Revelation or Heresy? Rob Bell's 'Love Wins'

Posted by Peter Harrison  ·  3 visitor comments

‘Love Wins’ is the hugely popular release by successful mega-church pastor and writer Rob Bell, newly available in paperback.

An Introduction to 'Love Wins'

‘Love Wins’ is, according to its subtitle, ‘at the heart of life’s big questions’. It directly addresses the difficult questions each of us face about the nature of heaven and hell, and how we should relate to, and understand God. Sales of the hardback copy have been huge, the book has burst the American market, spreading to the UK and across the world. Now the paperback is available too, which signals a further rise in popularity for a book that truly has ‘gone viral’. An early conclusion: the message of ‘Love Wins’ is spreading fast.

Rob Bell

Where to start... Rob Bell has done a lot in his 41 years. The founder of Mars Hill Bible Church, Michigan at the age of 28, (not to be confused with the Mars Hill pastored by Mark Driscoll) Rob Bell quickly became something of a church celebrity. The church has grown to nearly 20 000 Sunday service attendees, with over 50 000 podcasts downloaded each week as well. Bell’s ‘NOOMA’ videos explore themes and aspects of the Christian life, using this medium to shed a fresh and creative light. Books authored include ‘Velvet Elvis’, ‘Drops Like Stars’, ‘Sex God’ and ‘Jesus Wants to Save Christians’ - while these have been very successful, none have reached the level of fame and controversy of ‘Love Wins’.

A Divided Response

Rob Bell’s ideas are not new, but never have they come from someone who would class themselves as an ‘evangelical’. For this reason, prominent Christian leaders, writers and theologians have responded in very different ways to ‘Love Wins’.

Beginning with the positives: ‘In ‘Love Wins’, Rob Bell tackles the old heaven-and-hell question and offers a courageous alternative answer. Thousands of readers will find freedom a hope and a new way of understanding the biblical story from beginning to end.’ Brian McLaren, author of ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ and ‘Naked Spirituality'

And onto the negatives: ‘What Bell is peddling is nothing like New Testament Christianity. It is a man-centred religion totally devoid of both clarity and biblical authority.’ John MacArthur, Pastor-Teacher

Prominent Christian leaders Mark Driscoll and John Piper have also expressed serious reservations about the consistency of Bell’s teaching in ‘Love Wins’ with what the Bible says.

What About Me and You?

In writing this, where am I coming from? Some context: My name is Pete Harrison, I’m 18, a History student at the University of York. I work at during my (extensive) holidays, in the Marketing Department. I’ve been a Christian since I was 5, and though I would say I am non-denominational, I’ve experienced church in a number of settings, including Pentecostal, Anglican and New Frontiers. Playing three instruments and singing, I’m often involved in Praise/Worship teams, whether at church, university or New Wine North. I find increasingly that ‘the more you know, the more you know you know’ - learning about God provides more questions than answers, but is nevertheless fruitful.

I believe it’s important that each of us should read ‘Love Wins’ and seek to examine where Bell’s ideas carry merit, and where they may be misleading. Given the opportunity to review this, I was genuinely excited to tackle the book head on, making up my own mind about what its value really is. I didn’t want to go on the various reviews I’ve heard that condemn or exalt Rob Bell, I wanted to read it for myself to make up my own mind. I think you should do this too.

My Reading of 'Love Wins' Chapter by Chapter

Below are sections examining what Rob Bell says in each of the eight chapters that make up ‘Love Wins’. Some are quite long, this is because the detail is interesting and important. Also included are some of my initial reactions. This is the best representation I can give, but don’t take my word for it 100% - I can’t stress enough: read the book for yourself.

Chapter 1 - What About the Flat Tyre?

Here Bell starts to pose the questions we may all ask about heaven and hell as we know them. Will there be billions of people burning in hell while a lucky few will make it to heaven? What is the ‘age of accountability’? (i.e. when your decisions count towards eternal ‘destination’ in the event of your death) - if there is a cut off age, why not kill everyone before they reach it in order to guarantee salvation? Is whether you are ‘going to heaven’ (or not) the only thing that matters? People say it is about how you respond to Jesus, it is - but ‘which Jesus?’ We interpret Jesus in different ways: take the crusades for example, or the Klu Klux Klan...

