By Marcia Montenegro| Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, reached number one status on Amazon and made quite a splash due to its controversial proposals indicating Rob Bell is not on the same page on certain topics as other evangelical Christians. The main issues are the matter of eternal separation from God, called the “second death” in Revelation (20:6, 14; 21:8), and the issue of exclusivity of the Christian faith.
Although Rob Bell is ambiguous in some parts of the book, and many have claimed it is difficult to know where he stands, there are also clear statements expressing views that he favors. However, the book also preserves Bell’s reputation as the master of the oblique.
It is not the purpose of this evaluation to address all of Bell’s points or all the troubling statements in the book. Therefore, only the most crucial topics, in the view of this writer, will be covered.
There are so many straw men set-ups in this book that the reader may have to brush straw off the pages. Bell often does this when he is critiquing other Christians and the evangelical church in general. For example, while discussing what the gospel is, Bell observes that “A gospel that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story” (135).
Do all Christians state that this is the “chief message” of the gospel? Well, no, they don’t. Although hell can be a part of the message, explicitly or implicitly, the chief message is, according to the Bible, that Jesus atoned for man’s sins on the cross through his death, was buried, and bodily rose, appearing to many (see especially 1 Cor. 15:1-5). Before his death and resurrection, Jesus was proclaiming the gospel (Mark 1:15) and the message was to “repent and believe.” Believe in Jesus as the prophesied Messiah and the Son of God for eternal life (Luke 8:12; John 1:12, 3:15-18, 4:25-26, 5:24, 6:47, 8:24, 11:25-26).
Secondly, the “not sinning” here has no relevance to the gospel. The gospel is not about not sinning; it is about being freed from the penalty and power of sin (and ultimately the presence of sin). Sanctification, which occurs as a believer grows in Christ, includes resisting sin through the power of the Holy Spirit, but not through the power of one’s own strength or abilities.
Another straw man is Bell’s portrait of the God he (Bell) thinks most Christians believe in or communicate to others: an unstable, capricious God who is “loving one second and cruel the next” (175), one who can “switch gears” and be “loving one moment, vicious the next” (174) because of a belief in hell. This is apparently how Bell views a God in a world where hell exists, at least a hell where people spend eternity. The problem with this is twofold:
1) This is not the God revealed in the Bible, and
2) the reality of an eternal hell does not mean God is like this.
It is astonishing that a pastor with years of experience and with a Masters of Divinity does not seem to understand the attributes of God.
God’s Love and Wrath on Sin
Bell claims that “God’s very essence” is love (177), and is “an endless giving circle of joy and creativity” (179), the latter a description that gives this writer a flashback into the New Age. Bell also seems upset that God has any wrath at all, and he presents a distorted view of the Biblical picture of God’s wrath (182-184).
Yes, God is love, but His holiness and righteousness require His wrath on sin. Jesus himself said, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).
Writing in Romans 5:9 to those who have believed in Christ, Paul declares under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that believers have been saved from “the wrath of God” through Christ. Christians, before believing in Christ, were “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3; see also Rom. 3:5; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10). Salvation through Christ is contrasted with experiencing God’s wrath in 1 Thessalonians 5:9.
God is not loving one moment, then wrathful the next. His attributes, such as love, wrath on sin, righteousness, mercy, patience, and justice are always present and always in balance. God is not lopsided, with one attribute outweighing others, and God is not volatile, going from one attribute to another in a flash. Such are the fickle natures of pagan gods, not the true living God. Yet Bell seems offended that anyone would point out that God can be wrathful, even though this is what God Himself tells us.
Bell Loves a Mystery!
The word “mystery” crops up several times toward the end of the book. Bell describes Jesus as a “mystery . . . hidden in God” (150), a “mystery present in all creation” (159), and a mystery hiding “in the naked and hungry and sick and lonely” in Matthew 25 (160). Jesus is also a mystery that people “trip on” and “stumble upon” without knowing it is Jesus (160). This latter point raises the issue of Inclusivism, to be addressed later in the article.
