A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”
Sometimes one match is all it takes.
Three months ago Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. The strike of that match – a strike of frustration against the corruption of the Tunisian police – lit a flame in the Arab world which has had phenomenal, not to mention unpredictable, consequences.
Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Everyone Who Ever Lived feels something like that in the Evangelical world. Bell’s promo video, and the teasing comments from his publishers, sparked a fire in the blogosphere and helped propel the book to number four on Amazon.com on the day of its launch. Quite how this firestorm will play out is at the moment about as unpredictable as how things will work out in North Africa and the Middle East.
While cautious about simply pouring more petrol on the fire, the Theology Forum core team felt we should make some kind of response to the furore surrounding Love Wins. We should say up front that this is not a book review, partly because the book was released a few days later in the UK than in the USA, which means that any UK review would necessarily be rushed, and partly because the internet is already saturated with thorough reviews, several of which we will link to in this post. Instead, we thought we would summarise what has happened, and reflect on what the controversy says about the state of evangelicalism at the moment. Arguably, the trailer, the book and the responses tell us more about the state of evangelicalism than they do about Rob Bell’s eschatology. In a good way.
An excellent brief summary of the last fortnight’s discussion can be found at CJ Mahaney’s blog, in which he sets out the history of debate and links to a number of useful resources. In brief: the controversy began before Love Wins was even published, when Bell released a promotional video which seemed to imply the book would teach a form of universalism. Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition wrote a post on Feb 26th entitled, ‘Rob Bell: Universalist?’, which attracted a quarter of a million views in the first few days, and within hours, the internet was flooded with speculation, impassioned defences and scathing rebuttals of a book that almost nobody had yet read. Before its release, Love Wins had been pre-emptively savaged by the We Always Knew He Was A Woolly Liberal guys, and pre-emptively defended by the Rob’s Just Asking Questions And All Conservative Evangelicals Are Mean crowd, so much so that major news outlets like CNN and the New York Times were picking up on the debate. In the middle, many more careful bloggers were urging caution in responding, pointing out the importance of speaking the truth in love, and limiting themselves to what Bell had actually said in the video, not what he might say in the book. Even the video, however, raised significant concerns for many, with traditional concepts of God, the atonement and judgment coming under attack:
Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? … The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that?
With questions like this, and with the accompanying blurb from HarperCollins – which included the teasing phrase, “[Bell argues] that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering” – you can see why the match ignited so much debate.
Then the book came out, and something happened that many of us did not expect. Most evangelicals, from across the spectrum, agreed with each other: Love Wins represented a departure from orthodox evangelicalism. In fact, agreement on this point has been so broad in the last week that it has caught many off-balance: left and right, inerrantists and not, Arminians and Calvinists, academics and pastors, Methodists and Baptists, people from all types of background are registering that this is not what people who submit to the authority of Scripture have historically believed, and it is not what they should believe now. Some have found more objectionable material in the book than others, of course, but many are united in believing that with Love Wins, Rob Bell’s provocative poking at orthodoxy has gone too far.
The heavyweight Reformed bloggers, unsurprisingly, weighed in quickly. Denny Burk said the book clearly taught universalism (the idea that all, ultimately, will be saved), Carl Trueman highlighted some clear historical errors, Russell Moore referred to Bell’s as a “blood-drained gospel”, and Kevin DeYoung wrote a careful and lengthy review in which he explored seven areas of concern: traditional evangelicalism, history, exegesis, eschatology, Christology, gospel, and God. DeYoung’s review is probably the fullest and most helpful response available for those who want to understand some of the broader problems with the book as a whole.
But then, we’d expect conservative evangelicals to respond like that, and we’d expect Al Mohler to refer to the book as a ‘liberalism arriving late on the scene.’ We might not, on the other hand, expect Christianity Today to agree. In an irenic but firm critique, America’s leading evangelical magazine described Love Wins as sitting in the same liberal tradition as Schleiermacher and Ritschl, Bultmann and Tillich, and emphasised its departure from evangelicalism in an attempt to make the gospel acceptable to modern ears. A similar accusation was made by Martin Bashir in an interview with Rob Bell on MSNBC, which although rather prosecutorial in tone, prompted some evasive replies from Bell, and led to serious questions being asked by some who had previously leapt to his defence.
