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 views on Christ and the Cross. 

Is Jesus a Universal Force Present Equally in Every Culture?

We have already seen that Bell claims that Jesus is the only way to God (p.154, quoted above), but what does he believe about Jesus and especially about the cross? Bell says relatively little about the identity of Jesus, although we do note his implied belief that Jesus was not omniscient in the way he speaks of Jesus’ knowledge about a man he encountered: “Rich people were rare at that time, so there is good reason to believe that Jesus knew something about him and his reputation” (pp.40-41).

More startling than this is Bell’s claim that the early Christians thought of the world in terms of a life force or mystical spirit (Greek zōē), that pervades all things and is the “energy, spark, and electricity that pulses through all of creation sustains it, fuels it, and keeps it going. Growing, evolving, reproducing, making more” (p.145). Bell likens this to ‘the Force’ in Star Wars (p.144), although he later backtracks somewhat from this by claiming that the biblical notion is not quite the same as that (or the equivalents in other traditions) as it is not impersonal and indifferent to us (p.145). He claims that the poem in Genesis 1 (poem) understands the “Word of God” as this life force and that the early Christians saw Jesus as this force incarnate (p.146). This is a highly distorted reading of the biblical evidence. Far from depicting a ubiquitous ‘force’ in creation, Genesis 1 describes a personal God who existed before the universe and who creates the universe but remains distinct from it. He creates persons in his image and his words are his authoritative creative declarations.

God is never described in the Old Testament as a universal force. Although he is said to see all things and to be inescapably present everywhere (see Psalm 139) he is never said to be present in all things. Although John writes of Jesus as the ‘Word’ who became incarnate (John 1:14), he leaves his readers in no doubt that this person was with God and was God (John 1:1). This verse is an echo of Genesis 1:1 and John is clearly describing the one Creator God of the Old Testament. John’s understanding of Jesus was shaped primarily by the Old Testament rather than ideas from Greek thought. Even if the first-century Greeks conceived of a mystical spirit and called it zōē (Bell, as usual, provides no clues as to his basis for this claim so we must accept this on his authority), there is no suggestion in the New Testament that those who became followers of Christ thought of Jesus in these terms. John uses the word zōē when he speaks of the (eternal) ‘life’ that Christ gives, and this is an example of a common New Testament practice of redefining existing terms so that they had distinctively Christian meanings. Bell is in serious danger here of suggesting a kind of ‘panentheistic’ worldview in which God, although greater than the universe, pervades it so that it is part of his being. This is in radical contradiction to the biblical revelation of a personal God who is transcendent over the universe He created, separate from and independent of it, yet makes himself immanent by being involved in it and ultimately becoming incarnate within it in the person of Jesus.

Bell’s view of Jesus as the universal mystical spirit underlies his claim that:

Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures. He is for all people, and yet he refuses to be co-opted or owned by any one culture. That includes any Christian culture. Any denomination. Any church. Any theological system. We can point to him, name him, follow him, discuss him, honor him, and believe in him – but we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s. (pp.151-2)

This language is typical of pluralistic thought that refuses to see any culture as superior in any way to another, although we must remember that Bell is not claiming that all religions are ways to God since he maintains the belief that Jesus is the only Saviour. He is not claiming that there are many ways to God but that the one way is equally present in every culture and system of belief. Through all of these cultures and religions the one God is reaching all people. Notice carefully the last clause of this quotation. Bell is not simply saying that Jesus is present in some sense in all cultures but that he is present equally in all of them. This precludes us from claiming that Jesus may stand in judgement over any culture or from weighing up the degree to which a theological system is consistent with Jesus’ teaching and the gospel of Jesus Christ. This applies not only to different shades of Christian belief, but also to other cultures and, presumably, religions since “Jesus is bigger than any one religion” (p.150). The name ‘Jesus’ doesn’t matter as people can refer to this “mystery present in all of creation” by any name (p.159).

