On Goodreads, I gave Rob Bell’s book Love Wins three stars. I might have given it 2.5 if I had the option.
I went through a detailed chapter-by-chapter analysis (but not as thorough as I would’ve liked to be!) outlining some of the issues I had in the book. Let’s see if it’s possible to recap:
Preface: Raises more questions than it answers, book has no notes, footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography. Further reading doesn’t cut it.
Chapter 1: Questions about heaven and hell that are set-up for the rest of the book.
Chapter 2: Heaven is a place on earth. God will eventually redeem and restore this broken world.
Chapter 3: Bell says Gehenna was really the city dump in Jesus’ day. Not a spiritual place of eternal torment. Bell says people can still reject God in the afterlife but leaves the door open for eventual repentance. He introduces an idea similar to purgatory in Catholicism. Then he says everyone will eventually be reconciled to God.
Chapter 4: Bell asks: Does God get what God wants? What is it that God wants? “‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2).” Bell says contradicts himself in this chapter by saying that yes, some people believe God gets what He wants through eventual universal reconciliation and restoration but that God’s love allows for the freedom to reject him if someone wishes to do so. He adds that people don’t need to believe in the traditional doctrine of hell to be a Christian and that people can assume there’s a chance for repentance in the future.
Chapter 5: Bell tells his readers that Jesus dying on the cross and rising again the third day was a very beautiful thing. Don’t mar this beauty with nasty talk of eternal exclusivity via the traditional view of hell.
Chapter 6: Bell says that (since Paul says that) Jesus was present in the rock that Moses struck to give water to the Israelities, so Jesus is present in anywhere or anything. He also puts forward the odd idea of reverse universalism which posits that Jesus is present in all paths (ie, Jesus can be Mohammad for Muslims, Vishnu for Hindus, or nirvana for Buddhists).
Chapter 7: Using the template of the parable of the prodigal son (or the two sons), Bell says that we will all be at a party/celebration (heaven) and we can choose to exhibit negative attitudes and vices (hell) during the party if we want to. We can reject the Father’s love.
Chapter 8: Bell reminds his readers that people can miss out on rewards, celebrations, and opportunities and that love wins.
(And no, I would not have been able to do the summary above had I not done the analyses first.)
A few quotes from Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, that resonated with me on some level.
“So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word ‘sin,’ my first response is to ask, ‘Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?’
Some words are strong for a reason. We need those words to be that intense, loaded, complex, and offensive, because they need to reflect the realities they describe.” (p. 72)
“Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.” (p. 79)
“I have sat with many Christian leaders over the years who are burned out, washed up, fried, whose marriages are barely hanging on, whose kids are home while the parents are out at church meetings, who haven’t taken a vacation in forever—all because, like the older brother, they have seen themselves as ‘slaving all these years.’ They believe that they believe the right things and so they’re ‘saved,’ but it hasn’t delivered the full life that it was supposed to, and so they’re bitter. Deep down, they believe God has let them down. Which is often something they can’t share with those around them, because they are the leaders who are supposed to have it all together. And so they quietly suffer, thinking this is the good news.
It is the gospel of the goats,
and it is lethal.
God is not a slave driver.
The good news is better than that.” (p. 181)
The other issue I have with Bell here about the talk of restoration, renewal, and if you will, “second chances,” is that gives people no real need to come to Jesus. If all things will be restored in the end anyway, what does it matter if I murder someone I don’t like? Even if I get fried in the electric chair, I still eventually go to heaven maybe after a brief punishment for my sins.
Although hell is an unlikable place to be or to think about (if you take it seriously), the purpose of it is for judgment. When a criminal is deemed guilty in a court of law and sentenced to life in prison, he is sent to jail until death. Hell is the jail that never ends.
But let’s take a step back. And we’ve got to follow Bell’s suppositions (maybe? he is careful to never outright say he believes these things) about what ultimately brings God glory in the end: restoration, reconciliation, and renewal.
