Love Wins Review: A Long Part 1

Love Wins Review: Part One

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne; $22.99) by Grand Rapids Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell, as you surely know by now, is a controversial book.  It is less clear and more controversial than it would have needed to have been about some things, it is very clear about some other things and, as most fair-minded reviewers have noted, it is a very mixed bag.  Those who don’t like paradox or living with tensions may find it unbearably inconsistent, but for those willing to host a bit of messy uncertainty and head-scratching complexity, it is a very memorable read.

It remains uncertain to me if Bell has moved beyond what can reasonably called evangelical, or even orthodox.  Although it does not remain uncertain to others, who insist that he is scandalous and dangerous. Some say he is a heretic, others say he is heterodox, which is just shy of heresy.  Or, as non-universalistic evangelical Richard Mouw writes, Bell has written “a fine book…I basically agree with his theology.”  Here Eugene Peterson explains why he has on the book’s dust jacket an endorsement stating Bell does not “compromise an inch of evangelical conviction”, which even I find to be a bit of well-intended rhetorical flourish.

 A very helpful overview of the whole conversation is nicely described in an essential piece by Christianity Today’s Mark Galli, (“Heaven Hell and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context”) noting that Bell’s approach to judgment and hell—seemingly a Christ-centered universalism, although Bell specifically does not use the U word—is not all that new; from a few early church leaders to the estimable Karl Barth to maybe C.S. Lewis (and to his beloved George MacDonald) and, in a qualified manner of speaking, right up to evangelical statesman John Stott, the conclusion that God’s love will melt the hardest hearts (or extinguish them in death without eternal anguish) is not novel or new.  I do hope you’ll read the CT report as it is the best background piece I’ve read and very informative.

To say the conclusions of Love Wins aren’t new doesn’t excuse it if it is wrong, of course. (And, it is important to recall, as Russell Moore, in an excellent and fascinating critique called “The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell” observes, that even where it has been accepted, “every church that embraced universalism had died out, whithering away from the gospel.”)   Still, keeping it in perspective that this has been an on-going conversation may lower reader’s expectations that it presents something really innovative and out-of-the-box crazy.  It doesn’t.   As Bell puts it, “It’s a wide stream we’re swimming in.”  And like it or not, all we can say is “Ain’t that the truth!”

Bell says in the preface, “If this book, then, does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multi-voiced complexity—well, I’d be thrilled.” 

In my two previous posts I’ve suggested that you watch the TV interviews, read the early Tim Challies & Aaron Armstrong critique (and, if you can find it in the comments posted at Armstrong’s Blogging Theologically, my reply naming ways I think they misrepresented the book.)  I recommended the lengthy and passionate critique by Kevin DeYoung, an expose of what DeYoung insists is shoddy history and an “indefensible” misuse of Scripture.  There is a lot of trash talk on the internet, but some of these critiques are well worth reading, and they do a different sort of job than I am able to, so I recommend them.  In fact, just to get you thinking even more, see an imagined alternative promo script in this brief send up (it isn’t exactly a parody) of Bell’s initial Love Wins promo video.  It won’t make as much sense if you haven’t seen the Bell video as it takes many of his exact phrases, reversing them in an illuminating way.  It is called “Justice Wins.”

I expressed my disagreements with DeYoung in my last post but I will say this right away as well: he demolishes some of Bell’s interpretations of Bible passages and opines that

Bell has a reputation for being brilliant and creative, and he probably is in certain spheres.  But his use of Scripture exhibits neither characteristic.  In fact, it is naive, literalistic biblicism.  He flattens everything, either to make traditional theology sound ridiculously inconsistent or to make a massive point from one out-of-context verse.  He makes no attempt to understand metaphors, genre, or imagery (either in Scripture or in his grandmother’s painting.)  He does not try to harmonize anything that might rot his fresh take on the Bible.  He loves Jewish background and context, but he shows very little familiarity with the actual story-line and the shape of the Old Testament.  His style may be engaging to some, but look up the passages for yourself and then pick up a reputable study Bible or a basic commentary series.  You’ll seriously question Bell’s use of Scripture.

Hmmm.  Harsh words, and I am not sure I think it is fair without some qualifications; I am not just being civil when I ask if this might be more honest if it said “sometimes” and “often” and “on some occasions” amidst some of the huge allegations.  I cannot adjudicate this for you, so you will simply have to read it for yourself and keep an eye out for the bad stuff DeYoung warns about.  I do have sympathies with his concerns, though, even if I feel DeYoung himself does a bit “flattening of everything” that Bell says, perhaps with a bit of “naive and literalistic reading” as well, where the critic makes a “massive point from an out-of-context” line or two.

