Review by Andrew Jackson
QUESTIONING LOVE WINS
Part Three: Personal Salvation
In Part 2 of my book review of Love Wins, I wrote about Bell’s “expansive salvation.” I applauded Bell’s emphasis that God’s salvation includes the entire cosmos. However, unfortunately, in Bell’s zealousness to promote the wide scope of God’s salvation, he minimizes personal salvation. In this review, Part 3, I address Bell’s teaching concerning personal salvation to show you what I mean.
In this review, I address 5 questions: Does Bell have a theology of sin? Does Bell affirm that Jesus is the only way a person can be saved? How are people saved through Jesus Christ? What does Bell say about personal salvation and heaven? Does the personal hope of heaven mean ministry inactivity on earth?
1 – Does Bell have a theology of sin?
Bell’s Love Wins contains no clear theology of sin, a fallen world, and Satan’s present activities. He seems to have conveniently left out Ephesians 2:1-3 “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of God’s wrath.”
This is what God’s love in Jesus Christ is all about for each one of us. God’s love saves us, delivers us, and sets us free from our personal slavery of sin, our bondage to the ways of this world’s system, our service to Satan, and ultimately, from the just wrath of God, which we all deserve. Now, that’s good news!
Love Wins lacks a focussed presentation of the good news of personal salvation. Bell rightly highlights God’s cosmic salvation, but at the expense of personal salvation. How can he say he is writing this book for hurting, struggling people, and not clearly tell them about the assurance of personal salvation in Jesus Christ?
Love Wins doesn’t have a concordance, Bell doesn’t even provide one footnote, so I can’t be sure, but, from my reading, Bell mentions sin and Satan only a few times, and that is often in a seemingly mocking way. For example, he writes, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins. Yes, we know. We’ve seen the homemade billboard by the side of the road countless times. Anything else?” (page 122). On page 177, he writes, “When people say they’re tired about hearing about “sin” and “judgment” and “condemnation,” it’s often because those have been confused for them with the nature of God. God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone.”
Wait a minute, Ephesians 1:3 says that outside of the forgiveness and freedom of Jesus Christ, we do deserve God’s just wrath. The New Testament is full of this truth. You can simply look up the theme of God’s wrath in a concordance in the back of your Bible. It isn’t an obscure topic. When Jesus hung on the cross in our place, in absolute love, he absorbed God’s just wrath for the sin of the world.
Throughout Love Wins, Bell’s mission is to rescue God from all the distorted caricatures about God that fill our culture, including the Christian subculture. However, what Bell does in the end is distort the Gospel, the Good News, itself.
Because Bell lacks a biblical theology of sin, one of his main arguments in Love Wins is that hell is a present reality. As I will show in my last review post, Part 5, the Bible teaches that hell is only a future reality or location following God’s final judgment.
When Bell emphasizes that there are hellish things on earth today, and that people create their own hell, he is really describing the condition and consequences of sin, a fallen world, and the ongoing torments of Satan and demons.
The condition and consequences of a sinful, demon-infested world might be hellish, but it is not hell. With all of the ugliness and tragedies of this world, and they are many, none remotely compare to the experiences of eternal hell. Our world still benefits from God’s common and supernatural grace, but in hell, God will be absent, and its inhabitants will be totally alone.
2 – Does Bell affirm that Jesus is the only way a person can be saved?
To insure that people know he hasn’t totally fallen overboard, Bell affirms that Jesus is the only way a person can be saved (page 154). It’s very hard for Bell to dismiss Jesus’ statement in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life! No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus’ exclusive statement is supported by the words “no one” and “through me.” In John 10:9, Jesus states that he is the only door by which a person can enter salvation. In these passages, and many more could be provided, Jesus doesn’t provide any wiggle room for imaginative interpretations.
In Bell’s typical style, however, after affirming that Jesus is the only way a person can be saved, he writes, ”What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (page 155). Really? A slight problem, Bell distorts what Jesus said. John 14:6 is crystal clear. Jesus did not say that he is going to save everybody.
