Typically, my book reviews are of books I just read that I think are worth reading. I typically don’t buy a book unless it would be helpful for a sermon or multiple people tell me about a book. Enter this book. This review is more from the perspective of a pastor. I lead a young church plant. The average age is around 30 and I know from our church that a lot of people dig Rob Bell, as do I. His speaking and videos are riveting. I also know that a number of people in my church and our city have questions about heaven, hell, the afterlife, judgment and grace. What follows is not a shot at Rob Bell personally, I have never met him. He seems like a cool guy and we share a passion for theology and music, so I’m sure we’d get along. While it might seem like I have something against him, I don’t. I care about those I’m connected to who will read his book, ask questions like the ones Rob Bell asks and the answers they’ll come to. I’ve done my best to quote Rob Bell word for word from his book and where another review gives a better answer than one, I quote it.
I was asked the other day if I recommend reading from any author even if you disagree with them. It depends. If you are solid in your theology and what you believe, then yes. You can learn, be challenged and stretched by anyone. But, if you are new to your faith, not settled in your theology, I would not recommend reading anyone. After reading Love Wins, if you are not settled in your theology, know your Bible, you won’t know what to make of heaven, hell and the afterlife. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
A couple of weeks ago, Rob Bell and his publisher released a video and a blurb about his book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell & the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived. Immediately the blogosphere and twitterverse erupted. Many calling Bell a heretic on one side, and others saying, “It is just a video and a blurb, wait til the book comes out.” I will admit, I have been a fan of Rob Bell and his teachings. He has challenged my thinking, helped to form my theology and solidify my beliefs by asking questions. Often, the answers I came to were the exact opposite of Bell’s. I put my thoughts out when I saw the video and got chided by a few people for doing so before reading the book.
Here is what is important when listening to a speaker or reading a book, the speaker or author knows what they are doing. They have a point. No one says something just to say it. No one says something just to be provocative. When Bells starts his book off by saying “The traditional Christianity that believes those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins, that this belief is misguided and toxic.” He has a message. He has a point. He wants us to know that what he is about to tell us is the Christian faith that is not misguided and toxic.
Throughout the book, Bell seems to talk out of both sides of his mouth, something that has made him a lot of money and created his following. For Bell, hell exists now, here on earth. That people choose hell now through their choices. We see it in tyranny, oppression, greed, rape, injustice. But in the end, “Love wins. God wants everyone to be saved and God gets what God wants.” But then he says, “Our choices matter now more than we can imagine, because we can miss out on rewards and celebrations.” We are to make the most of this life because “while we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again.” In other words, he goes on, “there are consequences for our actions, in this life and the next, and we can’t get this moment back; but there will always be more chances. If you don’t live life to the fullest and choose love now, you may initially miss out on some good things in the life to come, but in the end love wins.” See what I mean by both sides?
The question that has to be answered is, what is love? According to Bell (in an interview), “God is love and Jesus came to show us this love, to give us this love, to teach us about this love, so that we could live in this love and extend it to others.” He also says, “Love is about freedom. Love is about choice.”
But let’s start where Bell starts. He begins the book by talking about the Christian faith, what has been taught in traditional evangelicalism: “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” This is in the preface.
In the first chapter Bell talks a lot about stories he’s experienced and conversations he’s had about heaven and hell. Asking if it is loving for God to send people to hell? Is there any hope for someone after they die? If an atheist dies, is that it? What is it that gets someone to heaven and one to hell? Is God limited to the time we have on earth? Do we need to pray a prayer to get into heaven? A prayer that Bell rightly points out isn’t in the Bible. We do need to remember 1 John 1:9 which says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” I think the question Bell asks about God and his ability to save someone in our short lives. “Why” he asks “Will we be held accountable for eternity, for things we did in a short period of time when taken in light of eternity?” If that isn’t the case though, it shorts what our lives mean. In the next line Bell then points out that too often evangelism and the gospel is about getting to heaven, being saved. This often leads to hypothetical questions, which Bell has an endless amount of, concerning salvations at the end of lives, hyper charged worship services. For me and our church, in terms of salvation our belief is “If saved, always saved.” IF, and that is the crucial word, if someone has been changed, regenerated as theologians call it, made new, they will always be saved. You will see their fruit, their lives. Jesus spoke over and over about fruit, as did his brother, James.
One thing Bell does get right is how he points out too many Christians focus on heaven and the gospel is simply about getting to heaven. This gives the impression that our lives and how we live don’t matter. The gospel is not just about getting to heaven. The gospel is also about our lives here and now. The gospel is about changing us on a daily basis into the likeness of Jesus. What this means and Bell doesn’t say it, the gospel justifies us, making us right with God (this is salvation). That is often where the gospel talk stops for most Christians, but it continues. The gospel sanctifies us, making us more like Christ on a daily basis, changing our hearts, working on the idols of our hearts and the glorifies us in heaven with Jesus for eternity.
What comes through in the first chapter and much of the book is the question about the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God states “God is over all things and nothing happens without his direction or permission.” I don’t know what Bell would say in terms of agreeing with this, but he questions it everywhere. Pointing out from Romans 10, that people won’t hear the gospel if someone doesn’t preach it and go to people. Bell then wonders if eternity is based on others. What if people don’t go? Don’t speak? What if the missionary gets a flat tire and someone never hears? Are they doomed to hell because of that flat tire? While he doesn’t come out and say, “We should question if God is in control and over all things” he questions it. If God is not over all things and in control, then we are walking into open theism. Open theism is the belief that God does not exercise meticulous control of the universe but leaves it “open” for humans to make significant choices (free will) that impact their relationships with God and others. A corollary of this is that God has not predetermined the future. Open Theists further believe that this would imply that God does not know the future exhaustively. Proponents affirm that God is omniscient, but deny that this means that God knows everything that will happen. What if the missionary doesn’t get there? According to Romans 1:20, the message of God is everywhere, all around us and according to the apostle Paul, “God’s eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived since the creation of the world.”
But what does it mean to believe in Jesus? To accept Jesus? If this is the heart of the gospel and Christian message, aren’t those actions Bell points out. Does that mean our works get us to heaven? Ironically, right now I am preaching through James at Revolution, which gets to the heart of this question. I believe our works don’t save us, but our works, how we live, show our hearts and where our faith is.
At the heart of this book is Bell’s belief that all things will be restored and that this has been the message throughout church history and is in the Bible. On p. 107 he says, “And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a “renewal of all things,” Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will “restore everything,” and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ “God was pleased to…reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” But the context of those passages are incredibly important to what they say. But the bigger question is, the belief that hell is not forever and love in the end wins, is that the belief that has been true and held to within church history? I’m indebted to Kevin DeYoung for pointing me to a quote from Richard Bauckham’s history survey: “Until the 19th century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated…Even fewer were advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of the universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.”
But what about heaven and hell? Are they real? Are they someplace else? Who goes there, does everyone get to heaven?
“They are tensions” Bell says, “tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” This would be an okay answer if Bell didn’t answer what he thinks about these tensions. But read that sentence again. What does that even mean? Does that mean, Scripture is not clear on heaven and hell and sin? Those are big issues for Scripture to not be clear on. Heaven. Hell. Death. Those are important topics.
Bell says in the chapter on hell that he believes in hell. He then defines it through a series of stories. This is crucial to reading this book, how he defines the hell he believes in. Is it the hell Jesus spoke of? Bell would say he believes in hell, but his definition of it. Hell he says, is seen in injustices, people he has sat with who have experienced loss, abuse, rape and atrocities. He is right, those moments and places are hell. As a pastor, those are moments that remind you of the depravity of man and sin. But is that what the Bible calls hell? Is that part of it? Bell references the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 when the rich man asks Lazarus for a drink of water. The rich man asks Lazarus to serve him water, to serve him after death as he did in life. Bell points out that in death, his heart is still not changed. What is not clear is how the rich man, whom Bell says in hell. That hell is personal and communal, how love wins for the rich man. How does “God get what he wants” for the rich man?
At the heart of this question and debate is the book of Revelation. It has been debated if Revelation is a history book of what happened in the first century or if it is prophetic of what will happen. According to Bell, the letter of Revelation does not end with blood and violence, it ends with the world permeated with God’s love (p. 112, 114). He also says that judgment happens as some choose to live in their own hells all the time. Yet, judgment in Revelation does come from God’s throne, and in some places, it is violent (see Revelation 21:8, 27; 22:3, 14 – 15, 18 – 19). There is the judgment where some will be thrown into the lake of fire where torment never ends (Revelation 20:10; 21:8). I remember hearing in bible college how there was a belief some held of getting a second chance after death. That when everyone stood before God and saw that he was in fact real, they would have another chance of accepting him. Yet, this is not in Scripture. I always found this belief curious and Bell talks about this belief on p. 116 as a possibility. But, what kind of faith is that? I sin and reject God my whole life saying that he is not real with my mouth and my actions. I die and stand before him and see that he is real, and I get a second chance to believe? Faith is not seeing something and then believing. Who would not stand before God, see that he is real, see that heaven and hell are real and choose God?
But what does God want? This is a crucial phrase for Bell, that “God gets what God wants.” Bell points out that churches talk about the unsaved spending eternity apart from God, in torment. They also claim God is mighty, powerful, loving, unchanging, sovereign, full of grace and mercy.” That all things are possible with God. The heart of this debate is 2 Peter 3:9 where it says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” Does God want anyone to perish? No. Does God want all to repent? Yes. Will they? It doesn’t say they all will or that God will make them. For a helpful sermon on this passage, listen to this. Bell then quotes Psalm 65, Ezekiel 36, Isaiah 52, Zephaniah 3, and Philippians 2 to show us that all will know who God is, that all will see salvation is through God. This is true. All will know God exists. All will know that salvation is found only in God. But, none of those passages say all will be saved.
Does God want all peoples to be with him? Yes. Does that mean he will make them? No. How does that fit into Bell’s definition of love, the choice he holds out? Bell points out, “Suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t.” This brings up a big question about the sovereignty of God, we will keep returning to this. Where do pain and suffering fit into this? Are they not able to bring God glory? How do we reconcile the story of Job? Exodus? The writings of Paul? The cross? All that pain, all that suffering. Wasted? Can they not bring God glory? As Tim Keller points out, “Many say the existence of pain and suffering in our world prove there can’t be a God. I say, to the contrary. How do you explain pain and suffering without God?”
In all this, the question that kept running through my head is, “What is the point of the cross?” If the door of heaven never closes according to Bell and love wins because that is what God wants and his desire for everyone to be saved leads him to not send anyone to hell, why did Jesus have to die? It seems like a waste. Why go through the anguish? Why send your Son to show your love to a world you are just going to redeem? To me, that makes God even crueler than allowing people who choose to reject God and go to hell, to in the end, allow them into heaven. How is it love to allow people into heaven who don’t want to be there with a God they don’t believe in? Here is what Bell says about the cross: “There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never lose its power’ and ‘Nothing but the blood will save us,’” Bell writes. “Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods.People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways,” he continues. “But most of us don’t. What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand.” What’s wrong with this? Russell Moore is incredibly helpful: Blood means judgment. When the Holy One of Israel wishes to remind Pharaoh that he is a man and not a god, he turns the king’s life-giving Nile River into blood (Ex. 7:17-25). The Apostle John sees the same judgment on a self-worshiping humanity. The waters they need for life turn to blood (Rev. 8:8). By removing the blood language, the language of sacrifice, we remove what it means to sing with the redeemed of all of the ages, “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). If you remove the blood from the doorposts of Egypt, all that’s left is judgment. The same thing happens when you remove the blood from the gospel. Jesus offends us with our own blood, reminding us that what runs through our veins will one day run cold. He tells us then that in order to live, we must be united to the life-blood of another, a blood spilled for rebels like us. Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than Abel’s. It tells us precisely what Bell would like us to ignore: God is just and judgment is sure. The people around us already believe in hell, and not because they’ve heard a guilt-inducing message from the church. They may deny it consciously; everyone does, at first. But the Scripture tells us that, apart from Christ, we are all in captivity to the devil who holds us in bondage “through fear of death” (Heb. 2:15). How does anyone get free of this? It’s only by countering the accusations of Satan, and that can only happen, if there’s a just God, if there is a judgment. In Christ, we’ve already been to hell. In Christ, the devil’s indictments are answered. We have conquered him “by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 12:10). That’s why every church that has embraced universalism had died out, withering away from the gospel. In order for people to see Christ, they must see sin and, yes, judgment. In order to see justification, you must also see justice. If you drain the blood out of the church, all you are left with is a corpse.
For Bell, the idea that we can reject God in this life, but then in eternity, God’s love and grace become irresistible. How does that add up? How can we resist God and his love now, but after death it becomes so irresistible that we all accept it? Can’t someone resist in the life after this if they were able to resist in this life? Thus, ending up in the hell of their choosing for millions of years? Would God’s love then be thwarted? At least according to Bell’s definition. The reality of sin, which Bell does believe in, but he talks about in big sin. Things like war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace (p. 36 – 37). Those are sins, but most people would put that in the sin category. According to Tim Keller, “Whenever we sin, we believe a lie. We believe that thing (lie, gossip, anger, porn) will bring us greater joy than God.”
What is lost in the whole discussion of sin is the idea of holiness. What sets God and the Scripture apart is holiness. Holiness means “set apart, different.” Bell points out that his story of “Jesus is different, it is about the love of God for every single one of us. It is stunning, beautiful, expansive love and it is for everybody, everywhere.” But as Kevin DeYoung points out, this deviates from the plotline of the Bible: “Look at God’s people in the garden, then kicked out of the garden; God’s people in the promised land, then booted out of the promised land; God’s people in the New Jerusalem, then the wicked and unbelieving locked outside the New Jerusalem. Trace this story from tabernacle to temple through the incarnation and Pentecost and the coming down of the new heaven and new earth and you will see that the Bible’s story is about how a holy God can possibly dwell among an unholy people. the good news of this story is not that God loves everybody everywhere and you just need to find Christ in the rocks all around you. The good news is that God over and over makes a way for his unholy people to dwell in his holy presence, and that all these ways were pointing to the Way, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
God is loving, this is all over Scripture. God is also just and at times, wrathful. This is also all over Scripture. God is both loving, just and wrathful.
One of the things that I found interesting in the book, and scary when you think about the theology he is teaching is that he rarely cited historical sources. He talks about original languages but doesn’t cite sources. We are to assume that Bell is right and knows what he is talking about. He also rarely cites Scripture correctly. He quotes it, references it, but the context is incredibly important (for more on the exegetical side of this, I would highly recommend you check out Kevin DeYoung’s review of the book). Again, we are to assume Bell is right and knows what he is talking about. While he says the book is to create a conversation, it comes off very one sided. Ironically, as he points out in the preface those who disagree with him are traditionalists. He says a traditionalist doesn’t allow for questions, change or maturity. That doesn’t sound inviting to have a conversation. Imagine saying to a friend or a spouse, “We can talk about this, but I already know what you think and what you think about what I think.” You aren’t listening at that point and the other doesn’t feel like you are going to listen.
I want to be clear about something. I love questions. I love the honest, heartbreaking questions that happen within our community at Revolution. When someone asks my why something happened in their lives, where God was in moments, if eternity is real, if people they love are in hell. Those are painful moments. But they are also one of the reasons I am a pastor. What turns my stomach is when pastors, teachers and leaders knowingly spread false teaching that brings about damage. Our choices do matter as Bell points out. But they matter because they decide where we spend eternity. Love in the end does win, but God’s love and holiness means that many will spend eternity apart from him and this does bring God glory.
Like Bell, the thought of someone spending eternity apart from God in hell is horrible. It pushes me as a pastor and a follower of Jesus. It should push all followers of Jesus to share the gospel. But, I also rest in the sovereignty of God. God is sovereign over eternity, heaven and hell and who ends up there. As he is sovereign over Japan right now in the midst of the earthquakes and what is happening there.
Love does win. Heaven is real. Hell is real. Eternity is a long time and not everyone spends it with God.
For more reviews and information on the book and the doctrines of Jesus, the cross, heaven and hell. Here are some things to check out:
- Tim Challies review of the book
- “To Hell with Hell?” by Mark Driscoll
- Al Mohler on Doing away with Hell Part 1 and Part 2
- Kevin DeYoung review of the book
- “Mars Hell” by Doug Wilson
- Christianity Today review of the book
- Denny Burk gives a chapter by chapter review
What is important in reading any book on theology or any blog or listening to any sermon is to do so with a Bible. Read Bell’s book and others like it with your Bible. When he references the Old and New Testament, look at the passage. See if the context supports what he is saying. Context matters. Verses in Scripture were written in a certain time period, to a certain group of people going through a certain thing.