So, I hope you have read my last two long posts, both about rules for
engagement and guidelines for Christian civility and some ruminations on ways this matters and doesn’t matter much.  The ugliness on the
internet around this book, especially in comment threads, is a sad sign
of the times and if we are going to be critical of Bell, we must also be
critical of those who have expressed vitriol and arrogance. This is not
saying (as I have repeatedly said) that we ought not offer critique,
but it is a call for fairness and kindness, for deepening the art of
Christian disagreement, conflict resolution, and insightful book

For those who don’t think Rob minds the dust-up all that much, since he
is “laughing his way to the bank” and loves being the center of
controversy, I would wager that you are seriously mistaken.  I do not
think Bell is happy to be misunderstood and marked as evil and I do not
think the Lord Jesus who said “by this all will know…that you love one
another” is happy with this shameful fiasco.  Those who chided me for
overstating the call to civility are wrong (and yes, a few of you are
among my closest friends, so we’ve already had this conversation.)  John
13:35 is unequivocal: by this all will know that we are true Christians: that we love one
another—not that we were spot on this or that doctrinal formulation or
exegetical effort.  As I hope you know, Francis Schaeffer, in his marvelous little classic The Mark of a Christian (IVP) carried this to the next nearly unbelievable step: John 14:21.  God says that the world has the right to disbelief the claims of Jesus if we do not show visible unity.  Love is, indeed, “the final apologetic.”

I guess I have to admit to my ambivalence with the really strong critics because, to be honest, I didn’t scribble “no way” or “impossible” or “ugh!” or even plaster too many question marks on every page of my advanced copy, the way DeYoung and Moore and others surely must have.  There are a few real boners, a few serious gaffes, and a line or two I just crossed out.  And a lot more I wish he would have said.  (And sometimes think the most inner circle of hell is surely for those who don’t have good footnotes, but I’ll let that slide.)   Most of it was pretty good and some was great.  More importantly, it is very, very interesting that these two evangelical Presbyterian heroes of mine, Christian leaders and PhD-ed intellectuals who are obviously much sharper than I, gentleman I trust,  Eugene Peterson and Richard Mouw, have both said that Love Wins is well within the bounds of Biblical orthodoxy. They both were clear (I gave you the links, above) that they don’t agree with all of what Bell says, or how he says it, but they are happy to celebrate it as a book very much worth reading.  Peterson and Mouw.  Well, there ya go.  

Whether you stand with the strict critics like John Piper, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung and others who go hard against Bell for serious and specific doctrinal and Biblical error or you appreciate Rob’s Nooma-esque effort at a culturally-relevant style that gives an appealing call to postmoderns to urgently follow Christ, the lover of all and the restorer of all creation, or fall, as I think I do, somewhere in between, I hope you are eager to learn from both sides, to use this as an opportunity to rethink some stuff.  Many readers of BookNotes are better read than I but, yet, I know many of us often have opinions we haven’t through through very carefully.  So welcome to my rambling overview. 

Naturally, I suggested you buy the darn book from us (which, a few days ago, in that first post, we offered at a good discounted price) and read it for yourself.  The publisher has run out of the first edition already although we will have more in a few days, we hope.  Love Wins is thoughtful and interesting (especially if you enjoy his speaking style, like in the two dozen Nooma videos or the long-form pieces like Everything Is Spiritual, The Gods Are Not Angry, or Drops Likes Stars.)  You may find his urgent, passionate, earnest, bohemian style distracting but you should know it resonates with many thousands.  As a communicator and person (we only met once) I like him a lot.  But the point is that his ideas matter, it is beneficial to discuss them, but let’s not get carried away.  Do read my post about my sense that the it isn’t quite so important as some claim that it is and if you want to see why I insist that theological precision is simply not as ultimate as some seem to make it out to be.  I used the word “pre-theoretical.”  Go figure.

We’ve said that it is wise to admit that this isn’t utterly new and that others have expressed this before.  I’m ambivalent, at best, but enjoyed the book if only for its verve and how it gave voice to very understandable questions that many of us have.

However,  I want to suggest something I don’t
think I’ve heard anyone else say, and it is what I’ve chosen to use as
my contribution to the discussion: at times I think that Bell’s view of God’s likely defeat of a literal eternal
hell is a bit new, or at at least offered in a somewhat new framing and
.  His view is consistently shaped by his understanding of the reality of
heaven-on-Earth and a sort of realized eschatology of new creation where
literally “every single particle” is reconciled in Christ, or will be,
as the Bible promises over and over.  It is not that God is too nice to
punish bad people, or that people really aren’t so bad–he is clear that they are and that we build plenty of hells on earth—or even that
there are many ways to God—that is not his tone or teaching at all. I
think his eschatological background framework and emphasis on Christ’s
creation-restoring work is a larger and more serious approach and one
that may offer at least a new reason to revisit this ancient question.

