Wednesday, May 11, 2011

REVIEW: LOVE WINS by Pastor Rob Bell

BOOK: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell


More of a college bull session on paper than a serious discussion of the doctrine of Hell, Pastor Bell's book is thought-provoking but not particularly useful. It is recommended only to those interested in what Bell is hearing from non-Christians, rather than to current Christians looking for a real analysis or study of the historical doctrines of Hell.


Since the time of the Jesus, the Church and it's leaders have had to keep a close eye on Doctrine - the right teaching about Jesus and God. First century heretics wanted to do away with Christ's humanity - arguing that his flesh was merely an illusion because all that was physical was evil. Later heretics attacked the idea of morality - arguing that Christ had brought complete freedom from ethical living. Still later heretics wanted to abandon Christ's deity - arguing that it was enough for Jesus to be a good teacher. Separating well-meaning questions from sheep from evil-intending questions from wolves has been a major preoccupation from Jesus to Peter to Paul to Augustine to Martin Luther to the present.

The newest charge of heresy within the Evangelical community is against Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle run by Pastor Mark Driscoll). In his new book "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived", Pastor Bell questions the existing prevailing doctrine of Hell - specifically the eternality and finality of eternal punishment - and points out how the doctrine has done much to alienate non-believers.

Bell's book is not a comprehensive treatise on the doctrine of Hell, neither an analysis of its historical underpinnings nor a detailed philosophical argument for a particular position. It is even hard to really figure out what his exact position is on the doctrine of Hell. (I suspect Pastor Bell would see this as "nuanced", whereas to me it was simply "vague".) But I believe this is a fair encapsulation of his views:

Hell does exist. However, it is neither eternal nor inevitable for any human being. Hell is not "punishment", but rather God allowing us to choose to be without Him, which is necessarily misery. God's love and omnipotence is paramount over his wrath or judgement, and ultimately all will come to Him, whether it takes a lifetime or millennia.
Pastor Bell's arguments are actually limited to only a single chapter of the book (all others are preamble, or reflection afterwards) and come out to these:
1. From the very earliest Church fathers, there have been those who believed Hell was not eternal.
2. References to Hell in scripture are vague. (He has digressions into discussions about the Hebrew "Sheol", Greek "Tartarus" and "Hades", and a dismissive look at Gehenna.)
3. God is absolutely sovereign, and absolutely wants all to be reconciled to Him.
4. Most of Jesus's references to "the coming wrath" were references to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and not to Hell. (A statement he does not spend much time defending.)
5. "Forever" is an incoherent concept, and not one recognized by the Biblical writers.
6. A temporary Hell is "a better story" than an eternal place of conscious torment.
I am not going to address each of these in turn - I leave it to other more educated men and women to do that. But I will note that none of these arguments are novel, convincing, or in many cases even compatible with a plain reading of the text. And Bell ignores many, many more scriptures dealing with Jesus speaking words like "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41) Nor does he dedicate much time to the "lake of fire, which is the second death" in Revelation, which is the most clear reference to an eternal place of torment in all of scripture.

However, in the end, it appears to me that #6 above is the core of Bell's argument. "An eternal Hell makes for a bad story. A temporary Hell where all are ultimately saved makes for a much better one!" Bell is known for embracing the Arts more than the average Evangelical pastor, and his book is full of shifts from a prose to a poetic style (something I found jarring as a reader). As such, he is clearly bothered by the idea of an unhappy ending for many, and by the fact that there are many who reject Christ because they can not accept a God who would sentence a plurality or majority of the human race to a place of eternal torment "for a few short years of sin on the Earth." And he is even more disturbed by the number of people who have rejected Christ because of the traditional doctrine of Hell.

But Christ warned that the gospel, while being "Good News", would be an offense for many. And that "the way to life is narrow, but broad the way to destruction". Over and over in scripture - both Old and New Testaments - we see God saving a "remnant" from destruction - a relatively tiny number out of the mass of humanity.

But the weakness of Bell's argument is actually a saving point. I said to someone after reading the book, "What Bell proposes is heresy, but I do not think Bell is a heretic." This book is not intended to set a new standard for critical analysis, or preach that anyone who teaches Hell is against Christ. Instead, it is like a late-night college bull session, where a bunch of guys stand around saying "What do you think about THIS?" or "Have you ever thought about THAT?" These discussions are not intended to be the last word on any topic. They're intended to stimulate thinking, bat around ideas, and provide a safe forum to ask questions that no college professor would take seriously. Ultimately, they strengthen the orthodox, by allowing each person to figure out why the heterodox fails for him or herself.

Overall, I do not recommend this book to most readers. It's not a serious discussion that shows both sides of the issue, or even provides a coherent argument for its own side. It is more likely to disturb and weaken than to edify. But if you are someone who enjoys playing with ideas, and are comfortable doing lots of your own research afterwards, it can provide a diverting read.

And be aware, if Pastor Bell does shift from "What if?" to "This is the only way", he will truly have become a heretic.


George W. Sarris said...

Well written article - very perceptive and clearly communicated. The best analysis of Bell's book I have read to date. Be careful with the idea of heresy.

Nomad said...

Thanks, George.

I have been following your articles, as well. It is hard to balance the need to speak clearly on wrong teaching, while at the same time recognizing that we should expect SOME diversity in Christian thinking. And to recognize not every Christian reaches the same point in the road at the same moment. As Paul says, "And if on some point you think differently, God will make that clear to you."

It is a THIN line between free thinking and heresy. So far, Bell is on the right side of the line. But he could easily step across.

Jaltus said...

I appreciate your reaction to Bell. The more serious question one must ask him in light of his book is, why bother being a Christian before death? If sin has no real eternal sting, then whither salvation? If Bell ever actually answers such a question, we would see if he really merits the label of heretic or just heterodox.

Nomad said...

Agree 100%, Jaltus. And, in the reactions I have seen so far, he seems unwilling to actually give an answer.