Monday, April 18, 2011

Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

It's been a few weeks since I finished Rob Bell's recent book, Love Wins, but I don't think I'm too late to catch the wave of attention this book is getting in the evangelical world - nor would I miss it, I think, if I reviewed it a month from now, six months, or even a year or more. The issues raised by this book aren't going anywhere any time soon, and I expect that in the near future we will see a wealth of literature produced by evangelicals taking every imaginable stance on what Bell has brought to everyone's attention. As I've read some of the reviews that have come out already, I've found myself in agreement with most of their criticisms, but at the same time feeling that some of the critics are leaving out what matters most - not only what Rob Bell is suggesting with respect to the afterlife, but why he is doing so. What assumptions have led him to the view he holds? In this (admittedly too brief) review, I hope to lay out what I think is the deepest problem with Bell's argumentation, centering in on the phrase, popular before he wrote this book, that has become its title: 'love wins.'

First, however, I want to talk about what I think is good in Rob Bell's book. While I disagree with many of his exegetical conclusions, I nonetheless feel that he has a few good points to make, and we evangelicals would do well to listen. The first pertains to what I believe is the thesis of his book - which, it may surprise you, is not that Christian universalism is true (at least, I don't think this is his main point). Rather, I think his clearest theses are as follows, found on pages 115 & 116:

Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.


Hard and fast, definitive declarations then, about how God will or will not organize the new world must leave plenty of room for all kinds of those possibilities. This doesn't diminish God's justice or take less seriously the very real consequences of sin and rebellion, it simply acknowledges with humility the limits of our powers of speculation.

Especially with the latter statement, I agree completely. The airtight certainty with which many Christians pronounce eternal judgment on others, contrary to clear biblical prohibitions (cf. Matt. 7:1-2), is presumptuous and hypocritical. "For what have I to do with judging outsiders?" writes Paul (despite being an apostle and witness to the resurrected Christ!). "Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside the church" (1 Cor. 5:12-13). It is one thing to be frank with an unbeliever that if he resists the reign of Christ, he will indeed face condemnation in the world to come; it is another thing entirely to tell an unbeliever that he is, unquestionably, at this very moment, destined to be so. Though I believe very firmly that God has fashioned vessels of wrath as well as vessels of mercy (cf. Rom. 9:19-24), who am I, a mere man, to know who belongs in what category, and why? So, insofar as Rob Bell's book is a simple plea for epistemic humility among evangelicals, I agree with him.

Another good feature of Love Wins is its attention to the character of the world to come. Rob Bell is absolutely right to say, "How we think about heaven...directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age" (p.44), and unfortunately for us evangelicals, heaven and the afterlife is one area in which we have been biblically and theologically impoverished. (Other writers, particularly N.T. Wright, have done an excellent job of pointing this out - cf. Wright, Surprised by Hope; also The Resurrection of the Son of God.) It is profoundly important to the gospel message that God's purposes, revealed in the Messiah, are cosmic in their scope - in other words, that this whole creation will one day be set free from its corruption and decay, and enter into an eternal age of freedom and flourishing administered by the redeemed children of God (cf. Rom. 8:18:24). The work of Christ on the cross not only reconciles individual human beings to God but also "all things, in heaven and on earth" (Col. 1:20). Though I do object strongly to Rob Bell's corollary view of hell as basically 'what heaven is like for all the spoilsports,' (which ignores biblical imagery of hell involving externality and separation, cf. Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Rev. 22:14-15), I nonetheless applaud his attempt to straighten out evangelicals about their future hope - not for a disembodied eternity in the clouds, as some seem to think, but for the new heavens and new earth in which the knowledge of the Lord saturates all that exists (Isa. 11:9).

There are probably other good points for which Bell ought to be commended, but these two are, in my mind, the most praiseworthy. Now, it would be possible at this point to go into great detail about the specific exegetical shortcomings from which the book suffers - particularly, Rob Bell's deeply problematic interpretation of the various "all" statements describing the scope of redemption (cf. Col. 1:20, which is simply saying that redemption is cosmic in scope; 1 Tim. 2:4, which is saying that people of every nation, not just Jews, are to come to a knowledge of the truth; and 1 Cor. 15:22, which is only speaking of 'all' who are 'in Christ' as opposed to those 'in Adam'). I feel, however, that many other reviewers have treated these topics in sufficient detail already, and there is little need for me to say again what has already been said elsewhere (and, in fact, what has been said throughout the history of the Christian church when universalist sentiments have arisen). No, in my mind there is something much more important and much more problematic in Rob Bell's argument, that lies behind his particular presentation of universalist ideas.

