Something has always concerned me about Rob Bell’s theology. Although many churches and youth groups swear by his popular series of NOOMA videos, Bell frequently seemed to offer his own theological opinions as dogmatic truth. Thus, when I first heard about “Love Wins” – Bell’s latest book, focusing on issues heaven and hell – I was skeptical. The excerpts offered did indeed seem to hint at universalism (the belief that all men will ultimately be reconciled to God), but I wanted to reserve judgment until I read the book for myself.
My initial impressions were correct. Bell’s book is a slickly packaged, postmodern synthesis of Christian truth and New Age sentimentalism, one that stays far beyond the pale of Christian orthodoxy. Through passionate emotional appeals (and blatant disregard for Scriptural context or historical scholarship) Bell offers up a dangerously seductive feel-good gospel.
The essential question the book attempts to answer is “why would a loving God create hell?” This is a question theologians throughout the centuries have wrestled with, but Bell outright ignores the centuries of past scholarship and discussion. It is clear from the start that Bell would prefer not to believe in hell; thus he relies on extraordinarily strained interpretations of Scripture to support his thesis.
Particularly striking is a passage in which Bell assesses the parable of the sheep and the goats (in which Jesus leads the sheep to everlasting life, and sends the goats away to everlasting punishment). Bell contends that the passage referring to “punishment” is simply mistranslated in most Bibles, and really should read “a time of pruning or correction.” I’m no Greek scholar, but I find it extraordinarily difficult to accept the notion that thousands of scholars have “mistranslated” the passage over the course of two millennia. (It’s worth noting that Bell never cites external authorities to justify his position).
Bell also presumes that all passages in which Jesus describes “coming judgment” are references to the destruction of Jerusalem. This conveniently sidesteps difficult verses like Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Now, I don’t believe God damns people to hell arbitrarily. I believe (as have many of the great minds of Christendom) that hell is the ultimate consequence of man’s rejection of God, rather than God’s rejection of man. Those who live and die in unrepentant sin face judgment. Bell’s gospel could, in theory, stand independently of Jesus: no mention is made of God’s righteous anger against sin and evil, which renders the atonement and resurrection ultimately superfluous. Bell believes in a God who is merciful, but not a God who is just. The mystery of how God could be both just and merciful has, through Christ, ultimately been revealed…but this view has no place in Bell’s heterodoxy.
Although he never explicitly says this, Bell implies that souls will have a “second chance” to repent after death. This openly disregards Hebrews 9:27: “…Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” Now, it’s fair to say that no one likes the idea of hell. It’s nasty and unpleasant to think about…and I’m willing to admit some uncertainty when it comes to this issue. I don’t know if people are confined in conscious or unconscious torment, if they’re being actively punished or simply forced to dwell in a condition of total separation from God …but I do know that as sinful human beings, we are only saved from hell through the blood of Jesus Christ.
The Bible offers us sufficient, but not exhaustive truth – we are told that Christ is the only way to salvation, and the Great Commission is our exhortation to spread the Word to others. I don’t know exactly what happens to souls who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, which makes it all the more imperative that we as Christians take the Commission seriously. By presuming that all people – regardless of their beliefs – will eventually be reconciled to God, Bell renders the Commission toothless.
This review would be less harsh if Bell merely promoted universalism. But Bell takes his deviant theology one step further, offering up a dangerously subversive view of God that renders the book truly heretical.
Bell frequently casts “heaven” and “hell” in terms of our lives here on earth. This smacks strongly of New Age utopianism – the idea that once enough people get in touch with a sense of “cosmic love,” great things can happen. In keeping with this sentiment, Bell describes God as the “creative energy” that pervades all things, and goes on to state that “Obi-Wan called [this energy that is God] the Force.” This utterly depersonalizes God, reducing Him to a mystical cosmic presence that pervades all things, is infinitely benevolent, and will ultimately usher in a perfect utopian era. By rejecting the concept of a just and personal God who will ultimately hold the world accountable, Bell throws absolute truth and ethics to the wind. Ultimately, he embraces a pantheistic view of the Creator that deviates from Christian theology altogether.
This review isn’t meant to imply that there is nothing redemptive in “Love Wins.” Bell’s writing is powerful and poetic, and some of the points he makes are well taken. He calls for real action to help the downtrodden – a task that the church should indeed undertake. However, the theology that pervades the book is not merely universalist, but pantheist as well.
So why, then, is it so appealing to so many people?
Bell punctuates the book with heart-wrenching stories and anecdotes. Clearly, he has witnessed the pain and heartache of the world…but rather than eagerly anticipating a spiritual renewal and everlasting life, Bell offers up a decidedly unbiblical gospel. It may be “easier” and “happier” – but it undermines the ultimate reality of evil, and God’s holy nature. The world does hurt – and the Bible promises that God will ultimately judge evildoers through His righteousness.
Initial concerns about “Love Wins” were not unfounded. The gospel advanced by Bell is a serious departure from Christian theology. While it is a fascinating and compelling read, and useful for gaining a better understanding of cultural attitudes in the church today, it should not be treated as a source of truth. The message of the book drastically departs from a Scriptural understandings of eternity, and offers a disturbingly flawed concept of God Himself.
I pray that Rob Bell recognizes the dangers of what he has written, and adopts a more Biblically sound position in future works. A book as powerful and appealing as “Love Wins” will reach a broad audience, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t lead both Christians and unbelievers astray.