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.

March 25, 2011

Asking Questions and Questioning

Amazon finally delivered my copy of Rob Bell's Love Wins.  I hate the thought that I spent money on this, but I know that I need to read it in order to better interact with people about it.  The first thing I noticed about the book is that it has a waterproof dust jacket.  That might be a good thing.

The first chapter is mostly questions.  Questions are great.  Questions are wonderful, especially when they are being asked in the sense of faith seeking understanding.  Unfortunately, questions can also be asked in another way.  Sometimes questions are nothing more than rhetorical devices being used to make a point, and that is what Bell is doing here. 

Some people ask questions in the sense of faith seeking understanding.  Other people ask questions in the sense of doubt seeking influence

There is a difference between asking questions and questioning.  More precisely, there is a difference between asking questions about what God as told us and questioning what God has told usWhat is annoying is the sly and ingenuous way that some people shift between these two meanings.  They want to retain the nobility of asking questions, but slip in the subversiveness of questioning that which they disagree.

For example, consider this statement from Methodist pastor Chad Holtz who was recently fired by his church after he voiced his support for Rob Bell's view on hell: 
"The people at my church are good, decent people," he told "They’re simply feeling a little threatened by a pastor who is asking questions that they don’t want to ask right now. I hope some seeds are planted and that God will bring some good about it."
This is sly and manipulative.  He wants people to receive the impression that he is innocently asking question--faith seeking understanding--when in fact he had already landed on his conclusions.  According to the article, he "lost the idea of hell" and now believes that "God has saved everyone."  This church did not dismiss this pastor because they felt threatened by honest questions.  They dismissed him because he was trying to persuade others to disbelieve what they saw taught in God's Word.  This is the same thing that Rob Bell is doing with his questions. 

Questions are great.  I love it when students ask hard questions.  Any theology or worldview that does not allow for honest hard questions is not worth believing.  Questions lead to answers.  Honest questions are great because they can lead us to honest answers.  The difference is that some questions are asked to generate answers; others are asked to generate doubt.

When the serpent asked, "Did God really say...?" he wasn't looking for an answer. 

March 20, 2011

Powerman is Doomed!

This is the second to last clip from the current series.  It's very dramatic and oscar worthy.  You should watch it so that you're ready for the big finish. 

Go to and watch them all from the beginning.  We're gearing up to make another series for this summer.

March 15, 2011

Rob Bell & Another Note Attached to a Portrait

If you have seen Rob Bell's video trailer for his book Love Wins, you might be able to imagine an artsy postmodern video with dialogue something like this:


"Several years ago we had an art show at our church.  There was this one piece that was a portrait of Jesus with a quote on it that many people found compelling.  The quote read, 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.'  Lots of people found it compelling.  They would stop and sort of stare at it and take it in and reflect on it."

"But someone wrote something below that quote.  Attached to the portrait of Jesus it was written, 'Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.'” 

"People who don’t believe in the Son go to hell?"

"They do??"

"And someone knows this for sure???"

"And felt the need to let the rest of us know?!"


March 10, 2011

Missing the Point of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"

The one thing that most people know about Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is that he preached an infamous sermon called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  This sermon was used by God in what is called The Great Awakening, a surprising work of God in which great masses of people in colonial America realized their need for a Savior and fled to Jesus Christ.  In these revivals, some people were gripped so deeply with the reality of their situation that they would shake uncontrollably.  But what people today usually associate with this sermon is hellfire, brimstone, and a sick and cruel portrait of God.

I recently heard an audio clip in which a pastor spent a large part of his sermon railing against “New Calvinists.” He described these Young, Restless, and Reformed people as a new wave of fundamentalists who wear t-shirts saying things like “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy.”  He then explained to his congregation that this is bad because Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  He then read this excerpt:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.”

After reading this clip the pastor stated, “There goes that whole ‘friend of God' thing right?  Because I don’t think someone is your friend who is holding you over the pit.” 

Most people completely misunderstand the point of this sermon.  They assume that God is holding us over the pit to mentally torment us like some sort of sadist.  That is what the quote above—part of one paragraph from the middle of the sermon—seems to imply.  What they don’t understand is that Edwards’ point in the full context of the sermon is that it is out of God’s grace that He is holding us over the fire.  God is holding us over the fire rather than dropping us into the fire. 

In fact, in the same paragraph as quoted above, Edwards states that, “there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up.”  Being in God’s hands is better than being dropped into the pit.

Edwards’ text for this sermon was Deuteronomy 32:35, “Their foot shall slide in due time.”  His point for the unsaved is that their present security will not last.  They are like a man walking on a slippery surface who could unexpectedly fall at any moment.  Eventually, they will slip.  Edwards described them as walking over the pit of hell on a covering of rotted wood that could give way at any moment.  When that happens, they will fall by their own weight. 

The point is that every moment that we draw breath in this life is an undeserved moment that we are not in hell.  While we still live we have an undeserved opportunity to come to Christ to be saved.  However this life, and that opportunity, will not last forever.  There will come a time when we slip from this life.

This sermon is addressed to those who are still outside of Christ.  It is a passionate plea for them to realize the eternal danger they are in and to flee to Christ for salvation while they still have the opportunity.  Edwards is not describing saved people as being held over the pit.  Those who have genuinely trusted Christ as their Savior are forever safe.  The ones who are still in danger are those who do not have a Mediator between themselves and God.  But even for these men and women, it is by God’s grace and mercy that God’s hand upholds them now.  God is rightfully angry with them because of their sin and rebellion.  God would be perfectly righteous if He removed His hand and allowed justice to take its course.  It is not surprising for a righteous Judge to judge the guilty.  It is surprising for an offended God to continue to hold the guilty in His hands.

This is difficult for us to grasp because we live in soft times.  We expect church to soothe us and for people to live until their 80s.  In Edwards’ time most people died young. 

Hell is real.  Hell is terrible.  Hell is eternal.  It is not the preacher who pleads with his people to escape the danger of hell who is unloving.  It is the preacher who soothes the minds of the perishing who does not love his people.  A fireman who brings a pillow to a child in a burning building is not a loving person.

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a sermon about God’s surprising mercy.  Near the end of the sermon Edwards proclaims:

“And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day wherein Christ has thrown the door of mercy wide open, and stands in calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners; a day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the kingdom of God. Many are daily coming from the east, west, north and south; many that were very lately in the same miserable condition that you are in, are now in a happy state, with their hearts filled with love to him who has loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood, and rejoicing in hope of the glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a day!”

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