In “Love Wins” by Rob Bell,

''Love Doesn't Win Everyone!''

Bell, Rob. 2011. Love Wins. Harper One, New York, NY. hb. or pb. 202 pp. Table of Contents, Acknowledgments, and Further Reading. Available on Amazon. Rating, 3 (out of a possible 5). A shortened version of this review is posted on Amazon.
 

Introduction   
Some Superlative Features of Love Wins
Bell's Personal Opinion
Some Changes Needed
Conclusion   

    I. Introduction

    Bell's title “Love Wins” (LW) is a clever inversion of Paul's famous words in I Corinthians 13:8--”Love never fails” (Greek: ē  agapē oudepote piptei). There is a deep syllogistic statement that emerges when I Corinthians 13:8 is combined with I John 4:8—major premise “God is love,” minor premise “love never fails,” conclusion “God never fails.” Yet we shall see that the author of LW, the Rev. Rob Bell (RB), ended up claiming that, at least in some cases, God will not get what He wants and thus will fail!

    In the year 2011, LW  rapidly rocketed to a high position on Amazon's best-seller list. One reason for this ascent was that Bell gave an affirmative reply to a question that has haunted Christians for centuries: “Can lost people ever get saved after they die?” RB's Bible-based “yes” is directly opposite to the dismal widespread prospect promoted by numerous preachers in various denominations, the troublesome idea that those who die “outside the faith” are expelled from God's presence, to face unending judgment.

    One of the other factors leading to LW's outstanding success may be that the author was the popular pastor at a large and rapidly-growing “emerging church,” which, although somewhat liberal, is nonetheless stationed at the edge of “evangelicalism,” the conservative core of Protestant Christianity. I suspect that if LW had  been written by an avowed liberal, or by a minister from a  denomination known for its theological diversity, it would have found fewer readers and would not have raised quite so many eyebrows.

    In addition, this book was cast in a curt and breezy style that probably appealed to the modern electronic mindset.  And RB, like many other talented preachers, has alluded to fascinating side topics and has used practical illustrations. For example, he carefully described a painting in his grandmothers house to illustrate how we often conceive of heaven as “somewhere else.” Many questions, such as the following, were raised: “What really is 'conversion to Christ?'” “What is faith?” and “How can we be joyful in heaven if we will never even see some of the people we loved here on earth?” Concerning distorted views of God, on p. 9, RB related an interesting approach he sometimes makes when talking with an atheist. First he says something like this to the nonbeliever “Tell me about the God in whom you don't believe.” After listening for some time, Bell then exclaims: “You know, I don't believe in that God either!”

    Some Superlative Features of LW
    I think this book's greatest strength is that it promotes the likelihood of salvation occurring after death. On this subject, RB's position in somewhat similar to that of Dr. Billy Graham and the late Bishop J. A. T. Robinson (see Robinson's “In the End God”). Bell's endorsement of posthumous reconciliation is remarkable because he is an evangelical. Perhaps LW will open the door for other evangelical pastors to abandon the teaching of Augustine and Calvin on this subject, the terrible proposition that hell will last forever. Reading LW may likewise lead many born-again Christians of various persuasions to understand that “salvation after death” is not a “damnable heresy” but a “Bible-based reality.” This corrective hallmark of LW, by itself, makes the book worth every penny of its price.

    Bell has showed that the ultimate reconciliation of people to God through Jesus Christ is supported by dozens of Bible passages including such key free-standing texts as Romans 5:18-19, Colossians 1:20, Philippians 2:10-11, I John 2:2, and hosts of others from both the Old and New Testaments. These are the very scripture sections which, ironically,  are  ignored, downplayed, or “revised” by many evangelicals, who themselves profess to believe that “all scripture is God-breathed” (II Timothy 3:16). RB  showed that various well-known theologians in church history, before and after Augustine, have championed the hope that God can and does reconcile lost dead people, p. 107.

