A Clanging Bell: A Response to the Book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell

                I don’t like controversy.  I know that because of the radical grace message I teach, sometimes I do find myself in the middle of it, but honestly I really don’t like it.  You can imagine then how I felt when several people asked me if I would be willing to read Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, and share my thoughts with them about it.  At first, I didn’t even want to touch it.  But after hearing the constant clanging of Bell by his critics and witnessing the tremendous impact and reach that this book has already achieved among his fans, I decided to take the plunge and grab a copy myself.  What follows is my response to the book, Love Wins. 

                To start with, let me dismiss from the beginning any claims that Bell is a Universalist.  This label has been thrown at him considerably by critics of the book, but I would have to assume that these are the same critics who still haven’t read it.  If Bell believes what he wrote, he is clearly not a Universalist.  A Universalist believes that all religions are essentially the same and that all paths lead to God.  This concept is not something that Bell promotes in the book at all.  In his defense, he clearly establishes that Jesus Christ is the only way to God.  Now, one may disagree with his liberal definitions of accepting Christ, but regardless, to brand Bell as a Universalist seems a bit harsh to me. 

                With that being said, the next question is whether Bell believes in Ultimate Reconciliation.  Let me begin that discussion by stating that essentially everyone who preaches grace will at some point be accused of teaching Ultimate Reconciliation.  Ultimate Reconciliation states that because of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, all men are saved.  Period.  Proponents of this belief fail to acknowledge any difference between Christ being the propitiation for the sins of the world and the idea of justification by grace through faith.  Simply put, the teaching of Ultimate Reconciliation believes in salvation by grace alone and would consider faith a work.  This leads Ultimate Reconcilists to falsely conclude that all men are saved and will inherit eternal life – apart from faith.  Extreme adherents to this teaching even go as far as to proclaim that Satan himself will be saved and reconciled back to God. 

               

So does Bell believe in Ultimate Reconciliation?  Many have assumed based upon the title of the book that he does, but I think it’s more complicated than that.  In Love Wins, Bell almost introduces a new argument, which is neither Universalism nor Ultimate Reconciliation.  In the book, Bell introduces an idea, which I will call, an “open heaven” theology where Bell paints a picture of a heaven, much like Motel 6, that proclaims, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”  His heaven is always open, always ready to receive those that might find their way home.  Clearly stated, one might wander around hell for awhile, and then decide to choose Christ after years of torment, and like the prodigal, return home.  With that being said, his perspective also implies an open hell, where one can come and go as he pleases – it’s his choice.

                I agree this picture is quite beautiful and enticing, but is it biblical?  Bell enthusiastically touts in the Book, that he will show us “every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word hell.”  Though a far cry from a concordance listing, Bell does do a fair job summarizing the references of the word “hell” in scripture.  He also goes a step further and discusses several biblical words/passages that describe punishment and judgment, presenting alternate understandings of these words/passages which further strengthen his argument.  What Bell seemed to shy away from though was the book of Revelation.  In my reading, I wasn’t able to find a single explanation in Love Wins for passages such as, Revelation 20:14-15, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”  This seems fairly straight forward to me.  Some fail to receive their inheritance in Christ.  For this we should all weep.  So how does Bell handle the finality of hell in such passages?  I don’t know, because he didn’t address it.  The closest he comes to it is on pages 91 and 92, where he shows differing uses for the Greek words “aion of kolazo” and the Hebrew word, “Olam”; both phrases which carry the implication of “forever” or “eternal punishment”.  From there, Bell closes the chapter by proposing that perhaps hell is only a period of time for some people.  That maybe forever according to Jesus, doesn’t really mean forever.

                So what do I think about all of this?  To start with, I think that the book is reactive theology.  Love Wins seems to be Bell’s response to countless personal experiences and frustrations with how salvation has been presented, how heaven has been talked about, and how hell has been thrown in people’s faces.   And I agree.  Religion has gotten it wrong.  The “turn or burn” theology of some has caused countless people to never want a thing to do with Jesus.  As Paul wrote, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  To continue, Bell also shows his frustration towards Christians who seem to get excited that people are going to hell and I would again concur with his frustration.  This is not the time to cheer the destruction of the wicked, but rather it is time to proclaim the love of our God -as Paul also stated that “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.”  And in 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul also reveals to us that God “wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”  This should be our mantra, not the ignorant shouts of “turn or burn”.  Bell is right on in addressing this. 

                Partially, I think the controversy of the book, is more about Bell’s presentation as a critic and a teacher than his theology as a pastor, though it might be correct to call both into question.  As a critic, Bell is a deconstructionist.  As a teacher, he is a whimsical romantic.  As a critic, he takes a wrecking ball to every belief with the assumption that what is true will be left standing.  As a teacher, he is a painter, filling our thoughts with his warm brush strokes and vibrant colors, allowing his audience to interpret what they see for themselves.  This style satisfies some and infuriates others, and it is quite possible that both groups misunderstood what Bell was saying. 

                From a theological standpoint, my biggest concern is what we are leading people to believe.  I’m personally not worried about Bell.  I think overall he is fairly grounded.  My concern is for those who read the book and come away with the conclusion that there is no hell.  This belief stems from the continued erosion of personal responsibility.  The thought is that God’s love is greater than my lack of faith or belief in him.  And in time, his love will win me over.  Again this sounds good and seems to jive with 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful”, but it fails to not only consider personal responsibility, that is that the gospel is “by grace through faith”, but also fails to understand the true nature of love.  “Through faith” means that I have a choice in the matter; that my belief or acceptance of God’s love is what determines whether or not I will receive my inheritance.  Salvation is for all, but not all are saved.  This is the reality of the gospel.

                Regarding love, I would like to point out that love, by nature gives freedom.  The love of the Ultimate Reconcilist is a love that gives no choice.  It’s forceful; domineering.  True love always gives a choice; always allows one to say no.  The doctrine of inclusion gives no choice – you’re coming to heaven whether you like it or not.  This love is little different than a man who drugs a woman in order to take her home with him.  It’s a distortion of love, not the real thing.  And if this is God’s kind of love, then why hasn’t love won over this world.  Why are we still fighting wars?  Why are babies still dying?  God’s love always generously gives us the freedom to choose, even if at times the choice we make is wrong. 

                In conclusion, let me say that I agree with Bell that “the good news is better than that”.  Isaiah 54:9-10 says, “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.  So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.”  And in Hebrews 8:12 we are told that God “will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  The New Covenant is the best news that most of the world has never heard.  There is peace with God.  There is forgiveness of sins.  There is life abundant.  There is eternal life.   There is no more condemnation.  There is love and it certainly does win.  And this love is so great and so good, that it respects us enough to give us a choice.  My prayer for you is that this love might win in your life. 

To listen to podcasts from Lucas Miles, visit www.oasnet.org

For more on The Error of Ultimate Reconciliation, make sure and check out this discussion between Dr Jim Richards and Allen Speegle at http://impact.rbm.tv/ .

16 Comments

Filed under Articles, grace teaching, Teachings, Uncategorized

16 Responses to A Clanging Bell: A Response to the Book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell

  1. Great job Lucas, sound balanced and objective without a panic approach. Thanks for introducing other fringe possibilities Bell flirts with besides the Universalist stand he has been accused of, and has openly rejected, both in the book and subsequently. Good job my friend.

  2. Very nice response to the book. I myself would say that his theological standpoint concerning hell and the ability to ‘choose Heaven later if you want to’ is very dangerous. None the less, very nice response to the book!!!

  3. Hagere

    Great review,brother.

    My understanding is that, the Christ centred universalism doesn’t believe in all roads lead to God idea.
    I have embraced the idea of Christ centre universalism over a year ago and since then, i don’t view God as TORTUROUS MONSTER. hence my out look in life has Changed.
    The gospel is a good news and there is no bad news in the good news.imho

    …..my two cents.-:)

  4. You did a nice job of explaining this. Thanks for taking the time to read the book and sharing your “take” on it. I agree with you that we have been given a choice. I like, how you put it, “…love, by nature gives freedom.”

  5. Sway

    Great post Lucas! Really appreciated an honest, thoughtful opinion on the book.

  6. God, out of the box! That is a beautiful thing. Does he have all the right answers? I am not convinced he does, but perhaps they are closer to the truth than the norm……

    I love what Rob said, ‘Jesus can handle the conversation’….. I love the questions he asks as he invites us into a conversation we have previously not been a part of.

    Great job breaking it down for us Lucas. One of the most responsible reviews I have read. Thanks!

  7. The Motel 6 analogy is a great way of putting what he believes. I’ve read the book and like you was wondering why he completely avoided the lake of fire issue. It would be amazing if he’s right but he doesn’t even seem to be interested in coming across as “right”. At any rate, however the lake of fire plays out, one thing we know, God’s mercy endures forever.

  8. Cheryl

    From my understanding of Universalism, they do not believe that all paths lead to God. They believe in the necessity of the death, bural and ressurection of Jesus and everything else a traditional Christian believes, except for hell. They believe that their personal God is so good, and what Jesus did was so good, that even if one does not personally accept Jesus, God will “save” them anyway. It is true that God saves — we cannot save ourselves — but it does require that we respond to that love, thus we make thet decision to receive what God offers — His only begotten Son who willingly went to the cross on behalf of our sins. Where it gets sticky is that the Universalists and their adherents all do believe in Jesus and the cross etc., so they probably will spend eternity with God — BUT they say that Grace is so all emcompassing, that those who do not even beleive in Jesus, or even God for that matter, will go straight to heaven anyway — so in my estimation, in not sharing the truth about the existance of a real hell, they will essentially be “rocking them in the cradle of complacency” while they are heading toward eternal damnation, and according to the Scripture, men are appointed only once a time to die, so there’s no second chance. The idea of a blanket pardon, taken backwards to its’ logical conclusion makes the Word of God of none effect!