Think of a terrible, gruesome time during the 20th century. I’ll give you a hint of where I’m going with this: think of a specific dictator who murdered tens of millions of people. There are at least three you can choose from.
1 . . .
2 . . .
This is kind of like an annoying email forward now, isn’t it?
I’ll choose Hitler since Stalin and Tse-Tung (Zedong) don’t seem to strike the same kind of terror into Westerners’ hearts.
Adolf Hitler is estimated to be responsible for at least 12 million murders during World War II. When Hitler shot himself in the head on April 30, 1945, his soul plunged into eternity.
Now, tell me: do you think it brings God more glory to simply excuse such heinous and irresponsible actions and allow Hitler into heaven on the basis of restoration and reconciliation or does it bring God more glory to judge Hitler and punish him for the atrocities he committed while he was on this earth? Because remember, he was never tormented in the way that he tormented so many others (not just the Jewish and the Polish but anyone who either opposed him or didn’t fit his ideal Aryan race).
Maybe I’m a cold, heartless bitch, but I want God to make Hitler pay for the things that he never had to pay for on earth. It’s a little disappointing to think that Hitler could toy with the lives of 12 million people and after death still be reconciled to God after maybe a “season” in hell.
God is God, and yes, He could totally restore Adolf Hitler to himself in the era of restoration to come, but I just don’t see humans (who would have exacted the harshest sentences possible on Hitler before executing him) being more lenient than God.
Then Bell says things that make me wonder, Does this jive with scripture?
“To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.”
Maybe. But again, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it remains that way forever. I think specifically of Pharaoh who had a rather hard heart against the people of Israel who wanted to be freed and even “repented” (!) of his temporarily “melted” heart (after a series of wearying plagues) and decided to go after them as they made their way out of Egypt. The Bible gives no indication that Pharaoh ever repented of his re-hardened heart.
“Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, ‘Sorry, too late’? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: ‘Door’s locked. Sorry. If you have been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late.’
As it’s written in 2 Timothy 2, God ‘cannot disown himself.'”
These many who have refused need to reread the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Not that I like the idea of a door being shut permanently, but if we’re going off of scripture, we have to seriously consider what it says.
“At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”
And in Christianity, there are some people who choose not to directly align themselves with views they believe so that they may not be tied directly with these specific beliefs therefore they speak of themselves in generalities so that it is almost impossible to pin them down with what they believe.
[This is part VI of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Note: Chapter 4 has been broken up into four parts. Chapter 4, part II can be found here.]
Bell starts off this chapter with actual statements from church websites:
“The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell.”
“Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.”
“The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.”
Then Bell notes what I’m assuming he considers a paradox:
“Yet on these very same websites are extensive affirmations of the goodness and greatness of God, proclamations and statements of beliefs about a God
‘full of grace and mercy,’
Bell seems to pit these statements as either/or as though they contradict one another. God can’t be all of this good stuff and then do all this seemingly bad stuff that these websites claim. But the Old Testament God was a wrathful, violent (yes, I said it) God who also possessed immense mercy and love. When he brought judgment, it wasn’t because He did it out of spite or was a temperamental woman suffering from PMS; He would send out repeated warnings for repentance before executing judgment. There is justice for wrongdoing, and Bell seems to overlook that God is not only a loving parent but a fair and just judge. Later on, he writes:
“I point out these parallel claims:
that God is mighty, powerful, and “in control”
and that billions of people will spend forever apart from this God, who is their creator,
even though it’s written in the Bible that
‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2)
So does God get what God wants?
How great is God?
Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do,
or kind of great
great most of the time,
but in this,
the fate of billions of people,
not totally great.
Sort of great.
A little great. …
Will all people be saved,
or will God not get what God wants?
Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?”
First of all, why does God’s greatness need to be defined solely by our view of what great should look like? Just like the Bible verse that says that God will give us the desires of our heart… well, no. I haven’t gotten all the desires of my heart. God changes my heart to make my desires reflect his. I can’t inject my view of what my desires should look like and allege that God has failed me on this. In this, I think Bell’s view of God and His greatness is actually too small.
