Some Thoughts on Love Wins

Let’s just be straightforward about it: Rob Bell’s newly released book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is controversial, provocative, and potentially divisive. Controversial? Of course, the topic is! Provocative? Of course, he states that he means to challenge widely-held assumptions. Divisive? Only if we allow it to be.

It may be too much to hope for, but it would be a good thing if the controversy stirred up by this book prompted people to do some careful biblical study and theological reflection on the issue of eternal judgment.

Instead of writing a book review, I’m going to provide links below to experts who are doing a good, thorough job of that. But first, a few thoughts.

1. There is nothing wrong with wrestling with the concept of hell. In fact, an argument can be made that we honor the truth of God and the authority of God when we read his word, think about it carefully, try to interpret it, come back to God with our follow-up questions, go back to the text, interact with other believers, and so on. It is a search for Christ-centered understanding. The whole idea of eternal separation from God should never be an easy doctrine to accept. To wrestle with this puts us in good company. The father of faith, Abraham, debated the justice of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah with God himself (Gen. 18:20-25). Abraham’s conclusion? “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

2. We should be aware that in the history of Christian thought there have been different interpretations of what eternal judgment looks like. Some of the views have barely any Scriptural support, but others detail varying ways of taking the key passages.

3. In the reaction to Bell’s book the word “heretic” has been used carelessly. In the late second century Irenaeus confronted the Gnostics in his Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) for beliefs that were entirely unbiblical regarding the nature of God, salvation, and everything else. And so follows the history of heresies. The word “heretic” is a reach when you’re talking about the nature of eternal judgment, something the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t put within the core of Christian beliefs. On the other hand, it was frustrating to hear Rob in a television interview say that the root of the word “heretic” is “able to choose.” C’mon Rob. You don’t really need to toy with the label.

4. The book takes up major theological issues, but with no citation of or interaction with theological authorities–historic or modern. (Bell hints at serious questions about substitutionary atonement, for instance.) If someone is going to offer a provocative interpretation of gospel texts, it should not seem like personal musings.

5. There is an opportunity here. For anyone respecting God’s revelation in Jesus and in Scripture, we could–if we choose–take some time during the next twelve months to dig into God’s word to take a deeper look into the issues of both heaven and hell. I know every time I have, I see something I never saw before.

So, for your consideration:

Rob Bell’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church, has a written FAQ about Love Wins.

Christianity Today‘s Mark Galli has an excellent review of the book, and in an earlier piece, surveyed the history of Christian thought on the afterlife.

From a New Testament scholar who speaks in everyday language, Dr. Darrell Bock, the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, the author of numerous commentaries and other works, is doing a multi-part review of Love Wins. His take: Bell raises some good points, but the things he leaves out makes for problems.

Also, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington is writing on the topic of annihilationism, the interpretation of eternal judgment which understands the biblical passages as pointing to the destruction of the wicked, rather than the idea of eternal conscious torment. There are some highly respected Christians and scholars like F.F. Bruce, John Stott, Philip Hughes and many others, who have at least left this interpretation as a possibility, which is a better alternative than those who reject Christian faith because they cannot fathom the apparent cruelty of a God who would inflict people with unending conscious torment.

This might be a good time to recall Abraham’s conclusion when he was wrestling with the judgment of God. He rested on his belief in the goodness and rightness of God’s character precisely at the time when he could not fathom God’s actions. His trust came out as “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God will do what God will do, and we can trust that it will be consistent with both his holiness and his love (as P.T. Forsyth said).

What do you think?

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12 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Love Wins

  1. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

  2. Thanks Mel for this balanced, thoughtful and fair overview of Bell’s book. I especially appreciated your historical perspective about what constitutes heresy and the way the term get used so carelessly today. Thanks too for posting sites of others who offer additional reflections on the book.

  3. Mel, Thanks for thoughtful review of the book “Love Wins”. At the end of the day though the real issue with Rob Bell’s teaching is his soteriology. That issue is essential,is it not?

  4. My initial comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

    Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.

  5. Dean – Yes, it is true that Love Wins includes matters of soteriology (i.e. the theology of salvation). And I think you are right that those matters are closer to the core of historic Christian belief. Bell is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of the atonement as penal substitution (i.e. that Jesus was a substitute sacrifice for us, and that he bore the wrath of God). This is a theological point that has been debated today. Some saying that penal substitution, although clearly an emphasis in the Protestant reformers, is a misinterpretation of the New Testament. Others would say that there has been an imbalance–i.e. that there are other truths about the saving death of Jesus that need to be brought alongside penal substitution and have been underplayed in Protestant theology (e.g. Christus Victor–that Jesus conquered evil). And, of course, there are those who maintain that penal substitution is properly understood as the core meaning of the cross. I think the second option has merit, and that we benefit by bringing to the foreground all the truths and metaphors of the atonement that the New Testament features. Expect to see some posts on that later in April, all being well.