    • Cheryl, thanks for your post and I agree with your estimation that ultimate reconciliation teaching often ignores evangelism and can very easily fall into complacency. Just to clarify though, the doctrine you are referring to is “Ultimate Reconciliation” or “Inclusion”, not Universalism. Universalism is not a Christ focused doctrine like the former two that I just mentioned. This why Bell cannot be a Universalist. He may very well be a closet Inclusionist, but not a Universalist as he clearly believes in Christ as the way to salvation. With Universalism, think like Ophrah, that kind of thinking….Universalism would say, if your path to God is to be a Muslim, be a Muslim, if it’s wica, then be a wican. Christ is just one of many with Universalists and not a center figure. Does that make sense? Now regarding your thought on evangelism, I’d highly suggest that link that I posted for the Jim Richards and Allen Speegle interview if you have some time to watch it, The Error of Ultimate Reconciliation. I think it’d be right up your alley based upon what you said. Thanks again for the post!

  9. Cheryl

    Lucas – I think we may be on the same page. I failed to mention that iit is Christian Universalists that beleive much like we do. That is why people are being so deceived. Many of my friends who expouse to be Christian Universalists, argue that we beleive exactly the same, except they do not believe in eternal punishment. The following is their own definition of Christian Universalism from one of their many sites:

    Christian Universalism
    Ultimate Reconciliation in Christ

    What is Christian Universalism? Christian universalism is a belief in the simple Bible truth that Jesus Christ is the “Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the promised Messiah of whom the prophets of the Old Covenant foresaw; He is the Savior of the world, He is the “Second Adam,” through Whom all mankind will be restored to God’s original image, He is the only way to the Father, the only begotton Son of God, and that there is no other way to everlasting, “aionian” life but through Him. We believe He is king and judge of the universe, and owner of all Creation, and that His purpose for the ages (aions) is to bring all things under His government and reconciled with Himself.

    We believe that in His substitutionary death and resurrection He became the “Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” As Christ Himself said, “If I be lifted up (crucified) I will draw all men to me” (as also prophesied in Psalm 22). His Name is the One before which every man, woman and child, from all of human history will bow before and declare that He is Lord. At that day, the prophesied “restoration of all things” shall come to pass, and of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end. This view is also known as Ultimate reconciliation or Universal Salvation, which is a very different thing than Unitarian Universalism.

  10. Cheryl

    Lucas – I think we are on the same page. I failed to mention that I was speaking of Christian Universalists. My Christian Universalist friends expouse to believe exactly as I do, except for the fact that they do not believe in hell. The following is a definition from one of their sites:

    Christian Universalism/Ultimate Reconciliation in Christ

    What is Christian Universalism? Christian universalism is a belief in the simple Bible truth that Jesus Christ is the “Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the promised Messiah of whom the prophets of the Old Covenant foresaw; He is the Savior of the world, He is the “Second Adam,” through Whom all mankind will be restored to God’s original image, He is the only way to the Father, the only begotton Son of God, and that there is no other way to everlasting, “aionian” life but through Him. We believe He is king and judge of the universe, and owner of all Creation, and that His purpose for the ages (aions) is to bring all things under His government and reconciled with Himself.

    We believe that in His substitutionary death and resurrection He became the “Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.” As Christ Himself said, “If I be lifted up (crucified) I will draw all men to me” (as also prophesied in Psalm 22). His Name is the One before which every man, woman and child, from all of human history will bow before and declare that He is Lord. At that day, the prophesied “restoration of all things” shall come to pass, and of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end. This view is also known as Ultimate reconciliation or Universal Salvation, which is a very different thing than Unitarian Universalism.

    • Cheryl,

      Yes, thanks for the correction. In light of “Christian Universalist”, your definition is correct. As you mentioned some of these, other terms are inclusionist, ultimate reconciliation, etc. Thanks again for your comments. Keep sharing the good news!

  11. Pingback: The Bell Keeps Ringing « Lucas Miles

  12. Cheryl

    I just received information from some reputable Grace preachers that the majority of “Christian” Universalists are not all that different from the New Age Universalists, they are just better at hiding their belief that all paths lead to God. We know that Satan is the author of confusion and this is quite disconcerting to me, because so many unsuspecting seekers have been unknowingly drawn into the web of deception. Let’s pray that the lies are exposed. Our God is infinitely bigger than the fallen angel, satan.

  13. Omar Torres

    Luc, I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for taking the time to enlightening us with the grace message.

  14. Pingback: The Shack: A Story of Freedom or Force? | Lucas Miles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *