So last week, after a long time wondering about it, I finally got around to reading (listening to) the controversial Love Wins by Rob Bell.
If I have any friends who have actually read it (I know a lot of us have opinions about the book without having read it), I’d love to discuss it.
Here are some initial thoughts:
- He might be evangelical (more on that below).
- There is one thing that reading this book solidified for me beyond doubt: Rob Bell is a brilliant, absolutely exceptional thinker and communicator. For every point in the book I disagreed with, I found just as many profound insights into aspects of the Gospel, and imaginative, compelling ways of communicating them. He is no lightweight, sentimental popular theologian; he is well and widely-read, and his intellectual bravery – willingness to think original thoughts and question common assumptions – should be a lesson to us all, certainly a challenge to me.
- Right or wrong, his ideas in the book are worth listening to and thinking about for serious, thinking Christians.
- There is no doubt that he definitely does espouse a version of universalism. He doesn’t express this ambiguously in the book. It’s quite clear. Although, some aspects of his precise conception of how it works are left unexplained – probably because he admittedly doesn’t claim to have figured it all out.
- However, the way he formulates, and arrives at, his version of universalism is very… well, evangelical. That is, it comes from his interpretation of the Bible, not a rejection of the Bible. He perceives himself to be agreeing with Jesus and Paul and John, not evolving beyond their ideas, which leads me to my next point:
- There are three main things that tell me that he was not trying to depart from the historic Christian faith, and his evangelical roots:
- An explicit statement to that effect in his own preface, where he said that he has no desire to be original, but thinks himself to be expressing very old, Christian ideas.
- His acknowledgements and thanks at the end of the book, the first of which was to Erwin McManus (who I’m pretty sure believes in the traditional hell), and from there he listed several personal recommendations for further reading, which included Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God,” and NT Wright’s “Surprised By Hope,” both of which he held in very high regard, and then he thanked his parents for getting him to read CS Lewis when he was younger. His love of these authors communicates an identification with the camp/community/system of religion that they exist in.
- A list of orthodox, evangelical beliefs he affirms within the book, which I’ve listed at the bottom.
- These considerations make me question the way the evangelical world responded to Love Wins, and whether statements of “farewell”, as if he had departed the faith, were fair, just, and wise. It seems to me that the basic question Love Wins was trying to ask was not, “Should we continue to be evangelicals about Hell?”, but rather “Can evangelicals faithfully and Biblically embrace a vision of the New Creation in which all people and all things might eventually be redeemed?”
- The question this book has genuinely led me to ask is, Whether or not Bell’s version of universalism is correct, can it be considered a legitimately evangelical position? In the same way evangelicals currently allow differing views on predestination, the gifts of the Spirit, or women’s roles in ministry – and just as John Stott famously said that annihilationism can be considered an evangelical position – is there enough uncertainty about what the Bible says about Hell that call we can accept certain formulations of universalism among the various possible eschatologies within evangelical Christianity? I’m just asking. I haven’t answered this for myself yet.
List of orthodox evangelical beliefs Rob Bell espouses in Love Wins:
- Jesus as the divine, incarnate Son of God, Israel’s promised Messiah.
- That Jesus died for our sins (including a penal substitutionary atonement interpretation of it).
- The bodily resurrection of Jesus.
- That Jesus will return to Earth and God will make a New Creation where everything will be perfect as it was originally intended to be in Eden.
- That God is just, hates evil, and will judge, condemn and punish evil.
- Hell is a real thing (whatever it means), and is the deserved punishment for those who reject God’s rule over their life.
- While he doesn’t express it, his whole book assumes that the Bible is how we know stuff about God (and yes, definitely including the Old Testament).
- Probably some other things I forgot.
Less orthodox things espoused in Love Wins:
- God won’t punish those who reject him with eternal, conscious torment.
- (If I’m interpreting him correctly) Those who have rejected God will, in the New Creation, be banished from the New Jerusalem in which only goodness is allowed, BUT, their banishment is never final, and it will never be too late for them to change their mind, and choose to enter God’s Kingdom.
- Those who have accepted God’s rule will be accepted into the New Jerusalem in which everything will be perfect, but they will also always be free to leave, and to go off and live their own way.
- Probably some other things I forgot.
Things his argument depends on:
- The precise meaning of the New Testament word commonly translated into “eternal”.
- To be honest a lot is hanging on that word.
- How much of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (going to heaven and hell respectively) is allegorical and how much is meant to portray an accurate cosmology.
- Revelation and all that.