If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Rob Bell
Paul Coulter continues his review of Rob Bell's book Love Wins by considering Bell's view on the character of God.
Bell identifies God’s love “for every single one of us” as the starting point of the Christian message (p.vii). In fact, he believes that “God’s very essence [...] is love” (p.177). He has clearly grasped the fact that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) but he appears to miss the equally important biblical truth, emphasised in the very same book, that “God is light” (1 John 1:5), meaning (in context) that he is entirely pure and holy, and that as a result he cannot and will not tolerate sin.
Throughout the Bible God is seen to be the One who is full of grace and truth – both perfectly loving and perfectly just. God revealed His character to Israel in the time of Moses as “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished” (Exodus 34:6-7). The Psalms repeatedly praise God for these two aspects of His character which are perfectly interwoven (Psalm 33:4-5; 36:10; 40:10; 85:10; 86:15; 89:14; 103:17) and the narratives of the Old Testament consistently reveal God to be both the righteous judge and the loving Saviour. The Law given to Moses emphasised these two qualities. In His love God desired His people to know Him and be with Him (the Tabernacle was His dwelling place in their midst) but their sin meant that they could not have direct access to Him and so He provided a system of priesthood and sacrifice to enable them to come to Him and express their faith in Him. For God to be trustworthy He must be truthful and for Him to be trusted He must be loving. When John wrote about the person of Jesus he said that He was demonstrably the incarnate God because his character was that of the Father, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The great question that the Old Testament raises is how the righteous God can declare sinners whom he loves to be righteous without compromising His justice. The cross is the answer to this problem. It demonstrates both the love of God (Romans 5:8) and His justice (Romans 3:26).
Bell is absolutely correct to suggest that the starting point of the gospel is the character of God, but in neglecting the holiness and righteousness of God he ends up with a distorted version of the story. He claims that God gets angry when people are mistreated (p.38), but he fails to clarify whether or not God also gets angry at kinds of sin that do not directly hurt other people. Sin, in biblical terms, always boils down to pride (confidence in ourselves rather than in God) and idolatry (the worship of things that are not God whether ourselves, false gods, other people, or things). Bell does seem to recognise this as the heart of sin when he talks about people acting as their own god and making the world in their own image (p.115), but he seems to think that God is dispassionate about this other than regretting the fact that we will not embrace his love, whereas the Bible speaks about God’s wrath being revealed against this kind of behaviour (Romans 1:18). Bell recognises that people are capable of sinning against others but does not identify this behaviour as a symptom of the root disease, which is their rejection of God.
This underestimating of the seriousness of sin in God’s estimation is directly related to Bell’s misunderstanding of the character of God. If God simply loves people then it is obvious that he will be angry when someone he loves is hurt, but if, as Scripture maintains, God is holy and concerned with purity and righteousness then He will be equally angry when people sin against him. Scripture consistently presents sin as first and foremost against God and only secondarily against other people – consider the account of ‘the Fall’ in Genesis 3, David’s expression of repentance in Psalm 51:4, or Paul’s description of sin progressing from a rejection of God towards actions that are harmful towards others in Romans 1. It is from God’s wrath against sin things that we need to be saved (Romans 1:18; 2:5; 3:5; 5:9), although Bell explicitly denies this when he writes that:
We do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer. This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us. (p.182)
What Happened to Wrath?
Bell seems intent on explaining away any biblical reference to the wrath of God. In Jeremiah 32:37, he writes of, “what the prophet interprets and understands to be God’s ‘anger and wrath’” (p.85), placing a question mark over the accuracy of Jeremiah’s understanding of God’s character. The implications for our view of Scripture and our understanding of inspiration (especially given that Jeremiah claims in this passage to be quoting what God has said) should be clear. In dealing with another passage where Jesus speaks about judgement (Matthew 24), Bell writes that:
Because of this history, it’s important that we don’t take Jesus’s very real and prescient warnings about judgment then out of context, making them about someday, somewhere else. That wasn’t what he was talking about. (p.81)
The history to which he is referring is the Jewish uprising of AD 66 and the Roman reprisals that followed including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Although there is a variety of opinion amongst Christian scholars over how much of Matthew 24 refers to the end times in addition to the events of that period, Bell does not mention the two verses in this chapter that can hardly be explained as a reference to the events of the first century:
At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31)
Clearly this did not happen in AD 66-70 and the only way to argue that Jesus was referring to the immediate future in these verses is to claim that He was mistaken. Bell adds in his discussion of this chapter that, “When [Jesus] warns of the ‘coming wrath,’ then, this is a very practical, political, heartfelt warning to his people to not go the way they’re intent on going” (p.81). His error in this statement is twofold. Firstly, Matthew 26 does not mention the word ‘wrath’ and even the parallel passage in Luke, which does speak of wrath (Luke 21:23), does not use the phrase “coming wrath” that Bell attributes in this context to Jesus. This phrase is, in fact, spoken not by Jesus but by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7) and so it cannot be explained away as a reference to the wrath of the Romans in AD 70 since John clearly applies it to the coming Messiah who will both baptise with fire and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11-12), meaning that He will bring both judgement and salvation. Secondly, Bell is selective in his use of Scripture. By dealing only with this passage in Matthew 26 he gives the impression that wrath is not attributed to God in Scripture, but he fails to engage with any of the passages, including those in Romans listed above and John 3:36 where wrath is described unambiguously as an attribute of God towards people.
Does God Punish People?