Still, whether this frame is a bit of a new on-ramp to the questions
about the “wideness of God’s mercy” and the nature of heaven and hell, a
brand new CT piece by Mark Galli “Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far” concludes
that Bell has, in fact, gone beyond what the Bible teaches and what
evangelical doctrine requires.  It is a very, very good review and I
commend it to you.  I think he is kind and fair, civil and candid.  And
pretty much right, even though he misses some important features of the
book, features that I will explore because I think they are important.  So if you don’t want to read my rambling roll of a several part
review, at least read Galli. 

Two chapter titles in Love Wins are illustrative of how he frames the discussion of “the fate of every person” by this broad and comprehensive reading of the full-on hope of creation-wide restoration.  They are typically allusive–is Bellian a word?– provocative and hip: “Here is the New There” and “Good News That Is Better Than That.”  They illustrate the background and context of his ruminations on hell: God’s heaven is coming on Earth (just like Jesus said) and in union with Christ we can begin to experience it here and now and this great news is much, much better than a mere assurance of escaping punishment in the hereafter.  Every knee is going to bow to Christ and will see this spectacular goodness, so you might as well get on the gospel train now. Etc. Etc.

He is serious about this and we should be to.

Just for instance, after a handful of Older Testament promises of goodness (which he extrapolates to include–as the texts sometimes say but may or may not mean—all people and their lands. Check out these punchy one-sentence paragraphs:

The prophet Ezekiel said that people will be given grain and fruit and crops and new hearts and new spirits (chap. 36)

The prophet Amos promised that everything will be repaired and restored and rebuilt and “new wine will drip from the mountains.” (chap. 9)

Life in the age to come.
If This sounds like heaven on earth,
that’s because it is.


This is good stuff and important.  It is important because I believe it is true (and sadly underestimated in most churches) and important because without those views, we cannot adequately understand his expansive view of grace and the very title of the book.  Do note that the book is not firstly or primarily about hell.  He is all about the presence of God come to Earth in Jesus and in the Kingdom He is establishing here.

Once again, Bell is not the first to say this–it is not that uncommon, actually—and he has said it since his first book.  Here is an excerpt from 2005s Velvet Elvis (Zondervan) which could have been an excerpt from Love Wins

Let me take this further: If we only have a legal-transaction understanding of salvation in which we are forgiven of our sins so we can go to heaven, then salvation essentially becomes a ticket to somewhere else. In this understanding, eternity is something that kicks in when we die…

The Bible paints a much larger picture of salvation. It describes all of creation being restored. The author of Ephesians writes that all things will be brought together under Jesus. Salvation is the entire universe being brought back into harmony with its maker.

Alas, I think a lot of even deeper context may be helpful, and I will first say this: as we’ve already said, but it is vital to say again here, so you can follow the tale, Bell is not the first to wonder about the moral defensibility of God consigning people to conscious torture forever even if God’s holiness is such that human rebellion is inexcusably traitorous. This has been pondered (as Bell explains, perhaps making a bit too much of it historically) from the earliest days of church history. In about the only line from the brilliant Mark Galli review that I found wanting, Galli says that only a “tiny minority” held this view.  What he means is only a tiny minority of theological writers who were deemed orthodox held to this view. I’d say a lot of people, people you and I know, actually do hold this view (and if you don’t have friends who have told you that they believe something like this about not really believing in hellfire as typical understood then you either don’t have friends who are being honest with you or you don’t get out much.) 

 Of course, popularity doesn’t make it true, but Bell is correct that he is not alone in suspecting–or at least hoping–that God’s love and mercy outweighs God’s anger at the unaware or unrepentant.

But there is something else going on here, something sometimes pretty deep below the surface, but it is something I think we can observe about Bell’s overall work and mission.

It seems some of the more responsible debate about Love Wins and Bells views of hell being defeated by the redemptive intentions of God’s love, are trying to wonder if it is orthodox to allow such an idea.  Can we say that all souls go to heaven?  Of course there is the huge question about the teaching of wrath and judgment, but let’s focus just on this background piece for a moment.  It seems obvious that a lot of people take sides on this question–all souls go to heaven, yes or no, true or not?

But what if that isn’t an especially Biblical way to ask the question?  What if Bell’s contribution, intended directly or not, is to help us reframe the assumptions of the question, or at least part of the question.  Should we believe in disembodied souls and do people live forever the the Heaven where God and angels dwell?  And where or what is our final destination?  Let’s back up a bit.  I’m positive it will help you understand Rob Bell better and not many have said it yet.

