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 use of Scripture.

Isn’t the Question Behind the Questions the Authority of Scripture?

Although most of the reaction to Love Wins has focused on questions about Bell’s view of Hell and who, if anyone, ends up there, I am convinced that there is a deeper problem with the book surrounding Bell’s use of Scripture. We might ask whether Bell’s lack of clarity about these doctrinal issues arises from a lack of clarity in the Bible, from a belief on Bell’s part that clarity itself is undesirable, or from a lack of conviction about the authority of the Bible. If it is the latter then the real problem surrounding doctrinal positions on Hell and salvation is that there is no common ground of authority on which to attempt to settle the questions. Bell does not directly comment on his views about Scripture in Love Wins and so we must approach our discussion with caution and avoid making conclusive judgements about what he believes. We have already noted problems with Bell’s approach to numerous specific passages above as well as the question over his view of the Old Testament that arises from the way he speaks about the sacrificial system and the general question of how he conceives of inspiration given the way he speaks about the images of the atonement in the New Testament. In this section we will ask what view of the authority of Scripture Bell holds before commenting on what is missing from Bell’s consideration of Scripture. Finally we will say something further about his tendency to use multiple questions and avoid answers.

What Authority Does Scripture Have?

The repeated quotations from Scripture throughout Love Wins and the way in which Bell uses them suggest that he expects his readers to have a high regard for the authority of Scripture and that he regards it as true. That he thinks his arguments will stand and fall on the basis of Scripture is also implied in his lengthy attempts to justify his understanding of certain Greek words. Of course this approach may arise from a conviction on Bell’s own part that Scripture is true and authoritative but it could equally arise from a recognition that he will not win over evangelicals without providing some kind of scriptural support for his position. We are not in a position to make a definitive judgement about this since Bell does not spell out his view of Scripture, but there is a rather strange statement in the preface of the book that raises a significant question over how he really understands Scripture’s authority (p.x):

The ancient sages said that the words of the sacred text were black letters on a white page – there’s all that white space, waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and debates and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights. We read the words, and then enter into the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years across cultures and continents.

The “sacred text” can only mean the Bible since Bell refers to no other text and the term ‘scripture’ means something akin to sacred writing. There are a number of problems with this statement. Firstly, who are these “ancient sages”? What did they believe about God? Why should we take their ideas seriously? What exactly did they say? In keeping with Bell’s avoidance of referencing throughout the book we are left without answers to these questions. I suspect, given Bell’s regard for Jewish rabbinical traditions,[1] that he is speaking about Jewish Rabbis, but in the absence of any sources I cannot be certain. One thing we can be certain about, however, is that they are not the writers of the biblical books. Nowhere in the Bible is there any statement that even approximates what Bell says here or that suggests that his approach is correct, and this leads us to the second major problem with the statement, which is what it says about the authority of the text. Here we must tread carefully, since Rob Bell himself does not develop or explain the statement further. We must, however, say that this quotation suggests that our reflections upon Scripture are in some way as important as what the text actually says. Are our thoughts and wisdom on a par with the text? Do we add to God’s truth? Is it authoritative over our interpretations? Is it a final revelation that judges our opinions, or have there been new revelations since it? Given what Bell says about the presence of Christ equally in all cultures can the Bible even be thought of as a special kind of revelation from God? Is it the inspired word of God or the words of men or a mixture of the two so that we must sift out the wheat from the chaff?

