If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Rob Bell

Paul Coulter concludes his review of Rob Bell's book Love Wins.

Our survey of Love Wins has identified a number of key problems. The book is poorly presented both in terms of its lack of clarity and its failure to acknowledge its sources. It models a use of Scripture that can only be described as lamentable, with numerous misquotations, selective references and distortions. As a result it proposes positions on Hell, the person of Christ, the cross, the scope of salvation and the requirement for repentance and faith that cannot be sustained by the whole testimony of the New Testament. All of this appears to arise from a questionable view of the authority of the Bible and a skewed understanding of God’s character that emphasises his love at the expense of his holiness, sovereignty and truth. I struggle to escape the conclusion that Bell does not accept Scripture as a truthful and authoritative revelation from God although I cannot reach a definitive judgement on this given the fact that he does not discuss his views more fully. I also struggle to recognise the one dimensional picture he paints of God as the one true God revealed in Scripture. In bringing our discussion of Bell’s theology in Love Wins to a conclusion, let’s consider the picture he paints of God, Jesus and the Bible.

The ‘God’ of Love Wins is all love, would not condemn anyone and is angry at social injustice but has no wrath against the idolatry and love of self that are the root of sin. God’s love is so relentless that God could not ever close the gates of Heaven and, since love demands freedom to reject it, God is prepared to allow people to continue theoretically forever as their own gods, ruling their own independent kingdoms in isolation from God. That is what Hell is for Bell – the consequence of rejecting God, an entirely self-inflicted experience of loss and distress but one that can have purgatorial consequences. There is no fixed line between Heaven and Hell either, for there are purgatorial flames in Heaven too. After all, transformation of the character takes time, and what has not been completed at the point of death will take time to be completed after this life. Heaven, as envisaged in the New Testament, is not necessarily final, either, it is one new beginning in a series of new beginnings. This ‘God’ accepts us entirely on our own terms and in our own time. He sets no limits, demands nothing and will tolerate rivals indefinitely. Bell goes way beyond a hope that Hell will be empty, or at least as sparsely populated as possible, to embrace a view that excludes any concept of God’s final judgement. There is no hint of a climactic future Day when Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. This is the area where it is most difficult to see how Bell can insist that he belongs within Christian orthodoxy since the Nicene Creed, which is often accepted as a measure of broad orthodoxy, affirms that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”.

The ‘Jesus’ of Love Wins is a universal spirit who is present in and accessible to every culture, religion and belief system. He is the only Saviour, but he is saving everyone and he can be known by a multitude of names – he is great enough to bear them all. Signs of him are present in every culture in the same way that they were present in the Hebrew writings of the Old Testament. He is not related to Christians or the Church in any special way – they are just a group of people who happen to name him as ‘Jesus’ and who provide their own culturally-conditioned language for the mystery. His death was the ultimate transformative event in human history, but it is a mystery that words cannot express fully and the New Testament images of it were only the attempts of human beings to find images to capture something of its significance. One theory of the atonement that is notably absent is any suggestion of Jesus taking our place and bearing the wrath and judgement of God against our sin (penal substitution). How could this theory have any meaning if God’s wrath is not set against sinners and He does not judge?

The ‘Bible’ of Love Wins is a collection of human words about God, pictures painted by people who struggled to express what they knew about Him. It is a sacred text, but our interpretations and questions, ideas and theories can be, even must be, added to the text. It tells a grand story of God’s love and His purpose of making a new creation but it also contains ideas, which the writers attribute to God, that are frankly barbaric and abhorrent (animal sacrifices, yuck!) It also contains human impressions and explanations for what they saw, like prophets who wrongly thought that the all-loving God was expressing wrath! This Bible does not appear to be the revelation of God given in words. It does bear witness in some sense to the grand story of God, but it spoils that story through details, presumably arising from human misconceptions, that are quite unpalatable and fall short of the true greatness of God.

In all of this, Bell is typical of a number of Christian writers at the present time, generally identified as the ‘emergent’ part of the ‘emerging church’ conversation, who are engaged in a process of deconstructing aspects of Christian, and especially evangelical, theology but who have little to offer by way of constructing a positive alternative. As inferred in the introduction to this review, I believe that deconstruction can be helpful and that re-construction may not be desirable or even possible in some areas of theology where certainty had been demanded in the past, but the impression that Love Wins leaves is that virtually nothing can be constructed other than a very basic belief that God loves us and will do whatever is necessary for as long as possible to get as many of us as possible together with him. At many points in reading Love Wins I found myself in agreement with Bell as he engaged in the process of deconstruction but I was frustrated at his lack of attempt to then bring the reader back to a more faithful understanding of the gospel. I had no sense at all that he sees his task as being a faithful teacher of sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), a custodian of the pattern of sound teaching passed on from the apostles (2 Timothy 1:13-14), a builder on the foundation of the revelation received by the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20, 3:2-6), a workman who is committed to handling the word of truth correctly (2 Timothy 2:15), or a contender for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). I am not even sure that this kind of language would fit with Bell’s general approach to theology, yet every one of these images is found in the New Testament, notably in the later books that were written in the years when the apostles who had known Jesus during his life on earth and had received the gospel directly from Him were disappearing from the scene.

