, but thought I’d ask about your “Life Matters” point. From what I can gather, it isn’t exactly clear what Bell’s views really are, but fwiw, I think I agree with Bell about some of this stuff, or maybe I do — who knows. Anyway, one thing I do endorse is that death isn’t the end of one’s chances at being reconciled to God. I agree with the thought that (as you note) God wants everyone to be saved and reconciled to himself. Given this sort of view, it seems strange to suppose that death would be the end of one’s chances to be saved — after all, what could explain why, at death, God undergoes some radical change in attitude, so that just prior to death, he dearly wanted the person to respond to his grace, but then once he gets hit by the bus, God suddenly doesn’t? Wouldn’t that be odd? How did getting hit by a bus make this person relevantly different? Or what could explain why God would implement some policy that death shall be the end, given that he wants everyone to be saved? Wouldn’t such a policy be simply frustrating his own aims? Ultimately, I think that people who say that God wants everyone to be saved *and* that death is the end probably don’t *really* think that God *really* wants everyone to be saved — but this is a long story.

    At any rate, I think death isn’t the end of one’s chances to be saved. Of course, there are various (both universalist and non-universalist, i.e. everyone ends up accepting grace or perhaps not) ways of filling in the story from here, but in talking about this view, I sometimes encounter the “then the present life doesn’t matter” sorts of objections. I guess I find at least some of these objections unmoving. So I just thought I’d ask: do you think these objections work just against the picture of things Bell lays out? Or do you think there is also a problem here for *any* view on which death isn’t the end of one’s chances at being saved? In particular, I wonder about what you say here: “That’s why this life matters: What you choose in this life will carry over into the next.” I’m not sure what Bell says — maybe he somehow has to deny this. But second-chancers and universalists *generally* wouldn’t seem to have to, right? They can say that what you choose here carries over in the sense that what you choose here helps to shape your character, and that’s a character you’ll still have in the next life, anyway until you repent of it, which can be a long, painful process. (Here, as elsewhere in these discussions, I’m reminded of *The Great Divorce*.) They could even say (couldn’t they?) that what you do carries over in a more straightforward sense: God will still punish you in the usual sense for doing these bad things, even if the punishment will eventually end and you’ll be reconciled to God (or have a chance at that point at doing so). (Naturally, though, this sort of ‘punishment’ view doesn’t sit well with the picture of things such folk usually have, viz. that sin itself is its own punishment, etc.)

    For what it’s worth, here’s just one objection I don’t find moving: “But then why evangelize? Eventually everyone will be presented with a chance to repent later — indeed, they’ll be presented with that chance in a much better way than we’d be able to present it now. So what’s the point?” The first thing to say is that the basic picture of God underlying the objection seems pretty unappealing. So: God cuts off some people’s chances at being reconciled to himself so that we’ll have incentive to evangelize them? Hmm. Seems odd. Seems like trading one very important thing (that people — real, living people — come to know and love God) for something less important (that we be motivated to evangelize them). Another thing is this: here we’ve got a God that seems to be placing the eternal destinies of other people in the hands of utter incompetents like us, who very well might ignore his command to evangelize them. Of course, you may say that if we do, the “fault” that they remain lost is on us, not God. That may be, but it isn’t the point, anyway as I see it. The point, again, is that God *wants* these people to be saved. Why, if he really wants this, would he then make it up to us in this way whether they do get saved? Seems, again, to indicate that he may not *really* want this — or anyway that much.

    My own view: so we lose the picture of things on which all of these unevangelized people are dying ‘unsaved’ and are permanently separated from God, and so we’d better go off and tell as many people as we can about how to be saved and try to convert them. I won’t be crying.

    A further thought: if you’ve got a view like mine, then you’ll think that, if anyone *does* get eternally lost, the way this happens is by one’s becoming so hardened against God that it becomes impossible for one to repent, even despite God’s best efforts at bringing you around towards reconciliation with himself and others. At this point, that is, there’s nothing even God can do for you; you’ve “lost your soul” as it were. (Kvanvig’s got some new stuff on this in his recent book, btw.) So one reason to evangelize is this: you’ll hopefully be preventing people from going down this sort of path, and hopefully you’ll be setting at least some people on the long, slow road towards sanctification, or making it more likely that one day they’ll get on that road, or making them more open to getting on it, and so forth.

    But the real way to respond to this objection is just this (and it works for universalists too): isn’t the intrinsic good constituted by a relationship with Jesus sufficient reason in itself for evangelization? That is, yes, so what — suppose all of these people will eventually know and love and be loved by God. That doesn’t mean that they’ve got those goods (and they are supposed to be great goods, aren’t they?) *now*. Isn’t this reason enough to evangelize? To get them started *now* on the relationship that constitutes their highest good?

    Well, those are some scattered thoughts! Hope all’s well.

    PT

  3. Dear Brady,
    As the author of a book on the authorship of Hebrews, I am pleased that Rob gives Priscilla the credit! You can find a Ten-Point Summary of my case for Priscilla’s authorship, along with some of my other articles on the same topic on Wiley Clarkson’s website: http://www.clarksons.org/spiritleads.htm.The leading Bible scholars of his generation supported Harnack’s Priscilla hypothesis, and in my book, “Priscilla’s Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” I build on his arguments to present additional evidence and construct what I hope readers will find a fair and convincing line of reasoning. Ruth Hoppin

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