I didn’t blog yesterday as some posts take longer than others. This is one of those posts. I finished reading Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins on Thursday night, but have been thinking, praying and studying yesterday and this morning in order to respond appropriately. I didn’t originally want to read his book and write about it, but as more people that I personally shepherd have asked me about it, I felt a pastoral responsibility to interact with his ideas. The book is not long and is an easy read. I want to be fair to Bell so I want to approach my review by constructing his major argument as fairly as possible and then responding to his major points. Here is how the book is laid out:
Bell’s Major Point: The historical Christian teaching of eternal judgment should be abandoned by modern Christians in favor of an openness to the possibility that God’s love eventually turns the hearts of all people to Himself at some point in eternity. In order to support his position, I read his book as giving three primary reasons why this change should be made…
1- A presentation of God’s eternal love winning over the rebellious hearts of all sinful people some time in eternity is more emotionally satisfying than the idea that God eternally punishes sinners who fail to repent. Bell is nothing if not a creative writer who knows how to turn a phrase. He is an artist with words, not an engineer with lines of arguments. Bell moves his audience through word-pictures, creative phrases, and emotional appeals. All preachers do this to some level, but Bell’s major argument in Love Wins is that his picture of the afterlife is better because it feels better to us. While not coming out and saying, “this is the way it is,” Bell likes to ask this question, “wouldn’t it be nice if…” This is an appeal to the human emotions. His argument goes something like this: “Don’t you want it to really be like this? Doesn’t this make God more appealing to your heart? Doesn’t this make the story better? Then it must be a possibility that it is true.”
My Thoughts: The problem with this rationale should be obvious. Truth is not based on emotion, but on revelation. Just because we feel like something should be true doesn’t necessarily make it true. The emotions of people vary from day to day, from generation to generation, and from country to country. Some people who have experienced unbelievable injustice in this life may feel like eternal judgment in hell is entirely justified and good. But that doesn’t make hell true either. We can’t base our view of the afterlife on our emotions, but rather on God’s revelation – primarily because our perspective is limited and we don’t know what the afterlife holds. Only God knows what life will be like for us after death, so we need to be careful using human emotion as an authority on truth. The Bible is clear in Jeremiah 17:9-10 that the human heart is deceitful above all things – we can convince ourselves that many things are true based on our emotions to find out later that we were clearly wrong. Human emotions are not authoritative – no matter how strongly you or I feel like something should be that way.
2- The view that God’s eternal love will eventually win over the rebellious hearts of all people is in line with the teachings of the Bible. Beyond the appeal to emotions, Bell makes an appeal to Scripture. His claim is that the teaching of the Bible makes his position possible. He quotes lots of verses in every one of his chapters from a range of biblical authors to support his position. His view is that the Bible’s teaching on the love of God, the fatherly heart of God, and the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus to reconcile all things will eventually bring everyone to receive God’s love at some point in the afterlife.
My Thoughts: Bell’s handling of the Scripture is one of the most concerning parts of the book in my mind. He breaks the first rule of good Bible-study, the one that I share most often with people who are new to the Bible: let the Scripture interpret Scripture. In other words, understanding CONTEXT is crucial to understanding the meaning of any verse in the Bible. If you take one verse here and one verse there and put them together, you can literally make the Bible say anything you want it to say. This is exceedingly dangerous and the primary error that I believe Bell makes. I don’t have the time or the space to go verse by verse and demonstrate all the times and all the ways that he does this – he quotes 100s of verses in his book in this fashion. If you want to read a more detailed review of some of his mishandling of the Bible, read Kevin DeYoung’s 20-page review of the book. I think Darrell Bock, a DTS research professor of New Testament who reviewed the book chapter by chapter on his blog nails it when he says, “As much fun as Bell has with word plays and links, he often during the journey loses his way on the road to meaning by failing to work adequately with the context of the passages he cites. He gets lost in his cleverness.” (italics mine)
Don’t take my word on it, and don’t take Bell’s word on it. Read the Bible for yourself. But don’t read Bible verses out of context. Read the whole book. Every time you hear someone quote ONE verse to make a point, find that verse in the Bible and read the chapter and book around that verse to see if that is what that verse really means. This is the only faithful way to study the Bible. If you want to read some of Bell’s passages in context, read the following chapters in the Bible – Deuteronomy 32, Isaiah 66, Daniel 12, Matthew 5, 10, 18, 23, 25, Luke 12, John 5, 2 Thessalonians 1, Revelation 14, 20-22. After reading those chapters in whole, see if you come to the same conclusions that Bell does.
3- The view that God’s eternal love will eventually win over the rebellious hearts of all people has not been held by all Christians throughout history but is in the center of the stream of historical, orthodox Christianity. The third authority that Bell appeals to other than our emotions and the Scriptures is the Christian tradition. He claims that he is not teaching anything new, but is only introducing a new generation of Christians to a very old idea that has been held by influential Christian leaders throughout history. He points to a variety of leaders who taught his position or were at least open to the idea of it: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa. He even uses a quote from Luther to show that he was open to the idea. Beyond that, he says that because Jerome, Basil, and Augustine were interacting with the idea in their writings, there must have been people in their day who held this view as well.
My Thoughts: I have read a fair amount of Christian history and even a number of the original sources of the people Bell mentions in his list above. In fact, right now I am reading through Luther’s commentary on Galatians as one of my sources for my current sermon-series. Bell definitely overplays his hand when it comes to historical continuity. Have there always been people who have held his position? Clearly, the answer is yes. Has it ever been the majority position or the center of the historical, orthodox church? Clearly, the answer is no. Ben Witherington, an excellent NT scholar who has also reviewed Bell’s book chapter by chapter on his blog, makes the following statement: “Secondly, in the Preface there is the disclaimer— ‘nothing in this book has not been claimed before within the parameters of the broad stream of historic orthodox Christianity’ (p. x). As it turns out, and as we shall see, this is actually not quite accurate, if one is referring to creedal or confessional or conciliar orthodoxy.” The point is this: pulling random names from church history who have taught your position is not convincing because you can find people in church history who taught many wrong things and use them to defend all kinds of false teaching. We have to be careful to not misquote or misuse historical theology to defend our positions. Should we have honest dialogue and debate about the eternal state? Absolutely. Should we believe that Bell’s position has been accepted throughout the history of the church? Not even close.
Final Thoughts: Does this discussion matter? Why is it important to talk about the biblical teachings on heaven and hell, the eternal judgment of God, and salvation alone by faith in Jesus Christ? NOT solely because doctrinal purity and clarity matters in our systematic theology. But because people’s eternity matters to God and should matter to us. If the true story of the Bible is one in which a good and holy God creates people in His image to enjoy Him forever, and yet people came under the just wrath of that holy God for breaking His commands, then the true question of the Bible is not just how can creation be put back together in a general sense, but how sinful people can be justified (declared righteous) before a righteous God? I think Bell gets the wrong answer because he is asking the wrong question. The question of the Bible is not primarily about how humans who have messed up their lives can be healed and restored and fixed and blessed and get their stuff together. The primary question of the Bible is how can those who have been cast out from the presence of God because of their sin (Genesis 3) be reconciled to an infinitely glorious, holy God whom they have offended (Revelation 21-22)? Hell then, is not just what we create when we make bad decisions, but what we justly experience when we rebel against a Holy God. The Bible teaches this problem is only resolved when we trust in Jesus Christ to save us, rescue us, and redeem us (see Galatians 2:15-16). This discussion matters because we don’t want to give people false hope in an opportunity that Bible doesn’t clearly teach, and because we want to call people to trust in the One Hope the Bible does clearly teach – Jesus Christ.