March 28, 2011

Sentimentality Wins: A Short Summary of Rob Bell's Love Wins

There are more detailed reviews of Rob Bell's Love Wins online, but I am writing this one to give a brief summary for those who are curious to know what Bell is really saying and what he isn't in Love Wins. Some accuse Bell of being a universalist, but Bell himself denies it. Some say that Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, but Bell says he affirms a real hell. It can be hard for people to know what the real issues are. Bell's position is more specific than what is often presented--by others or by Bell himself in interviews. We need to make sure that we do not accuse him of things he is not saying nor give him a free pass for what he does teach. There is more that could be said, but I intend this post to be a survey of the main issues rather than a critique.

The bottom line is that Bell is promoting the idea that every single person will eventually be reconciled to God either in this life or the next. Some people will exist in some sort of "hell" both in this life and the next until God melts their heart and they accept His love. Jesus is necessary for salvation, at least in some sense.  However, Bell's idea of hell and his view of how Jesus saves us might be very different from what you would consider a correct Biblical understanding.


Bell is adamant that he is not a universalist. However, this all depends on what we mean when we use this term. This term does not have positive associations in many of the circles that Bell is still influential in and so it is understandable that he would want to distance himself from it. Bell must mean that he is not a universalist in the sense of other universalists who teach that all people will be saved despite their relationship to God, or that this salvation can come through all (or at least many) religions apart from Christ. However, the entire thrust of Love Wins is that everyone will eventually be reconciled to God, either in this life or the next. The logic that Bell presents in chapter 4, "Does God Get What God Wants" is that God always gets what He wants, and that since God wants everyone to be reconciled to Him, eventually every single person will eventually be reconciled to Him. Love wins. So, if by universalism you simply mean that every single person will eventually be reconciled to God, then yes, Rob Bell is a universalist. However, to be fair, Bell is not teaching that everyone is automatically spared from "hell" when they die, regardless of their relationship to God.  He is also not teaching that Christ is unnecessary for salvation. 


Bell affirms that hell is real and that many people will spend time in hell. He also affirms that there is some sort of future hell beyond this life, although not in the traditional sense. For Bell, hell starts in this life with the misery that comes from being apart from the life of God.  Bell defines hell as "the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us" (95). For example, Bell states:
"People choose to live in their own hells all the time. We do it every time we isolate ourselves, give the cold shoulder to someone who has slighted us, every time we hide knives in our words, every time we harden our hearts in defiance of what we know to be the loving, good, and right thing to do" (114). 
Therefore Bell's hell in the afterlife might not be all that much different than the type of "hell" he believes people live in during this life. For Bell, hell is clearly not punishment from God. He mocks the idea that God is saving us from God's anger.  Hell is not punishment from God, but is more like a self-imposed "time out" whereby we force ourselves to sit in the corner and be miserable until we're ready to come to the birthday party.  Eventually, everyone will warm up to God and come out of the corner. The consequences for rejecting God's love are basically self-imposed and temporary. Although the Bible uses terms like "eternal punishment" Bell attempts to argue that this should be translated as "a period of pruning" or "a time of trimming" (91). So Bell affirms some sort of future hell, but it is neither eternal nor punishment.

In his chapter on hell, Bell claims to deal with every single mention of the word hell in the Bible (69).  Amazingly, despite this claim, nowhere in this chapter does Bell even mention Revelation 20:15 which states, "If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."  The only mention of this comes in a later chapter.  Bell mentions the lake of fire, states that Revelation was written in a heavily symbolic way, and moves on (112). 

Jesus Christ and the Cross

Jesus is necessary for salvation, at least in some sense, although maybe not like you would assume.  Commenting on John 14:6 (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me") Bell writes,
"What he doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him" (154). [I have to point out that Bell writes this as if this statement is detached from all the other statements about belief in the Gospel of John.] 
Bell is not teaching that absolutely all roads lead to God, but he does think that the road is wider than Christianity. Bell states, "He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain him, especially the one called 'Christianity'" (150). People need Jesus, however, "He is present within all cultures" (151). Bell states, "There is an energy in the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into" and that Jesus, as the creative Word of God, is "the energy that gives life to everything" (144-5). Bell leaves it open that people may be saved with an idea of "Jesus" that might be no clearer than this. As Bell states at one point, "Sometimes people use his name; other times they don't" (159). 

Another question is how Christ saved us? The fifth chapter of Love Wins focuses on the importance of the cross. Over several pages Bell lists and describes many of the things that the cross is about: the end of the sacrificial system, reconciliation, justification (in some sense at least), victory over evil, and redemption (123-9). Bell is correct that the cross is about many things, but conspicuously absent from Bell's list is the idea that Jesus took our penalty as a substitute. Propitiation would imply that "the gods are angry" which of course God is not. For Bell, God does not have wrath toward sinners, but always and only love. Bell states that when Jesus spoke of "the coming wrath" and "judgment" He was referring to the wrath of the Romans if people provoked them (81). God never punishes, but only seeks to restore. In another place Bell writes:
"Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sins, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God" (182).
If Jesus didn't die on the cross as our substitute to satisfy God's holiness and justice, then what was the purpose of the cross? Yes, it accomplished reconciliation and redemption and other effects, but how? Why couldn't Bell's God do these things without the cross? Bell doesn't explain. The closest thing I have found to an explanation is Bell's statement that, "The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation" (133). This statement comes after a long description of the mysterious death-to-life pattern embedded in fabric of creation. Jesus died so he could rise and inaugurate a new creation . . . whatever that means.