Notice also how Bell uses the Pauline phrase the “mystery of God” to refer to the claim that Jesus is already present, hidden in every culture and belief system (p.150). This is not, however, how Paul uses this word at all. The mystery of which he speaks is that God (the personal God of the Old Testament who revealed himself in a unique way to Israel) had a plan to include the Gentiles within his own special people. This plan is called a ‘mystery’ because it was once concealed but has now been revealed openly (Colossians 1:27). The mystery is that in Christ God would create a new humanity in which Jew and Gentile would be united so that through the church God would display his wisdom (Ephesians 3:1-13). For Bell, however, the church is no longer in a special relationship with Christ. Churches are only groups of people who put words to the mystery that belongs equally to everyone:

A church is a community of people who enact specific rituals and create specific experiences to keep this word alive in their own hearts, a gathering of believers who help provide language and symbols and experiences for this mystery. (p.156)

The symbols of which Bell speaks are baptism and communion, but instead of being Christ’s appointed signs of the special covenant relationship between the believing community and its Lord, they are re-cast by Bell as signs of universal salvation:

These rituals are true for us, because they’re true for everybody. They unite us, because they unite everybody. These are signs, glimpses, and tastes of what is true for all people in all places at all times – we simply name the mystery present in all the world, the gospel already announced to every creature under heaven. He holds the entire universe in his embrace. He is within and without time. He is the flesh-and-blood exposure of an eternal reality. He is the sacred power present in every dimension of creation. (pp.157-8)

There is no room here for Paul’s belief that the church is the body of Christ and that he is its head in a special way (Colossians 1:18).

On the nature of religions, Bell says that they “should not surprise us. We crave meaning and order and explanation. We’re desperate for connection with something or somebody greater than ourselves. This is not new” (p.153). We should not be surprised when people stumble upon this ‘mystery’ that is Jesus, sometimes using his name and sometimes not (pp.158-9). So religions are not, as Paul claims in Romans 1, idolatrous human substitutes for the true God, but human attempts to connect with God. Although Paul could also speak of the innate human desire to seek God (Acts 17:27-28), he would hardly have seen religions generally as harmless and inoffensive! Because Christ is found everywhere, “it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies” (p.160).

Although Christian Inclusivists and many Exclusivists would undoubtedly agree with this statement, the whole discussion within which it is set places Bell well beyond the pale of a traditional Inclusivist position. Inclusivists will claim that people can be saved by Christ on the basis of their faith response to whatever truth has been revealed to them by God, but they expect that this will set the person in opposition to those aspects of their culture that are hostile to what has been revealed about God. Bell makes no such distinction within cultures and leaves the possibility open that someone could be saved by the ‘Jesus’ (the sacred power) within their culture even by following a belief system that rejects everything that can be known by that person about God. Not only does Bell appear to leave no room for a concept of ‘special revelation’ from God in Scripture or in Christ, since these are no more revelations than the spiritual presence of Jesus in other cultures, he has reduced the concept of ‘general revelation’ to be a presence equally within all cultures and in condemnation of none rather than universally accessible truths about God that can form the basis of judgement since they leave people “without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

The gospel, then, becomes an all embracing message rather than a declaration of the Lordship and saving action of Christ that calls for a response. Bell claims that:

A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small. A gospel that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story. A gospel that repeatedly, narrowly affirms and bolsters the ‘in-ness’ of one group at the expense of the ‘out-ness’ of another group will not be true to the story that includes ‘all things and people in heaven and on earth’. (p.135)

Although we may agree that the gospel if often made into something smaller than it really is and that the gospel is not the assertion of the ‘in-ness’ of those who proclaim it but the invitation to others to believe it, Bell is surely wrong to infer that the gospel does not make a distinction between those who are in and out. We can agree with Bell that we are not qualified to decide definitively who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ but surely the gospel when proclaimed becomes a call to respond to God’s call to repent and believe in Him, acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord. Such a call must distinguish between those who accept it and reject it. As mentioned above, Paul, who most commonly uses the word ‘gospel’ to describe his message about Jesus, constantly speaks about those who are ‘in Christ’ and Jesus often spoke about the Kingdom of God in terms of being inside or outside. Although we may not know decisively who belongs to God, God most certainly does know (2 Timothy 2:19). It is one thing to confess with humility that we cannot make bold pronouncements about the eternal destiny of others but it is another thing entirely to suggest, as Bell does, that there is in reality no distinction between ‘in’ and ‘out’. Furthermore, the New Testament consistently holds out the possibility that we can know and be assured that we are in Christ and that we belong to God. John wrote his gospel so that people would believe and have life (John 20:31) and his first epistle is concerned with helping believers know that they genuinely know God.