I applaud Bell’s desire to provoke thought, to deconstruct limited and potentially distorted understandings of the gospel, and to make the heart of God’s plan for mankind clear to a generation who struggle with much of the language that has been commonplace amongst Christians. I also welcome his desire to open up discussion about important questions such as the scope of salvation and the nature of Hell on which consensus has not been reached by the Christian tradition but about which people sometimes speak in a way that implies that their view is the only Christian view. I fear, however, that in his desire to do all of these things he has lost sight of the reality that there is a body of faith that was revealed by God to the apostles, recorded in their writings and entrusted to subsequent generations. More worryingly, he appears to have come to a distorted understanding of God’s character and purposes which leads to a gospel that does not cohere with the New Testament witness. This is the kindest way I can find of saying that I believe that Bell is, ultimately, teaching a different gospel from the apostolic gospel. I say this not because he hopes that the majority of people, perhaps all, will be saved nor because he wants to discuss alternative ways of understanding Hell and Heaven, but because he does not appear to see Scripture as the authoritative, God-breathed account of the gospel. Fundamentally, the views Bell presents in Love Wins appear to begin with a one-sided view of God and then to extrapolate from that on the basis of logical deduction, highlighting parts of Scripture that appear to fit his theory, twisting others to force them to fit and ignoring those that cannot fit. The task of Christian teachers is to understand and to proclaim the gospel revealed by God in ways that connect to our culture. Bell reverses the process by beginning with a culturally-acceptable view of ‘God’ and constructing a ‘gospel’ that fits this image. He is not the only person to have done this, and we must all accept that our understanding of God is often limited by our culture and in constant need of clarification and correction, but if Scripture is not seen as the authoritative and trustworthy guide that can correct us and teach us (2 Timothy 3:16) then there is no hope of ever knowing whether our perception is becoming more authentic or less so.

Taking a charitable perspective we may see Bell as a man who cares deeply about Jesus and believes firmly that he alone is the Saviour, who is so impressed by the expansiveness of God’s love that he cannot conceive of anyone rejecting it, who is frustrated that a Restrictivist view of salvation and a view of Hell as eternal torment is presented by some as the only acceptable Christian view, and who is frustrated by the insensitivity and arrogance of some proponents of Restrictivism. I, for one, admire Bell’s hope that all might one day be saved and am challenged by this book to ask whether I long for that as much as I ought to or if I am driven sufficiently to a commitment to proclaim the gospel of Christ. Unlike Bell, however, but like the apostle Paul (as he explains the gospel in Romans) I am convinced that the gospel is only good news if it includes an honest explanation of the nature of the heart of sin, which is human pride and idolatry, and a warning of the reality of God’s righteous wrath and coming judgement which results in the eternal condemnation of those who do not repent. Unless people understand this they cannot repent and believe the gospel and the cross of Christ makes no sense. This does not mean that the gospel I proclaim will be primarily about Hell and judgement or even that I will state these truths up front every time I share it, but that I will not deny, hide or attempt to ameliorate or apologise for them. Rather I will proclaim the hope that is in Christ Jesus alone because without Him there is no hope and I will call those who hear to repent and believe because the time is short and the day of judgement is coming. As I do this I hope that my ongoing understanding of the gospel and knowledge of Christ will be increasingly shaped by the revelation of God to mankind that is contained within the Scriptures he gave us.

Fundamentally I am concerned that Rob Bell seems to think that his job as a Christian teacher has been fulfilled when he deconstructs views he disagrees with and unsettles the faith of his reader to the degree that they are left with more questions than answers even about central issues on which the Bible has much to say. A Christian teacher is, I maintain, called to bring their hearers (or readers) to a greater faith in Christ and a sounder understanding of the faith. They must “teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1) and this is what distinguishes them from false teachers. I hope and pray that those who read Love Wins will not be led astray by the wrong ideas contained within it but that they might, like the people in Berea when they heard Paul, search the Scriptures to see if what it says is true (Acts 17:11). I also hope that Bell will overcome his reaction against the potentially unhelpful expressions of Christian faith he encountered in his childhood and return to a more biblically grounded understanding of the gospel. He is a man of significant influence and I pray that His influence will be used to lead people towards a greater confidence in Christ and the gospel rather than continuing to provoke them to uncertainty and doubt. Likewise, I hope that those who respect his influence will not be driven by the premature negative reactions of some to the book towards an unquestioning acceptance of what Bell says. Rather, I hope that we all might grow together towards “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

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