Bell continues on with scripture verses that support God’s affirmations of love and determination to save everyone. He quotes Paul in Philippians 2:
“‘Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.’
Every person, every knee, every tongue.”
Agreed. But those actions may not necessarily be done willingly.
[This is part V of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Note: Chapter 3 on Hell has been broken up into two parts due to excessive length. You can find Part I on this chapter here.]
Bell retells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus because it the most vivid description of hell we get from Jesus. Bell points out that the rich man is able to communicate from hell to Abraham in heaven. After ignoring the poor man Lazarus in his earthly life, the rich man in death wants Lazarus to serve him. He tells Abraham that he wants Lazarus to fetch him water then says that he wants Lazarus to warn his family of what’s in store for them in the afterlife. Bell’s perspective of this is insightful:
“The rich man wants Lazarus to serve him.
In their previous life, the rich man saw himself as better than Lazarus, and now, in hell, the rich man still sees himself as above Lazarus. It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart! It hasn’t changed, even in death and torment and agony. He’s still clinging to the old hierarchy. He still thinks he’s better.”
Bell expounds on this some more:
“Jesus teaches again and again that the gospel is about a death that leads to life. It’s a pattern, a truth, a reality that comes from losing your life and then finding it. This rich man Jesus tells us about hasn’t yet figured that out. He’s still clinging to his ego, his status, his pride—he’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on the top and Lazarus on the bottom, the world in which Lazarus is serving him.
He’s dead, but he hasn’t died.
He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life.
He’s alive in death, but in profound torment, because he’s living with the realities of not properly dying the kind of death that actually leads a person into the only kind of life that’s worth living.”
I don’t disagree with Bell at all. A few pages later, Bell says brilliantly:
“There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”
With this statement, Bell does not deny the existence of hell “in this age or the age to come.” However, I do take issue with a few statements prior to this, mainly because they start to muddy the waters, making his belief in hell seem unclear.
When Bell talks about the rich man, he says that the rich man “hasn’t yet figured out… that the gospel is about a death that leads to life.”
Yet is an important word. Its implication is that even though something hasn’t happened, there’s a chance it will. I believe Bell is a man who chooses his words carefully so when he says that the rich man hasn’t yet figured things out, it’s because if he does (in due time), only then he’ll be able to live “the only kind of life that’s worth living.” Bell doesn’t give any indication that the rich man is forever shut out and utterly without hope. In fact, through Bell’s recounting of this parable, the dead rich man has more hope of life than I’ve ever heard before.
From pages 75-79, I infer that Bell thinks people can get a second chance after death if their heart changes. When Bell says that the “chasm… can’t be crossed [because] the chasm is the rich man’s heart,” I get the impression that if the rich man’s heart changes, then the chasm can be crossed.
So far, I’ve concluded that Bell believes hell exists (on earth and in the afterlife) and that people really do go there. It also seems that Bell says people can choose hell because they cling to an “old hierarchy” of belief but if that belief changes, they can move from death unto life even in the afterlife. Statements later on in the chapter give me the impression that Bell believes judgment for hell isn’t final, isn’t forever, and that God is a god of second and third and multiple chances until we get it right.)
“What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.”
Is your head swimming yet? Because mine is.
Bell goes on to reference Ezekiel 16 in showing that Sodom and Gomorrah’s fortunes will eventually be restored and quotes Jesus in Matthew 10 in which he says, “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you.”
Bell overall concludes that if there’s still hope for a place like Sodom and Gomorrah (widely thought of as being condemned forever) that no longer exists, then there’s hope for everyone outside of these towns.
“Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final,
judgment has a point,
and consequences are for correction.”
I don’t know how Bell lines up this thinking with Hebrews 9:27 which says “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Hence, the book raises a question for me that the author never addresses.
