I am uncomfortable doing critical "reviews", and have always held to Teddy Roosevelt's dictum that "It's not the critic who counts...." I don't like being criticized and am aware of Jesus' warning on being judged with the same measure we judge. I identify with Jude who wanted to write a gospel tract but felt reluctantly compelled to "...contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3).
After hearing about the controversy surrounding "Love Wins," I read it twice and listened to it twice on audiobook. I was then encouraged by some Pastors and young friends to do a review. After one read I asked if I should take Rob seriously, then after two, and seeing he made the cover story on Time Magazine, I concluded I must.
I try to stay away from controversy, especially the religious kind, but some hills are worth dying on and this is one of them. The message of Love Wins has direct implications on how we view and do the Bible and how we (or whether we even should) do evangelism-- two very important subjects! By God's grace my criticism will be both constructive and instructive.
I work with young people so I am always scanning the horizon for fresh young voices reaching new generations. Ten years ago I discovered Rob Bell and became a big fan. Both in print and on video, I deemed his work an example of Biblical relevance and creative art on film. I heartily recommended his teaching. In the last few years, however, Rob seemed to be changing his message. Some of my pastor friends voiced their concerns to me when Rob was increasingly pushing the biblical envelope. Even then I defended Rob and maintained he was simply changing the wineskin for a postmodern culture, but not changing the wine. Then along came "Love Wins." For me, it was the deal-breaker.
Many have already blogged and written theological critiques on Love Wins so I will not argue here extensively against Rob's theology.1 The bottom line is Rob strongly implies "The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived" (Subtitle) is settled: "... love in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God" (109). I only wish to do a brief review and then ask some questions that explain why I think this book is bad news.
I cannot judge Rob's heart. My guess is that he loves God and wants to help others know Him. In my view, however, his cure is much worse than the alleged disease he diagnoses. My problem is that along with the multitude of errors in the book is the tone in which it was written. The sarcastic put-downs, accusations and contempt for the millions of Christians who have in the past and do in the present see things different than Rob, is a tad bit hard to take. But it is what it is. Controversy sells. This is why I went over it four times, both to be clear on what he was saying and to separate the sarcasm from the substance.
Love Wins-A Review
To say that Rob is not a careful writer is a huge understatement. He writes indirectly, paints with an incredibly broad brush, answers questions with questions and makes complex theological arguments from biblical soundbytes that makes one feel they are the victim of a drive-by shooting! Verses are often taken out of context, straw men erected and knocked down, all the while leaving the reader searching in vain for footnotes or citations on where he gets his information, whether on Greek words, Jewish culture or historical background.
He comes out of the gate with guns blazing before he even gets to the first chapter, declaring that the real Jesus story, which he is "reclaiming"(viii), has been "hijacked" (vii) and today's gospel is "misguided and toxic" (viii). Ironically he then chastises those "misguided" souls who suppress honest concerns, doubts, or questions and are not open to discussion (ix). Perhaps he doesn't realize he has just sucker-punched the unsuspecting reader on the second page by accusing him or her of believing a message that "subverts the contagious spread of Jesus'[real] message", causes "millions" of people's "stomachs to churn" (vii-viii), and that "Jesus himself isn't interested in telling"(vii). Not exactly the best way to win friends and open discussions!
Rob wastes no time in the first chapter beginning a pattern that continues throughout the book. He builds straw-man caricatures of traditional Christianity by citing instances of believers behaving badly, as in the girl whose father raped her while reciting the Lord's Prayer or Christians in Eastern Europe who massacred all the Muslims in town via machine-guns (9). This is apparently to be blamed on this "toxic" gospel. Then comes the ridicule of the traditional gospel by means of out-of-context Bible quotes and a serious question on whether or not one can earn the gift of eternal life through our own efforts, words or good deeds (11). Whatever the Love Wins gospel is, "Sola Fide" (faith alone) it is not! He goes to great lengths to point out that a "personal relationship" with God, " is nowhere found in the Bible," neglecting to point out, of course, that the fact that God is personal, we are personal and He commands us to know and love him amounts to just that - a personal relationship! But I digress.
The put-downs continue in Chapter 2. Even Rob's grandma doesn't escape (21-22). Neither does St. Peter, depicted as a bouncer taking tickets at the door of the Heavenly Night Club from those of us whose only desire is to "get in" (24). With contempt he heaps scorn on "entire organizations" who actually train people to approach strangers and inquire if they are assured of going to heaven (26). How dare they!!! Rob's contention that "Here Is the New There"(Ch 2) applies in his thinking to both heaven and hell. He fails to differentiate between "eternal life" (which does begin "here" for the believer) and "heaven" (the dwelling place of God). His understanding of heaven has very little to do with going to a heaven that is "there".
Likewise when asked if he believes in a literal hell, he replies, "of course", and then tells a story about visiting Rwanda and describes the hell he saw here on earth (70). Jesus did use the word Gehenna (Jerusalem's garbage dump) for hell, but Rob's rapid-fire approach leaves the reader wondering if he is using an artistic metaphor (Rwanda's "hell on earth") or teaching a theology that is minus both heaven and hell in the eternal sense. They seem to exist side-by-side in the here-and-now in his later rendering of the Prodigal Son story where the younger and older brother are at the same party but for one it's heaven and for the other it's hell. "Heaven or hell. Both at the party" (176). "Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story" (170). "We create hell whenever we fail to trust God's retelling of our story" (173).
"Does God Get What God Wants" is the self-defeating title of Chapter 4 simply because it's obvious God doesn't always get what he wants or there would be no sin or death to begin with! His premise, that "...even the most 'depraved sinners' will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God" (107) begins again with a criticism of certain church websites that espouse the reality of hell. Then comes a raft of Scriptures quoted apparently to prove, but that have nothing to do with, God saving everyone (98-101), reinforced by an out-of-context quote by Martin Luther allegedly suggesting a "2nd chance" after death*. He then concludes with a few overstatements-- " ...an untold number of serious disciples across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God's pursuit forever, because Gods love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts." and "...a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will restore everything and everybody" (107-108). * [See bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/.../rob-bells-use-of-Martin-Luther-one-historians-assessment/]
Chapter 5- "Dying to Live" is actually the best chapter in the book as it surveys the various metaphors in the New Testament for the Atonement, although it does lose some steam when Rob sees Jesus' death and supernatural resurrection foreshadowed in some sort of cosmic connection in the crop cycles of nature. No footnotes on that one either!
Chapter 6 is, by contrast, probably the worst chapter. "There Are Rocks Everywhere" gets its inspiration from the story of Moses calling forth water from a rock (Ex. 17). Rob points to Paul's identification of the rock with Christ (1 Cor.10) and makes the leap that if Christ was in that rock, who knows how many other rocks he dwells in? "Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere"(144)..."As soon as the door is open to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn't matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant..."(155). Rob maintains that Jesus and the cross do matter and even reaffirms Jesus' exclusive claim that He was the Way, the Truth and the Life(Jn 14:6), but adds: "What he (Jesus) doesn't say is how, or when or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him know they are coming exclusively through him" (154). What he fails to mention is that the "mechanism" in the context of Jn. 14 is faith in Jesus, which, of course, is reinforced by the rest of the New Testament and proclaimed throughout the Book of Acts.
Chapter 7 is where Rob contrasts that god-awful "toxic" gospel that the majority of Christians have always believed with his contention that his version of "The Good News is Better Then That." He implies, again with no proof as he has throughout the book, that those of us who are concerned about going to heaven won't care about the earth, [social justice, the poor etc.] (6-7, 178). He then gives his heaven-and-hell-here-and-now version of The Prodigal Son, mentioned above, and labels the traditional view "The Gospel of The Goats" caricatured by and compared with the older brother who sees himself not as a son, but a slave. Those of us who are of the "goats" variety also view God as a slave-master and are prone to resentment, bitterness and jealousy toward those who are having fun at the party but are consoled because we know "they'll go to hell, where they'll get theirs" (180). All we're concerned about is our "ticket to heaven" (24, 178).
Chapter 8 is another high point where Rob tells his story of receiving Christ as a boy and invites the readers to come to Jesus as well-good stuff.
One must wonder after reading Love Wins, how someone obviously as bright as Rob, could make such Universalist mountains out of biblical molehills. I must conclude with just a few illustrations of Rob's fast and loose handling of Scripture. For instance:
· Rob suggests that when God promises Sodom will be restored (Ezek. 16:53), this implies that those judged there might get a second chance (84) or that because Jesus said it would be more bearable for Sodom than for Capernaum (Matt. 11:23-24) at the judgment, he concludes that "... if there's still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah..." there may be hope for "all the other Sodom and Gomorrahs" (85), even though the passage says nothing about hope for Sodom.