We must explore—hang in there with me because this is important—a matter presupposed within this conversation that has been going on, what people (leaders, theologians, artists, or more ordinary folk) tend to assume and therefore believe about the afterlife, any why they believe what they do.  It is an important matter that Bell himself doesn’t adequately address, but is surely in his mind.  We must explore the unhelpful influences of the pagan assumptions and weird views of Greek philosopher Plato, called Platonism (and, more precisely, the later, 3rd century revival and “Christianized” version of Plato that became known as neo-Platonism.) That unbiblical approach to the life of the so-called “eternal soul” influenced the intellectual categories of the early church.  And this has been bad, generally, and vexing as it influenced our thinking and talking about this topic.

It may be simple-minded to explain it this way, but just think of what one gets in chemistry when one creates a synthesis—something synthetic, artificial.  The pure thing is lost in the amalgam, now a composite, no longer the real deal.  So, the early church’s synthesis, its tainted acceptance of these Platonic ideas was disastrous and plague us still.   Bell doesn’t talk about this stuff, but I know that he knows it.  It is surely between the lines, part of his intellectual agenda. And I believe he is right–call it prophetic, even–on this score.

Just consider the alleged gulfs, the great divides, renown in the early church and medieval world that have in various ways deformed the modern church and how we lean into our lives:  the (good) soul vs the (bad) body, the (perfect) calling to be a prayerful contemplative vs the (lesser) calling to do ordinary work, the ideal of the (pure) celibate life vs the disapproval of (dirty) sex and procreation, the (sanctifying) role of pain vs the (tempting) joys of pleasure, the glories of the (rationalistic) intellectual life vs the (despised) life of manuel labor, the value of the (private) inner life vs the less valuable (public) life of the commons, and, eventually, the commonplace perception of a battle that is lined up as faith vs reason, and reason vs creativity, and, as Nancy Pearcy’s important work in Total Truth (Crossway) and Saving Leonardo (Broadman) helps us understand, knowing vs believing, fact vs value.  These unnecessary and deforming dualisms (and church le
aders did and do teach every single one of them) play out today in the oddest ways.  Most enduring, perhaps, and most relevant for the debate about the afterlife, is the hard dualism of a focus on the (eternal) afterlife as opposed to the (temporal) things of Earth, rooted in the old Platonic heresy of a hard division between the so-called pure form of a soul locked inside a (bad) material body.  Of course, this is not a Biblical way of understanding adama (literally, Earthling), the human person made in God’s image, but we hear it said yet today.  All the time.  

Add a little anti-matter gnosticism, some rationalistic scholasticism, some medieval Catholic mysticism—see Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience by Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs (IVP) for an excellent critique of how some of those enduring monastic writers perpetuate this hugely wrong and finally inhuman dichotomy—and throw in notions of the Divine Right of Kings and the idol of unrestrained scientific and industrial growth (“Knowledge is Power!”) wedded to the nationalism that confuses God and country and we have the gigundus confusions of Christendom which we are yet to discern our way out of.   Interestingly, the Mennonites and Brethren have offered some help on this whole affair, but others mostly silenced them.  Early 20th century social gospel liberalism and early 21st postmodern emergent conversations have been valiant in trying to offer an alternative vision to this unbiblical mess, but have simply not offered enough Biblical truth to be valuable or sustainable.  I find great hope, even in Bell’s contributions, but, better, in new books like A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael Goheen (BakerAcademic) showing the generative and fruitful way good Bible teaching can fund a missional vision for a missional church.  It is nearly monumental and will be a real blessing moving us in the right direction.

To try to again put it simply, a synthesis between Christian thinkers and the the dualism between the realms of the sacred and secular from  Plato gave rise to an ungodly ritualized church and a privatized personal faith, which facilitated a secularizing force (starting with the Renaissance and into the French Revolution and the British Enlightenment) to become prominent in Western culture, so we now have an often culturally irrelevant faith where the one thing people most religious people hope for—being immortal souls in an ethereal heaven—is itself an indication of our deeply unbiblical views.  The story of our lifetime is mostly shaped by the American Dream and our hope for the afterlife is shaped by a synthetic, lazy view that  just isn’t the story of God.

The mid-1980s book, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP) is still the best overview of this less than positive take on the accommodation of seminal church thinkers with Greco-Roman ways of thinking and the subsequent capitulation to the Enlightenment roots of Western culture with its idols of technological and economic progress at all cost.  The first chapter of their must-read sequel, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP) is a very succinct and prophetic bit of discernment about the ways modernity deformed our ability to live faithfully in God’s being-redeemed world.  Although it can be a tad dry at times, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew (Baker) is jam-packed with vital insights about our era (and how we got here). this “crossroads” time of a shift from modernity to postmodernity, and invites us to “think Christianly” as we develop a worldview and way of life in this setting, in light of the full unfolding drama of Biblical redemption.  Again, Bell doesn’t say it like this, but I believe if you can get this vision from these reliable scholars, it will put the debate about Love Wins in a bit of a different setting, and might be seen just a bit differently than the pretty predictable pro and  pro and con essays we’ve seen to date.

