Love Wins is Like Cotton Candy: Sugary Sweet with No Substance

As many may know, Rob Bell, the famous pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, created a host of controversy last spring when news came out about his new book, Love Wins.  In fact, the controversy started well before the book was even publicly released, mostly due to his video preview of the content.  In the video (as well as the book), Bell tells of a story in which someone derogatorily responded to a written Ghandhi quote by writing, “Reality check: He’s in Hell,” at one of his church’s art shows.  Bell clearly does not think highly of this maneuver or the theology behind it, and he questions the truth of this statement and suggests a different take on the doctrine of Hell.  From this little story in his video came a firestorm of accusations that Bell is a proponent of Christian universalism/ultimate reconciliation, whatever you want to call it (I prefer the latter).  At least it helped in book sales.  As for me, I bought it on sale at a bookstore going out of business, so I’m not sinning by buying “heretical” books.  Right?  🙂

Before I Begin

Anyway, since there are probably a kazillion blog posts about this book on the Internet by now, I will not pick at every nook and cranny of it and detail every little thing that I disagree with (and there are many).  For those who want a gigantic review of Love Wins, you can try Kevin DeYoung’s extremely long review here.  I do not agree with everything in that review either, but he does a decent job pointing out several errors in Bell’s book.  Instead, I want to focus more on the overall approach of his book, how it was written, and how he framed the entire discussion to begin with.  Furthermore, as always, I tried to read the book in the most objective way possible, giving it a fair hearing even though most conservative evangelicals denounced the book severely.  At the end of the day, the best critiques of a book are those that give it a fair shot to make its arguments, as I pointed out in my review of The Shack where I criticized Mark Driscoll, among others, for a rather useless and lazy take on the book (he was right that The Shack is not good for teaching, but the way he went about arguing that would not convince anyone who actually read the book).  I really did try to give Rob Bell the most charitable reading I could.

Got it?  Good.  On to the actual review.

So… what are you saying, exactly?

Perhaps the most striking thing about the book, and the most annoying and amusing, is that it is hard to find a sustained argument about anything.  It is amusing in the sense that the book has generated so much controversy for adding very little to the discussion on Hell, and it is annoying because if Rob Bell intends to answer questions about serious subjects, he has to do more than what he did in this book.  One of the endorsing quotations on the book itself comes from Greg Boyd, who says, “I don’t know of any writer who expresses the inexpressible love of God as powerfully and as beautifully as Rob Bell!  Many will disagree with some of Rob’s perspectives, but no one who seriously engages this book will put it down unchanged.”  However, although this seems like a powerful endorsement of the book (and Boyd intended it to be), what Boyd says in his online review actually inadvertently slams the book:

First, Rob is first and foremost a poet/artist/dramatist who has a fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought. Rob is far more comfortable (and far better at) questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers than he is at constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion. I enthusiastically recommend Love Wins because of the way it empowers readers to question old perspectives and consider new ones. Unless a person reads this book with a preset agenda to find whatever they can to further an anti-Rob Bell agenda (which, I guarantee you, is going to happen) readers will not put this book down unchanged. To me, this is one of the main criteria for qualifying a book as “great.”

Second, given Rob’s poetic/artistic/non-dogmatic style, Love Wins cannot be easily filed into pre-established theological categories (viz. “universalism” vs “eternal conscious suffering” vs. “annihilationism,” etc.). I am certain some readers — especially those who position themselves as the final arbiters and guardians of evangelical truth — will try to do this (obviously, they already have!).  And, having read Rob’s book, I can almost guarantee you that they will find isolated quotes to justify their labels. As I interpret Rob’s work, however, it would be misguided and unfair to apply any of these labels to him. – (emphasis mine)

Much of what Boyd says here is correct:  Rob Bell IS a gifted communicator in his own way, the book does not primarily concern itself about the varying views on Hell, and thus labeling Rob Bell or his work with preset theological categories is difficult.  However, what Boyd fails to consider is that if it is the case that Rob Bell is not particularly good at building a logical case for his views, as he says, then Bell frankly should not be writing such a book like this in the first place.  Even though Bell says in his preface, “If this book, then, does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus… well, I’d be thrilled” (xi), he also writes at the end of chapter one that “this isn’t just a book of questions.  It’s a book of responses to these questions” (19).  Well, if a teacher of God’s Word is going to try to answer tough questions, he’s going to have to build a biblical and logical case for those answers.  That does not mean he has to be arrogant or dogmatic about it or dismiss other positions, but it does mean that he has to seriously interact with the Scripture, philosophy, and other viewpoints.  Bell does none of these, and even if he does other things well in this book that Boyd claims, the fact that he skirts his responsibility to cogently argue a case is actually a far greater critique of the book than if he came out and said he believes in ultimate reconciliation.   What we get in place of a sustained argument are anecdotes and general assertions backed by nothing.  He does use a flurry of Scripture quotations, but they are mostly interpreted out of context and used fairly randomly.  I would actually have far more respect for the book if he explicitly stated his position and defended it, even if I disagreed completely.  Instead, while Bell gives hints here and there about what he at least prefers, he is pretty ambiguous about his actual position and has continued this ambiguity in all subsequent interviews about the book.  It is, of course, characteristic of the post-modern emergent movement, but it isn’t exactly helpful in responding to hard questions.  Thus, Boyd ironically delivers one of the most devastating critiques one could levy at this book:  It doesn’t actually bother to try to argue anything.