The first biblical reference is to Romans 10, where Paul asks: how can people hear without being preached to? How can they believe in one of whom that haven’t heard? - but Bell asks: ‘What if the missionary gets a flat tyre?’ - Does our salvation lie in someone else’s hands? And do other people’s salvation lie in our hands? Some say salvation is by grace, not works, but ‘confess’, ‘believe’ and ‘trust’ are all verbs... doing words.

By now (if you haven’t already skim read) your head may be spinning - it’s a lot to take in. Reassuringly, the chapter closes as Bell promises that the book won’t continue this way, rather it is one of ‘responses to these questions’. Phew.

Chapter 2 - Here Is the New There

Opening the chapter with the powerful image of a great abyss with a cross-shaped bridge to the brighter side, Bell addresses the concept of heaven as somewhere else. Many of us try to imagine what heaven will be like. Tongue firmly in cheek, the author recalls one minister’s view: ‘A church service that goes on forever ...that sounds more like hell’. Heaven and hell create emotive responses because of the gravity of forever.

Bell says that Jesus wasn’t particularly concerned with heaven, more about the age now and the age to come. When asked by the rich man (in Matthew 19) how to get eternal life, he identifies the man’s problem (greed) and says ‘sell your possessions, give to the poor and you will have treasure (rewards) in heaven (the next age)’. The New Testament Greek word aion is used, referring to an age or era.

Next is the concept of restoration and unity - shalom - (purported by the Prophets) which will come about on the ‘day of the LORD’ (Judgement Day). Bell notes that many say they can’t believe in a God who judges or is angry, but refutes this by asking: what kind of God wouldn’t get angry at slavery, corruption and exploitation?

Returning to Matthew 19, Jesus says to ‘live the commandments’ which Bell interprets as: the more you live God’s way, ‘the more ready you will be to assume an even greater role in the age to come.’ Also, there is the question of what Jesus means by ‘heaven’? To ‘sin against heaven’ is to sin against God. The author affirms heaven as ‘a place where God’s will and only God’s will is done’ - Jesus speaks of and anticipates ‘the day when earth and heaven will be the same place’.

On ‘rewards’ Bell purports that these are dynamic - possessions are nouns, but are only worth anything when we attach verbs. (A car is useless unless you drive it, etc). We should, the author says, pursue the heavenly life on earth, as in the Lord’s Prayer - ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’. According to Bell, ‘honest business, redemptive art, honourable law, sustainable living’ etc, will ‘go on in the age to come’ - in my opinion, this seems as if nothing will change, why will we still need ‘honourable law’ where and when ‘God’s will and only God’s will is done’?

Finally, Bell addresses the perception of heaven as an evacuation mission, saying that we will continue to live here (on earth) after ‘the day of the LORD’. Also, sanctification is a process that continues into the next age. Here many would disagree sharply these views as a) the bible talks of a ‘new’ earth, not just a ‘much improved’ one and b) continued sanctification contradicts earlier teaching about God’s will always being done in heaven.

In summary: Jesus sometimes talks about God and heaven in parallel. We live in a hazy reflection of the kingdom to come. Bell concludes ‘there’s a heaven now, somewhere else. There’s a heaven here, sometime else. There’s Jesus’ invitation to live heaven in the here and now.’

Chapter 3 - Hell

Here Rob Bell establishes that no Hebrew words would directly translate as ‘hell’ - the fiery place we might imagine it to be. In Greek, there are three words ‘gehenna’ (a rubbish dump south west of Jerusalem), ‘tartarus’ taken from Greek mythology meaning abyss and ‘hades’ - meaning darkness. Hell is often characterised historically as a means used by religion to control people.

Bell asks what a modern view of hell should be, and suggests that ‘hell’ is present where the evidence of a departure from God’s will can be seen in different situations. ‘There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’

We might credibly ask: what about all the biblical references to judgement and punishment? Rob Bell has seen this coming, and gives two answers: a ‘political’ one that observes that Jesus lived in a volatile time under Roman rule, and suggests that we shouldn’t take things out of context, then a ‘religious’ one that says Jesus used hell to give a wake up call to religious people who thought they were ‘in’. Personally, I have numerous problems with these answers - the first incorrectly assumes that all valid references to judgement and punishment are in the New Testament, while the second could imply that ‘hell’ was some sort of threat used by Jesus to make the hard of heart become generous, loving people; this seems unlikely. I’m sure on reading the chapter you will engage deeply with these arguments as well, coming to your own conclusions.

Chapter 4 - Does God Get What God Wants?

Here comes one of the more controversial sections of ‘Love Wins’ - pages 97-102, where some say ‘universalism’ is purported. Bell argues that God wants to reconcile every single person to himself, and that he can’t be thwarted in this aim. The author suggests that if God can’t do this, he isn’t a great God. What irks me here is that the cross is somewhat overlooked in its importance - Bell’s tone here would suggest that God could reconcile everyone to himself in a number of ways, so no need for Christ’s sacrifice. Reading Mar Hill Bible Church’s ‘narrative theology’ (equivalent of a statement of faith) this is mirrored. The cross is nowhere to be seen. Is this the real gospel?

The author criticises people who say ‘in the end God doesn’t get what God wants’ - this is a problem arising from the ‘only in this life’ belief. Four views, according to Bell, can be taken (he responds to each of these in turn): 1. We have freedom to make the decision to accept God’s love or not; Bell counters this, saying ‘we aren’t fixed, static beings - we change and morph as life unfolds’. 2. God’s image is in each of us and we can embrace or reject it; he raises the question: can continual rejection of God’s image eventually make us ‘post-human’ or ‘ex-human’? 3. There is a second chance after death, where we are each exposed to the ‘right Jesus’ and given the opportunity to accept him; Bell explains that this is for people who have experienced the ‘wrong Jesus’. 4. We are given endless opportunities in an endless amount of time to ‘say yes to God’ - as long as it takes.

The focus is then placed on the fourth view, and the author explains that the majority of early Christians shared this view. He then asks the (rather loaded) question: ‘Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love?’. Continuing to stress that this is ‘mainstream’ he writes, ’at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God’.

Interestingly, Bell doesn’t directly compel us to agree with this view, recognising that people have different views - ‘it’s a wide stream we’re swimming in’ and ‘the Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast range of perspectives’. Meanwhile, he argues that condemnation doesn’t make for a very good story, but the ultimate reconciliation of all things does. Also, he writes ‘one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for (the reconciliation of all things to God)’.

Nearly there... perhaps it was late at night, but I found Rob Bell’s take on the book of Revelation very confusing. He says John’s writings are a direct response to the persecution faced by the Church at the time (reassurance that God will one day ‘decisively restrain evil’). On love and freedom: ‘Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.’ He remarks that the gates to heaven aren’t shut (Revelation 21:25) so we are free to come and go (flip flop on the decision of whether to live in the kingdom or not). Frankly, this doesn’t make any sense to me, as it portrays sin (rejecting God) in the new aion or age, after the ‘day of the LORD’.

Quite perturbed, I read on: We can replace the question ‘Does God get what God wants?’ with a new one ‘Do we get what we want?’ If we want nothing to do with God, then he allows us this, if we want good things, these will be given to us. All this is dynamic and changeable. ‘We can have what we want, because love wins.’ Hmmm, new chapter.

Chapter 5 - Dying to Live

Thankfully this is shorter... Rob (I feel comfortable calling him that now, as we’ve been discussing him for quite some time) starts with an analogy of Eminem’s disappearance (2005) and comeback (2010). In his first concert, he wore a cross around his neck. Why? What is it with the cross? Bell says the nature of the cross as an icon has perhaps made it so familiar we assume we know what it means, when in fact we don’t really.