Bell begins to wrap Chapter 3 up by speaking of restoration and quotes how God over and over in the Old Testament, especially among the minor prophets, speaks of the restoration of His people. (Note: there is no wider context given among the 10 verses on restoration that Bell lists.)
Bell ends Chapter 3 with this summed-up definition:
“To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our heats all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
And for that,
the word ‘hell’ works quite well.
Let’s keep it.”
Chapter 3 proved to be a rather challenging chapter on a variety of levels. It forced me to read critically and question nearly everything Bell said, especially since many things weren’t referenced. I’ve already challenged some of Bell’s statements in order to, perhaps, paint a fuller view of the issue, but really, I really just touched the tip of the iceberg.
On page 80, Bell uses Jesus’ statement from Matthew 26 in which he says those who “draw the sword will die by the sword” is used to depict Jesus a strictly non-violent, pacifist leader.
“To respond to violence with more violence, according to Jesus, is not the way of God.”
But in Luke 22, Jesus encourages his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords. When the disciples said they had two swords, Jesus replied, “It is enough.” (v. 38) If Jesus was extremely non-violent, he would’ve discouraged the disciples from even arming themselves. Even though Jesus worked through non-violent means, it doesn’t mean that his entire philosophy is non-violent. I think Jesus really embodies Ecclesiastes 3, but on this issue, his philosophy was probably more along the lines of verse 8’s “a time for war and a time for peace.” To paint Jesus as a total pacifist would be misleading.
Or perhaps let’s also tackle page 89 in which Bell says:
“‘Satan,’ according to Paul, is actually used by God for God’s transforming purposes. Whoever and whatever he means by that word ‘Satan,’ there is something redemptive and renewing that will occur when Hymenaeus and Alexander are ‘handed over.'”
Whoever and whatever? Of a lot of the things in this book, I have a serious problem with Bell flippantly referring to Satan as “whoever” and “whatever.” And it makes me extremely uncomfortable that a pastor of a Christian church (emergent, it may be) puts Satan’s name in quotes as if he’s not real, doesn’t exist, or is a figure of speech for something humans are not sure about. Having read Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, this kind of talk gets dangerously close to how McLaren refers to evil.
Toward the end of the chapter, Bell pulls out the Greek dictionary again to translate words better, and I’m frustrated and annoyed. It’s not just Bell who does this though; many pastors do this. It’s as if they’re saying “the English translations we have aren’t good enough so let me translate this a little bit better for you.” Really, of the 25+ English translations out there, you couldn’t find one suitable to reference so you had to retranslate it for us yourself? Do people who don’t have access to the Greek worse off because they’re reading something that hasn’t been translated to its best extent in the English language? (Oh, this kind of stuff gets my rankles up.)
On the flip side, Bell sometimes says things that challenge my conceptions of how I traditionally view Christian teaching. If I can’t find anything scripturally that contradicts Bell, I pause to consider the truth in what he says. (Mind you, I will not take an opposing view against Bell simply to be belligerent.) I quote pages 82-83 because I think his view his striking:
“Many people in our world have only ever heard hell talked about as the place reserved for those who are ‘out,’ who don’t believe, who haven’t ‘joined the church.’ Christians talking about people who aren’t Christians going to hell when they die because they aren’t . . . Christians. People who don’t believe the right things.
But in reading all of the passages in which Jesus uses the word ‘hell,’ what is so striking is that people believing the right or wrong things isn’t his point. He’s often not talking about ‘beliefs’ as we think of them—he’s talking about anger and lust and indifference. He’s talking about the state of his listeners’ hearts, about how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world.
Jesus did not use hell to try and compel ‘heathens’ and ‘pagans’ to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.