Jesus is described as a mystery in the Bible, but only in the sense that in the past he was not revealed but now has been revealed (Rom. 16:25-27; Col. 1:25-27, 2:2, 4:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). “Mystery” in the New Testament refers to information previously not understood or known that God has now disclosed (other uncovered mysteries are that Gentiles and Jews can be one in Christ [Eph. 3], the mystery of the church as the body of Christ [Eph. 5:32], and the future bodily resurrection of believers [1 Cor. 15:51]). Although Bell admits that Jesus is a mystery “now being revealed” (149), he continues to describe Jesus as a mystery and implies that Jesus exists in a mystical way in the universe.
Jesus is no longer a mystery. This does not mean we know everything there is to know or that we cannot learn more about Jesus. Since Jesus possesses both humanity and deity, no finite mind can totally comprehend Him. However, as far as what God wants humanity to know, the mystery of Jesus has been divulged.
To keep talking about Jesus as a mystery may allow Bell to question things already clearly stated in God’s word. After all, if Jesus is still such a mystery, then who can really be sure about anything about Jesus, heaven, hell, eternal life, etc.? However, this is not the case since Jesus has been revealed and the biblical message about Jesus is quite lucid.
Heaven, Hell, Now, Later — Whatever
The matter of heaven, hell and eternal life is interwoven tightly with other facets of the book, so it becomes difficult to untangle and lay out as one long visible string. Bell defines eternal life as something that starts now, not after death. It is true that God’s word speaks of one having eternal life now upon belief in Christ, for example, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3; see also John 3:36, 5:24, 6:47, 10:28; 1 John 5:11, 13, 20), and this eternal life continues into the future. But Bell speaks of this eternal life as an equivalent of a literal heaven on earth right now (not just a foretaste).
Bell announces that “Jesus lived and spoke as if the whole world was a thin place for him, with endless dimensions of the divine infinitesimally close, with every moment and every location simply another experience of the divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us, all the time” (60). This echoes Bell’s “everything is spiritual” theme in one of his NOOMA films. Bell offers no scripture to support this dramatic assertion. Of course, Jesus, being both God and man, was in constant communion with God the Father, but that has nothing to do with an alleged “divine reality.”
The term “thin place” has come into vogue through mystical spirituality that asserts certain places are somehow closer to God than other places. This is very reminiscent for me as a former New Ager of the so-called “sacred places” touted in the New Age, because in that view there are spaces more saturated with divine energy than others. However, God tells us that the earth is fallen and in bondage to death (Gen. 3), awaiting its redemption from corruption (Rom. 8).
Likewise, hell is something that can be experienced now according to Bell. This is the theme of his third chapter where he uses the story of Lazarus (which he calls a parable, although many believe this is an actual account), and the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate that the older son is already in hell through his jealousy and small-mindedness, while the wayward son has heaven when he returns and is forgiven by his father.
Bell seems to be reading meanings into the text, such as declaring that the story of Lazarus is “an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells,” such as “individual hells, communal, society-wide hells,” “hell now,” and “hell later” that Jesus is teaching us to take “seriously” (79). There is no basis in the text for these statements.
The actual point of this account is that the rich man was judged after death, was not with God, and could not be released from his torment, while Lazarus was with God (“paradise” and the “bosom of Abraham” are terms believed by some to represent being with God).
Ezekiel 16 and Matthew 10
Bell claims that Ezekiel 16 promises that Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored in such a way that this indicates that “the story isn’t over for Sodom and Gomorrah.” Bell states that condemnation is not forever, but there is “destruction and restoration” (84).
He also uses Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10 that things will be “more bearable” for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for Capernaum to imply that everything will be alright one day for those who are punished.
However, Bell is misapplying these passages which are not promises that anyone who is separated from God after death will one day be with God. In Ezekiel, God is rebuking Jerusalem for falling into pagan idolatry (which included sacrificing their children to false gods) and in verse 53, states that the “captivity of Sodom” will be restored. There is nothing positive being said about Sodom. Indeed, being compared to Sodom is the ultimate insult to Jerusalem (http://www.bibletrack.org/cgi-bin/bible.pl?incr=0&mo=11&dy=20).
