If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Rob Bell
Paul Coulter continues his review of Rob Bell's book Love Wins with some general reflection on Bell's style of writing and his reasons for writing.
Before considering the book’s message in detail it is necessary to say something more general about the kind of book it is. It is not an academic text and has clearly been written for a popular audience. It is relatively brief, extending to around 200 pages of generously spaced text in a large font size and with mutiple paragraph breaks. Bell is especially fond of short snappy sentences and he alternates between longer prose paragraphs and shorter paragraphs, often consisting of one sentence of a few words, which are structured almost like poetry. As with most poetry these sections are often emotive and lack precision or clarity. They often impact the reader through an overall impression as much as through the logical imperatives they contain.
Bell is also a fan of elaboration and has a strong tendency to build lists and use multiple verbs, adjectives or adverbs in one sentence with apparently synonymous meanings. Although this style of writing can be provocative, creating a sense of the dynamic, at times it can become laborious. More significantly, it contributes to the general lack of precision in language that is evident within the book. The style of the language together with Bell’s fondness for questions rather than answers makes it difficult to pin down exactly what Bell is saying about some issues. Despite the fact that he claims that “this isn’t just a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (p.19), it is impossible to decide conclusively from the book exactly what answer Bell would give to many of the questions he raises.
Having said this, the book is clearly, as we shall see, about theology and it does contain some clear statements of belief. It is not intended as devotional material or simply to provoke thought but to present a case for rethinking the way many Christians have thought about key Christian doctrines. In some cases he argues that it is impossible to conclude upon a single answer but at the same time he is abundantly clear, often using forceful propositions, about what answers he believes to be inadmissible. He does not attempt to consider all alternative perspectives on these questions within the broader sweep of Christian tradition and it is normally fairly obvious which answer he finds the most appealing.
These aspects of Bell’s style of writing are thoroughly postmodern. His communication style is undoubtedly suited to a postmodern audience, making him a highly attractive communicator to the younger generations in modern middle class America. Bell says explicitly in his preface that, “I believe the discussion itself is divine” (p.ix). Much as I agree that discussion is to be commended, I do not find the same degree of confidence in Bell’s writing that discussion can ever lead to a conclusion or a settled place of conviction. The difficulty with his approach is that it implies not only that questions are good and some things are uncertain but also that there are no ultimate answers and everything is uncertain. The rejection of absolute truth is, of course, a fundamental aspect of full blown philosophical postmodernism, but it is hardly consistent with Christianity, which is based on the revelation of a personal God who is Himself the ultimate truth who makes sense of all that exists. I am not suggesting that Bell denies the concept of absolute truth and, in fact, he clearly defends certain truth claims such as the existence of God, the historicity of Christ and the love of God for all people as well as defending a concept of meta-narrative that is foreign to postmodernism. His style of writing, however, may appear to be supportive of the postmodern rejection of absolute truth and certainly does little to challenge it.
One challenge in analysing the book is that Bell does not provide any footnotes or references. He includes very few quotations in the book and although he acknowledges in the preface that “nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me” (p.x), he doesn’t provide us with many leads as to who these predecessors are or where their writings can be found, with the exception of a brief list of names on page 107. He does quote Martin Luther in support of the idea that people may be given a second chance to accept God after death (p.106), but this quotation, which is in any case merely saying that God would be capable of doing this rather than that he does do it, is not referenced. Likewise, although the book makes numerous criticisms of certain expressions of Christianity there are no indications of who exactly is being attacked. These omissions would not be serious if the book was a work of fiction, but in a book intended to challenge theological concepts and to provoke thought it makes it difficult to pick up the threads of thought and take them further. Bell does list seven books in a “Further Reading” section at the end of the book (p.201) but, although the influence of these bookscan be detected in at least some of what he has written, he does not indicate the degree to which the books or their authors support his views. The lack of referencing is particularly frustrating when it comes to dogmatic pronouncements about the meaning of certain Hebrew and Greek words and claims about historical details and persons as we are unable to ascertain whether Bell’s view has any substantiating support from experts in these fields. It is possible that Bell chose to avoid footnotes and referencing to make the book an easier read, but I mention it at this point to highlight a challenge for the more inquisitive reader. I believe that it is a fundamental principle of discussion that the views of partners in the discussion are listened to and represented fairly, on their own terms wherever possible. Bell fails to do this in his caricatures of those he disagrees with and his failure to quote them. In a similar vein it is interesting that when Bell quotes from the Bible he includes only the chapter reference in brackets, without specifying which verse he is quoting from. Although I am not sure of his reasons for doing this, I personally found it helpful since it forced me to consider again the context of the verses quoted (although, as I will show later, I frequently found that the context militated against his interpretation), but for the reader who has less time to cross-reference the Scriptures I wonder if the lack of verse numbers might not actually act as a deterrent from directly consulting the biblical text.