Bell continues to water down, and distort Jesus’ statement in John 14:6, by rambling about “which Jesus” are we to believe in? (pages 7-9). He then raises a list of caricatures of Jesus, Do we believe in the Jesus of the father who raped you? Do we believe in the Jesus of the Christian that murdered Muslims? Do we believe in the anti-science, antigay Jesus?
Instead of bringing up all of these ridiculous caricatures of Jesus, he should declare that we can know and believe in the real, biblical Jesus. Sure, people can struggle as a result of cultural distortions, but there is no need for confusion!
For example, during Bell’s interview with Lisa Miller of Newsweek, he said, “Jesus is very exclusive, but he’s also fantastically inclusive. So he’s like in-ex-clusive. That’s a word I just made up (laughter).
From my perspective, this is meaningless gibberish, and from a mega-pastor no less.
What Bell does through his “which Jesus” questions is to open the “narrow door” of salvation in Jesus a little wider, as we’ll see in the next section.
3 – How are people saved through Jesus Christ?
After Bell affirms that Jesus is the only way to God, he quickly muddies up the water by stating that Jesus doesn’t tell us “how” someone is saved. He writes, “Is it a prayer one says?” (page 5), “Is it what you say that saves you?” (page 13), “Will you be saved through childbearing?” (page 15). Isn’t there salvation hope for the atheist that doesn’t even believe in God? Does a person have to believe the “right‘ things to be saved?
Why is Bell confused about what the Bible teaches concerning the “how” of personal salvation? He writes, “What Jesus doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that get people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him” (page 154).
How can Bell say that the Bible doesn’t clearly tell us how people are saved through Jesus? I mean, this is Sunday School 101. I realize that Jesus uniquely draws people to himself in a variety of ways, but he draws them to repentance, and faith in Jesus. For Bell, the means of personal salvation seems to be a cloudy mystery.
Personal salvation is through true repentance and heart-centered faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus for our sins. Romans 3:22-26 can’t get any clearer, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”
Yet, Bell makes a weird statement on page 11, “If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him–a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds–and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t these verbs. Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?”
What is Bell talking about? The New Testament is clear. Yes, yes, yes, we are called to believe. We are to put our complete trust and faith in Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins. This is not salvation by works.
Bell states the biblical faith is not an individual “transactional faith,” but a “transformative faith.” Again, Bell pits two biblical truths against one another. Biblical faith is both, it is transactional and transformative, and in that order.
4 – What does Bell say about personal salvation and heaven?
In his book, Bell confuses “private faith” and “personal faith.” I agree that private faith is not biblical, but personal faith is central throughout the Bible. For example, Bell emphasizes, “The phrase ‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible.’ That might be true, but the biblical truth of being reconciled to God through Jesus Christ is core to the Gospel. Being reconciled with God is having a personal relationship with God in the Holy Spirit.
Bell seems to enjoy throwing cold water on the belief that salvation is about personal faith in Jesus Christ that hopes to go to heaven. Bell writes on page 6 that personal salvation that focuses on going to heaven after they die, is not the central message of the Christian faith.
I ask, “What’s wrong with heaven?” It is true that the Christian’s ultimate hope is a new heaven and a new earth, and not heaven. However, heaven is an intermediate rest in our journey. Heaven is a Christian hope, it’s just not the ultimate hope.
5 – Does the personal hope of heaven mean ministry inactivity on earth?
Bell states several times in Love Wins that a personal hope of going to heaven leads to ministry inactivity on earth.
For Bell, Christians that have a focused, vision of going to heaven when they die “wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus. If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else (heaven), you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it” (pages 6-7).
He continues, “It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jesus taught us to pray: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die” (page 45).
I’m not sure who Bell has been hanging out with, but I’ve found the very opposite to be true. Christians rooted and grounded in their faith, with a deep assurance of entering heaven after they die, are the most engaged in ministry and mission in the world.
The example of the Apostle Paul should be enough proof to show that one’s assurance and hope in heaven actually expands the heart of a Christian for world mission, it does not diminish ministry activity.
The Christians I know who are willing to lay their lives down, even willing to face martyrdom, are those who have a full assurance of their destiny in heaven if they died.
My final two review posts will address Bell’s teaching concerning heaven and hell.