Review by Andrew Jackson
QUESTIONING LOVE WINS
Part One: Rob Bell
My review series of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins will address questions. Part One: Rob Bell is organized around five questions (1) Why did Bell write Love Wins? (2) Does James 3:1 apply to Bell? (3) Is Bell teaching anything new? (4) Is Bell a victim? and (5) Is it wrong for Bell to question historic theological teaching?
I confess that nothing Rob Bell has said or done has caught my attention as anything special. I haven’t read Bell’s Velvet Elvis or Sex God, and I don’t plan too. I assume that he’s a creative communicator that attracts and appeals to a specific, seemingly younger and artistic, stream within the Church.
The first time I heard Rob Bell speak, or even knew what he looked like, was during Martin Bashir’s recent interview concerning Bell’s book Love Wins. This interview did catch my attention, not because Bell impressed me, but because he was rather disappointing. I guess I was expecting a seasoned explanation of a book with a sizzling title of theological intrigue. When the subtitle includes the phrase, “The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” one does expect some depth of thinking.
I came away saying, “where’s the meat?” Maybe, I assumed too much. It’s not that Bell can’t talk, he’s a talker, but what he said lacked coherent theological sense to me. Maybe I’m a novice to the new language of Christian postmodern communication. I didn’t see how any thinking listener, Christian or not, could have been stimulated or drawn to what he had to say.
Following Bashir’s interview, knowing that Bell looked liked a fish out of water, his defenders went on the offensive with blog posts psychoanalyzing the devious questioner, a Christian by the way. They seem to parse each of Bashir’s questions with distain. As a Christian teacher, author, and pastoral leader for almost thirty years, my concern is Bell’s book, not Bashir’s interviewing style. This is one thing I do know. After that interview, Bell knows that he is now playing in the big leagues, and that he isn’t the only one who can ask challenging questions.
My book review series is not, however, about Rob Bell. I don’t want it to be seen as a personal attack in anyway. I’m sure he is a great guy who loves God. My review will address the content and implications of his book Love Wins, and nothing more. I realize that there are several other book reviews out there, but I decided to add my voice to the conversation through a review series. I hope you will find it helpful and instructive.
1 – Why did Bell write Love Wins?
What motivated Bell to write Love Wins?
Bell tells us in the book’s preface that Jesus’s story has been hijacked, and that he’s going to reclaim it (Preface vii-viii). That’s a bold claim. It always makes me nervous when Christian leaders assume they have the inside track to Jesus’ real message. What is “Jesus’s story” that Bell is trying to reclaim? In the first page of Love Wins, he tells us, “I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” (Preface vii).
Is this the message that has been hijacked by wayward Christians? It seems to me that Bell’s statement is a paraphrase of John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” However, I need to provide clarification. In Love Wins, Bell embraces the first phrase, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” but he redefines the second phrase, “if a person believes in Jesus they’ll experience eternal life, and those that don’t will perish in hell.” It is this second phrase that distorts the nature of God as love according to Bell. The back cover of Love Wins sums up the book rather well, “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In hell. Huh?”
Love Wins dismisses Christians that assert that Gandhi is in hell. Bell believes this is a message that distorts Gods love (page 1). This is why Bell opens his book with several leading questions, “Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” (page 2).
Who hijacked Jesus’s story? Bell doesn’t tell us. It’s left a mystery. No, names. No, book titles. No, nothing. We only conclude there are mysterious Jesus hijackers roaming the earth. What made Bell, and apparently millions of other people, “acutely aware” that Jesus’s story was hijacked? Again, Bell doesn’t tell us. He assumes his generalized statements are acceptable. He doesn’t need to provide any supporting clarification.
I get that Bell doesn’t like the “turn or burn” message. Most of us don’t. Yes, there are Christians who specialize in it, but from my perspective, this has more to do with these people, than God’s love and justice. For Bell, however, the normative teaching of hell is a theological obstacle for people, especially hurting people, from receiving the liberating love of God. So, in Love Wins, Bell redefines hell, or if you like, tells us another story about hell, and how those that find themselves there still have hope in God’s saving love.
In Bell’s interview with Lisa Miller of Newsweek, he said, “I never set out to be controversial. My interest is in what’s true.” Although I’m not naive enough to believe Bell was unaware that Love Wins would be a very controversial book, it’s good to hear that his primary interest is in what’s biblically true. We all need to continue to pursue God’s truth, and I pray that Bell continues to listen and learn.
2 – Does James 3:1 apply to Bell?
In Love Wins, Bell denies that he is a biblical scholar or theologian. So, is he telling us that James 3:1 does not apply to him? It reads, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Bell might not be a biblical scholar or theologian, but he is a lead pastor at a mega-church, with approximately 10,000 people attending. At the final judgment, God will hold all Christian leaders, including Rob Bell, accountable for our preaching and teaching, and that includes Love Wins.
Some reviews and comments that I’ve read state that Love Wins is not a detailed exegesis or a systematic theology, and that it shouldn’t be evaluated as such. It has also been said that Bell’s writing is poetic and artistic that includes images, metaphors, story, narrative, and ideas, and that it can’t be analyzed biblically or theologically through reason or a historical-grammatical method of Bible interpretation.
