Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: "Love Wins" (2011) by Rob Bell

As promised I am writing a review of the book "Love Wins" by Rob Bell.  I don't think of myself as a good book reviewer...because I tend to focus in on what the book meant to me and what stuck out to me rather than treating the book as a whole and giving it an unbiased presentation and review, so I apologize for that.  However, if you are reading this you probably already know my style of presentation and know that you'll receive here more of my opinion which you are to weed through rather than irrevocable truth which you can stand on (for that I would have to refer you to Scripture).  So please bear with my wholly nonacademic, unstructured, and probably improper review of the book at hand.

First, I feel a need to defend Rob Bell, if for no other reason than the fact that he has been somewhat unfairly and unjustly (in my estimation) attacked from so many angles for the writing and publication of this book.  There are some who have called for a boycott of everything associated with Bell, removing his videos and writings from church libraries and even personal libraries, because of what was written in this book.  In fact, some of my readers may have done such things (as I have), but I have come to the conclusion that if we are going to throw out the whole of Bell's work based on this one book then we should also throw out the whole of C.S. Lewis' work based upon his book "The Great Divorce" and the whole of Martin Luther's work based upon his anti-semitic views which were so strong as to actually aid Hitler's work in the Holocaust.  No human perfectly understand the truth, but every Christian should be seeking the truth through the Word of God, and as such we should expect truly godly persons to, at times, say and even teach things which are in error, because it is only then that they are being honest as to what they believe and even honestly searching Scripture to understand what it teaches.  Basically, what I am trying to say is, the fact that Rob Bell is searching out the meaning of heaven and hell in light of Scripture, publishing something that is contrary to commonly held beliefs because he believes it is what God teaches in His Word even though he knows that it will severely taint his reputation and ministry, does not, in my opinion, lessen his place within the Christian tradition, but rather raises him to the level of such men as Luther, Huss, Calvin, C.S. Lewis, and others.  In fact, the Protestant tradition is based upon men who were willing to say what their consciences compelled them to believe based upon Scripture rather than what was commonly held to be true.  This does not validate the content of the book, but rather the person of the author, and I hope that it helps you to see why I have a great respect for Rob Bell and for his willingness to print such a controversial book even though I wholly disagree with a great deal of what he says.

Now, onto the book itself.
Some observations (this is the "unbiased" section where I simply try to give an honest evaluation of the book as a whole. The next section will contain my opinions of the content):
1) Rob Bell is a rock star turned pastor.  This book follows suit.  It is not, as you may expect a book challenging current beliefs about heaven and hell to be, an academic, heavy read, rather it is best read as fast as you can and definitely not with a highlighter and pen in hand.  Read first, think later.
2) Following the previous observation, Love Wins is not a compilation of research or a synthesis of information, rather it is a man presenting his opinions about eternity.  Obviously his opinion is informed by many sources and has been developed over many years, but you will not find citations for his thoughts or even a bibliography at the end of the book (although there is a "Further Reading" section at the end, containing a grand total of 7 books).  In my estimation, this is a great weakness in the book, I can't even begin to try to figure out where Bell got his ideas from in order to further consider or study them.
3) Rob Bell is a man well versed in Scripture.  One thing that you will find throughout the whole book is Scripture reference after Scripture reference.  Although the majority of them seem to come from the Gospels and the prophets (I didn't keep tally) he does have a great number of references from every section of the Bible.  This, in my opinion, is a great plus to the book.
4) Rob definitely seems to have been hurt by the evangelical community at some point in the past and has obviously ministered to a great number of people who have been.  Consequently, there are times in the book where he'll challenge the "common conception" about God or the after life, however I question whether there is really anyone who believes these things which Bell argues against or whether they are just straw men that he has created in order to beat down.