Although I accept Bell’s point that people have always developed their interpretations of Scripture and that we continue to do so, it is vital to emphasise that our interpretation is never binding in the way the text is, that the meaning of the text, correctly understood, must judge, correct and shape our beliefs and that the canon of Scripture as we have it was God’s complete and final verbal revelation, although the person of Jesus Christ to whom it bears witness is the ultimate and perfect revelation of God. Bell’s misuses of Scripture in Love Wins are, as we have seen, numerous. In fact it would be much easier to mention the parts of Scripture that he uses appropriately. In general he interacts well with the account of the rich young man in Matthew 19 (pp.26ff.) and despite his misunderstanding, as we have seen, of the ‘parable of the lost son’ in Luke 15 as a story about heaven and hell, much of his extended consideration of it is helpful (pp.164ff.).[2] It is worth noting that both of these passages come from the Gospels, and indeed from two of the three ‘synoptic Gospels’. These seem to be Bell’s favourite part of Scripture. As we have seen, he frequently ignores passages that do not suit his theological position. We cannot say whether Bell is ignorant of the existence of these verses, although this seems unlikely given his training as a pastor, or whether he simply chooses to ignore them because they do not suit his theology, or whether he sees the epistles as of a secondary level of authority by comparison with the words of Jesus. We are not at liberty to be selective in our reading of Scripture, to discount any part of it as merely human opinion rather than the inspired word of God or to take parts of it out of context to bolster an argument that suits our preconceived ideas. Whilst we all read Scripture through the lenses of our prior interpretations and theological systems, the key question is whether we come to it with confidence in its authority and in submission to it, desiring that our preconceptions should be challenged and, where necessary, corrected. I hope that Bell reads Scripture in this way, but, as we have already seen and shall see again below, the way in which he handles the text raises serious doubts in my mind.

Returning to Bell’s comments on the New Testament authors’ descriptions of the significance of the cross (see the discussion above) we note that he writes, “What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand” (p.129). Although we must surely accept that the New Testament contains a number of different ways of explaining the cross and that the words used are indeed derived from the world they inhabited (from the court room, the slave market, the temple), we must not deduce from this fact that they are nothing more than ‘pictures’ or ‘metaphors’. In fact, the New Testament writers never use the words “is like” about the cross – they write in terms that suggest that what they are describing actually corresponds to reality – the cross really did do these things. Although I do not expect that we will ever fully plumb the depths of the cross, at least in this life, and I do not claim that the New Testament descriptions exhaust its significance, I am uncomfortable with reducing them to being only “examples” in the absence of a basis in the text for this. The risk is that we feel free to replace them with examples from our own culture, which may in fact bear little connection to the reality, or that we find flaws in the example chosen based on our own judgement, since every metaphor has its limits. More importantly, the way that Bell describes the process by which the New Testament authors, and notice that he simply calls them “first Christians” rather than ‘apostles’ (even this language diminishes the authority of their writings), decided upon what they would write raises questions about exactly what it means to say that their words were God-given or God-breathed. Were these men guided by God in the process of choosing these words? Are their words to be received as the words of God? Could they have been mistaken in some of the words they used? Again we cannot determine what Rob Bell would say to such questions from what he writes in Love Wins, but we must express our concern that if he does believe in the inspiration of the New Testament epistles he has left serious room for confusion among his readers. Another example is found in how he speaks about Revelation, which he calls, “a complex, enigmatic letter from a pastor named John” (p.111). He says that, “at the heart of the letter he paints a picture for them” (p.112), yet the pictures in the book are not presented as the composition of John but a faithful record of what was revealed to him by Jesus (Revelation 1:1-3). We must ask whether Revelation is what it claims to be, a record of visions given by Christ, or in fact a carefully constructed letter written by John to describe his own understanding of spiritual realities.

The Bible’s Grand Story?

We have already seen that Rob Bell acknowledges that there is a grand story of God that explains all of creation and in which we must see our individual stories (p.134). We must assume that Bell believes that the Bible in some way bears witness to this story. This seems to be a fair deduction from his frequent use of the Bible and from his reference to the “story of the Bible” on page 43. As we have seen, however, his use of Scripture is highly selective. He frequently distorts the meaning of passages and words to suit his own ideas and he entirely ignores many of the passages that are most problematic for his perspective. Furthermore, in response to the imagined suggestion that reading “the story”, which is evidently a euphemism for the Bible since he proceeds to quoted extensively from it, will help to rescue us from “abstract theological discussions that can tie us up in knots for years” (p.12), Bell proceeds not to outline the grand story of the Bible but to quote selectively and without reference to the context from numerous smaller stories within the Bible in a way that implies that they are contradictory and confused (pp.12-18). In addition to numerous references from the Gospels and Acts he throws in three quotations about salvation from Paul’s epistles and one quotation from James that speaks about demons believing. One of the Pauline passages that he quotes is Romans 11:26, which reads, “And in this way all Israel will be saved”. Bell mentions this verse as if it implies that salvation depends on “the tribe, or family, or ethnic group you’re born into” (p.17). I know of no biblical commentator who suggests that Paul means anything of the sort in that verse. The two dominant schools of interpretation of the verse, which is part of a lengthy discussion of God’s purposes for Israel in light of his inclusion of the Gentiles in His people and the rejection of the gospel by many Jews, are either that “all Israel” refers to all those who will be saved (i.e. the Gentiles are now part of Israel too) or that the verse refers to a future ingathering of national Israel. In no sense does the verse imply that only national Israel will be saved, and in fact Paul vehemently argues against this way of thinking in both Romans and Galatians!

