Monday, April 11, 2011

A Review of Love Wins

I am admittedly a little late in the game with this, but a vacation and numerous speaking engagements over the past couple of weeks have prevented me from completing my review of Rob Bell's Love Wins

During this time the furor has died down somewhat and most (perhaps all) of what needs to be said has been said. In addition, there are much better reviews that you can read than this one.

Nevertheless, since I promised a review and a majority of my readers are those to whom I am a pastor, I am going to share some thoughts that I believe are important regarding the book and the issues that come from it.


First, for those who are unaware, let me tell you a little bit about Rob Bell. I don't know him personally, but we do have a few things in common. We are almost the same age. We both grew up in conservative evangelical homes. We both professed faith in Christ at the age of six. We both attended conservative Christian colleges. And we both have been in ministry for 15+ years. Of course, we don't have everything in common. He has become famous, and I, well not so much.

Bell pastors Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a church which he started in 1998 with a current attendance of over 10,000. He is the author of several books, has produced an excellent video series called NOOMA, and has spoken to sold-out crowds both nationally and internationally for years.

All of this to say that his influence is significant, especially among Millenials and disaffected and disillusioned evangelicals, of which there are many. Love Wins is currently #2 on the New York Times Bestseller List under the Advice Category.

To conclude my introduction, let me be clear: I have some hard things to say about Bell and Love Wins. Some have questioned whether it is 'Christian' to be harsh with a brother, especially with the world watching. But I believe that both Jesus (Mark 9:42) and Paul (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 20) were clear about how we are to view false teachers and their doctrine -- and make no mistake, this is false doctrine.

I know there are those who will object to the statement I just made, but as I hope to show below, a truly honest evaluation of the book has to admit that what Bell is proclaiming is not orthodox Christianity, and it never has been. In doing so he is leading sheep astray. And as Paul and Peter tell us, one of the shepherd's jobs is to protect the sheep (Acts 20:29; 1 Peter 5:1-4).

So, all that being said, let me briefly share four primary errors that I see in the book.

1. Hell

Bell tells us from the very beginning the purpose of the book:

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. And so this book. – Preface

The problem is, that while I wouldn't state it the way he does, this is what the Bible teaches. We might not like it and we might not want it to be that way, but in Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV) says exactly the opposite of what Bell writes:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. [14] For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Bell goes on to say:

At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love in the end wins and all will be reconciled to God. - p. 109

Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives. – p. 111-112

So let's be clear: Bell is teaching (yes, teaching) that hell isn't forever and that everyone is eventually saved. And the reality is that this is not Biblical, and it is not orthodox Christianity and it has not been at the center of the Christian tradition, ever.

2. Hermeneutics

This one really bothers me. Honestly, if you do what Bell does with Scripture you can teach and believe just about anything that you want. How he uses (and misuses) Scripture isn't very different than the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. And I honestly believe a 7th grader in our student ministry with a good study Bible could show that he is off base with his use (or lack of use) of numerous passages.

The danger is that Bell does use a lot of Scripture so unless you are a good Berean (which many Christians aren't) you can easily be fooled into thinking he is on to something.

I have debated about whether to bring out some specific examples here, but to keep the review relatively short, and as I will address some of the hermeneutical errors in other places, I will leave it be for now. If you do want more detail, Kevin DeYoung has done a wonderful job of pointing out 10 exegetical errors in his review.

3. The Character of God

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escapre from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. Loving one moment, vicious the next.

Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?

That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.

Because if something is wrong with your god, if you God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your god will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable unacceptable, awful reality. - p. 173-175

First, note that Bell is in no way being fair to those who hold to the "traditional" view of God. He is painting this view in the worst possible light possible. No one who believes in the "traditional" view would state it this way.

Second, in this we can see that perhaps the fundamental error with Bell's theology is the way in which he views the character of God. It's clear that for Bell, God's love is His fundamental characteristic, the one characteristic that is elevated above all others. There are several problems with this.

Yes, God is love. The Scripture is clear about that. But among other things, God is light, spirit, and a consuming fire. Most importantly, God is holy. In fact, the characteristic of holiness is the only one that we see with repetition (holy, holy, holy).

So, we must keep God's characteristics in tension with one another (Ed Stetzer has some good thoughts here). This is particularly true with love and holiness. In fact, this is exactly what the Bible does:

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10 (ESV)

This passage shows us how God's love and His holiness work together. God is holy and therefore cannot tolerate sin (Hab. 1:13a). But because of His great love for us, He sent his Son to turn aside His wrath (propitiate) from us so that we might be restored to a relationship with Him (see 1 Peter 3:18).

You see, in not recognizing the significance of God's holiness, Bell also fails to see the greatness of God's love. He actually minimizes God's love by not keeping it in tension with His holiness.

4. The Cross

If I could ask Bell just one question, it would be this: what do you do with cross? I would ask this because its clear from statements like the following that for Bell the cross wasn't that big of a deal:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.

Let’s be very clear, then: 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. This is true for our peace, because, we shape our God, and then our God shapes us. - p. 182

A couple (at least) of problems here. First, Bell subtly tells us here that theology and technicalities aren't really all that important. Of course, Love Wins is true to form on this point.

Second, and most importantly, does the Bible teach us that God is the rescuer, not the one to be rescued from?

In actuality, the Bible teaches both. God is both just (the one that demands that sin be paid for) and the justifier (the one who makes sinners righteous) -- see Romans 3:26.

To press the point more, Scripture clearly teaches that God is a God of wrath:

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. 1 Thess. 1:9-10 (ESV)

So, there is wrath coming. Wrath that we have been saved from. But whose wrath is it? It's God's wrath.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. Romans 1:18 (ESV)

Scripture clearly teaches in numerous places that we are saved from God, by God, for God. End of story.


Like I said at the beginning, there are better and more thorough reviews of Love Wins that you can read. I would highly recommend Kevin DeYoung's extensive review as well as some excellent thoughts from Randy Alcorn.

Here's my final word on the matter. In the last quote above Bell says that "we shape our God and then he shapes us." This is perhaps the most accurate statement in the book.

Bell has shaped his God not through the lens of Scripture but through the lens of his own intellect and desire. I believe he started with the thought that a loving God wouldn't send people to an eternal hell for "sins done in a few short years." From that he developed his theology (which is really just old theological liberalism in a new package) by interpreting Scripture through this lens. And what you get from that is the mess of Love Wins, as Martin Bashir revealed.

Bell has shaped his god, and now his god is shaping him. Unfortunately, it is shaping many others as well. Because the god that Bell has shaped is not the God of the Bible. Let's pray that the Lord reveals to Bell the error of his ways and simultaneously protects the sheep who are susceptible to his teaching. At the same time, let's all be good Bereans with everything we read and listen to.

1 comment:

  1. I often read books like this with a Berean view, as I listen to every sermon, including at Bethel. In this case, I am thankful for so many other faithful men speaking out thereby helping so many be better stewards of time, than debunking false doctrine. A big thank you to God for your true shepherd's heart.




About Me

I am a husband to Eva, father of 4, pastor, and most of all passionate follower of Jesus Christ. The focus of my life is to make the most of every opportunity God gives me to bring glory to Him. Outside of the time spent in my role as a pastor, I spend most of my time with my family -- a good deal of that coaching various sports teams that my children are involved with. Every fall and winter you will find me rushing to the woods of Indiana and West Virginia in search of a monster whitetail buck.