The problem can be looked at from two angles, and can be explained in terms of the book's title: (1) Rob Bell argues from a highly problematic conception of God's 'love'; and (2) his view of what it means for love to 'win' is, in my opinion, profoundly un-biblical. Here is what I mean:

(1) Love. From the beginning of the book, 'love' is a lingering concept, but unfortunately one that never gets defined with sufficient clarity. In the Introduction Bell even refers to it as "this love" (p.viii - i.e., as 'this sort of love' that we are talking about, which God possesses), with the apparent assumption that any reader, regardless of cultural background and context, will understand infallibly what 'love' really means. Rob Bell simply cannot talk about God's love without giving it at least some definition, since even a brief foray into scripture will reveal that "this love" actually confronts our modern and post-romantic assumptions about what it is. How, for example, is a biblical writer able to write words as shocking as "Give [God] who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, for his steadfast love endures forever!" (Ps. 136:10)? As we look at scripture, we find that God's love is not a vague, indefinite principle of good will toward everyone and everything in general, but rather as a fierce, passionate devotion to his people, to the creation, and to all that is good, right, true, and holy. God's love, in fact, lies at the very heart of his wrath: "this love" necessarily entails a deep hatred of all that is evil, wrong, false, and unholy. So, a statement like "God is love" (1 John 4:8), while it may very well sound like an endorsement of Christian universalism (particularly to post-modern, post-romanticism ears), should not be read as such, inasmuch as it overthrows scripture's depiction of God's love as particular and sovereign.

The fourth chapter of Rob Bell's book ("Does God Get What God Wants?") is where his 'argument from God's love' really comes to the fore. His basic proposition is this: if God loves us, he won't coerce our decisions or force us to do anything against our will. So far so good - but for Bell, this appears to mean a necessarily libertarian view of 'freedom' whereby God simply sits back, arms folded, waiting to see 'what will happen,' refusing to take any effective action until we make up our minds on our own to come to him. This, Bell claims, is love. In making this claim about our freedom, he ignores a great swathe of the Christian tradition that has viewed human freedom and God's sovereignty in a different light, with the latter establishing the former, and in no way at odds with it. In other words, while we interact with God according to our 'un-coerced free will,' we recognize at the same time that, ultimately, God is the one sovereignly directing everything that happens - even our decisions, and the reasons we have for making them. He wills that we will freely, in other words, and thus our freedom wouldn't be possible without his sovereignty.

Rob Bell simply ignores this position, treating his own conception of freedom as a self-evident given. But I would argue that this view of freedom and, ultimately, of God's love, lies at the very heart of a biblical view of human beings as created - as given all that they have (including the power to will) by a God who interacts with them contingently at their only level even while he is truly 'writing the story' according to his greater will and purpose. God's love is displayed in scripture not as a generic emotion (that's the romanticism creeping in), but as an active force that takes the initiative against evil, and for the sake of what is good. This brings me to the second problem in Rob Bell's fundamental argument, where his definition of love gets cashed in.

(2) Wins. One of the reasons reading Love Wins was so stimulating for me was that at the same time, I was reading Gustaf Aulen's classic, Christus Victor - a book that in many ways is arguably about precisely the same thing (though written with very different objectives in mind!). In Christus Victor (published in 1931), Aulen critiques the now standard 'Western'/'Anselmian' view of atonement, which in his view tends to downplay divine initiative in salvation and characterize God in a rather passive manner. The alternative, which he presents as the standard view of most of the church during its first thousand years or so, focuses on the victory of Christ through his cross and resurrection, over sin, death, and the Devil, according to God's purpose of redeeming the whole creation (humans included) and liberating it from captivity to evil. Rob Bell actually mentions this atonement theory at one point to bolster his argument, yet ironically, his own view of how love 'wins' scarcely resembles what Aulen or the church fathers he quotes were talking about. Love Wins, as a title, becomes something of a misnomer - a more accurate title for the book might be 'Good Will Eventually Gets What It Had Hoped For.' (Or, if you like, my slightly racier alternative: 'True Love Waits.') Whereas the point of God's victory through Christ in the cross and resurrection was meant to emphasize divine activity, Bell's construal seems to emphasize divine passivity to the point of absurdity. The God corresponding to Bell's idea of 'love' is not the eternal Lord of the universe whose voice breaks the cedars of Lebanon, but a working, middle-class dad waiting for his kid to get home from college: God "is there, standing in the driveway, arms open, ready to invite us in," (p.117, my emphasis) but certainly not actively involved in our coming to him by faith - only 'I,' the all sovereign individual, can do this by the impetus of my own will. J.I. Packer was more realistic about the shortcomings of such sentimental imagery: "the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which he is powerless to open" (In My Place Condemned He Stood, p. 136-7).

