Now for some thoughts about Love Wins. Before we get into it, allow me a qualifier. This is not a comprehensive review of the book. It’s not a point-by-point critique. There are a lot of things you might want to get into, but here are a few that I thought were worth getting into.
I’ll start with my favorite thing about Rob’s book: he’s asking brutally hard questions about the most difficult part of Christianity to swallow and—now here’s the kicker—he is asking them in the way that people outside of the church are actually asking them. You know those conversations in which the guy at the gym, your coworker or your buddy at Starbucks says, “You mean to tell me….” That’s what Rob is doing. He’s going after BIG GAME. He’s huntin’ Elephant! And he clearly has no interest in simply towing the company line.
The problem is that when you tackle a deep, mysterious, and difficult subject like this, it seems you either have to write a long-long-long book and/or you have to write a book with a great deal of precision and clarity (kind like a theology text book); or you have to write a devotional book that doesn’t stir the waters. It’s hard to write a “Rob Bell-Book” that takes on the things that Rob has taken on in Love Wins.
That being said, Rob raises- and addresses- some great questions. For one, Most notably, he deconstructs mainstream Christianity’s understanding of heaven and hell; you can hear echoes of Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy when Rob rightly insists that heaven is not some place out in the galaxy somewhere and that hell is not an underground lava-filled torture chamber. Rob’s treatment of the ge-henna is masterful (I did a message a few years back talking about hell that unpacked this term) and helpful if perhaps too brief.
I also like the way that Rob takes us away from “in and out” thinking. I believe this to be one of the ironic undercurrents of the Gospels. Jesus constantly surprised (and scandalized) people by including the un-includable and by questioning the place of the presumptive insiders.
Matt. 8:11 “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven;
Rob also takes apart our “pray the prayer and you’re in” theology. For many of us this is sacred. It’s how I became a Christ follower in High School. But at the risk of being “farewelled,” let me point out that this theology is nowhere found in the Bible. And for the more reformed among you, it’s not in the writings of the reformers either – show me where Calvin, Luther et al thought this. It is a distinctly American evangelical way to describe believing in Jesus, and it seems to have originated with Charles Finny (a decidedly unCalvinistic type).
Some Stuff I Didn’t Like
I wanted to like this book. I’ve liked every one of Rob’s books so far (I’ve read three). “So did you?” The short answer to the question is “Yes… sort of.”
Rob wants to show how love wins (duh!) He wants to champion’s God’s grace and overcoming love. In doing so however, he seems to make the same missteps of the ideas he deconstructs. I hate to use this word, but the book seemed, in a word, REDUCTIONISTIC. There were lots and lots of notes on my Kindle version that begin with “yeah, but…” Rob has explicitly denied being a “universalist” (one who believes that everyone eventually ends up ‘in heaven’ regardless of their connection to Christ). But I honestly don’t see where else he is going. Again, this is a “ROB BELL-BOOK” – those of you who have read Rob’s books know what I mean. I wasn’t expecting Scot McKnight or John Piper. Nonetheless, having read the book, I’m not sure what Rob concludes about the whole issue of Eternal Destiny. If you’ve read C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (if you haven’t, go do so… NOW! Seriously, NOW!), you will recognize a few themes that have influenced Rob. But it’s like Rob takes them one step farther.
I would also like to have Rob discuss in greater detail the particularity of Christ, the gospel and atonement. He teases us a little, but he doesn’t work this out enough, at least to my satisfaction. I’m sure a lot of Rob’s critics will conclude that he is dangerously inclusivistic (I mean this in the theological sense). But I’m not sure where Rob actually lands. This is true in several places and is my general frustration with Love Wins.
Finally, let me touch on one specific contention I had with LW. Rob talks about the various ways in which the cross and salvation are described in the New Testament, i.e. redemption, reconciliation, atonement, Christus Victor, etc. He goes on to say…
“It’s like this…”
“It’s like that…”
The point, then isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation or mechanism. Toe elevate one over the other to insist that there is a “correct” or right” one is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors.
Hmmm. No me gusta the “M” word.
The authoritative dictionary that came with my Mac says a metaphor is.
a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable
The problem is that none of these are metaphors. They were realities. For example:
• Blood was shed
• Christ was a sacrifice
• We were reconciled to God
• Evil was defeated
Yes, they explained these in ways that connected with first century worldview and culture. But they were explaining very real things. Now, understanding those realities, getting a fresh look at them, I’m all over that, but it’s not like we are free to dismiss these as metaphors, drop the ones we deem currently irrelevant. I agree that the gospel is bigger than an explanation of the “penal substitution” theory of the atonement. But the whole “these things are symbols and metaphors” deal has been tried and found wanting.
Here are a few quick thoughts to conclude – they are more my thoughts than reflections on Rob’s book:
√ We NEED to ask these questions. We need a good answer to the questions that start with “you mean to tell me that…”
√ This is a dark and mysterious area. The Bible is full of pictorial language when it talks about heaven, hell, and our lives after death. The odds are that many of our ideas are off. God is speaking about things that are outside our experience, so let’s give each other a little room here. There is an old story of a pastor who had in his notes “point 3 is weak, yell like hell!” I wonder how much of the foment is really about our uncertainty and how uncomfortable we are with it.
√ There is no escaping TENSION when you read the Bible. Yes, love wins. So does righteousness. Holiness wins. Yes,
√ There are a variety of views on heaven and hell that span the entire history of the church. One of the greatest preachers, writers and thinkers in our particular stream of faith, the great John Stott recently announced that he believes in annihilationism. Let’s not “farewell” someone over this. (Annihilationism, simply put, is the view that those in hell will after a finite amount of time be totally consumed and cease to exist (i.e. be annihilated) as opposed to consciously existing and presumably suffering forever).
√ Heaven and hell are both present and future realities. However you understand it, make sure you talk about heaven as something you really want and hell as something you really, really, really don’t want. Symbolic terms like “lakes of fire” may not be strictly speaking “literal” but they are depicting something that is horrific. Could it be that our problem is that we don’t see the value of life with God as so great that life WITHOUT Him seems absolutely ghastly?
√ There is much that we don’t know about the Judgment that is to come. But we do know God! We do know how He has been with us. We know what the Scripture reveals about Him. One of my fall back passages is Psalm 98:8-9
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy
9 Before the LORD, for He is coming to judge the earth;
He will judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with equity.
There is indeed a lot we don’t know about God’s judgment; but this we do know. IT WILL BE FAIR! No one will be saying, “Wow, that guy got HOSED!”
√ Knowing God and His character, experiencing Him as we have frees us from an “either/or”, “this or that” mentality. We are free to say, “I’m not sure”. It’s o.k. to say, “I don’t know how that fits in with a loving God.” There are points we can say, “I’m not sure what to make of that passage.” Let me humbly suggest that this is a better approach than pretending that we have it all figured out or our system of interpretation, or our theology explains it all. Let’s embrace with gusto the shocking, outrageous, risky, sacrificial love of God. Let us learn to “rejoice in His judgments.” (Psalm 97:8)
√ Can I end by issuing two scriptural pleas? From the interactions that I’ve had with my unchrurched friends, I think it’s safe to say we’ve taken a black eye. Blame whomever you would like. That’s not my point here. But here are my two pleas:
1. James 1:19 But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.
In case you are tempted to retort, “yes, but God’s cause is at stake” keep reading. “for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God.” It just doesn’t.
2. Micah 6:8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? How much different would we look if we were known as people who did justice (mishpat) and loved kindness (chesed) and walked humbly with our God, lost in the marvel that He loves us, and we love Him and can in His name love our neighbor!
What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment.