Love Wins Analysis: Introduction & Preface
[This is a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.]
Great script. Lots of confusion. And there’s never-ending speculation about how it ends.
I suppose I should warn readers that Love Wins isn’t my first experience with Rob Bell’s books. I read Velvet Elvis upon the recommendation of a friend and loved it so much that I bought my own copy. I hope to reread Velvet Elvis again next year, but I remember wanting to give it 5 stars because it was that good.
Love Wins… not so much. But not for the reasons you’d think or the ones that have been commonly cited.
- Does Bell deny the existence of hell? Eh, kind of, not really.
- Does Bell assert that Jesus is the only way to heaven? Well… yeah.
- Is Bell a universalist? Eh… yes and no. That’s a loaded question that requires explanation and is never explained quite clearly (to me anyway).
The reason I nearly loathe Love Wins and probably will never read it again is… are you ready for this?
It raises more questions than it answers.
“But— but you gave it 3 stars on Goodreads!”
So what? I give lots of mediocre movies 3 stars. They’re entertaining but that doesn’t mean that I’ll ever desire to watch them again.
Bell’s book is a bit like that. Thought-provoking and engaging enough to warrant 3 stars but to me, it’s not a book that will stand the test of time as a reference. It’s a book for the here and now, to engage this generation of post-modernists. We love asking questions but just as much, I think we also demand answers. It’s why people believe in evolution or creationism or the Big Bang or Darwinism or Calvinism or a whole host of theories they believe best explain (or provide answers to) the whys and hows.
Bell raises lots of questions. He provides few answers. But the few answers he does provide provoke more questions that he doesn’t even bring up. He’s mastered the art of the Socratic method so well, it’s as if he sat directly under Socrates’ teaching.
This. Frustrates. Me. I don’t mind questions as long as I get some answers. And I want some of those answers to be final.
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here.
There are lots of things I like about Bell’s books, things that may frustrate a lot of people. For example,
sometimes he writes
this. It’s almost poetic,
the way he tries to keep his paragraphs
and if you just want to read straight prose,
it can get very frustrating.
(He really writes the way he talks and vice versa.)
For me, it’s actually easier to read and with my ADHD-like attention span, it keeps my attention. I finished the book in 2 days.
Bell is an artist. He is mostly a graphic artist but he also has a way with words. He can describe images that come alive with such detail that the reader can easily picture the description. Bell’s prose, as a result, is engaging for me to read.
But I began reading the Preface yesterday evening and from the get-go flagged a quote that troubled me:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
And so this book.
Misguided. Toxic. Subversive. These three words describe a boiled-down (and let’s face it, just not very nice) summary of the orthodox Christian faith’s teaching on judgment. And torment, punishment, and hell are diametrically opposed to “love, peace, forgiveness, and joy.”
Well, sure they are. And that’s kind of the point.
And torment, punishment, and hell are things that exist apart from God. Where God is, there is love, peace, forgiveness, and joy. Where God is not, there is the absence of those things. According to an orthodox interpretation of Scripture, where God is not, the opposite of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy are present. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that, apart from God, there is a presence of hate, unrest, vengeance, and misery. This is a good description of hell so far. Bell (eventually) admits this much.
Are you still with me? Good, because this is where it gets tricky and murky.
Bell invites his readers into this discussion, which I don’t mind because I’m looking for answers too. I’m just disappointed when I read 198 pages and put a book down that’s filled with more notes and questions than when I walked in. I’m not a pastor or seminary-educated ; I’m just a layperson just trying to navigate my way around Scripture and documented church history.
And by the way, Bell offers no notes.
No footnotes at the bottom of a page.
No notes at the end of the book.
No citations for any of his English translations from the Greek or Hebrew languages.
No cited sources for any assertions that aren’t common knowledge.
The best Bell offers is a Further Reading section, which is probably where he got a lot of his ideas and inspiration from (ie, Bell writes extensively on the prodigal son parable, information likely gleaned from Tim Keller’s Prodigal God). It’s not the worst thing in the world for Bell to have not included notes or a bibliography but goshdarnit, I used to be a fact-checker and I like the ability to check legit references!
Bell ends the preface asserting that he’s not saying anything new that hasn’t been said before in history (he isn’t), and he isn’t coming up with a radical new teaching (he’s correct). But as I journeyed through the book, his concepts graze the borders of gnosis—borders that were much too close for comfort and aren’t within the bounds of what is considered “orthodox Christian faith” even though it may be “historic.”
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.
When Bell says ancient, he really means it. Later on in the book, he throws out names like Eusebius, Origen, Clement of Alexandria—figures who date back to the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries.
So Bell’s aim, as I understand it, is to simply introduce readers to a centuries-old discussion about heaven and hell, along with (as the book’s tagline claims) the fate of every person who ever lived.
In the emergent movement, discussions, or conversations, are normal. It’s about stimulating discussion without necessarily receiving or providing concrete answers.
After a while, I get tired of discussion. But hey, I’m human. I get suckered into it again every now and then.
And so this (and following) post(s).