    There are several Greek and Hebrew words that have been systematically mistreated in most English Bible versions, with the result that they end up fitting snugly with the everlasting torment view. RB has exposed these underlying translation errors in a clear and readable genre. For example, he showed that the Greek word aiōn  regularly refers to an “age,” having both a beginning and an end. It does not mean “forever” as so many Bibles have it wrongly translated. Its adjectival form, aiōnion, derives directly from it, and means “aeonian” or “related to an age.” Aiōnion  in Greek does not mean “forever,” as is erroneously conveyed in most scripture versions.

    RB showed that gehenna designates nothing more or less than the garbage dump southwest of Old Jerusalem and that tartarus was a term borrowed by the apostle Peter from Greek mythology to signify a temporary judgment abyss. After demonstrating that these words, and the word hades too, have nothing to do with our usual concept of “hell,” RB concluded by saying, “...and that's that” p. 72. But in conjunction with all this, LW still promoted the biblical notion that God will employ purifying judgments to cleanse mankind, an idea that is rejected by many liberal theologians who have altogether abandoned the reality of God's indignation (see p. 37.) Eventually, however, Justice and mercy will “hold hands” in the age to come (p. 38), for God “...simply does not give up on the creation” (LW p. 36).

     RB reported that people who favorably discuss the reconciliation view, are ostracized from the mainstream of evangelicalism. I have encountered such ostracism and am pleased that RB made the following balanced assessment concerning the censoring of those of us who believe in total salvation: “To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for not holding this belief [everlasting hell] is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years” (p. 111.)

     Bell's Personal Opinion

    But RB does not espouse the full-blown universalist idea that God will ultimately reconcile all lost people—see pp. 115-117. Nonetheless, on many pages from 95 to 116 and elsewhere in LW, Bell supplied a complete and comprehensive overview of Biblical Universalist teachings, emphasizing the very scriptures used to  support this view. Introducing this grand exposť of total salvation, RB quoted I Timothy 2:3 (God wants all men to be saved), and then he asked numerous rhetorical questions like: “Will God take care of us? Are we safe? Will all be feasting, as in Psalm 22? Will God get what God wants? Will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants?...” p. 98.

    RB loaded his long exposition of Christian universalism with Bible quotations showing that all people, all nations, every knee, every tongue, etc. will experience salvation. By doing this, RB was demonstrating that God does not fail, that He shows compassion to all, that His anger is short, that His favor lasts a lifetime, and that God is not helpless. Once, RB even poked fun at the very idea that God would fail to save, by jokingly suggesting that God might end up saying, “'Well, I tried. I gave it my best shot, and sometimes you just have to be okay with failure.' Will God shrug God-size shoulders and say 'You can't always get what you want'?” pp. 102-103. The author displayed the “total salvation” view with such pleasant objectivity that some reviewers of LW actually believe Bell himself is a full-orbed universalist.

    But Bell is not,  and he looks at future events in a different manner than do the universalists.  RB believes God, based on  His great love for mankind, has put the highest premium on human “free will.” If any person repents and believes on Jesus, that individual will, of course, be saved, whether  now or “later.” But Bell speculated that there will be some individuals who, in their head-strong rebellion against God, keep right on resisting His grace. In His great  love, God will grant such people their desire--to remain permanently separated from Him for as long as they choose, presumably even forever. But RB's view is not supported by the barrage of scriptures he quoted. Those passages show instead that God's punishments are remedial and temporary, drawing people to Himself, even as Saul of Tarsus was dragged into God's presence while walking the Road to Damascus where he wanted to execute Christian families. But instead of getting what he wanted, Paul received what God wanted!

    Dr. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary where RB undertook graduate study, has come to this same conclusion about Bell's book. Mouw wrote “on-line,” that Bell had  “...not crossed the theological bridge from evangelical orthodoxy into universalism...Bell is calling us away from stingy orthodoxy to generous orthodoxy.” Mouw himself evidently holds a view that he calls “salvific generosity,” which is probably similar to the ideas of Billy Graham and certain others. Bell demonstrated that he is not a universalist in these remarks:  “God gives us what we want, and if that's hell, we can have it” (p. 72)  “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God because of their choices?” (p. 115) “Now back to that original question: 'Does God get what God wants?' is a good question, an interesting question, an important question that gives us much to discuss. But there's a better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future... and brings it back to one absolute we can depend on in the midst of all this, which turns out to be another question. It's not 'Does God get what God wants?' but 'Do we get what we want?' And the answer to that is a resounding, affirmative, sure, and positive yes. Yes we get what we want. God is that loving” (pp. 116-117).  “That's how love works...It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (p. 119). RB penned numerous other statements like these on pp. 104 and 115, elevating human freedom to a vantage higher than God's irresistible grace. RB elaborated extensively on the idea that God and love will both win only if God let's people choose, and then gives them exactly what they themselves want. But RB's approach contradicts the biblical view presented earlier in LW, namely, that God's love expressed through Christ, remediates people and enables them all to finally want what they ought to have—God Himself.

    

IV. Some Changes Needed

    While LW has great value, it contains some peculiar problems and annoying shortcomings that ought to be modified if and when a second edition is produced. A book of this caliber should not go to press without an index, reference list, and/or a bibliography--and yet, LW has none of these. When verses of the Bible are cited or quoted in print, it is always customary to supply the verse numbers along with the book and chapter. Yet in most cases, RB did not provide verse numbers, a troublesome omission prevailing throughout the whole book. Sometimes, as on p. 7, the author cited and quoted another author without supplying the number of the page from which that quotation was taken. In dealing with this complex subject, RB did not adequately reveal the background sources he used. There are many classic and current volumes about these themes, books that Bell might have mentioned. Doing so would have helped interested readers pursue the topic further and might have assisted them in understanding the ideological bases from which Bell worked.  Bell did not cite, discuss, or quote much material from the volumes that he later listed in the section entitled “Further Reading.”

    While the literary style of LW may have appealed to many readers, it will surely frustrate others. There was the recurring use of incomplete sentences like “All this, on a website.” (p. 96) or “Gehenna, the town garbage pile.” Sentences were often split into segments, and then these short slices were printed on separate lines, one after the other, as if LW were some kind of poetry, which it clearly is not. Certain of the chapter titles in LW are effective and descriptive while some others, like the one for chapter 2 (“Here Is the New There”), shed little if any light on what the chapter might contain.  Sometimes, for no apparent reason, the writer interjected off-the-wall remarks, like the following: “...the woman who wrote the book of Hebrews” p. 10. This controversial phrase was inserted without the benefit of scholarship supporting it or conflicting with it, and there was no apparent reason for including it. Although Hebrews may have been written by a woman, no one really knows. Some workers suggest that its author was a man  and a few still attribute authorship to the apostle Paul. Whatever the truth may be, dogmatic, irrelevant, and unfounded statements like this one detract from LW's value.

    The terms “poem”, “metaphor,” and “story” received unwarranted usage in LW. On p. 133, for example, RB classified the Genesis creation account as “a poem.”  Routinely, Bible translators and Hebrew scholars have put biblical poetry into the English poem format. They found no reason to do this with Genesis chapters 1 and 2 because those chapters are clearly prose, not poetry. Salvation through the blood of Christ should not be described as “...merely a metaphor,” like RB did on p. 128. Rob Bell showed an unfounded propensity to designate many direct Biblical statements, such as this one concerning the blood of Christ, as “metaphors” or simply “stories,” a word that carries fictitious overtones, and even implies, whether intended or not, that the event being discussed is nothing more than a “story.”

    V.  Conclusion

    In my 27 years of studying the topic of salvation after death, I have seen no other book on this theme (with the possible exception of “The Gospel According to Peanuts” by Rev. Robert Short) that experienced such wide circulation and popularity. May its wonderful message of God's love reach many more readers who need to know that God's judgments will come to a permanent end. And may its talented author learn that God wills all people to be saved, and that what God wills, will happen, always.

George F. Howe, Ph.D., botanist and student of biblical universalism. georgefhowe@sbcglobal.net