Matthew Henry states that “The captivity of the wicked Jews, and their ruin, shall be as irrevocable as that of Sodom and Samaria.” Henry continues: “Sodom and Samaria were never brought back, nor ever returned to their former estate, and therefore let not Jerusalem expect it, that is, those who now remained there, whom God would deliver to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth for their hurt” (http://www.studylight.org/com/mhc-com/view.cgi?book=eze&chapter=16&verse=55).
The passage in Matthew 10 is a statement to the effect that the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah would be less severe than that for a city that disbelieves the gospel of Christ. In Matthew 11:23, 24, Jesus rebukes Capernaum for not repenting after seeing His miracles, and states that their punishment will be more severe than that for Sodom. This is a rebuke to Capernaum and other cities for disbelieving Christ, not a promise of something good for Sodom!
Bell asserts that “at the center of Christian tradition” have been a “number” of those who have claimed that hell is not forever and one day, “all will be reconciled to God” (109). He also declares that this issue is one we cannot answer nor resolve, so it has to be left open (115). Both of these claims are untrue. First of all, although there have been Christians and people in the church who have denied that hell is eternal, this view has never been at “the center of Christian tradition.” It has been outside it.
Secondly, it is not true that this issue cannot be resolved. The biblical evidence for eternal separation from God is firm; those who play word games with the Hebrew and Greek words translated as “hell,” “eternal,” and “forever” hit one wall every time: if the Greek translated as “eternal” to describe hell really means a temporary time, then what does it mean when God uses the same word for eternal life through Christ?
The Greek word used in Matthew 18:8 for “eternal fire” is used in Hebrews 5:9 for “eternal salvation,” for “eternal punishment” and “eternal life” in Matthew 25:46, and for “eternal fire” in 25:41, as well as for “eternal life” in John 3:15, 16. Yet Bell insists that this phrase can mean “a period of pruning” (91).
By minimizing hell, Bell minimizes heaven. If eternal separation from God is translated as temporary, then how are we to view eternal life with God? Is that also temporary? Why does the word mean temporary for separation from God but becomes “eternal” for life with God?
Bell discusses the rock that gave water in the wilderness when Moses struck it and how Paul in First Corinthians 10:4 writes that the rock is Christ (142-143). Because the Hebrews did not know at the time that this rock was Christ, Bell concludes that today people can encounter Christ through other forms or mediums and not realize it.
This conclusion by Bell is invalid for several reasons. Jesus was not literally the rock that Moses struck. Rather, the rock is used as a metaphor for Jesus to New Testament believers, and the message is to show Christ was with Moses, as well as to warn them against idolatry, immorality and other sins that snared the people who were with Moses (verses 6-11).
This passage in First Corinthians 10 rebukes the believers at Corinth who were immorally behaving when celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and remains a warning to believers today as a reminder of the serious nature of the Lord’s Supper and what it represents.
Bell expands on this rock theme to claim that other rocks are out there today, and people may drink from them and not know that it is Christ. Appropriately then, the chapter is titled “There Are Rocks Everywhere.”
The gospel (or Jesus, it’s difficult to say), Bell proposes, is a “mystery” present in “all creation” (in a mystical sense) and people stumble on it, not knowing it is Christ (157-159); and “Sometimes people use his [Christ’s] name; other times they don’t” (158). Since “none of us have cornered the market on Jesus” (158, another straw man!), then Jesus can be known in many ways, without the person knowing the historical Jesus or knowing about his death or resurrection. Bell misuses several Scriptures to support this stance.
Bell writes that Jesus “will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity,'” (150), but Bell offers no basis for this claim. What about God’s word as the basis for labeling Jesus as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Savior, the Redeemer, the Founder and Head of the church, the Author of our salvation, the Good Shepherd, the Vine, the Door, and many others?
Continuing, Bell declares that Jesus is “supracultural” and “is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures” (151), again without offering evidence. It is true that Jesus does not belong to any particular culture, outside of having been Jewish in his incarnation, but Bell makes these avowals to bolster a concept called Inclusivism (also see 154-157), which is the view that salvation can be applied to those who have not believed specifically in Jesus.