A major feature of this book is the degree to which it is a reaction to forms of Christianity that Bell judges to be unsavoury and unhelpful. In chapter 1, What about the flat tire?, Bell engages in a critique of popular evangelicalism, or at least certain expressions of it, much of which I sympathise with. He exposes some of the careless language and extra-biblical conventions surrounding conversion that are commonplace amongst some evangelicals, for example, the idea that a specific prayer is necessary for salvation (p.5). I was deeply grieved by the examples he quotes of a person pronouncing an anonymous judgement on Gandhi in a public manner (p.1), a Christian who told a grieving girl that there was no hope for her dead brother because he had professed to be an atheist (p.3), and a lady called Renee Altson who suffered horrific abuse by her father who professed some kind of Christian faith (p.7). These examples are shocking and inexcusable in their arrogance, insensitivity and hypocrisy, but are they typical of Christians generally and of evangelicals? Bell seems so intent on challenging this kind of travesty that he fails to acknowledge the many examples of humility, compassion and integrity among people who hold the views he attacks. As the book progresses it is clear that his concern is not simply with the language and practices of evangelicals but with aspects of their theology, including beliefs about heaven, hell, the exclusivity of the Christian message, the significance of the cross of Christ and what is required for a person to be saved.
The second chapter, Here is the New There, is a challenge to common perceptions of Heaven, and does much to correct the wrong view that is commonplace amongst Christians that Heaven is a disembodied reality and that God has no future plan for the universe we inhabit. Bell writes that, “The day when earth and heaven will be the same place. This is the story of the Bible. This is the story Jesus lived and told” (p.43). He emphasises the fact that God’s purpose is to renew and restore the created world and that we are called now to be agents of God’s Kingdom in the present. Later in the book he says that, “there is no place in this new world for murder and destruction and deceit. There can’t be because this new world is free from those evils, which means that it is free from those who would insist on continuing to perpetuate those evils” (p.113). Bell’s vision of ‘Heaven’ as the “new world” is, in my view, both thoroughly biblical and positively exciting. This vision flows from an understanding of the gospel that is much more than just the message of individual salvation that evangelical preaching has sometimes made it. As Bell writes (p.134):
When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’s resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything ‘on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it. The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable. Individuals are then invited to see their story in the context of a far larger story, one that includes all of creation.
This understanding of the gospel as a story is a necessary corrective to the postmodern tendency to reject any sense of a meta-narrative, a grand story that embraces all the smaller stories and explains the ultimate significance of life in the world. So far we can agree with Rob Bell. Modern evangelicalism has often made the gospel too narrow, adopting too individualistic a perspective and neglecting the grand sweep of God’s story. We must, however, ask what that story is, how individuals become part of it and where the story ends. Importantly we must also ask how we know this story – how has God revealed it to us, and is the Bible a faithful record of it? Before turning to Bell’s perspective on these questions, however, we must say something more about the way in which he attacks contemporary Christianity.
Whilst I have already acknowledged that Bell makes some valid points in his criticism of the contemporary evangelical world, I do have concerns about some of what he says and the language he chooses to express his concerns. He creates something of a ‘straw man’ to attack by painting a caricature of evangelicals. He is excessively focused on terminology rather than engaging with the ideas that underlie the words used. For example, he correctly says that “the phrase ‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible” (p.10), but he neglects to consider whether this common evangelical phrase may be a useful short-hand for a truth that is described in the Bible. Personally, I do not particularly like the term ‘personal relationship’, since it is non-biblical and suggests a very individualistic faith, but I understand that those who use it are referring to a kind of experience of God that Scripture bears testimony to and which is surely a desirable thing. If Bell wants to critique the usefulness of such phrases he must expend more ink in explaining what he doesn’t like about them and what alternative he would propose. Another problem with Bell’s critique of evangelicalism is that he implies that different ways of describing the conversion experience, which is generally recognised as a hallmark of evangelicalism, are contradictory where they are not necessarily so. This extends to highlighting throughout chapter 1 different scriptural passages as if they are in contradiction to one another. He writes:
Is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’re married to, or whether you give birth to children? Or is it what questions you’re asked? Or is it what questions you ask in return? Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city? (pp.16-17)
Each of these questions is based on a passage that says something about ‘salvation’ or that describes the conversion experience of an individual but Bell does not consider what kind of ‘salvation’ is meant in each passage (the word often means salvation from the consequences of sin but it may be used to describe salvation from other threats) or whether the passage itself suggests that what happened to that individual was intended to be seen as normative for all people. It is one thing to say that every individual has a different story of how they came to saving faith in Christ, but it is quite another to imply, as Bell appears to, that such saving faith may not be necessary. Furthermore, Bell makes no attempt to synthesise the teaching of these passages and does not acknowledge that many biblical scholars have seen no contradiction in these passages and have understood them to be complementary in building a picture of salvation. I find it difficult to believe that this is because he is unfamiliar with the body of scholarship and it seems that he is intent upon disorienting the reader, leaving them unclear about what, if anything, is necessary for a person to receive salvation. A secondary effect is to leave the reader unsure about whether Scripture can actually be synthesised or whether it is intrinsically contradictory. We will return to the questions of Bell’s view and use of Scripture and whether he believes faith to be necessary for salvation later in this review, but for now our concern is with his purpose for writing in this way. Why is he so intent on deconstructing evangelical ideas?
It is always dangerous to attempt to infer what an author’s motives are in writing a book, but Bell does give us some insights in Love Wins into what caused him to write. Chapter 2 reveals that Bell’s reaction against popular evangelical thinking stems at least in part from his own childhood experience. He refers to a painting that hung in his grandmother’s house (p.20) which apparently scarred the young Bell to such a degree that he links it to Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18:6 about the consequences of causing people to stumble. The fact that Bell is motivated at least partly by a reaction to personal childhood experiences does not, of course, negate his message, but he ought to be careful to ensure that he does not write excessively subjectively and that his reaction does not drive him to opposing extremes. Bell does not, however, acknowledge these dangers in the book, nor does he express a desire to be moderate in his criticisms. In fact, he says nothing positive about his background or evangelicalism generally. Another motivating factor behind Love Wins is a concern that the “traditional view” of Hell “ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace and joy that our world desperately needs to hear” (p.viii). Bell is convinced that a:
story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. [...] Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about ‘hell and torment and all that’ (p.110).
Furthermore, he is concerned that these ideas about Hell are a significant reason for people dropping out from the Christian faith. He writes of “people who were Christians, but can’t do it anymore because of questions about these very topics” (p.ix). Bell appears to be concerned to make the Christian message more acceptable to a generation of Americans who reject notions of Hell that have held sway throughout most of Christian history. I am not suggesting that this leads him to deliberately distort the gospel message, as he seemingly believes that he is helping to restore the true message of Jesus which is about “love, peace and joy”, but it is worth noticing that it is at least part of the motivation behind the book. It does, however, raise two important questions. Firstly, is Bell’s accusation that the “traditional view” of Hell is responsible for the failure of the spread of the message of Jesus fair? Is this demonstrable? He does not provide any corroborating evidence and, even if studies were to show that people report that this view of Hell is a reason why they do not embrace Christianity, this would not necessarily be a basis for rejecting it if it is in fact true. We might also note that Bell’s problem is a particularly Western one. Christianity, including the “traditional view” of Hell, is spreading rapidly in other regions of the world including Africa, parts of Asia and South America. Is Hell the real reason why many people in the Western world reject the gospel? In fairness to Bell he does not proceed to make his case for a rethinking of ideas about Hell on the basis of market research or what might be popular, but by considering numerous Bible passages, and that leads to our second concern. How are we to decide whether or not the offense that is caused is because of a distorted message or an unavoidable part of a message that is unchanging? Our answer must be to return to what God has revealed to us in Scripture, and so once again we find ourselves driven back to the question of Bell’s view of the Bible. Is it possible that Bell’s concern to see the message of Jesus spread might have influenced him towards a approach to the Bible that could distort the message? Could his engagement with culture have led him to develop a version of the Christian message that suits the culture but that is no longer faithful to what God has revealed in Scripture? In fact, does Bell actually accept that Scripture is God’s revelation and that there is an unchanging gospel that must be translated into all cultures but cannot be adapted to suit them?
 A meta-narrative is a grand story that lies behind existence of which all individual stories are part. Hard postmodernism denies the possibility of a meta-narrative.
© 2011 Paul Coulter
This article is published on bethinking.org by the kind permission of the author.