What ensues is a confusing discussion of the ‘metaphors’ attached to the crucifixion. For the Jews, they needed sacrifice to be close to God, so the cross represented the ultimate sacrifice. For others, it is a demonstration of God’s love for us, and for others again, it signifies redemption for sinners. Rob asks: what should it mean today? ...I ask, why can’t it mean all the above? Anyhow, this is his answer ‘The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh blood. He’s where the life is.’

Onto the resurrection. Bell rightly says that many were crucified, but the special thing about Jesus is that he was raised. Following John’s gospel, the 'signs' (or miracles) are numbered from 1 (Water into wine) to 7 (resurrection of Lazarus) before Jesus’s resurrection is the 8th. 7 is significant in the bible, and 8 signals the NEW. According to Rob Bell, a gospel that says ‘Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God’ puts us at the centre. Rather, we should say ‘God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’s resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything just as God originally intended it’.’

It’s about dying to self, letting go of sins. Did Eminem come across this truth? The cross is an enduring icon because it speaks to our deepest longing: the longing for new life.

Chapter 6 - There Are Rocks Everywhere

Bell starts with two stories, both protagonists encounter Jesus (one through smoking weed, and the other through an accident) and they experience lasting change. Then comes a Bible story - the one where Moses hits the rock and water comes out to quench the thirst of the Israelites. The Apostle Paul says ‘that rock was Christ’ (1 Corinthians, 10). Paul finds Jesus everywhere.

The author goes on to explain that ‘there is an energy in the world … that everything is plugged into. The Greeks called it zoe … Obi-Wan called it ‘the force’.’ This energy is not impersonal, in fact it is for us: Jesus is this energy made flesh. In Jesus, God’s plan is revealed both to the Jews and to the Gentiles (everyone else). Due to this, Jesus ‘will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity’.

Inclusivity versus Exclusivity and the third option. Exclusivity: Jesus is the only way, there are two groups, those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘not in’. Inclusivity: ‘there is only one mountain, but it has many paths’ - ‘good people will get in’. Exclusivity on the other side of Inclusivity: ‘Jesus is the way ... but... the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.

‘Some people have so much baggage with regard to the name ‘Jesus’ that when they encounter the mystery present in all of creation - grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness - the last thing they are inclined to name it is ‘Jesus’.’

Jesus continually widens the categories, commending the faith of the centurion and inviting the tax collector to follow him, talking to women - even Samaritan women. So we shouldn’t make ‘lasting judgements about people’s eternal destinies’ in other words, who is 'in' or 'out'.

Chapter 7 - The Good News Is Better Than That

In this chapter the story of ‘The Prodigal Son’ features heavily. Whether we experience heaven or hell depends on whether we trust our telling of our story, or the Father’s telling of our story. It is possible to experience either heaven or hell whether we are the son who fritters away his father’s wealth, or the one who stays at home.

Some say that God can’t forgive their sins - they feel undeserving of the Father’s love. Others are too proud, claiming religion is a crutch for the weak and unstable. God’s version is different - we need his love, and it is freely offered to all of us. Like the elder brother, it’s possible to be at the party (heaven) but not enjoying it (hell) because we listen to our version of our story ‘slaving away all these years’ rather than God’s version of our story ‘all I have is yours’. This is a warning to those who think they are ‘in’ on merit.

Regarding death, the end of this life, Rob says if God’s love is no longer offered after death then God has ‘switched modes’ from loving father to condemning punisher, and this is not a good concept. The Father doesn’t change, he offers us his love over and over again.

Final things: 1. It’s a choice, whether to accept God’s love or not - walking away leads to misery. 2. Love is a relationship, and there’s a difference between entry and enjoyment, the gospel is not just a ticket (the gospel of the goats), ‘it’s about thriving in God’s good world’. Also, ‘forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up - God has already done it.’

Chapter 8 - The End Is Here

It literally is - it’s the final chapter. Rob recalls becoming a Christian back in ‘elementary’ (primary school) and says that the moment he prayed, putting his trust in God, something inside him changed. It’s an act of trust to embrace God’s telling of our story. On living: ‘Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today.’ It’s not a waiting game, we should live as Jesus taught us in the here and now. Love Wins.