It is especially ironic that Bell should stand behind such a depiction of God as the one he gives, 'standing in the driveway,' while seeming to demand the exact opposite earlier in the book:

"God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2). So does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great.... Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end? (pp.97-8)

The problem is, if we go along with Rob Bell in his stress on supposedly 'un-coercive' divine passivity, Rob Bell's worst dreams might come true! After all, no matter how great God is, he could never, ever consider interfering with the will of his creatures, could he? Scripture testifies with the utmost clarity that yes, in fact, he most certainly could, can - does. God's love does not consist in 'sitting there' in passivity while those whom he loves self-detonate in sin and misery, however much it may be 'what they want.' Compare Rob Bell's conception of divine love with what we find in Ephesians 2:1-10:

And you all - when you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk following the pattern of this world's present age, the pattern of the ruler of the power of the air - the spirit that's now active among the sons of disobedience... indeed, it's in that spirit that all of us once conducted ourselves in the passions of our flesh, acting on the desires of the flesh and the mind's intentions, and we were children of wrath by nature, just like the rest of mankind. It was then that God - so rich in mercy! - because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses... by grace you've been saved! And he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that, in his kindness, he'd show us the overwhelming riches of his grace toward us in the coming ages, in Christ Jesus. After all, it's by grace that you've been saved through faith; and none of this is from yourselves - it is God's gift! It doesn't come from works, so that no one would be able to boast. We are God's own craftsmanship, you see, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared in advance, so that we'd walk in them.

That, my friends, is a love that wins. It is a love whose 'winning' precisely doesn't mean leaving us to our own devices. God's love wins precisely because it is sovereign, and works in spite of the sinful human will that is dead in transgressions, that is as unresponsive to God as a corpse is to a surgeon, until the surgeon shocks it back to life. That's God's winning love for us - he made us alive, and did so "even when we were dead." He didn't wait for initiative or impulse on our part, but supplied the initiative and impulse; he didn't 'wait for us to make up our minds,' as Rob Bell seems to think. Love wins precisely because it works beyond our control or ability to prompt it - it is active, not passive.

And thus if God chooses eventually to make every individual person alive, even in the age to come, so be it, but let's not pretend that this didn't come about entirely because of his grace, his initiative, and his purpose. Though I cannot endorse the view myself, leave it to God that it would be within his power to choose to do that at some point. But at least let us not pretend that the detached, hands-off, backwards conception of 'love' promulgated in this book is in any way honoring to God! It is not 'love' of any sort that simply refuses to intervene in the lives of those loved.

Such is my criticism of Rob Bell's book. It is not simply that his exegesis is flawed at many points, or that he makes dubious claims about his place within the broad stream of historic Christian orthodoxy. It is not simply that his view of time and of hell do not seem at every point to make contact with what scripture says on the matter. The real problem with Love Wins, the underlying problem, the ultimate problem, is that it presents us with a picture, both of God and of his love, that is sentimental, passive, and really isn't victorious over anything.


  1. Beautiful, David. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Hey! Found your blog through my brother Jim Hays' facebook page. Best review I've read of Love Wins so far. I read it a few months ago too; you seem to have written what I was thinking but couldn't articulate as well. Thanks for the insight!

  3. Now that I've read "Love Wins," YES. Most of the critiques I've read criticize his exegesis and all that (and I'm finding a surprising amount of sources from throughout history that actually seem to support his interpretation of the "eternal punishment"). But your review seems to get to the real heart of the matter: the whole book needs to be reframed about a God who is what He created love to be, not what we created love to be.