Theological Mistakes #11: Rob Bell and “Love Wins”

One of the hottest books in the last year or so has been Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell gained a national following in the past decade through his earlier books, the ministry of the church he founded (Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids), and through his wildly popular video series, “NOOMA” (a play on the Greek word for “spirit,” pneuma).
First, let me say that I respect Bell, and I think he has earned this respect. I have used the NOOMA videos and some of his other videos to good effect. I also think that he is a capable scholar with a good education (Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary). He is a very smart guy, as you can see if you watch his video “Everything is Spiritual.” I think his detractors who attack him as a poor scholar or amateur theologian are using the argumentum ad hominem (attack against the man), which is the weakest of all arguments and usually the last resort in a war of words. Having said that, let me be clear that my respect of Bell does not mean I agree with him.
Second, I have made it a practice not to criticize the writings of a person unless I have read them. In this case, you will find that many of the attacks on Bell seem to have been made by those who did not buy his book and read it. I assure you that I have read the book, and I read it before I delved into the writings of his many critics. But let me qualify this. The book, Love Wins, is not a scholarly treatise, or even a particularly logical presentation. It reads like the NOOMA films speak, in brief snippets rather than sustained argument. It asks many questions, sometimes several questions in a row, and does not always give satisfying answers. (In this it seems almost Socratic in method.) Because of this, I think the book is probably open to various interpretations. For example, Bell can state that he believes in “hell,” but it seems harder for me to know what he means by this. At some level, Bell thinks that there is hell on earth in the here and now. But is there more than this? Yes and no. I am reluctant to label Bell as a heretic (and I don’t think he is, although too close for comfort), but I wonder how this stuff will preach. Do we need more sermons on the love of God? Maybe, but I think a well-rounded schedule of preaching has other concerns, too.
Third, I may have misunderstood what Bell wants to say, but the crux of the matter seems to be that the final picture of the book of Revelation is that  heaven’s gates do not close (p. 114, 115). This detail,combined with Bell’s many other new looks at Scripture seem to bring Bell to the conclusion that eventually “every person who ever lived” will accept God’s love and be allowed to enter the city. This is not classic universalism, but what we might call “eventual universalism.” It is for this reason Pastor Bell can say that “love wins” in the end.
So let me offer some responsive thoughts here. First, I will be more comfortable critiquing Pastor Bell’s ideas if they appear in another, more analytical format. That is just me, I know, but the format of the book makes it difficult to analyze. Second, I appreciate a renewed emphasis upon the love of God and the centrality of God’s love to the gospel message. In a day when Christians are stereotyped as intolerant bigots and haters, let’s preach, teach, and practice the love of God to a world that is hungry and thirsty for this message.
Third, I think that Bell is dealing with an issue that is debated in the Bible in many places. This is the pitting of the love of God against the justice of God. We believe that God is love, consistently loving of his creation and creatures. But we also believe that God is just, intolerant of human rebellion and wickedness. Our sin creates a dilemma for our loving and righteous God. How can he punish those whom he loves? An example of this is found in Hosea 11, where the Lord seems to argue with himself. He is disappointed by the sin of the people of Israel (their sacrifice to the Baals and their worship of idols), but he loves them. Should he destroy them like Admah and Zeboiim (companion cities of Sodom and Gomorrah). In the end, God decides not to destroy Israel (v. 9), at least at that time. God’s reason? He basically says that he is God and not human, so he does not need to give an answer. God is not accountable to us. I would even go so far as to say that there are aspects of the nature of God that we don’t know or understand because they have not been revealed to us. But, from a logical perspective, I guess we could say that in Hosea 11, “Love wins.”
But I don’t think this makes Bell’s case. Our sin caused a terrible dilemma for our loving God. This sin needed to be punished, but if God’s wrath were unleashed upon us, no human would survive. How could we be saved? You know the answer to this: God sent his Son, Jesus, to be the atoning sacrifice for human sins. The existence of God in the person of Jesus was an act of love beyond anything we can explain or imagine. While we were his enemies, Christ died for us. He loved us. And it is in the cross of Christ that love truly wins.
Mark Krause

6 thoughts on “Theological Mistakes #11: Rob Bell and “Love Wins”

  1. Love your treatment of Bell here Dr. Krause. After having read “Love Wins” I had the same sense… not really a scholarly treatment of the topic. I have enjoyed some of his writing – “Velvet Elvis” in particular – as well as the Nooma videos. To be honest I am not a fan of his writing style particularly. This book, however, was not compelling. Thanks for your gracious treatment of Bell while at the same time interacting thoughtfully with the ideas.