How Should We Respond?

Wow. That’s a lot to get through - congratulations on not skim reading (if you managed it!) Briefly, I’ll outline how we might respond to Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’.

1. We should read it. Long as it is, this review is not comprehensive enough for you to fully understand the message of this book.

2. It is highly unlikely that Rob Bell can be categorised as ‘completely wrong’ or ‘completely right’. Measure what he says against Scripture and other Christian books on the ‘big questions’ to see how it matches up.

3. Engage deeply with Bell’s arguments, don’t accept or dismiss what he says in a superficial way. I believe that Rob makes some excellent points that should change the way we live our lives and relate to God and our neighbour, I also believe that he makes some grave errors and contradicts his own argument at times, leading to confusion.

In Summary

Read ‘Love Wins
Engage with the arguments
Weigh it against Scripture
Know God more deeply

6th April

April 6th, 2012 - Posted & Written by Peter Harrison

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Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor

Posts: 2

Hi Pete, thank you very much for this article, it's presented the book in a very unbiased way which has still got your own ideas across. I definitely agree with your conclusions on the book - it needs to be read by people to form their own decisions, and anyone who rejects is completely (like most of the 'Christian' reviews I've seen out there is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as people tend to do with most of Rob Bell's books. There are many things in 'Love Wins' which gave me a greater insight into who God is and other such matters, and the view that he expounds on Heaven on earth is definitely one that I think needs to be considered by a lot more people. Along with the contradictions of his own arguments, I also found that Rob took bible verses out of context to prove his point, when within the chapter/audience/era that's not what it meant at all - take the gates of the new Earth that you mentioned in your review - not shutting them doesn't mean that people are free to enter in/come and go (as Rob suggests), but would have signified to the people that Revelation was read to that there is no danger and no thieves or robbers, as the gates were only shut at night to safeguard the city, which John is saying isn't necessary by using this imagery. To make matters worse, whenever Rob mentions a bible verse, he doesn't give the reference, at best the chapter, so it takes a while to hunt them down to be able to read the verse yourself to check the context - I would recommend that anyone reading 'Love Wins' does it with a bible next to you, and reads the passages he's expounding as you go, even if it does take a little hunting to find them. In the opening paragraph of Rob's other very popular book, 'Velvet Elvis', Rob says essentially the same things as you have in your conclusion - take this book, wrestle with it, don't take my word for it and compare it with scripture. He knows very well that he doesn't have all of the answers, and I think that people would do well to take the author's own advice before slating any of his books. To quote Bell: "God has spoken, the rest is commentary right?"

Monday, 9th April 2012 at 1:24PM

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Matt Taylor

Matt Taylor

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Well, that was formatted when I wrote it. Never mind!

Monday, 9th April 2012 at 1:25PM

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Hugh Marcus

Hugh Marcus

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Thanks Pete for that very useful analysis. Like you I read this and didn't want to join the 'queue' to condemn Rob Bell. The small fellowship I belong to have used Nooma extensively and found Rob's ideas in that series helpful. However, given the controversy over this book we are nervous now. Personally, I think he does raise some legitimate questions over how the subject of 'hell' has been portrayed in evangelical circles during the 20th century. We can't deny that some preachers have tried to use the subject of hell to almost 'scare' people into heaven. This is a gross distortion of God's message for grace. But I think what concerned me most about the book was, it says very little on two key issues. Our sinfulness and God's holiness. Whilst these may not be popular themes in today's modern world, they are obvious by even a cursory glance at the bible. I agree with your comment about the cross and the need for Jesus to be a sacrifice for sin. As I often say to people, if God was open to us doing 'our bit' to get to heaven why did Jesus have to die? God is often caricatured as either a cosmic ogre wanting to destroy us all, or a cosmic Santa Claus, who will some day relent and open the gates to all. This is dangerous stuff as it can give people false hope. My worry is that Rob Bell, without intending to, might have given those notions some credence.

Tuesday, 10th April 2012 at 8:50AM

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