What I'm left with (this is where you'll find what I think of Bell's conclusions):
1) I think that Love Wins addresses some serious problems within Evangelical Christianity which should be addressed and which are, indeed, problems.  One of these is the common view that we will spend eternity in heaven.  I think that Bell is right that the gospel is not about God destroying the earth and taking us to heaven but rather it is about him restoring the earth and then bringing heaven down to it.  This is one example of a side issue that he addresses in the book that I am actually thankful for and think is good and appropriate.  For these things I applaud Bell and hope that some in the evangelical community listen up and return to the Scriptures to see what they actually teach.
2) One major issue I have with the book Love Wins is Bell's definition of love.  Perhaps the greatest problem is that he never really defines love.  It becomes evident as you read, though, that to Bell love is "the freedom to choose" (page 104 & 113).  In fact he says "Love demands freedom.  It always has, and it always will."  But he never backs this up with anything.  He gives Scripture for just about everything he suggests in his book except for this one (and you could say, this core) assertion, that love is freedom.  I, personally, hold to a different definition of love.  I define love as "seeking the greatest good of another".  Unfortunately, I also don't know where I came up with that definition or why I hold to it.... But if you define love as seeking the other's greatest good rather than the giving the other the freedom to choose it changes the whole argument of the book, which is why I wish Bell would have put more effort into explaining his view of love.
3) Another major issue I have with this book is Bell's treatment of Hell.  Perhaps his greatest argument against the common understanding of Hell is that it is not clearly taught anywhere in Scripture.  And to prove this he lists "every" verse that mentions Hell.  The problem is that there are no Greek or Hebrew words that refer to the Christian understanding of Hell (which he admits).  So congratulations Rob, you have now listed every verse that mentions the Old Testament Jewish view of the afterlife or contains the Greek word that it seems Jesus used to refer to Hell at times, but you've missed every other passage (and there are many) that deals with what the Scripture would present as the Christian view of Hell or that would speak about someone going to such a place!  Basically, Rob builds a case against the Greek word "gehenna" (because it was a literal trash heap outside Jerusalem) saying it is the only word in the New Testament that can be literally translated "Hell", but he misses all the other times that Hell is spoken of by way of another illustration or even through inference.  What bugs me even more about this is that he later criticizes "the church" for picking certain illustrations in the Bible (such as Old Testament sacrifice as a symbol of Jesus' atoning work pg 129) and using them exclusively while forgetting about all of the other illustrations that exist.  However, when it comes to hell, Bell exclusively uses the illustration of gehenna (a trash heap) while ignoring all of the other references which use other words.  So I will use his own words against him on this point "The point, then, isn't to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism.  To elevate one over the others, to insist that there's a 'correct' or 'right one', is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors.  They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp" (pg 129).  Yes Rob, you are absolutely correct, and I would say that Jesus was doing the same thing by speaking of Hell as the trash heap outside Jerusalem.  It doesn't negate the reality of Hell, rather it shows how seriously Jesus took it, so seriously that he would use any appropriate metaphor to communicate to his followers its seriousness.  Ok, there's much more I could say here, but it gets too long...
4) Another concern of mine is Bell's implications towards Satan and the fallen angels.  Bell points out all of the passages that speak of God restoring ALL things and emphasizes that this means that ALL people must eventually be saved.  However, if you follow this interpretation of these passages you must end up at the point where you believe that God will eventually restore the fallen angels as well.  I do not know whether Rob would agree with this or not, however from my perspective it would seem far more difficult to explain away the passages that refer to Satan's eternal consequences than it is the ones which refer to that of humanity.

I would like to end by saying that there are some things which I greatly appreciate about what Rob Bell has to say and even about the message of Love Wins.
1) Rob twice (that I can remember) takes a specific theological view and expands it using Scripture.  So on one occasion he lists all of the illustrations used in Scripture of the atonement and ends up with the sentence "What happened on the cross is like...a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved."  I've found that some people so stress the judicial action of the cross that they forget that Jesus was also purchasing a people for himself, that he was pouring out love upon his enemies, that he was purchasing back something that was once his own.  And we do this with other things, we may focus on the church as a family but forget that it is also a body, a building, a hospital, a bride.  I love the way that Rob just lists all of the illustrations from Scripture out one after another so you can think about the differences between them and realize how easy it is to get wrapped up in a single illustration rather than seeing the picture that God is trying to draw by using ALL of the illustrations together.
2) I also love his treatment of the story of the prodigal son.  He talks about accepting the gospel as humbly accepting God's version of our life story instead of our own, and how often as Christians we need to again trade in our story of guilt, condemnation, or self-righteousness for God's story of unconditional love, grace, and human insufficiency.

There are many more things I could say.  As I stated at the beginning, there are many side points that Bell makes in Love Wins which I greatly appreciate and think we would all do well to learn from, however his overall point seems underdeveloped (lacks a good definition for love), unscriptural (completely leaves out most passages dealing with hell and ignores some implications of his new doctrine), and ill-informed (at least judging from the extreme lack of citations or sources).  I appreciate Bell's tenacity, I appreciate his desire to minister to people who have been hurt by the church, I appreciate his ministry, I appreciate his support of those who are questioning and doubting, I appreciate his love for the Lord and his desire to share that love with others, however this book did not seem to me to be a compelling resource for considering the ultimate things of life.

I would like to end with one thought, though.  Rob does portray some glaring problems with the view of heaven and hell currently held by most evangelicals.  They are problems that I myself have seen when considering eternity in light of Scripture.  It is no secret that I still struggle with my current understanding of the atonement, and I am still seeking answers to some of these questions.  So I would encourage you: read this book.  Ask the questions.  And then seek the truth in Scripture.  I purposefully read Love Wins before reading Erasing Hell by Francis Chan or any other book on the topic because I wanted to allow myself to ask the questions.  I think that too often we try to just take the "answers" from those who have already worked these things out through Scripture rather than ourselves digging into the Word and seeing what God is saying there.  If this review leaves you with anything, I hope it is a desire to read Love Wins and see what Rob Bell has to say.  Not reading it with a critical, angry eye, picking out every little thing that contradicts what you believe, but rather reading it with a humble spirit, allowing his corrections to fall upon fertile soil, and then going to Scripture to see what God really says.

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