  2. Thanks for the great insite Dr. Krause. Truly appreciated.

    As you touched on, one of the things Bell does do well is ask questions that his audience needs to chew on. Chapter 1 of “Love Wins” is full of dozens of difficult questions that are intended to trigger people into thinking, and most of those questions Bell never answers in his book.

    Quick question: What did you think of Bell’s handling of places “hell” is used in the N.T.? Were his insights accurate?

    • Kyle, I would say this: we know a lot less about “hell” than we think we do from a biblical perspective. As my previous post about the “Gates of Hades” pointed out, we think of hell in mythological terms as a horrible place ruled by Satan, but the Bible does not teach this. Most of our impressions of the Bible’s doctrine of hell come from parables or the book of Revelation. That said, I am unwilling to dismiss the places where I think the Bible is talking about a place of punishment after judgment. I did not follow Bell’s discussion of hell as a “time of trimming” as a way to understand Matthew 25. I’m not sure that Matthew 25 tells us much about hell, but this interpretation is faulty. I also think the concept of “hell on earth” taking place now has some merits, but there are limits to this. We may begin eternal life when we are saved, but that is not the same as heaven after death. In the same way, I’m not sure I would draw a strong equation between the sufferings of this life with the second death of hell.

  3. Dr Krause,

    I remember when Dr. Bridges had us watching those Nooma videos in that leadership class. Bell kind of creeped me out. I do have a question for you regarding the atonement as you seem to describe the substitutionary one.

    I find the dichotomy between love and justice make little sense in terms of the atonement. I used to take it for granted until reading the Peter Chopelas article “Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife”.

    The substitutionary atonement seems to argue that God is all-just so it is wrong to show mercy without appeasing justice first. The wages of sin is death. Whoever sins must be sentenced for their sins. Jesus pays that penalty. In this sense, Jesus plays a role of a loophole to circumvent the system of justice. The circumvention of justice does not seem all-just by any means. So these are my thoughts about the logic of the substitutionary atonement. It seems to leave two options A, or B.

    A. Sin not being criminal as it is portrayed:
    If something is not severe enough of an issue that it can be circumvented by a loophole, it is clearly not as big of a deal as it is presented to be.

    B. Although the right thing to do (justice) is to punish the criminal, the criminal is getting off on a technicality:
    Not only is letting a criminal off on a technicality not justice, there is no way that orchestrating the technicality before the trial is any kind of justice.

    In this sense, if a penalty must be paid, it does not seem that God would be all-just by any means to allow a substitutionary sacrifice. If it isn’t as great of an offense, then there is no need for an intermediary.

    I am interested in an educated response to this dilemma, because many Christians take it for granted that because they are certain Jesus did it, then by default it must be just. I personally never thought twice about it before a few years ago. My desire is to make sure that any critique I make of any system is as accurate as possible. I cringe at strawwman arguments made against the bible, or any belief system for that matter.

    • John, you are thinking deeply about these things. The idea of substitutionary atonement is a biblical model of salvation, but not the only one. It has sometimes been called “Christ the Victim.” I think a very strong case can be made for it using the book of Hebrews, and to a lesser extent the books of John and Revelation. It is also one what of understanding Paul’s theology, what Luther called the “theology of the cross.” But all of these models are just that, and they break down at some point. Christ as a sacrifice, the super-lamb, makes sense in the light of the OT sacrificial system, but the idea of a human sacrifice would have been abhorrent o the Jews of Jesus’ day, and is so for us. The difference, it seems to me, is in the resurrection. The Lamb who was sacrificed becomes the Lamb who share the throne in heaven. So I don’t think we can separate the “Christ the Victim” from another model, “Christ the Victor.”

      The problem with both of these models (and there are others) is that they leave unanswered questions. If a price had to be paid for human sins, whom was it paid to? If Christ’s resurrection is a victory, who is it a victory over? These questions are not as simple as they seem on the surface.

      All that said, I still think that Christ died for our sins and that we are saved through his blood. I don’t understand it completely, but I don’t need to either.

      Dr. K

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