Whether or not Bell intended to do so, the impression that he leaves is that the New Testament is hopelessly tangled and cannot be understood to give a clear understanding of what is required salvation. The examples that he chooses from narrative portions of the New Testament are misleading because he repeatedly ignores the fact that it is possible for the writer to describe the response a person makes to Jesus or how they come to encounter Him without using the words ‘faith’ or ‘believe’ but without implying that the person had no faith. This kind of argument from silence is not convincing and the approach ignores the importance of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture so that clear passages cast light on unclear ones and direct statements of God’s intention or will are taken as normative where narrative accounts are read as descriptive.[3] Hence if the writer to Hebrews writes under divine inspiration that it is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6) then we must accept that faith was present on the part of those who were accepted by Him even if the word is not used. These accounts may help us to understand what biblical faith is, including the fact that it is never only about intellectual assent to the truth of propositions but always includes trusting in God and obedience to what He commands, and what it is necessary to believe about God in order to be accepted by Him. They cannot, however, be forced to bear the weight of explaining definitively what a person must do to be saved. So, we are left with the questions of what exactly Bell understands God’s story to be and of where he derives his version of God’s story from. If it is from Scripture, how does he derive it from Scripture if he thinks it is so confused, and if not then what is his source? Does he believe that some parts of Scripture bear faithful witness to God and His story while others don’t, and, if that is the case, on what basis does he decide which parts to accept and which to reject? It is impossible to say how Bell would answer these questions, but I maintain that they are raised directly by the way he used Scripture in Love Wins.

We may add to this concern about where Bell’s version of God’s story comes from that there are some major themes in Scripture that do not appear at all in Love Wins. For example, the idea of God’s covenant promises that form a covenant people who are his in a special way (Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New), are missing from Bell’s analysis altogether. Likewise, he does not mention the Kingdom of God, or the sovereign rule of God, at all. Nor does he write of God as one who speaks and communicates His word clearly to people. Yet these three ideas – covenant, Kingdom and Word – must surely be at the top of a list of key concepts in Scripture that hold together God’s story as revealed in it. The God of the Bible speaks. He speaks creation into being, He commands obedience, He pronounces judgement, He makes promises, He gives laws, and He calls for faithfulness. The Word of God became incarnate in Jesus and called people to repentance and faith in Himself. The gospel word proclaims this Jesus as Lord and calls all who hear to recognise His Lordship and to end their rebellion against Him. The Lordship of Christ is an essential consequence of the fact that the God of the Bible is sovereign over all creation and is working out His purpose to bring all things back into a proper relationship to His sovereign rule as exercised through Jesus. This God who is sovereign and who speaks works out His purposes for mankind through covenants by which He commits Himself to His people and assures them of his future plans for them. These covenants provoke us to a response of faith, since faith can only be exercised in response to truth that God has revealed. These are all essential parts of the grand story of God and yet they are entirely absent from Love Wins. Bell has focused on one aspect of God, a vital one indeed, namely His love and has constructed a uni-dimensional version of ‘God’s story’ that excludes other essential aspects of God’s character. Whatever Bell’s view of Scripture, his telling of God’s story is in no sense a faithful retelling of the story of God that the Bible tells.