This is not to say that hell is not a pointed, urgent warning or that it isn’t intimately connected with what we actually do believe, but simply to point out that Jesus talked about hell to the people who considered themselves ‘in,’ warning them that their hard hearts were putting their ‘in-ness’ at risk, reminding them that whatever ‘chosen-ness’ or ‘election’ meant, whatever special standing they believed they had with God was always, only, ever about their being the kind of transformed, generous, loving people through whom God could show the world what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood.”
Overall, Chapter 3 was a challenging read. There was no way to walk away from it without thinking one of three things:
- My beliefs and preconceptions on hell have been reinforced as a result of reading this chapter.
- My beliefs and preconceptions on hell have changed as a result of reading this chapter. (Even if it’s ever so slightly.)
- My beliefs and preconceptions on hell have not changed as a result of reading this chapter but have given me a different perspective that I had never considered before.
I fall into category 3. I certainly don’t agree with Bell on a lot of things, but he makes many good points about not overlooking the hell here and now in favor of the hell later. Christians would do well to heed some of his warnings.
[This is part IV of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Note: Chapter 3 on Hell has been broken up into two parts due to excessive length.]
Rob Bell reiterates the typical conceptions of hell to start with:
“Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
So he goes on to show his readers every instance of the word “hell” in the Bible. He tackles the Hebrew scriptures which make references to Sheol, “a dark, mysterious, murky place people go when they die” (p. 65) and “a few references to the realm of the dead.” Bell concludes that “affirmations of the power of God over all of life and death” and “God’s presence and involvement in whatever it is that happens after a person dies” are consistently found in the Old Testament scriptures “yet very little is given in the way of actual details regarding individual destinies.” He wraps up this section by saying the Old Testament “isn’t very articulated or defined on what happens after a person dies” (p. 67).
“Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a bit vague and ‘underwordly.’ For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with.”
I still have no arguments with Bell so far. But then, he tackles the New Testament and things start to get interesting.
“The actual word ‘hell’ is used roughly twelve times in the New Testament, almost exclusively by Jesus himself. The Greek word that gets translated as ‘hell’ in English is the word ‘Gehenna.’ Ge means ‘valley,’ and henna means ‘Hinnom.’ Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem.
Gehenna, in Jesus’s day, was the city dump.
People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out.”
I had never heard of Gehenna translated in this way. (Again, my frustration with the lack of references.) So I had to put the book down and go searching to verify everything on my own. And what I discovered surprised me. Read more…
[This is part III of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.]
“I show you this painting because, as surreal as it is, the fundamental story it tells about heaven—that it is somewhere else—is the story that many people know to be the Christian story.”
The painting above isn’t the black-and-white replica that Bell has in his book but it’s pretty close and retained the same ideas.
Bell’s point in Chapter 2 is to challenge the reader’s conceptions about heaven and all that they’ve heard or think (or know) to be true. He references the parable of the rich man who wants to know how to get eternal life. According to Bell:
“When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t asking about how to go to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do.
Heaven, for Jesus, was deeply connected with what he called ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come.'”
Bell’s references to “this age” and “the age to come” become foundational to Love Wins:
“We might call them ‘eras’ or ‘periods of time’:
this age—the one we’re living in—and the age to come.
Another way of saying ‘life in the age to come’ in Jesus’s day was to say ‘eternal life.’ In Hebrew the phrase is olam habah.
What must I do to inherit olam habah?
and the one to come,
the one after this one.”
Bell defines ‘age’ further:
“Now, the English word ‘age’ here is the word aion in New Testament Greek. Aion has multiple meanings… One meaning of aion refers to a period of time, as in ‘The spirit of the age’ or ‘They were gone for ages.’ When we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time. This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever. When we say ‘forever,’ what we are generally referring to is something that will go on, 365-day year, never ceasing in the endless unfolding of segmented, measurable units of time, like a clock that never stops ticking. That’s not this word. The first meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end.
So according to Jesus there is this age, this aion—
the one they, and we, are living in—
and then a coming age,
also called ‘the world to come’
or simply ‘eternal life.'”
When Bell has paragraphs that meaty, they beg to be explored. Read more…