One such was Ben Witherington, one of the leading bloggers in the States and a very respected New Testament scholar (imagine an Arminian, American version of N. T. Wright, if you haven’t come across him). He had initially expressed dismay at the Reformed response, but soon afterwards posted a detailed explanation of the evangelical doctrine of hell, in which he clearly argued that hell is real, that it is for those who never embrace the message of Jesus, and that it is “the place you experience the absence of the presence of God for as long as you continue to exist.” A subsequent post argued against the idea “that in the end love wins in the case of every last human being God ever created. I believe God is heartbroken about the lost, precisely because his love has not won over those who insist on having no part of it, even unto eternity.” Fuller reviews from Witherington, and the influential Anabaptist blogger Scot McKnight, are still in the pipeline.
The book has been defended, of course. Bell’s church, Mars Hill, issued an interesting statement, in which they affirmed that Rob Bell is not a universalist (on which see below). Eugene Peterson explained his endorsement, saying, “He may not be right. But he’s doing something worth doing.” And Richard Mouw, of Fuller Seminary, applauded the questions the book asks while stating emphatically that he, also, is not a universalist.
What is interesting about all this is that there appears to be a very broad consensus that universalism is unbiblical and unorthodox, both among Bell’s critics and his defenders. So the debate is not so much about whether universalism is true, but over whether or not Love Wins espouses it. (This month’s Christianity magazine has just come out in the UK, and it is intriguing that both in a news piece and a full-page article, the reviewers cannot decide whether it does or not.) And this is fascinating, for two reasons.
Firstly, it shows that evangelicalism still has a pulse. Despite the apparent fractiousness of evangelicalism, and repeated claims that the word is so broad as to be useless, there is still a consensus that certain ideas are acceptable and certain ideas aren’t. At least for the moment, universalism is beyond the bounds, and pretty much all evangelicals seem to agree about that (the exception that proves the rule is Robin Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist; a brief article by Richard Bauckham is helpful at putting the discussion in historical context). In that sense, Rob Bell has done us a service, and shown us the surprising resilience of evangelical conviction on certain issues.
Secondly, it shows how ambiguous Rob Bell’s eschatology actually is. Do we accept his, his church’s and his defenders’ statements that he is “not a universalist”? Or do we take at face value his statement on p108 that “no one can resist God’s pursuit forever because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts”? The only way to reconcile the two, it appears, is to assume that a confusing redefinition has taken place, such that “universalism” no longer means “all people will eventually be saved”, as theologians and dictionaries alike have defined it for centuries. Bell appears to believe that everybody gets saved eventually, but that this happens through Jesus, whether in this life or the next – and it is hard to see how this is not universalism, despite his rejection of the term. (If any readers get the chance to ask a question at his upcoming event in London, it would be very helpful if you could ask, “Do you believe that eventually, everybody who has ever lived gets saved?” It would really help clarify whether “universalism” is an appropriate label or not.)
So how will the book go down in Britain, we wonder? The initial signs are that many people will want to respond cautiously and without incendiary language, and yet clearly disagree with Bell’s conclusions (as the Christianity review did). There will be temptations on both sides: for the right, to spit bullets and speak of Rob Bell and others like him in a very unChristlike, unloving way; for the left, to allow potentially misleading or false teaching to remain uncorrected (Krish Kandiah has an excellent post on both dangers, and a way forward.) One of the reasons we wanted to post a response quickly was because we know how discussions like this can get carried away, so we wanted to be clear, and fair, as early as possible.
But if, as it appears to us, there are a number of things in Love Wins that present serious concerns for those who love Jesus, love the gospel, love the Bible, and love the God who is both holy and compassionate (not least the claims that belief in an eternal hell is “toxic” and involves believing in a capricious, “psychologically crushing”, “unbearable” God!), then it is vital that we speak the truth in love. And the truth is this: that in the end, God – the holy, loving, just, merciful God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – wins.