Questions, Not Answers

Before leaving the issue of Bell’s use of Scripture it is worth making a further comment on his tendency to raise questions rather than to provide answers and to generate uncertainty rather than encouraging confidence. Although this is a general feature of the book I mention it here because this style raises a fundamental question that is pertinent to what we believe about Scripture, namely whether it is possible to have certainty in what we believe. This preponderance of questions is, of course, a familiar trend in writings from within the so-called ‘emergent church’ movement. I am in some sympathy with part of this trend since there has, in my estimation, been an unhelpful tendency in some Christian traditions to demand certainty about every aspect of belief and life to a degree that questioning is discouraged or even, in practice if not by design, forbidden. This approach to Christian faith does not do justice to the biblical testimony to people who questioned God. We might consider Job, Habakkuk and many of the Psalms in the Old Testament or Thomas in the New. There is a rich understanding in Scripture that faith does not preclude questions and that the opposite of faith is not doubt but disbelief. Questions are accepted by God, even encouraged by Him, but the key question is whether the heart is oriented towards God or away from Him and whether or not the questioner is genuinely interested in discovering truth. Bell refers to the importance of discussion with reference to biblical examples like those I have listed (p. ix), but he seems to think that these examples show that the discussion is the goal rather than the means to an end. He seems to delight in the idea of an “ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity” (p.xi) but he fails to point out anything but the bare minimum of truth that is beyond discussion, clear rather than complex and united rather than diverse.

Bell sees his endeavour as following in the legacy of Jesus, who answered questions frequently with a question (p.x). In drawing this parallel he makes two mistakes. Firstly, he misses the fact that Jesus’ questions were based on His knowledge of the hearts and unspoken thoughts of individuals and were chosen carefully to steer them towards greater truth. He often followed them with a parable which challenged the person’s thought and with a direct challenge at the end that was not framed as a question (consider the encounter with the expert in the law in Luke 10:25-37 for example). Secondly, he misses the fact that although the Lord frequently used questions and spoke enigmatically and poetically (often using parables) to outsiders, he spoke plainly to his disciples in private (Mark 4:34) and he made some very bold direct statements in public too. The New Testament epistles also make many bold truth claims. Bell clearly intends to be provocative (for example in his throw away reference to “the woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews”, p.10), but where Jesus and the apostles were provocative in order to challenge people out of ignorance and complacency and towards a greater grasp of truth, Bell simply shakes us and leaves us shaken without pointing to any firm foundation on which we may settle. Doubts and questions are good so long as we seek God for the answers and submit ourselves to His truth as revealed by Him. When they lead us away from Him or when we become the judges of God’s revealed truth rather than allowing it to judge us then doubt is a harmful thing.

Scripture bears testimony to truth that can be trusted. It claims that it is possible to know God and to know those truths about God and the world that He has revealed to us as well as to have assurance in what we believe (this is the central purpose of 1 John – to help the reader know that they have eternal life). Bell’s style of writing appears to imply that there is relatively little that we can know with certainty. I accept that there are many things that we cannot know since God has not revealed them us and I maintain that there are secondary issues of Christian belief on which Christians are divided, which must mean that Scripture is not unambiguous on these matters.[4] There is, however, a core of truth that is crystal clear in Scripture and in which we are called to trust and to guard (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Timothy 1:14; Jude 3). These are the things of “first importance” that have been handed on from the Lord to the apostles and from them to us (1 Corinthians 15:3ff.). It is this health-promoting truth that Christian teachers must teach (Titus 2:1). I am convinced that this core includes a number of matters over which Bell appears to be less than clear, notably the character of God, the person of Christ, the significance of the cross, the reality of God’s wrath and the certainty of a final day of judgement. On all of these matters Scripture says much and we must submit ourselves to its authority to shape our understanding by what it says.

Go to Conclusions


[1] This regard is more evident in his earlier book Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005)
[2] He acknowledges indirectly his indebtedness to Tim Keller for some of his insights by listing The Prodigal God in the list of Further Reading on p.201.
[3] The so-called ‘analogy of faith’
[4] By this I do not mean that it is wrong to have a view on them or even that it is impossible to discern a ‘biblical’ position on them but merely that they are not as clear from Scripture as the core of the gospel.

Go to Conclusions

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