Now I do not know if Rob Bell has been influenced by these books.  The analysis which rejects the early church assumptions about the soul vs the body, spirit vs matter, church vs world, which were taken from Platonism and the subsequent adaptation of this sacred/secular dualism is important to really absorb if we are going to understand Bell’s view of new creation and the nature of the renewed world to come.

Interestingly and importantly,  Bell properly critiqued this sacred/secular split in his first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, and revisited the topic forcefully in Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, and he explored it by way of a study of modern astrophysics in his long-form DVD, Everything Is Spiritual (all bravely published Zondervan.)  Not everyone who cries “No Dualisms!” and proclaims that Christ rules “Every Square Inch of Creation” or those who is attentive to the deforming ways pagan ideas have crept into our understandings and lifestyles agree with him on, least of all on his view of hell.  Still, he does cry (or at least whisper) “No Dualisms!” in almost everything he writes.  And that is essential to appreciate if we are going to understand him fairly.

This is the context out of which Bell comes, then, and (or so it seems to me) some of the concerns that seemed to have propelled him, some of the stuff he maybe learned when he was at Fuller, some of the questions he pondered (I’m guessing) when he worked with the ex-fundamentalist church planter Ed Dodson who was learning to disentangle himself from his former right-wing work with Jerry Falwell, now hanging around people in Grand Rapids with AIDS as well as folks from Calvin College with their beloved Kuyper quote about the Lordship of Christ over “every square inch” of the creation–it’s on tee shirts in Western Michigan—starting up a hipster congregation with a serious, savvy and sassy concern for how the unchurched have been turned off by all of this bad religious stuff, this irrelevance and weirdness and ugliness and profound worldliness.  Early on he was rejecting dualism and rejecting Christendom and affirming creation, common grace, and a significantly Christ-centered view of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Again, as early as 2006 he did a lecture tour (performing sometimes at rock clubs and other unusual venues) on the spirituality of science which was marketed in DVD as Everything Is Spiritual!

He was, without saying it, making a statement which was profoundly anti-Platonic dualism in his first Nooma, 001 Rain. You know the one, where he holds his baby while hiking in the storm. The point is important: God’s creation is fallen and we must own up to our pain.  And God suffers with us.   God is not a distant deity and we are not called to be stoic.  Much later (012) he did one about a friend dying of cancer, Matthew.  God is present even in our pain, and important feature for Bell.

And in the next one, 002 Flame he again is deconstructing dualism.  Sex is a good, good thing, but can be abused.  Of course all manner of Christian folk might say it that way, but the power and passion and non-moralistic edge got to the heart of things, the way one might if one rejected the stupid dualism of Plato and the boys.  A pietist or dualist or liberal simply wouldn’t have done a DVD like Flame.  His very Jewish-sounding “blessing” at the end–what one friend calls his “may you” sound
like an invitation to good sex.  Some youth leaders wouldn’t use it.

With a vision of creating an incarnational, creative place to invite people into a more wholistic and radical and truly Biblical story, Bell took up rethinking things, trying to disentangle what the (mostly Jewish) Biblical writers most likely really thought, not the ways their visions have been dogmatized by a tradition that we now know has been significantly influenced by unholy forces, like the neo-Platonism stuff and all that led to.  It should not be surprising that he hosts a degree of uncertainity in these, honors people doubts and fears and comes across as genuine, raw, even.  This is another example of the reject of static Greek thinking.  The last Nooma (0024) was called Whirlwind.  It’s tag line?  “What do we do when there aren’t nice, neat answers?”

003 Trees is my favorite of them all and speaks squarely and directly to the relationship between creation and new creation.  He literally plants a gree on a city street, conjuring images of the “trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations” from Revelation 22.  Good trees in the garden, good trees in the new Earth.  We live, as he literally stands there, “between the trees.” Brilliant.  No dualism, all of life redeemed, creation-being-restored kind of realism.

I don’t know if he gets the customs of Second Temple-era Judaism precisely right, or names the right rabbinical texts, but 008 Dust is a tremendous Nooma, one of the most popular, and it is about how disciples of rabbis acted in first century Palestine, seeking to be accepted into a prestigious rabbinical school.  In an outrageously uncommon move, Jesus chose them, invited them into his movement, these unwashed fisherman.  Follow me, he says. And they stay close, allowing their character to be formed so they resemble Jesus as they apprentice with this odd rabbi.  It is about Biblical discipleship in response to calling and grace, living out our faith in action in the ways of the master, and not to be missed.