These are empty arguments and a diversion from the facts. Let’s get real. Bell is a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Love Wins was not written by a junior high teacher. Throughout Love Wins, Bell’s goal is to communicate a message backed up by numerous theological statements about God, Jesus, heaven, hell, and ultimately about the nature and process of eternal salvation. He also quotes and interprets many Bible passages. The fact that it is not written as a systematic theology does not give Bell the freedom to say whatever he wants to say, whether it is through the genre of poetry, images, or metaphors. The Bible itself contains a diversity of genre, including lots of theological poetry and apocalyptic images.
3 – Is Bell teaching anything new?
Love Wins begins with Bell’s disclaimer that he’s not teaching anything new. He writes, “Please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s said an untold number to times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith, it’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences” (Preface x).
Here, Bell makes another general statement without the slightest hint of any support for what he is saying. No, names. No, book titles. No, footnotes. “Just believe me,” is what he seems to be saying. His only attempt is the vague mention of a few early Church fathers later in the book.
I agree that the historical river of Christian orthodoxy is wide and diverse, but it has discernible banks that keep it from becoming a chaotic and destructive flood. For the last 2000 years, Christian leaders and teachers have talked about, and proposed, numerous thoughts on every theological doctrine. However, Bell’s statement doesn’t provide him the freedom for free-for-all and open-ended theologizing. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, dismiss other Christian leaders from evaluating the content and implications of Love Wins. Bell’s book is being read throughout the greater evangelical Church, and he’s not exempt for what he says.
From my perspective, Ben Witherington accurately addresses Bell’s disclaimer. He writes, “This is actually not quite accurate, if one is referring to creedal or confessional or conciliar orthodoxy. If one means no more that some church father somewhere at sometime said something like this before, whether we deem him to be making an off-handed comment or not, then perhaps this claim can stand. And of course more important than the claims of this or that church father is what does the Bible actually teach” (Patheos Blog Bible and Culture, March 23, 2011).
4 – Is Bell a Victim?
Bell often sets himself up as a victim. He adopts a rather defensive posture indicating to me that he was fully aware that he was putting out a very controversial book that many evangelicals pastors and leaders would have concerns and questions about. Bell’s supporters have jumped in to exalt his victim status. For example, without providing any names, Eugene Peterson wrote in a Patheos blog post, “The people who are against Rob Bell are not going to reexamine anything. They have a litmus test for who is a Christian and who is not.” He goes on to say, “The only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees.” Brian McClaren wrote, “Many Evangelical leaders will adopt a defensive, combative position towards Rob and his book, worried about their status in front of the most conservative wings of their constituencies, without giving even twenty minutes to considering the possibility that their traditional understanding of the biblical narrative is compromised – with Greek philosophy, with imperial/colonial politics, and so on.” How does Peterson and McClaren know that Evangelical leaders won’t reflect and reexamine their theological positions?
There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with the content of a book, and saying so. Evangelical leaders have a pastoral responsibility for their churches, and to engage in the broader conversations of the Church.
The fact that this “victim card” is being played gives me pause. Bell is not a victim. He is a pastoral teacher of a mega-church of 10,000 people. He chose to enter the theological cage. He knew what he was doing.
Although they don’t name names, Bell, and his other supporters, seem to point their finger at certain Calvinists, especially those connected with the Gospel Coalition, like John Piper, Justin Taylor, Tim Challies, and Mark Driscoll. I assume these are the “Pharisees” that Eugene Peterson is talking about. These are the ones stuck in their rigid traditions. These are the ones that have no ability to reevaluate their theological doctrine. They seem to be the ones Bell describes as those that “turn mysteries into dogmas.”
From the blog posts and reviews that I have read on Love Wins, I think the voices of topnotch Evangelical scholars like Ben Witherington (Patheos Blog, Bible and Culture) and Scot McKnight (Patheos Blog, Jesus Creed) have provided both wisdom and guidance to the Church. It’s not that I agree with everything they say or write, but I’m thankful to God for such quality teachers.
5 – Is it wrong for Bell to question historic theological teaching?
There is nothing wrong with Bell questioning historic theological teaching. It is annoying when people suggest that the “traditionalists” are resisting Bell because he questions even the most core doctrines of the Christian faith. This is simply not true. Asking questions, and dealing with doubts, are all part of theological training and maturing. Broad and diverse reading of various theological perspectives is healthy, and helps us to formulate our thinking. We are to love God with all our minds.
However, we can’t stop at just raising questions. We also must search for and provide answers. Read carefully, I didn’t say we can arrive at perfect answers. I know there is often tension within theological teaching. It is frustrating when answers to good questions in Love Wins are often presented as unknowable, rooted in mystery and paradox.
Bell ends the first chapter of Love Wins by telling us what his book is all about. He writes, “This isn’t just a book of questions, it’s a book of responses to these questions.” I started to read Love Wins with Bells promise in mind, and I finished it scratching my head.
The issue is not raising questions, it’s where one goes to discover some answers. For evangelical, orthodox Christians, which Bell claims he is, we commit ourselves to finding answers in the Bible. For Christian leaders and teachers, simply speculating on questions through imagination is void of God’s biblical authority. Although Bell includes Bible passages in Love Wins, unfortunately, he chose to write a book using a prominent speculating style, which often leads to more questions, then provides clear biblical answers.
I will post Part Two of Questioning Love Wins soon.