To be fair, there are several true and insightful things that Bell writes.  For example, he correctly points out that one’s eschatology affects how one lives right now in this life (46) and that simplistic views on heaven and hell can lead to an unhealthy inattention to this world (62, 93).  He does not deny either heaven or hell, but he thinks too many Christians focus on them as distant, almost fantasy realities when their presence can be felt right now.  Fair enough.  Furthermore, he is correct, in my estimation, that love requires choice, and thus people can choose the opposite of love and live in darkness.  He is also correct that many Christians seem a tad bit too brazen and gleeful in announcing verdicts as if they are God, as his Gandhi story shows.  The writing style isn’t my preference, but Bell writes in an engaging manner and comes off as a pleasant guy who cares about his readers, and I have no reason to doubt that this is true.  Nonetheless, if he’s going to claim that he is going to write a book that talks about the fate of every person who ever lived, he needs to engage the different positions on Hell and present his arguments, not dilly-daddle with fluffy language and stories that do not establish a case for anything.  In fact, he even goes to far as to suggest that just because ultimate reconciliation sounds better, it should get preference as the proper view on Hell (110).  Frankly, I am not interested in Rob Bell’s personal preferences unless they are backed by arguments, which they are not.

Ultimate Reconciliation is Not “Traditional”

I will be brief from here on.  Bell implies that ultimate reconciliation has always been at the center of Christian tradition (110), but this is misleading.  He is right that there have been many Christians in the past who have held this view, but it has always been a minority viewpoint and sometimes outright condemned.  Suggesting otherwise either shows an ignorance of history or a bit of underhanded rhetoric, and it damages his credibility.

It is important to note that Protestants never elevate tradition to the level of Scripture.  Just because something is more “traditional” than another view does not make it right.  It may be that the traditional view was blinded by their own cultural influences and that an increased study of the Bible corrects it at a later point in time.  However, this does not mean that we do not treat tradition with a healthy amount of respect.  The Holy Spirit has worked among the Church and within Christians for centuries, and it would be arrogance to discount the studies of past people of the faith.  Tradition can be challenged, but to do so, one has to bring a very strong biblical and philosophical case against it.  Bell, as I state above, does not come close to doing this.

Humility vs. Wimpiness

As I hint at above, since Rob Bell is pretty inconsistent and vague, it is not easy to label the guy.  At best, it is obvious that he leans towards ultimate reconciliation as the story that he likes, but he never goes out and says that that is his position.  When has been asked whether or not he holds to it, he shrugs and says, “I don’t know” and responds with a question of his own.  Often, the interviewers get visibly annoyed.

There is, of course, a great need of humility when one talks about difficult theological issues, and Lord knows many Christians lack it.  We must all be careful about being overly dogmatic about things that are not explicit in Scripture, and sometimes, it is good to admit, “I don’t know” to a hard question.  That said, there is difference between being humble and dodging questions.  Bell did not give a comprehensive scriptural and philosophical case and then say, “This is what I think after my studies but I could be wrong; ultimately, I don’t know for sure.”  He is ducking the very challenge, and responsibility, of making that case to begin with.

Is Ultimate Reconciliation Acceptable?

Let’s go beyond Rob Bell for a moment and talk about ultimate reconciliation itself.  Is it an acceptable position?  In one sense, it is “acceptable” in that I would not reject someone as a Christian brother or sister just because he or she held to this view.  On the other hand, it is not acceptable in the sense that there is virtually zero biblical support for it.  Thus, while I would not go as far as John Piper and say “Farewell” to a Christian universalist, as if he’s getting booted out of Christianity, I would agree that he is very deserving of criticism for extremely poor teaching.

I will say that if we have the heart of God for the lost (1 Tim. 2:3-4), then we may have a hope for something like ultimate reconciliation, for we want all men to be saved.  There is nothing inherently enjoyable (or shouldn’t be) about the prospects of individuals being separated from their Creator forever.  However, it is completely irresponsible to take such a hope and turn it into doctrinal teaching without an ounce of biblical support.  I may sincerely hope, for example, that dogs go to heaven (seriously, I’m pretty sure Jesus loved Whitey and Benjie too), but I am not going to teach that as a doctrine if I can’t back myself up with some good arguments.

In the End, Love Does Win

However, it is important to state that it is God’s love that wins, not the world’s conception of love or our fuzzy feelings that we associate with love.  God’s love is not separated from justice (Ps. 101:1).  In fact, contrary to Christians who say, “God is love, but He is holy and just,” I would argue, “Because God is love, he is holy and just.”  What kind of a love would tolerate evil?  God’s love, after all, was so against sin that it compelled Him to send his Son to die for us (John 3:16, 1 John 4:9-10).  In the end, God has the victory, and those who love God will share in the life that He has prepared for them.  Those that reject this love have nowhere else to go; they must be separated.  It is consistent with his love because they are granted what they wish, but make no mistake, it is still judgment for their rebellion.  Therefore, love indeed wins, for sin is defeated and those that reject God’s love are removed.

Herein lies one of the most fundamental problems of Bell’s book.  He frames the entire discussion on a view of love that is not entirely based on Scripture.  Some of it is, to be sure, but he neglects to go into depth about the relationship between God’s love and his holiness and justice.  He takes a very romanticized kind of love and balloons it into a book that complains that the traditional view of Hell doesn’t give feel-good vibes and therefore it sucks.  That is hardly responsible or convincing, and as a pastor he must argue much more carefully

Is Rob Bell a Christian?  As far as I can tell, he is, so I’m not going to call for his head or anything.  However, this book, Love Wins, is just a giant mess.  He complains, he tells stories, he asks questions, and he throws in some out-of-context Bible passages… and he does not explicitly state his position, much less defend it with any care.  I can appreciate some of the things that he says, but if it was intended to be a book that challenged people’s perspectives on Hell, it failed miserably because it doesn’t say much of anything:  No argument, no position, nothing.  It is, in many ways, like cotton candy:  Pleasant, but mostly bare in actual content.

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