One source explains Inclusivism as the view “that even though the work of Christ is the only means of salvation, it does not follow that explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary in order for one to be saved. In contrast to pluralism, inclusivism agrees with exclusivism in affirming the particularity of salvation in Jesus Christ. But unlike exclusivism, inclusivism holds that an implicit faith response to general revelation can be salvific.” (http://www.theopedia.com/Inclusivism).
Inclusivism is not universalism, which is the position that all people are saved, or go to heaven, based on God’s love and acceptance, despite sin. Christian inclusivism acknowledges that the saving work of Christ is necessary for salvation, but salvation can be applied to those who may not know Christ, or who may come to know Christ through other religions. Inclusivism encompasses many forms and perspectives, but it does not necessarily exclude the concept of hell or even eternal separation from God.
Bell seems to embrace Christian inclusivism along with the idea that although there is a hell, it is temporary. Therefore, Bell does not deny the atoning work of Jesus nor does he deny the existence of hell. This has made it tricky for some to decipher Bell’s beliefs.
Intimations of a mystical energy or force pop up in the book. The first is the term “divine reality” (60-61). By itself, this is insufficient cause for scrutiny. However, later in the book, when Bell labels Christ a “mystery” and seems to use the term in an almost impersonal sense to refer to Christ himself, it becomes more problematic (150, 157-160).
Prefacing some words on Jesus, Bell writes about “an energy in the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into” which is “Spirit” to the mystics, while “Obi-Wan called it ‘the Force'” (144). Bell continues this theme, asserting that “this energy, spark, and electricity pulses through all creation” (145).
Although Bell states the Bible does not explain it this way in the “creation poem” (as he calls it), he does not deny this energy as real, and seems to link it to the Word of God as the “energy that gives life to everything,” and then links that to being in Jesus as “a divine life-giving energy” (145-146).
Jesus is “the sacred power present in every dimension of creation” (158), the “mystery present in all of creation” (157, 159), “the mystery hidden in the fabric of creation,” and the “joy that fills the entire universe” (181). These descriptions depersonalize Jesus and make him a part of creation. However, the universe was created from nothing by God and is distinct from the Trinitarian God. The world is also fallen, and a holy God is not in any way an element of a corrupted creation.
Pantheism is the view that God is all, and is present in creation (including possibly as a force or energy) with no existence outside it. Panentheism, a related philosophy, is the belief that God is contained in creation but also transcends it. Bell refers to Christ as a person and historical figure, and nothing indicates he is a pantheist. However, it appears he is either adopting some panentheistic views, or at least is using the language of panentheism.
Panentheism works with Bell’s inclusivism. If Jesus is a “mystery present in all of creation” and cultures, a “stunning, dangerous, compelling, subversive, dynamic reality,” (152) that people can stumble on or drink from without knowing it, then it would certainly seem narrow and harsh (Bell uses stronger terms) to claim salvation comes only through knowing and trusting the historical Jesus of the Bible, which is exactly what Bell is proposing.
There are some good points Bell makes in this book although they are overshadowed by the disturbing ones. However, raising these issues challenges Christians to re-evaluate how they support their own views based on God’s word. One good that can result from this book would be for Christians to dig into God’s word to see what God really does say on these topics. Anyone reading this book should also check every single biblical passage or chapter that Bell refers to (he refers to quite a few) and read it for himself, in context.
Love Wins at one point was number 1 on Amazon. This is quite an accomplishment and says a lot about the number of copies that sold. Because of the stir created by this book, Christians will look to pastors, teachers, and others in the church, especially those dealing with young adults and teens (the usual targets for Bell), for responses to Bell’s attacks on the truths of Godâ€™s word. Resources are given below this article.
“The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” 1 John 5:10-12
Detailed review of Love Wins by Kevin DeYoung:
Review of Love Wins by Tim Challies:
Al Mohler Commentary on Love Wins:
Video of Panel Discussion on Love Wins at Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, KY:
Relevant Magazine interview of Rob Bell:
Source on Inclusivism, With a Response: