I just finished reading (OK, OK; I listened to the audio book version of) Rob Bell’s Love Wins.
Below is a brief summary of main points of disagreement and agreement I made mental notes of as I listened. (Because I don’t have the text in front of me, I’m going on fresh memory and can’t cite page numbers or promise direct quotations). But before I do that, let me say something about the mindset with which I approached Love Wins.
I have read, and am not terribly impressed by, Velvet Elvis and Sex God. The Nooma videos are positively annoying. So wrote Bell off as just a charismatic leader with a popularity cult (all too common among Christians). Although I was just as happy to write off the media frenzy over Love Wins as the familiar knee-jerk reactions from crusty old doctrinally-insecure Christians, I approached Love Wins with much skepticism nonetheless. Without further ado, some Pros and Cons:
- Bell often asks rhetorically and emotionally loaded questions like “Would a loving God really subject someone to infinite punishment for their finite sins?”, as if simply asking such questions, usually followed by an incredulous “really?!”, constitutes a veritable Sherman’s March through the traditional view of Hell. Needless to say, Bell does not so much as hint at the very good answers that are available to such questions. Relatedly, Bell does not avail himself of the strongest arguments—theological and philosophical—favoring universalism. But these facts, I suppose, are to be expected from a popular-level book.
- Though often sympathetic to the points he makes, I couldn’t help but think that Bell sometimes selectively quotes passages to support his points. For example, in chapter 2, Bell argues that only the evil powers (i.e., demons) “knew exactly what Jesus was up to,” noting that demons always correctly identify Jesus as the Son of God, and quotes Jas 2:19 and parts of passages such as Mk 1:23-24 and Matt 8:29 to support the point. But the same passages make it clear that although demons seem to know who Jesus is (maybe), they don’t know exactly what he’s up to (in fact, they practically ask him “Wtf are you up to here?”). Indeed, the ransom theory of the atonement highlights this pervasive Biblical motif (see, e.g., 1 Cor 2:6-8).
- Like many lay Christians who attempt to grapple with tough topics, Bell is all too ready to avoid hard intellectual toil by drawing lines marking the boundaries of human comprehension. For example, rather than explore possible solutions to the tension between humans’ awesome freedom and God’s infinitely patient and persuasive love, Bell avoids answering the question “Will God eventually get what He wants?” by saying we can’t know, due to the limits of human cognition, the answer. To that I say “bollocks.”
- Bell sometimes seems inconsistent. Continuing with the above example: although Bell says we can’t know the answer to the question “Will God eventually get what He wants?”, he answers a resounding “Yes” to the question “Will we eventually get what we want?” seemingly unaware of the fact that this possibility suggests an answer to the previous question. And for all his emphasis on the power of God’s love, it’s odd why he’s so confident in his answer to this second question, but says the first is unanswerable.
- Bell’s understanding of the resurrection leaves something to be desired. He says the concept of resurrection in the NT is not new, and appeals to cycles of life and death (e.g., seasonal change) as evidence. But this equates “resurrection” with “revivification,” an equation that simply can’t be made, especially by anyone familiar with N. T. Wright’s work on the resurrection.
- Chapter 2 is a full frontal assault on the “other worldly” or “pie in the sky bye and bye” concept of heaven so beloved by status quo Christianity. This chapter, along with chapter 7’s picture of God’s economy as just as confrontational to saints as it is to sinners, is worth the list price of the book, and can (hopefully) be appreciated even by those who have doctrinal insecurities about Hell.
- Bell does well to emphasize the doctrinal liberty that exists, and properly so, within Christendom. I have little patience for the heresy-hunting, “who’s-in-who’s-out,” finger-pointing mentality pervasive among Christians.
- In general, I appreciate Bell’s in-your-face approach to status quo Christianity.
I also want to note that Bell does not endorse universalism in the book. It’s safe to say Bell is friendly toward universalism, but we can’t say he is a universalist by what he says in the book. But who shouldn’t be friendly toward universalism? Isn’t this a possibility we all should hope for?
That I wrote more cons than pros should not be understood as meaning I didn’t like more than I liked. Quite the opposite! What I didn’t like simply stood out to me more. The rest was more or less a series of “amens”. Over all, I thought it was a good book. I am surprised by how much I found myself in agreement with what Bell says.