October 20, 2011
Tom Sweatman has been reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. Read his review below.
Rob Bell’s Love Wins poses a controversial yet thoroughly important question: ‘Does a loving God really send people to hell for all eternity?’
It’s very difficult to know where to begin with this clever yet confusing book, there is so much to say and this review is by no means a comprehensive work.
I’ve done my absolute best to be faithful to Love Wins and I’ve endeavoured to be true to the author. It is my hope that I have not made him say anything that he has not in fact said.
Rob Bell & Love Wins
Those of you who have seen or read anything by Rob Bell before will know that he is a great communicator, he’s young, he understands culture and is an attractive personality. His persona and his writing style make Love Wins very readable.
The sentences are short, the language is emotive and understandable and the illustrations within the book are vivid and believable.
In addition, Love Wins poses a lot of questions. Questions that he claims are not new, (which is true), questions that are designed to get you to think about, or to re-think about: ‘Heaven, Hell and the fate of everyone who ever lived’ which, in itself, is no bad thing.
There’s nothing wrong with questions and there are over 350 of them in this book.
Unfortunately the author answers few of these questions coherently. The questions themselves are vague and confusing and his answers don’t ever seem to amount to any serious conclusions making it somewhat difficult to trace the development of his arguments.
Below are a select few questions from pages 4 – 9 which are a good representation of the style of questioning within the book:
“This belief raises a number of issues…” (p. 4)
“And that risk raises another question…” (p. 4)
“That, of course, raises more questions…” (p. 5)
“This raises even more disconcerting questions…” (p.6)
“Which of course raises the question…” (p. 6)
“Which leads to a far more disturbing question…” (p. 6)
“But it raises another important question…” (p. 7)
“…But that raises another question.” (p. 9)
“This raises another, far more disturbing question…” (p. 9)
“Which raises another question…” (p. 9)
“And that question raises another question.”
Despite this Rob Bell does go onto claim that he’s not really asking questions:
‘This book is not a book of questions; it’s a book of responses to these questions’ (19).
Unfortunately like the questions themselves, these ‘responses’ are extremely vague and more often than not, are hidden in further questions in a confused attempt to communicate some answers.
The result is a slippery book, there’s nothing particularly solid or thought through about it. It reads like a diary of incoherent thoughts rather than a serious exposition, and application of the scriptures.
A Straw Man
Right from the start, and throughout, Rob Bell is very unspecific about people. He repeatedly uses phrases such as:
‘Some Christians believe’
‘Some Christians will say ’
‘And then there are others who ask’
(P. 4 – 9)
The result being that the reader is often left wondering just who he’s actually talking about. No names, no references and no historical context.
The ambiguity is used to develop a series of ‘straw men’, or more broadly, ‘straw arguments’, which he repeatedly builds up and knocks down throughout the book. There are plenty of examples of this; here are two.
Within Chapter 1 Rob Bell tells the horrific story of a woman called Renee Altson who was repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Whilst raping her he would often recite the Lord’s Prayer and sing Christian hymns. Bell then recounts a conversation he had with a Muslim woman who refused to step across the threshold of an American Church because in her country Christians round up Muslims and execute them. Shocking stories.
Sadly, according to Bell, it is the father who rapes his daughter who believes in eternal punishment. It is the Christian who executes the Muslim who believes in a permanent separation and it is the Christianised cults who hate homosexuals that believe in a definitive and final judgment.
Although not explicitly stated In Love Wins, the reader gets the distinct impression that Rob Bell thinks any evangelical Christian who believes in a Holy God and an eternal hell is a cruel, unloving, uncaring, elitist scare mongerer who is in no way concerned with the well being or salvation of others.
This is typical of how Rob Bell writes in Love Wins. He persistently makes these broad sweeping implications about people in order to create straw arguments that are easily knocked down.
A Straw God
But it is not only straw men Rob Bell builds up, it is a straw God.
According to Bell, Christians who believe in a God who will punish the guilty eternally, believe in a God who is:
‘Loving one second and cruel the next.’
One who is:
‘Loving one moment and vicious the next.’
‘In the blink of an eye becomes a cruel mean viscous tormentor.’
That God he says:
‘Is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.’
(P 173- 17)
Of course he is right.
If there was a God like that, he would indeed be traumatising, terrifying and unbearable but that is not the God of the Bible.
‘The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty.’
(Num 14: 18a)
In addition Rob bell states that:
‘Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment does not. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish does not. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment does not.’ P 110.
This is unequivocally wrong. To claim that God isn’t glorified in his judgements is false.
‘What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.’
(Rom 9: 22 – 23)
‘…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. 8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might 10 on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed.’
(2 Thess 1: 7b – 10a).
God will be glorified, and marvelled at, in his final judgement in the presence of his holy people.
Now these are hard truths to accept sometimes, but that is what Christian faith is; it is believing God’s revelation of himself in his word, whether we like it or not.
Now of course to proclaim these things in an unloving or harsh way is a terrible thing indeed. If we believe these scriptures (above) and the result is not a heartfelt compassion for the lost and a deep yearning to share the gospel of Christ with them, but instead, a warped sense of superiority or apathy, then it is true to say that they are not understood or believed at all.
Whatsmore, we know that the God of the Bible is good, he is merciful, he is kind, he is just, he is fair, he is holy and he will judge rightly. His way is perfect. We are not better moral judges than God.