Bell’s ‘scriptural basis’ for his belief in the universal presence of Christ in all cultures comes from 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul speaks about the things that happened to Israel as “examples” and “warnings” for us of the reality of God’s judgement (verse 11). Bell lifts one concept from this chapter, the fact that Paul says of the rock that Moses struck to provide water for Israel in the desert, “that rock was Christ” (verse 4). This phrase is the inspiration for Bell’s chapter title There are Rocks Everywhere (Chapter 6).From this phrase Bell constructs his theory that there are clues within other cultures and religions on a par with this image within the history of Israel (p.143). Bell writes, “Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere” (p.144). The problem with this use of 1 Corinthians 10 is that Bell apparently sees no difference between the history of Israel as God’s chosen people through whom his plan of salvation, centred on Christ, would work out, and every other nation and culture on earth. He fails to recognise that Israel received a special revelation from God, consisting of words that explained the events of their history (see Romans 9:4-5), as opposed to simply the kind of general and non-specific revelation that all peoples have.

Paul’s intention in 1 Corinthians 10 is to emphasise an aspect of the continuity of Christians with Israel as God’s people and to warn us from the ways in which they went wrong as well as showing us that Christ was the fulfilment of their hopes, the one who provided for them and the ultimate basis for their redemption, just as he is for us. Bell misses the point entirely by seeing Paul’s words about the rock as a pointer to God’s redemptive presence in all cultures and religions.

What About the Cross?

Given Bell’s Christology (his beliefs about Jesus) it is not surprising that his view of the significance of the cross is unclear, although we should add that his brief comments on the resurrection are generally good (pp.129ff.). He mentions different images of the atonement found in the New Testament, including the idea of the end of the sacrificial system found in Hebrews (although it is, as we shall see, significant that he sees it as the end rather than fulfilment of this system), reconciliation, the guilty being set free (which is how he defines ‘justification’), victory, and redemption, and asserts that all are true (p.127). We can agree with Bell that all of these images, properly understood, are aspects of what Christ achieved on the cross, however, we must take issue with Bell’s view that they are simply human attempts to explain what the cross accomplished:

For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audience in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with, and then they essentially said: What happened on the cross is like ... (pp.127-8)

This way of speaking raises important questions about his view of Scripture which will be considered below. Were the words used by the New Testament writers only human attempts to express an inexpressible truth or were they God given words to describe what he had done? We might also question whether these word pictures are only metaphors for what happened at the cross as opposed to various facets of what God actually did. Perhaps we should understand them, instead, as God’s solution to the various real spiritual problems that together constitute sin and its consequences.

We should also notice that Bell’s list does not include the ‘penal substitution’ theory of the atonement. This is the belief, based especially on Romans 3:21-26, that Christ bore God’s wrath against our sin when he died in our place as a substitute.[1] Although Bell does not explicitly reject this explanation of the cross, it is obviously incompatible with his view of God’s character since his God has no wrath to be appeased! Another image of the cross that Bell appears to dislikes is that of sacrifice. Speaking of animal sacrifices he writes, “Just the thought of such practices and rituals is repulsive. So primitive and barbaric. Not to mention unnecessary. It doesn’t even cross our minds to sacrifice animals” (p.123). Aside from the fact that this statement reflects Bell’s own cultural bias (many people in other cultures would not find the idea at all barbaric), the implication is clearly that animal sacrifice cannot have been instituted by God. In fact, Bell sees it as a human idea based on a theory of capricious gods who needed to be appeased (pp.123-5). The problems this poses for large swathes of the Old Testament are obvious. The language of Hebrews, which speaks of Jesus’ death as the fulfilment of the Old Testament patterns of sacrifices, is reinterpreted by Bell to mean that Jesus put an end to the barbaric practice of animal sacrifice. Although Bell does not spell out exactly what he means, the implication appears to be that Jesus revealed the Old Testament system to have been wrong as opposed to seeing Jesus’ death as the necessary fulfilment of a God-given system that sets the pattern for understanding the significance of Jesus’ death.[2]

Go to Bell on the necessity of repentance and faith


[1] That the “sacrifice of atonement” in Romans 3:25 has to do with the aversion of God’s wrath is clear both from the Old Testament background to the term and from the context in Romans, since God’s wrath has already been established as the problem which the cross must deal with (Romans 1:18).
[2] The way Bell writes in this chapter is highly reminiscent of the theory of ‘expressive experientialism’ that originated with Friedrich Schleiermacher and is commonplace in liberal Protestant theology. This theory says that doctrinal beliefs are the words that believers put to the experiences they have. Bell seems to think that biblical words (including the name ‘Jesus’ and descriptions of the atonement) and practices (baptism and communion) are little more than human labels for an experience of the universal spirit. The same appears to be true of the Old Testament passages that base the practice of animal sacrifice on commands from God. All religions are, then, equally valid ways of expressing this reality.

Go to Bell on the necessity of repentance and faith

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