Do you know the 011Nooma called Rhythm?  Some thought it verged on pantheism, so taken as it is with God’s nearness.  He points out that some think God is distant, somewhere else (pulling levers?)  But God is like a song (it is filmed as classical musicians rehearse in their orchestra) and can be heard and felt, around us anywhere we are.  Knowing God isn’t the result of some separate religious activity but can be nurtured in all that we do.  God.  All that we do.  Bell is smashing the Western assumption of dualism and standing firmly in an authentic Biblical vision that God is huge and here and that creation speaks to us of the Creator.  He is not a Platonist or a stoic.

 Again I don’t really know if as a younger man Bell ever read the devastating critique of Western culture’s accommodation with Plato (and, later, through Aquinas, with Aristotle) by Francis Schaeffer, or the similar take on 20th century dualisms of the culture and counter-culture, rationalism and romanticism, such as The Dust of Death by Os Guinness or seminal works about these things like Leslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks, say.  But his passions and language and cultural discontent and desires to present an alternative telling and living of the gospel story makes a whole lot of sense in light of these important, broad cultural readings.

On this connect-the-dots to Plato theory which I realize I am now on the verge of driving into the ground, Love Wins doesn’t say much, but it is clear that he is taking on those assumptions at a profound level, rejecting things like the very way in which some of the early church fathers, through these influential lenses of Plato, described things like an immortal soul which seems to have significantly influenced the anthropology (that is, the view of the human person) in the earliest centuries of early theology.  So we now have this debate about whether people’s souls burn or don’t burn forever in a literal hell when, to some extent at least, our most careful scholars admit that this simply is not how Jews or the first century Gentiles who followed Jesus would have thought about the afterlife.  I wish I could say this more clearly or concisely but I invite you to re-read that last sentence.  It is important.

Notice, for instance, what Bell is getting at here, from his chapter called “Hell.”  He is describing a few Biblical words and their best translations.  (DeYoung, by the way, takes exception to his word studies and I am not sure if Bell, or his editors at HarperOne are to be trusted.  But I suspect that he is not as bad as DeYoung says.)  Bell suggests that a few words about the judgement of the goats in Matthew 25 may be mistranslated or at least misconstrued.  He says we read “eternal punishment” presuming it means never going to end, but that may not be accurate.

He asserts that “…’forever’ is not really a category the biblical writers used.”  Say what?

I don’t know if he is right, but he maintains that the closest the Hebrew writers come to a word for ‘forever’ is the word olam.   He gives a few Old Testament citations, noting that when it is talking about God it seems to mean what we mean (time with no beginning or end, eternal.)  But it is also used to mean a period of time.  Like in Jonah.

Olam, in this instance
turns out to be three days.

It’s a versatile, pliable word,
in most occurrences referring to a particular period of time.

So when we read ‘eternal punishment’ it’s important that we don’t read categories and concepts into a phrase that aren’t there.  Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think forever.  Jesus may be talking about something else, which has all sorts of implications for our understandings of what happens after we die, which we’ll spend the next chapter sorting.

Hmm.  I told you this was interesting.  Even our views of time and eternity and what words mean need to be reconsidered in light of a consistently Biblical worldview and in light of the best literary, grammatical, and historical insights of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and such.  He may not be correct in this instance but some of those that say Bell is intent on ignoring verses he doesn’t like may not be adequately aware of or seriously grappling with his basic project of  disentangling faith from its enculturation by Greco-Roman thought, Western dualism, modernist/rationalist assumptions, Victorian morality, civil religion and all the rest.  My hat is off to him for being so audacious, even if he over-reacts or moves towards views that I do not agree with.

It is no surprise that Bell recommends N.T. Wright’s magisterial study entitled Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne.)  It is one of the small handful of books he suggest for further study (along with, naturally, C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce.)  Surprised by Hope is a very well-documented and carefully-argued text also insists on a bodily resurrection (not the ethereal forms of Platonism, or the surreal otherworldliness of the Christian imagination under the influence of neo-Platonism or an equally unsound pietistic gnosticism.)  We have to reconsider the state and geography of everlasting life if God is renewing all things (Revelation 22), relieving the entire creation from the distortions and pains of sin (Romans 8:22) offering everlasting life in a healed (re)newed cosmos.

(And, yes, although Bell doesn’t say it, the ”
all things new” promise of Revelation 21:5 uses the Greek word “renew” not “brand new” which is to say a renewal of the original good creation, not a utterly new place after the old one burns up. And it can be argued (as do the notes in my literalistic New American Standard Bible, that the fire “reveals” not destroys the elements of creation in 2 Peter 3:10.  But I digress.)

Tom Wright helps us rethink things in light of fully Biblical history and grammar and thinking and he does it as well as anyone. To date Surprised By Hope the most important book on this topic. (Although, as I have said before, I think Al Wolters’ Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans) and Randy Alcorn’s Heaven (Tyndale) and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Michael Witmer (Zondervan) are very helpful here and should be on your bookshelf. This is absolutely not to suggest these author’s agree with Rob Bell or have directly influenced the research behind Love Wins.  But I think they are helpful, solid, and important resources to understand some of this discussion.)

For those inclined to go a bit deeper into the questions of what it means to live in this kind of counter-cultural Christian hope for a renewed creation, urban activist, campus minister and Ontario farmer Brian Walsh along with environmental science professor and activist Steven Bouma-Prediger have done an extraordinary, serious, fascinating study of how our sense of place and ecological stewardship has been eroded by the double-whammy combo of Platonic dualism that has oriented Christians toward the otherworldly afterlife and the secularized frantic ideologies of progress, growth, and upward mobility.  It is called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Eerdmans) and when it came out I named it a book of the year.  They describe the eschaton as homecoming after exile and use their robust Biblical imaginations to ask about home-making, caring for the literal homeless, and creating a way of life that “practices resurrection” (as the Wendell Berry poem puts it) in the here and now, even in the face of the horrors of environmental crisis, massive poverty, and middle-class family breakdown.  If there is a connection between the old mad farmer Berry and the young mad pastor Bell, it can be found here, in the work of Walsh & Bouma-Prediger. 

Beyond Homelessness doesn’t tackle the question of hell—and, again, I have no idea if Bell has read it although I betcha he has—but it offers the most expanded study of what it means to explore questions of “who’s in and who’s out,” the meaning of hospitality, inclusion, judgmentalism, living graciously, the relationship of place and redemption, and so forth of any book I know.  There are fabulous Bible interludes between each chapter which begin to offer insights about the goodness of the redemptive ways of God with God’s world. These are moving vignettes which remind me of Bell’s take on things at time.  It offers a vision and framework (including a reminder that in the Bible hospitality and graciousness to outsiders is central, based on God’s own character and the covenant duty of God’s people to bless others.)  I truly think that Bell’s impulse to be expansive in his hope for all to be saved can be understood better with Beyond Homelessness as an admittedly different, but somehow exceptionally relevant, conversation partner.  

If we want to be Biblical faithful we simply must get rid of our non-Jewish lenses that mis-color our understanding of pertinent Biblical texts. (In his small Paul for Everyone Commentary Series on 1 Corinthians (WKJ), N.T. Wright does this specifically with the admittedly complex teaching, made more troublesome by unhelpful translations that presupposed the immaterality of eternity, of 1 Corinthians 15, which is certainly a very germane study to this topic.)  We must sort out our cultural assumptions about things like heaven, hell, what fire is and does (refining? destroying? revealing?) and what we mean by the soul (immortal or otherwise) and interpret them, firstly, from within the world of the Bible itself.  We have to ask what the Bible says about insiders, outsiders, Jews and Gentiles, holy and unholy, exclusion and embrace.  We have to do the word studies and, more, immerse ourselves in the Biblical story until it sanctifies our very imaginations.

This is perhaps why Bell starts his book with an admission that a rather tacky painting of his youth weirded him out—it shows people walking across a suspended cross like a bridge from this earth to a shiny cloudy place, heaven, evacuated white robed people zooming away to this other (peculiar) place.  This sincere painting simply does not capture Christ’s own teaching about the Kingdom coming on Earth, any sense of Paradise Lost but Regained, or the promise of a new earth and sky promised at the end of the book of Revelation.  

At least one conservative reviewer has derided Bell for finding this painting confusing, as if the point is that Bell doesn’t care about Jesus, the cross, or heaven; such a serious theologian, though, should have applauded Bell for wanting our art and imaginations about the new creation to be as earthy as the Bible says it is— to be, well, as Biblical as the Bible is.  Bell is quite right about this creation regained stuff, I am sure of it, and it is a part of Love Wins that isn’t being discussed nearly enough.  And we won’t really appreciate the debate about God’s redemptive power to reconcile all things unless we are significantly rooted in the Biblical vision.

But we are ahead of ourselves.  It must be noted, then, that Bell’s chapter on new creation is helpful and solid.  He may say things with a bit too much poetic passion so you may need to turn to, as I’ve said, foundational books by the likes of Wolters, Alcorn, or Witmer to get a more carefully developed explication of the nature of God’s new creation coming “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  But Love Wins explores this energetically and pushes us in the right direction, evoking imaginative ways of seeing the goodness of God, God’s covenantal faithfulness to the good creation, and how sin is being eradicated, in Christ.  Swords into plowshares, reconciliation between hostile ethnicities, rich and poor having their fortunes blessedly intertwined, justice and peace kissing in a fond embrace (to use the lovely imagery of Psalm 85:10 )—Bell takes these images seriously and he should not be faulted for not paying attention to the Bible. He is notably animated by these images and hopes and dreams.