Given his imbalanced view of God’s character, how does Bell account for the many biblical passages that speak about God’s judgement? He attempts to show that they always speak about restoration rather than punishment. He lists numerous Old Testament prophetic utterances about God’s planned restoration of Israel as if they mean that God’s judgements are always restorative (pp.85-87). This does no justice to the part these passages play within the story of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. God made promises to Judah as she faced the exile to Babylon that he would remember his covenant promises to his people and restore them. This was part of the outworking of His plan of redemption and should not be made the basis for a belief that God never judges anyone or any nation irreversibly. Bell wrongly concludes from these promises that, “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction” (p.88). We even learn from Love Wins that Ezekiel 16 teaches that Sodom and Gomorrah have a future prospect of restoration (p.84). Once again Bell bases a radical claim on one verse (Ezekiel 16:53) wrested from its context! He claims that, “Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration” (p.84), but he is simply wrong. In reality, the figurative language in Ezekiel 16 is based around a proverb (vv.44ff.) and God is speaking about how he will shame Jerusalem by showing that its people are even more sinful and guilty than the people of Sodom. Firstly, this poetic passage cannot be taken literally to imply an actual restoration of Sodom and, secondly, it is actually a passage about the seriousness of sin and the reality of God’s judgement. In the same discussion, Bell completely misrepresents Matthew 10:15, where Jesus says “it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town”, to mean that there is hope for the cities (p.84), when in actual fact it is speaking about degrees of punishment (Jesus’ words were probably inspired by Ezekiel 16). Another passage about restorative judgement that Bell refers to is 1 Timothy 1:20, which speaks about Hymenaeus being handed over to Satan by Paul. Bell writes that:
The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention. (p.90)
We should notice the words that Bell uses as synonyms – he implies that punishment is nothing more than “letting go”, rather than an active process. The overall impression that he is trying to create is that God never finally judges anyone, and that this means that Hell cannot be final either. The case of Hymenaeus, however, does not say anything about Hell since it is about Paul’s hope for his restoration in this life, not after death! He has handed him over so that he can be taught not to blaspheme but Hymenaeus is very much alive since he crops up again in 2 Timothy 2:17 although, sadly, he has not repented and is now spreading false teaching. As regards the difference between ‘letting go’ and ‘judgement’ we may turn to Romans 1 and 2. In Romans 1 we learn that God now ‘lets mankind go’ to follow their own desires, but in chapter 2 we discover that in the future he will bring them to account in a decisive judgement based on this life. Importantly, both the ‘letting go’ now and the future judgement are expressions of His personal wrath against our sin, a concept that Bell appears to have no time for anyway. Sadly he does not consider Romans 1 and 2 in Love Wins.
How Great is God?
This distorted view of God’s character and neglect of the biblical concept of God’s wrath is important as it explains why Bell proceeds to open up the possibility of Universalism. In discussing the statement in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “wants all men to be saved”, Bell asks:
How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great. (pp.97-8)
Leaving aside the significant differences among theologians over how this verse relates to God’s saving purposes, we must take issue with Bell’s claim that God’s greatness would somehow be less if not all people are actually saved in the end. What is his basis for making this judgement? If, thinking entirely hypothetically, God were to ensure universal salvation in a way that compromised his holiness and righteousness then he would not be great at all. God’s greatness is not simply defined by his mercy, love and grace, wonderful as those are, or even by his power and glory, might and majesty, but also by his holiness, faithfulness and righteousness. The gospel must explain how a holy and loving God could pardon sinful human beings without compromising his holiness, but even in making this statement we must be careful. God’s love and holiness are never understood in Scripture as conflicting attributes or ‘sides of a coin’ but as perfectly harmonised aspects of His character. He is always both perfectly loving and perfectly true.
If Love Wins, What Loses?
The book’s title says that love wins and within the book Bell writes, “God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (p.119). The problem with this statement is that it implies that love is involved in a conflict or competition, but Bell does not specify what it is that love is victorious over. Is it victorious over a conflicting attribute of God? Does His love win out over His justice? Hardly, since Bell says nothing about His justice. Is it victorious over our resistant wills? This cannot be his meaning, since he is adamant that God’s love can be resisted and is not coercive. Or does it simply win over unspecified powers that are set against God? This lack of clarity is typical of Bell’s style of writing. Biblically speaking, both love and justice must win, for God must win and He is both love and light, full of grace and truth. Not only does Bell fail to explain what love wins over but he also fails to adequately define this ‘love’ that is victorious. The closest he comes to a definition is the statement that:
History is about the kind of love a parent has for a child, the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds. The kind of love that moves toward, embraces, and always works to be reconciled with, regardless of the cost. (p.99)
This description is appealing and it is reminiscent of much of what Scripture says about the love of God, but it falls short of the full biblical picture. Where is the sense of love rejoicing with the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6)? True love, as described in Scripture, is indeed relentless and sacrificial, but it is also discerning and honest. It is not blind. If Bell had taken time to consider a biblical definition of ‘love’ he would soon have been drawn back to a healthy harmony of grace and truth, for the two are never far removed in Scripture. So, even the title of Love Wins is confusing and unclear. It leaves us wondering what love is, what fight it wins and what loses in that fight.
Go to Bell on Heaven and Hell
 Calvinists claim that “all men” means ‘all kinds of people’, while others argue that it means all people without exception.
Go to Bell on Heaven and Hell
© 2011 Paul Coulter
This article is published on bethinking.org by the kind permission of the author.