In Conclusion

There is much more that could be said, but I would like to keep this a thumbnail sketch. If this were intended to be a critique, I would have included many reasons why the views Bell is promoting are in error. In a perfect world Christians would be well grounded enough in the Word of God that these errors would be self-apparent once they understood Bell's position. Sadly, this is not the case. May God use Rob Bell's book to drive Christians to the Scriptures.

Bell is right when he states that the bigger issue behind all of this is the question "What is God like?" May we look to the Bible to see all that God has revealed to us about Himself. When that happens, we will see that the Love that wins in the end is God's holy and just love. God is love, and He does win in the end--although not as Bell presents it.  Because of that, I don't even want to concede to Bell the title of his book. What Bell describes as "love" is a distortion of man. A more accurate title for Bell's book would be Sentimentality Wins.


  1. Great thoughts, Nate. Feel as though I can hear the Beatles in the background and we're back at 1401. Love the post!

  2. "Amazingly, despite this claim, nowhere in this chapter does Bell even mention Revelation 20:15 which states, "If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.""
    This isn't so amazing, as Bell was being precise where so many Christians are not. The Lake of Fire does not equal "hell". In fact, later, "hell" is thrown into the LoF. That would be a logical impossibility. Revelation is clearly prophetic imagery, using themes the Jews were familiar with, like "fire" representing God's divine judgment. And he's not saying God doesn't punish; he's saying God corrects like a father. The child sees this as punishment, of course. The book isn't a complete systematic theology on hell, and it is'nt meant to be. It is asking readers to use their God-given moral center to analyze what we've traditionally been teaching on "hell", at least in more conservative circles of Christianity.

  3. Thank God. A balanced review of Love Wins. I've been reading reviews of Love Wins all over the place since I first read it a couple weeks ago, and this is the first post I've seen that both (1) disagreed and (2) hasn't horribly misrepresented Love Wins and called Bell a heretic for writing it. I thought Love Wins was pretty compelling, though it seemed a bit off-base in places. Thanks for joining the conversation without bringing a stake piled high with kindling wood :)

    Have you noticed that Bell's theology lines up quite a bit with C.S. Lewis'? And... when I read it, it seemed to fit nicely inside the two creeds I know (Nicene and Apostle's). What do you think?

  4. Hi Dan,

    The English word “hell” is a catch all that is used inconsistently for various realms described in the afterlife including Gehenna, Hades and Tartaros. These are not necessarily all the same place. What Revelation 20:14 actually says is that Hades, not Gehenna, is thrown into the Lake of Fire. (The KJV uses the term hell while the NIV, ESV and others use the term Hades.)

    Since the original languages of the Bible don’t use the English word hell at all, there is no point in arguing about what realm should get the “honor” of that term. But if what people normally mean by “hell” is “the place of punishment where the lost spend eternity” then the Lake of Fire deserves the title of hell more than anywhere else because Revelation 20 presents the Lake of Fire as the realm where the lost will spend eternity.

    Again, I don’t care if you call the Lake of Fire “hell” or not. But if you are going to write a book to argue the main point that no one will spend eternity in punishment, then it only makes sense to not ignore the place described as the lost’s final destination!

    Instead, Bell tries to explain away all the other references and then assures his readers, “And that’s it. Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word ‘hell’ in the Bible they got from those verses you just read” (69). With no mention of Revelation 20? That is spin.

  5. Though it does seem odd if Revelation 20 is the only place where it actually refers to hell as such in that way... maybe he has a point about the symbolism... eh?

  6. Also, even if the Lake of Fire in Revelations 20 is only symbolic and there is not a lake somewhere in which unrepentant sinners will be thrown, it still demonstrates God's active judgement of sin. Revelation 16 also talks about the Seven Bowls of Wrath which God pours out on the earth. It does not talk about seven bowls in which people will swim if they do not accept God's love. I guess my point is that the God of Love Wins is passive towards sin. The God of the Bible is holy, holy, holy, and cannot respond to sin in any way other than active judgement and wrath.

  7. All I can say is praise the Lord for the sound doctrine I was taught back in the day. You and other leaders made sure I knew what was what and I have been standing on that foundation ever since. I didn't know just how valuable (and rare) it would be!

  8. Yeah, but I think all this conversation about the wrath of God is ignoring the grace of God found in, for example, the story of the lost son. The God Jesus knows doesn't seem so wrathful to his son who went and squandered his money on prostitutes. And the boy hadn't even said a word like a sinner's prayer, either! He just came shuffling back with an apology all ready and before he even got there the dad had leapt on him and was kissing him like crazy and he hadn't even had a chance to get past much of an I'm Sorry before his dad had his clothes replaced and him reinstated in the family. This doesn't ignore wrath.... but puts rather a different spin on it, doesn't it?

  9. I don't think that was the point of the lost son. The point of the lost son was grace and forgiveness. God's wrath is still just. He cannot tolerate sin in His holy presence. I think in the story it was suppose to teach grace. The son represent us (those who have sinned and rebelled) and the father represents God. The son returned home...this is recognition of his wrongdoing (he was after all ashamed of his actions) and taking responsibility for his actions (aka repented). The father showed grace to the son by showing compassion rather than the anger he rightly deserved. The father forgave his son after his son kinda in a way asked for forgiveness nonverbally. So it's like us with God. Who likes to approach the almighty with our not-so-clean selves? no one! You would only do that if it was the last resort. You would only come to God if you saw the need to...if you were desperate for forgiveness and to be set free from the bondages of sin. Only when we confessed and repent and accept that only Christ can save us can we be saved and savor in the sweet saving grace of God the Father.

  10. Something I just realized needs added to this is a comment I heard on a TV show a long time ago that stuck with me. I have no idea what show it was from or whether the statement is even true, but it went this way:

    "It's possible to love someone very much and still be very angry with them."


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