Bell seems to read the New Testament verses in light of this grand sweep of the Hebrew hopes, and this is helpful, usually, and makes for interesting, fruitful interpretations.  Kevin DeYoung offers 10 very important examples where Bell gets his exegesis way wrong.  He makes a good case that Bell is worse than sloppy, but you and your Bible study group will have to look up the texts and decide for yourself.  In many ways he has this Hebrew vision and the Jewishness of Jesus deep in his bones; his worldview seems to breath this hope for restoration through Christ and it could offer a healthy corrective to cramped or misguided interpretations, informed by inadequate assumptions or trains of logic.  This is not to say he is correct about any and every detail (I think he is not–again, see  DeYoung’s Gospel Coalition article that I’ve cited.)  But those who suggest he isn’t adequately attuned to Scripture just aren’t paying attention.

In my next post I’ll spend more time exploring an important aspect of this essential background to most fully appreciate some of the frame
work I see behind Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

It will include some complex thinking about the nature of the work of the cross.

Then, in a final Part Three I’ll list about ten random points to consider about the book.  I’ve got a tablet full, but will keep it succinct.

Thanks for your diligence and care.  I’m grateful for the chance to write my thoughts, for those who encouraged me to do this.  I hope it helps a bit.

Hearts & Minds  234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717.246.3333

5 thoughts on “Love Wins Review: A Long Part 1

  1. Thanks for the review Byron. I’ve read DeYoung and Borger. Now I guess I’ll have to read the book for myself:) Appreciate your insights.

  2. Byron, thanks for this thoughtful interaction.
    Two questions.
    First, what reference does Bell give for his citation of Olam in Jonah? I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Hebrew of that little masterpiece and I couldn’t remember where the word occurs. A few minutes of searching and I found it in chapter 2, Jonah’s prayer of deliverance from the fish. Speaking of his impending death by drowning, Jonah prays, “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God” (Jonah 2:6). Pretty standard OT language for talking about death this is. The use of “forever” here, however long exactly it is, conveys a sense of the finality of death itself. But regardless, the point is that this verse is not talking about the length of Jonah’s journey in Nineveh which is said to be “a three days’ journey” (Jonah 3:3). So what am I missing when Bell says, “Olam, in this instance [of Jonah] turns out to be three days”? Does he give a reference? (My copy is still in the mail or I would check myself.)
    Second, does he address the second occurrence of “forever” (αἰώνιον) in Matthew 25:26? If he’s doubtful about the length of “eternal punishment” is he equally doubtful about the length of “eternal life”? The two are quite noticeably set in antithesis (dualism even?) to each other in that verse.
    Like I said, my copy is in the mail or else I wouldn’t bother asking publicly.
    Thanks again for the review.

  3. Peter,
    Thanks for your solid note. What a great question. And you’ve got Biblical Greek script on your email. I’m very impressed! (Seriously!)
    You know, one of the frustrations, which I’ve even stated, is that Bell has very few clear citations and no footnotes, He’ll say stuff like God says healing comes to “all lands” and list a chapter of a prophet, without a verse. I suspect he means well, wanting us to see whole chapters and not take a line out of context, but, for instance, in this paragraph he just says, “in Jonah.” You’ll have to do the language detective work as you have to figure out what the heck he is actually referring to.
    I do not know if his claim about the meaning of the word is accurate, and at least one critic has said it is not. You’re comment adds weight to that concern. I don’t know if it is fair or right to say he’s sloppy, but there is some room to have a good debate about the best use of a word like this, and so many others he tosses around, perhaps to easily.
    So thanks for the question. Sorry I cannot answer it, but I hear ya. I appreciate your kind note.

  4. Byron – your mind amazes me. Thanks for the thoughtful review and for bringing things to like. The extended book list is helpful also. Looking forward to part 2.

  5. Byron ~
    Thank you so much for your comments about Rob’s book. I have enjoyed Rob’s style of writing (and regularly use the videos for teaching). I love questions – hence, my love of spiritual direction. I have become more comfortable with questions, not needing hard and fast answers. I find I am falling in love with and becoming more comfortable with the mystery.
    We seem to create great space for those initially seeking connection with God or those newly embracing the faith to ask questions. The Alpha model allows for questions without judgement or pat answers. But it seems the longer one is in the faith the less OK or safe it is to raise tough questions. A couple words or a look can shut you down pretty quickly, especially if you don’t have a ‘Bryonized’ foundation to draw upon. 🙂
    It seems to me that questions, at any stage, reveal a desire to explore one’s relationship with God more fully and they cry out to be met with grace, not defensiveness.
    Thank you for calling for civility and for offering a larger context in which to read Love Wins. Thank you for being open to dialogue…and for offering your wise and wisely read perspective to the conversation.
    grace and peace –

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