Paul Coulter begins his review of Rob Bell's book Love Wins by asking why there is so much fuss about the book and why there is a need for a response.

Love Wins is the latest book by Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005), Sex God (Zondervan, 2007) and Drops Like Stars (Zondervan, 2009), presenter of the Nooma videos and founding pastor of megachurch Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The American edition of Love Wins (although not the British edition) is subtitled A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and indeed the central concern of the book is with the nature of Heaven and Hell and who ends up in either place.

The book has been at the centre of significant controversy since even before its launch, with accusations being made that Bell is a Universalist and a heretic and counter-criticisms of those who are prepared to reach such dramatic conclusions without even having read the book. The debate around the book’s message has centred on questions about the existence and nature of hell and who, if anyone, will end up there, although the book is more generally about the nature of salvation.

Social networking allows bloggers and tweeters to respond to news stories and book releases with much greater rapidity than was previously the case. The Christian world is no exception and in the case of Love Wins several high profile Christian leaders in the USA have responded to the book by denouncing Bell. On 26th February 2011 Justin Taylor, Vice President of Editorial at publishing house Crossway, commented on his Gospel Coalition blog that Bell, "seems to be moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity"; and that:[1]

It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.
But it is better for those teaching false doctrine to put their cards on the table (a la Brian McLaren) rather than remaining studiously ambiguous in terminology.
So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be unambiguous about his Universalism. It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved Universalism
.

Although the post has since been modified by Taylor, it originally ended with a reference to 2 Corinthians 11:14-15, which speaks of Satan’s servants disguising themselves as servants of righteousness. When Taylor says "as it seems from below"; he is referring to the publisher’s description of the book,[2] which he proceeds to quote. Although he admits that the author of a book often does not write such descriptions, Taylor also refers to a promotional video that Bell posted to video sharing website Vimeo on 22nd February 2011.[3]

Also on 26th February 2011, author and pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Joshua Harris tweeted "There's nothing loving about preaching a false gospel. This breaks my heart. Praying for Rob Bell";,[4] while well known pastor and author John Piper tweeted simply the poetic statement, “Farewell Rob Bell.”[5] Both men included links to Taylor’s blog post in their tweets. On 28th February 2011, Kevin DeYoung, author and senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, wrote on his Gospel Coalition blog in defence of Taylor’s decision to comment before the book was released claiming that the promotional video by Bell was sufficient grounds to conclude that, “We don’t have to guess if Bell will say something dreadfully, horribly, disgracefully wrong. He already has.”[6] DeYoung has since placed a review of Love Wins online.[7]

The difficulty that Bell’s supporters have with these responses is two-fold. Firstly, these comments were made before the book was released on 15th March 2011, resulting in the criticism that they were poorly informed. Although Bell’s promotional video contains an outline of the questions he raises in the book, it would indeed appear to be premature to criticise a book without actually having read it. Secondly, the comments, at least some of which appear to pronounce a final judgement on Bell that places him outside the camps of evangelicalism and perhaps of Christian orthodoxy, were criticised for being too hasty and symptomatic of a tendency to be closed to any reconsideration of cherished traditional theological formulations. Such comments raise important questions about the way in which Christians debate their differences and what exactly it means to speak about a “false gospel”. In defence of Bell it is claimed that he is only asking questions with the intention of engaging in discussion and that there is nothing in his book that has not been part of Christian thought for many centuries.

In the United Kingdom, responses to Love Wins appear to have been more measured. The UK Evangelical Alliance responded to the book two weeks after its release (on 29th March 2011) in two ways.[8] Firstly, they issued a statement calling for "debate about the book"; to be “characterised by respect, humility and grace, particularly where Christians disagree with one another” and directing readers to the Alliance’s own work on the doctrine of Hell which resulted in the 2000 document The Nature of Hell. The statement also quoted the Alliance’s general director, Steve Clifford, calling Bell “a valued brother in Christ”. Secondly, the Alliance posted a brief review by author Derek Tidball. Tidball applauds Bell’s “well-established communication skills” and “passion to make God's love known” but describes Love Wins as “full of confusing half-truths”. Although Tidball accepts that Love Wins contains truth, including in some of its attacks on popular evangelical understandings of the gospel, his main criticisms of the book are that it deals with only some of the biblical evidence while ignoring other passages that do not suit Bell’s argument and that the language is confusing, full of questions with few answers, leaving the reader unclear about what Bell actually believes. In particular, Tidball asserts (in contradiction to Taylor’s confident expectation that Bell would be unambiguous) that the book does not show clearly that Bell is a Universalist.

I must say something about my reasons for taking the time to write this response and my general attitude to books like Love Wins. I undertook this task because I was approached by some individuals who were interested in Love Wins and who wanted help in thinking through the message of the book. I am grateful to Rob Bell for stimulating this kind of discussion about issues of major importance in our understanding of God and the message of Jesus Christ. Given the controversy about Love Wins, the confusion about its message and the undoubted popularity and influence of Rob Bell it is my intention in this review to consider the book thoughtfully and in the spirit that the Evangelical Alliance UK commends, of “respect, humility and grace”. I am not concerned with attacking Rob Bell personally but with engaging seriously with what he has written. As I engage in a critique of the book, then, I will do my utmost to ensure that I reflect what he has said fairly and do not misrepresent him, but if I fail to do so it is accidental and I would appreciate clarification or correction from Bell himself or from any other reader of this review. I will attempt to distinguish between those things Bell says clearly and those views that I believe to be implicit in his writing but that he does not state unambiguously. It is my conviction that such discussion should never be off limits and that Christians should always engage in thoughtful reflection on what they believe. I am convinced, however, that the correct way to approach such questions is with reference to what God has revealed about Himself. This article is an attempt to consider the book’s teaching in light of Scripture.

As I have written this response I have felt myself torn between a desire to be generous and gracious and a realisation that the New Testament has much to say about false teachers and that the church in every generation must be alert to teachings that are contrary to the gospel. Bell maintainsthat, “the historic, orthodox Christian faith [is] a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences” (pp.x-xi) and harks back to this metaphor later in the book when he says that, “It is, after all, a wide stream we’re swimming in” (p.110). Underlying this metaphor is, undoubtedly, a concern to say that he remains within orthodox Christianity and a hope that readers will not be too quick to judge him as falling outside it. The metaphor, of course, raises questions. Does the orthodox faith have any limits and how do we decide whether someone is in the stream or not? At the risk of pushing the stream metaphor too far, if we imagine heresy as a branch that diverges from the main stream, eventually petering out into a stagnant, crocodile-infested swamp, it becomes vital to know how we can identify that we have taken a wrong turning so that we can get back into the main stream. My concern here will not be so much to consider whether Bell’s suggestions are ‘orthodox’, since the definition of ‘orthodoxy’ is open to dispute, but whether they are a possible understanding of God’s revealed truth in Scripture. I will not attempt to show whether or not there have, as Bell claims, been people in the history of Christianity who have thought as Bell does (we have no reason to doubt that there have) or even whether or not they were accepted by the church in their time as ‘orthodox’, although I do take issue with his claim that those who “insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” have been “at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church” (p.109). I accept that these views have been present in the Christian tradition repeatedly throughout history but reject the claim that they form an unbroken chain or that they can be said to be “at the center” as opposed to minority views. Still, my focus will not be on historical theology but simply on attempting to understand what Bell is saying and to comment upon it in light of Scripture. I do not consider myself to possess a definitive map of the stream of Christian orthodoxy, still less to be its gate-keeper, but I appeal to Bell as a fellow swimmer to join me in looking to Scripture as the final arbiter.

I proceed on the basis that Scripture is God-breathed, that it is, therefore, completely true and trustworthy, and that it is therefore the ultimate authority for all that we believe. I am convinced of the divine origin and authority of Scripture because it has been the testimony of the church throughout the centuries and because the Bible claims it to be true. To paraphrase Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14-16, I trust those from whom I have received the Scriptures and the gospel to which they testify and I accept that all Scripture is God-breathed and is therefore able to make people wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Bell makes extensive reference to Scripture in Love Wins, but he does so in a way that has been all too common within the evangelical tradition from which he has emerged, which he critiques and within which I would locate myself. Sadly, although evangelicals have been known as people who take a particularly strong view of the active authority of Scripture, we have not always been exemplary in our use of Scripture in theology. We have too often mined the Bible for proof texts that suit our conviction and ignored other passages that don’t suit it so well. More importantly, we have ripped apart the grand story of the Bible in our pursuit of systematic statements of faith and coherent theologies. I believe that the Bible, taken as a whole and read as the unfolding story of redemption, forms a coherent whole and that through it God reveals Himself, His heart and His purposes to us. That is not to say that the Bible answers every question we might ask or provides us with an iron cast theology of everything – too often we have approached it with that expectation and our theological systems have ended up constraining our interpretation of Scripture – but that it is sufficiently clear on those matters that are most central to our faith. Hence my primary concern in this response will be to understand Scripture faithfully and to test Rob Bell’s ideas against its truth.

After making some general comments about the nature of the book including Bell’s style of writing and his motivation, I will consider what Bell says about five key Christian doctrines: the nature of God, the eternal destiny of human beings, who will be saved, on what basis people will be saved, and what response is necessary on the part of a person for them to be saved. I will then turn to what this I consider to be a significant underlying issue, Bell’s view of and use of the Bible. Lastly I will attempt to reach some conclusions about the book.

Book Title: Love Wins
Author: Rob Bell
Publication Details: London: Collins; 2011
ISBN: 978-0-00-742073-5

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References

[1] http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/02/26/rob-bell-Universalist/ (accessed 27.6.11)
[2] Available at: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/Love-Wins-Rob-Bell/?isbn=9780062049636 (accessed 27.6.11)
[3] http://vimeo.com/20272585 (accessed 27.6.11)
[4] http://twitter.com/#!/HarrisJosh/statuses/41560790603407360 (accessed 27.6.11)
[5] http://twitter.com/#!/JohnPiper/statuses/41590656421863424 (accessed 27.6.11)
[6] http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/02/28/bell-brouhaha/ (accessed 27.6.11)
[7] DeYoung, Kevin. 2011. God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of Love Wins by Rob Bell. Available: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/files/2011/03/LoveWinsReview.pdf (accessed 27.6.11)
[8] http://www.eauk.org/articles/love-wins-response.cfm (accessed 27.6.11)

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© 2011 Paul Coulter
This article is published on bethinking.org by the kind permission of the author.