‘Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His loving kindness is everlasting.’ (Ps 100: 5)
‘As for God his way is perfect; the word of the Lord is flawless.’ (Ps 18: 30)
‘Yes, Lord God Almighty true and just are your judgements.’ (Rev 16: 7)
‘The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.’ (Ps 103: 8)
Remember, it was Jesus; the most compassionate, gracious and kind man who ever lived that said:
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
(Matt 13: 40)
It’s not just the God of the Bible that Rob Bell rejects and distorts; he also only has a superficial understanding of the human condition.
He does believe in sin to an extent, it wouldn’t be fair to say he didn’t. He makes it clear that we can reject or resist God’s love in this life.
But Rob Bell’s understanding of sin is essentially just dressed up moralism.
It is a murder, a rape, stealing, political corruption, greed and even an oil spill (p 36-37), but that’s as far as it goes. He identifies the practical outworking of sin but ignores the root problem.
He never mentions that by very nature we are objects of God’s wrath (Eph 2: 3), that as sinful people, we have not only resisted God, we have hated him (Rom 1: 30). We have violated his law, rejected his kingship and are corrupt to the very core. God isn’t just disappointed with our choices, he’s utterly offended by our sin, and without Christ we are in slavery to it (Rom 6: 20).
Therefore under Rob Bells definition of sin there is no need for a conviction of ones true condition and there is no need for a new heart that rejoices in, and longs to obey God’s good and perfect law.
In John chapter 3 Jesus says these words to a very ‘good and religious man:’
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.’
(John 3: 3)
We don’t just need to sort out our behaviour; we require a new heart and a new nature. We need to be born again says Jesus.
The effect of misunderstanding, or more likely rejecting, the character of God and the nature of man means his description of the atoning work of Christ on the cross has departed from that set out in the gospel.
One of the most telling examples of this comes on page 182. Rob Bell states:
“We do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer”
God in Christ is indeed our rescuer, he paid the penalty and died on the cross for our sin, and as he rose victorious he defeated sin and death for those who would repent and trust on him as Lord and Saviour, but we do need rescuing from God.
‘They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.’
(1 Thess 1: 9b – 10)
The Bible makes it clear that it is not merely a case of us resisting God and not liking him very much; in our unredeemed state we are his enemies.
‘For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!’
As God’s enemies we are objects of his wrath, we have offended a holy God and there is a punishment. Someone has to pay.
On the cross Jesus was punished in our place. As he breathed his final breath divine justice was satisfied. God in Christ rescues us from his own wrath. He rescues us from himself, for himself.
Love Wins does not depict Christ as our substitute, therefore the cross is watered down to such an extent that this book makes it feel unnecessary. Bell’s God is passive and indifferent toward sin. He concludes later in the book:
‘On the cross, Jesus says, “father forgive them, for they do no know what they are doing”
Jesus forgives them all,
Without their asking for it.
Done. Taken care of.’
But Jesus says:
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
(Mark 1: 15)
Forgiveness is not automatic.
There is much to say on the usage of scripture in Love Wins.
Truthfully it is not all bad. There are occasions in which Rob Bell cites some relevant and helpful passages to support some of his thoughts, particularly in the chapter on Heaven. Perhaps this is why some Christians have been so encapsulated by Love Wins.
However, generally there is quite an astounding lack of respect for the context in which the majority of the passages he quotes are set. He draws abstract and wrong applications from the text, and often cites verses that, when read within context, are contrary to the point he is making.
Particularly worth noting is his usage of Old Testament texts that promise redemption, restoration and future blessing. Rob Bell quotes texts such as Zechariah 10 vs. 6 (p 86) to support his theory that these gracious promises are applicable to all people across all time:
‘I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them’
However, it is consistently made clear throughout the Old Testament that these promises are for God’s covenant people. Zechariah 10 is explicitly addressed to Judah and to Israel.
Bell goes on to say:
‘The prophets are quick to point out that this isn’t just something for “God’s people,” the “chosen,” the “elect” (p88)
This is not true. The promises that are ultimately fulfilled in Christ are for God’s people who are required to repent and believe them.
Equally as erroneous is Bell’s interpretation of Matthew 11 (p. 85).
In verses 20 – 24 Jesus denounces the cities in which he had performed most of his miracles because they had not repented.
‘And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matt 11: 23 – 24)
Bell assumes that the words ‘more bearable’ mean that there is still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah on judgement day. This is not the meaning of these verses. Jesus’ strong warnings do not allude to a future hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, they describe the hopelessness of unrepentant Capernaum, and the severity of the judgement to come.
On page 184 Rob Bell says ‘We shape our God and our God shapes us.’
This is a good summary of Love Wins. Rob Bell has indeed created and shaped his own God and it has shaped him.
He does not believe in the God of the Bible and has destroyed the significance of the cross.
Please don’t think that Love Wins is just another Christian viewpoint that we should tolerate, accept and welcome as an alternative opinion. Instead, let us always remember the words of warning from the apostle Peter:
‘But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2 Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute.’
(2 Peter 2:1 – 2)
Rob Bell is a false teacher and in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
‘These are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say…”Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!”
(Isaiah 30: 9 – 11).
Rob Bell is telling us what he deems to be pleasant things in Love Wins. He has no intention of confronting people with the Holy One of Israel because he does not believe in him.
By Tom Sweatman