  6. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right,” and is not eternal bodily and conscious torment of the wicked in the lake of fire right? For clearly that is what Jesus taught in the flesh and through the Scriptures as a whole.

    Daniel 12:2 Many of those who sleep in the dusty ground will awake – some to everlasting life, and others to shame and everlasting abhorrence.

    Matthew 25:46 And these will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    Revelation 20:14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death – the lake of fire. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire.

    Matthew 13:50 and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    Mark 9:47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

    Revelation 20:11 Then I saw a large white throne and the one who was seated on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. Then books were opened, and another book was opened – the book of life. So the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death – the lake of fire. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the lake of fire. 21:8 But to the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death.”

    In Hebr. 6:1-2, eternal judgment is listed as one of the elementary teaching about Christ. Moreover, before that, the writer of Hebrew says, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (Hebr. 5:12-14) Thus, as we can see, eternal judgment is a fundamental doctrine to the Christian faith that even relatively new believers ought to know and be able to teach; therefore how much more an overseer? Truly, it is a prerequisite that overseers must hold to the truth and be able to teach, plus, that it is their duty to teach and guard sound doctrine and refute false teaching. (Titus 1:9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.)

    My question, Mel, for you is, is it unclear to you that Rob’s teaching is unbiblical, or are you unclear what the Bible teaches? Is it not your duty to refute false teaching and to teach sound doctrine, rather than to just state that Rob’s teaching are, “controversial, provocative, and potentially divisive,” and then go on to say, “That in the history of Christian thought there have been different interpretations of what eternal judgment looks like,” yet to neither give a Scriptural and Christ-honoring answer to what the Christ did teach on eternal judgment nor expose and refute Rob’s false teaching. What do different interpretations of eternal judgment prove, besides that there are false views of it, namely, universalism, annihilationism, and in Rob’s case, postmortem salvation (endlessly offered)?

    “There is nothing wrong with wrestling with the concept of hell.” If by wrestling you mean, seeking to understand hell and how it is consistent with the loving God of the Bible, then I am all for that, however, if by wrestling you mean to resist the biblical teachings, dislike, or assert something else as its teaching, then that is gross rebellion. Nonetheless, is it not clear that rejecting, distorting, or teaching something other than the biblical truth of hell is sinful, false teaching?

    This is not to say that hell is to be taken lightly; for God’s wrath and anger is great and terrible and we ought to fear Him, who is able to destroy both the body and the soul in hell. Therefore, we ought to plead to men to be reconciled to God through the crucified Christ, not deny the eternal lot that sinners deserve and the destruction that awaits the wicked who will not repent; for in doing so, men will perish in their sin and suffer God’s wrath forever, though they did not believe it, for some teacher told them that it was not so, or that after death they then could go heaven anyways, if they wished, even though they were a worker of iniquity their whole life.

    (Matthew 7: 21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”)

    Scripture is clear that God has chosen a particular people for himself in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1), that narrow is the way that leads to life and only a few will find it and that unless we repent in this life we will perish and be raised and condemned to everlasting death for our deeds. That today is the day of salvation. That it is in this life that the gospel is offered to us and that after death, then the Judgment. (2 Cor. 6:2, Hebrews 9:27)

    I am not insinuating that you do not believe this, Mel, however it troublesome to see a lack of conviction in your thoughts on his matter, as well as a failure to do your duty, that is, by failing to obey God by not exposing this false teacher as a false teachers. What I find most troublesome is that you do not consider Rob’s book heretical. Do you not consider Rob to be a heretic? The judgment of God is directly tied to salvation and God’s nature; moreover it seems that Rob’s view of judgment is ultimately derived from his view of God. “Love wins” is all about God’s nature and salvation and it is a distortion of God’s love and his holy nature and of his sovereign purpose and salvific work and intention.

    Anyone who teaches that Jesus did not die to save his people from their sins; that Jesus did not take on sin in his flesh and was not put forth by the Father to die as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin, to be received by faith, to redeem us from the power of sin, to make us righteous in him, to deliver us from death, and to reconcile us to God is a heretic. Moreover, to reject the reality of the merit of sin, that is, eternal separation from God, is to deny God’s Word and holiness, to minimize the glory and love of Christ and to strip the cross of its purpose, leaving one with a gospel that is not gospel, a gospel that cannot save, redeem or restore a sinners relation to an all holy God.

    Rob, causes people to doubt God’s word with his crafty questions, like the Serpent in the Garden with Eve. Rob carries himself as preacher of righteousness, yet denies his Maker by twisting and misusing His Word, like Satan in the desert with Jesus. Rob does not need our protection, but the sheep do, and this wolf sheep’s clothing needs to be stripped off by the truth of God’s Word.

    • Phil – I do have convictions about our theology and part of that is how we go about figuring things out, given the fact that now “we see in a glass darkly.” I want to know, understand, and teach what Scripture says in every way. And it certainly does teach, again and again, that God’s wrath and judgment are real. That there will be a reckoning one day. That no one will escape the judgement of God–including believers. Especially believers who claim to represent God (that’s why such a large percentage of Jesus’ hard statements on God’s judgment are directed toward the teachers of the law). On that day God will burn the chaff away so that what remains is the silver and gold.
      Yes, you have understood what I meant by “wrestle with the concept of hell.” I don’t mean wrestle with God’s authority, but to wrestle with things like the wrath and the love of God. I think there are plenty of biblical examples where God’s people wrestled in similar ways.
      As I mentioned, I was not writing a review of the book (largely because I felt it was good to point to experts who are working through it point by point). I linked to some reviews that are quite challenging.
      But I also wanted to make this simple point: there is an opportunity here for Christians to discuss and debate the issues. Even heated debate. Before cutting someone off, we should speak up in the hope that the other person is listening, and then make sure we are listening as well. And I do stand by my comment about “heresy.” Those who strongly object to Bell’s points will do best to do that rather than just cutting him off.
      I think this debate will develop over time. I will probably have more to say about it at some point. In the meantime, let’s not be surprised that this issue is on the table. It has been on the minds of many people for a long time, and it will be best to be plunged into a fresh new study of the Scriptures.

  7. After reading through your post and the comments, my question is: “What exactly must a man deny in order to be considered a heretic in your estimation?”

    Thanks in advance for your response,

  8. Thanks for the question, Dave. It is not up to me to define “heretic,” since it has a specific historic meaning. The Christian writer Irenaeus in A.D. 180 wrote “Against the Heretics” to show that the Gnostics were of an entirely different religion because they believed in numerous deities, a way of salvation that was just knowledge, and a body of teaching in their own scriptures that went far astray from Christianity in every sense. In the eras to follow “heretic” was applied to people who so altered Christian faith at every point, that they were really espousing a different religion. “Heretics” were sometimes imprisoned, or even put to death. They were viewed as people who had entirely rejected Christian faith.
    To make things confusing, in modern times people sometimes use the word “heretic” to refer to someone who is badly mistaken about something in the faith. So we have a very hard use of “heretic” (in the historic sense), and a softer sense when today people refer to someone holding to wrong doctrine as “heretic.”
    My basic point is this: I would hope that in the months following Bell’s book that there would be a vigorous examination and debate about what he has said, but addressing Bell as a member of the Christian church, rather than essentially calling him a non-Christian. If those who disagree with him (and I disagree at numerous significant points) just cut him off, then there is no opportunity for people to teach and persuade each other.

  9. Mel, thanks for your response.

    You wrote: “In the eras to follow “heretic” was applied to people who so altered Christian faith at every point, that they were really espousing a different religion.”

    Must one really alter Christianity at “every point” in order for it to no longer be Christianity?

    For example, if I teach, “Christ is not risen,” I’ve altered Christianity on one major point, but yet Paul would have told me that my preaching and faith are both in vain (1 Cor. 15:14). He would have gone so far as to say that I am a “false witness” and that I am still in my sins (i.e. not a Christian, cf. 1 Cor. 15:15-17).

    From a Scriptural perspective, there are some singular points of Christian doctrine that cannot be denied without denying Christianity itself. What else is the boundary line between a Christian and a non-Christian but the message whereby one becomes a Christian — the gospel of Jesus Christ? Deny that message and you’ve denied Christianity. If one denies that message, Galatians 1:8-11 is in order here.

    From your perspective, if this is not a Galatians 1 issue, then what is?


  10. Dave – I agree that if someone teaches “Christ is not risen,” that they have altered an absolutely core conviction of Christianity. These and other core beliefs were identified early on by Christians in what we know as the Apostles’ Creed, which doesn’t have the authority of Scripture, of course, but is an attempt to show the core beliefs of Christianity. These major points are central.