· The most glaring flagrant foul of Love Wins is where Rob attempts to pull the punch out of Jesus' words on hell (Matt. 25:46) and says "...'forever' is not really a category the biblical writers used" (92). Since I am not a Greek scholar (neither is Rob) I simply hit Google a few times, consulted some Greek lexicons and asked a few of my scholar friends for input.2
· Rob starts out on the wrong foot by quoting the wrong word (he mixes up "aion" [age] with "aionios" [translated "forever," "eternal" and "everlasting"]), wrongly interprets the word translated "punishment" and ends up with a view of the afterlife that resembles the Roman Catholic concept of Purgatory(91).2
1 Kevin DeYoung - www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung
Ben Witherington - www.evangelicalarminians.org/node/1146
Al Mohler - www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16
Tim Challies - www.challies.com/book-review
2 (Arndt and Gingrich. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 1963, (Pg. 26-27). Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 1965. (pg 18-19) Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 1 pg 147).
Commentary on Matthew, William Hendrickson page 892
Rob Bell and the "New Testament concept of forever" , Gary Yates professor of Biblical languages at Liberty Baptist College
"Love Wins" - review by Dr. Paul Owen Phd. assistant professor of Bible and religion Montreat College in N. Carolina
Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, Louw and Nida A Greek English Lexicon Walter Bauer
Rob asks 350 questions in "Love Wins". If he would allow me I would ask him a few:
* Did you submit your manuscript to any reputable biblical scholars for feedback on your opinions? You recommended Tim Keller's "The Prodigal God" in "Love Wins" (201). Chapter 5 of Tim's book "The Reason For God", "How Could a Loving God Send Someone to Hell" could have helped you immensely. He even agreed with some of your insights into the Prodigal Son story.
* You used Jesus' "millstone around the neck" warning to those who stumble young people (Were you really applying that to your dear grandma?!)(22). Have you considered that much of your audience are impressionable young believers without a lot of the biblical depth required to "red-flag" your scriptural slip-ups and unsubstantiated claims?
* Have you reflected at all on the strict judgment God promises for teachers (Jas. 3:1) and considered that, perhaps the millstone warning could apply to you?
* Have you counted the cost of accusing nearly all the early Church Fathers, all the Church Councils, the martyrs, the missionaries and most scholars throughout church history (including the present age) of not only being wrong but presenting a "toxic" message?
* Have you considered the possibility that the "toxic" moniker might be a bit offensive to those of us who believe in heaven and hell, but are also working hard to alleviate suffering and injustice wherever we find it? Do you mean to imply that most of us are content to hand out "tickets to heaven" (24,178) with no regard for the here and now?
* Have you read the accounts in church history of Christian involvement in feeding the poor, caring for widows, orphans, prisoners, as well as serving the victims of natural disasters or, for instance, the societal change William Carey brought about by lobbying to outlaw "Suttee" (widow burning) in India or Wilberforce in England working to outlaw the slave trade?
* Do these accounts jive with your accusation that those of us looking toward heaven wouldn't have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering in the world? C.S. Lewis whom you recommend said "Aim at heaven you get earth thrown in. Aim at earth, you get neither."
The Bottom Line
* Here's the bottom-line, Rob. What if you're wrong? What if non-Christians will not respond any better to your "better than that" good news than they do to the "ticket to heaven" kind? Research tells us Postmoderns are not moved toward Christ any more by bribe of heavenly goodies than they are by threat of hell.
* Furthermore, a discipleship that lacks the eternal dimension would certainly blunt the edge of and urgency of evangelism. Ironically, if you are wrong, my guess is that those who follow you will be less inclined to work in the here and now for the very reason that the eternal issues have been downplayed or in your case almost disregarded. And let's not forget to ask how your gospel would affect our motivation towards completing the Great Commission? Would not missions be demoted to the status of a Christian Peace Corps?
* And then what if there really is a hell to shun, a heaven to gain and a God who is to be feared as well as to be loved? What if He is a God of wrath and justice as well as a God of love and mercy? What if Grace and Truth win along with love? What if it really is the Truth that sets people free? What if people really are judged by what they believe about Jesus in this life and it really is "appointed unto men once to die but after this the judgment? (Heb. 9:27). My fear is that if you are wrong, Rob, there will be hell to pay.
If I could somehow get a face to face meeting with you I would get on my knees and beg of you to reconsider your position. Issues regarding 15 year old atheists who die (4), what happens when a missionary gets a flat tire (9), questions about the fate of the un-evangelized and the nature and longevity of hell have been and will continue to be discussed within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy. Greater minds than yours or mine have better answers than you or I to your questions. You are in over your head, my friend. There is still time to get out of the water.
For the sake of those who are perishing (2 Cor. 4:3)
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