God Wins – A Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Part 3 – Scripture and Atonement

Rob bellSomeone asked me why I’m taking the time to do these reviews. My response was because belief matters to God and radically shapes life. What we believe matters. A lot.

My purpose for writing these reviews is not to turn people against Rob Bell, certainly not to injure him personally. These posts are simply a review Love Wins, with a theological critique that will hopefully produce spirited debate on very important subjects.

Of all theological arenas open to debate and variance, atonement and the authority of Scripture are not among them. I’m sure Rob Bell believes in Scripture and atonement, as well–albeit differently. However, the way he handles Scripture in Love Wins boggled my mind. It wasn’t just creative. It was astounding…not in a good way. I think anyone claiming to be perfect in interpreting Scripture needs a reality check. However, this doesn’t mean there is no such thing as sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics.

Here are my primary problems with Bell’s interpretation of Scripture throughout Love Wins:

Legalism/Literalism

 Yes, you read that right. Legalism. Or at least literalism. Some things he applies extremely literally that shouldn’t be and makes some astonishing leaps based on the silence of Scripture. One example is in his analysis of John 14:6, which he examines almost completely out of context as well. Bell writes, “John remembers Jesus saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (chap. 14). This is as wide and expansive a claim as a person can make. 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” (Kindle ed., 1867).

This is a good old argument from silence. Sure, there are a lot of things Jesus doesn’t say in that verse. That doesn’t mean one can simply fill in whatever blanks one wants to however one wants to. In context, Jesus is clearly making a claim of exclusivity…not in terms of “whatever” God may be doing through Him. Nothing is said of “redeeming, restoring, or renewing the world” in the verse either. My point is the text doesn’t say what Bell says it says, either, and when one reads John 14:6 in context, it is clear Jesus is saying He, Jesus, God’s Son, is the only way to the Father. Kevin DeYoung says it well in his review:  Even a cursory glance at John 14 shows that the through in verse 6 refers to faith. The chapter begins by saying, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” Verse seven talks about knowing the Father. Verses nine and ten explain that we see and know the Father by believing that Jesus is in the Father and the Father in him. Verses 11 and 12 touch on belief yet again. Coming to the Father through Christ means through faith in Christ. This is in keeping with the overall purpose of John’s gospel (John 20:31)

DeYoung is absolutely right, and that way of interpreting the Scriptures pervades Love Wins.

Passover interpretation.

This is where Bell simply passes over texts he finds problematic. This is most evident in his interpretation of Revelation and commentary on John 3:16-17. Bell’s reading of Revelation virtually ignores or makes inappropriate metaphor of the numerous violent judgments that come from God’s throne and remnant theology that permeates the book. Bell notes rightly the letter is written to people being persecuted under the oppression of emperors. However, nothing in Revelation seems to hold out hope that those represented in John’s symbolic Anti-Christ figures, Beasts, etc., are going to be saved. Revelations’ rich symbolism is, if metaphor, metaphor pointing to the complete destruction of evil and evil-doers, and the absolute triumph of good and those redeemed by the Lamb…not the simple pruning of evil prior to these spiritual or physical parties entering the heavenly reality eventually. One very much has to imagine such a scenario without biblical support. Bell suggests that because the gates in heaven are never shut suggests that all may continue to enter and eventually be reconciled to God (pg. 115, print ed.). While certainly a more pleasant picture than the one emphasized throughout Revelation, that is a signficant interpretive leap. Such an interpretation is also at odds with the rest of Revelation 21-22. Those chapters say clearly there are some left outside the city (21:8, 27; 22:3, 14–15, 18–19).

Another example of the interpretive malpractice of “passover” is in his analysis of John 3:16ff. While arguing that we should be extremely careful about making negative judgments on people’s eternal destinies (a welcome warning), Bell cites Jesus’ words in John 3:17 that he “did not come to judge the world but to save it” (print ed., 160). Bell continues, saying, Jesus is a “vast, expansive, generous mystery” leading us to the hopeful conclusion that “Heaven is, after all, full of surprises.” He completely ignores Jesus’ words in verse 18: “Whoever believes in him [i.e., the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” He also avoids other Johannine passages of like kind. For example, John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Universal Redemption.

I have covered some of this in the previous two posts, so I’ll deal here just with some of Bell’s biblical basis for his position. For instance:

Because Jesus says it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for Capernaum (Matt. 11:23–24), Bell concludes that there is hope for all the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs (print ed., 85). Think about that passage for a second. Now, read that statement again. Bell takes a passage clearly about judgment—judgment that will be so harsh for Capernaum it’s even worse than God’s judgment on Sodom—and turns it into a passage supporting ultimate universalism. Jesus’ warning says nothing about new or future hope for Sodom. It’s about the hopelessness of nonbelieving Capernaum.

Bell has at best an uncomfortable view of penal substitutionary atonement–that is the belief that the righteousness of Christ’s blood offers sacrifice for our sins before the Lord, satisfying His wrath through substitution. Bell writes, ” “Let’s be very clear, then…we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182) It’s fair to offer the critique that Christians have obsessed on this doctrine in ways that make a cartoon character of God either by hyperbolizing his anger or by focusing exclusively on the salvific side of Christ’s sacrifice. However, it seems that Rob Bell pictures God as a universalist, pacifist lover who doesn’t get particularly angry…and even if He did…wouldn’t do much about it. I don’t believe that statement to be a caricature of Rob Bell’s position, but a fair representation based on what’s written in Love Wins.

Rob Bell’s believes that God must be non-violent and inclusive. In my opinion, that lens shapes how he reads the Bible. Not vice-versa. It’s very hard to make sense of the great Flood, the Passover, the death of Jesus on the Cross and Revelation from that viewpoint–just to name a few examples. In short, Bell doesn’t believe in traditional heaven and hell because it is exclusive, and violent–and that goes against God’s nature, supposedly.

A Note on Atonement 

In trying so hard to get us to understand God’s love, Rob Bell de-emphasizes the very thing that demonstrates the extent of God’s love to the fullest: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

“Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality” (Kindle Ed., 2102). As I’ve argued in the previous posts, Rob Bell’s (or anyone else’s) inability to embrace God’s story on God’s terms doesn’t make the story valid or invalid. God is who He is. Our task is to recognize what God’s story actually is…whether we think it’s a good story or not…and submit ourselves to it.

It takes a rather inflated view of humanity to believe that we have a view of love so pure we can accurately judge God’s actions free from self-interest, biases, or pride. Thankfully, God will never stoop to my view of what love is. My hope is that He will lift my view to His. Indeed, He has shown me the full extent of His love, insufficiency of my own, and demonstrated pure love through the sacrifice of Christ. Such love doesn’t lead to a utopian heaven on earth for all, regardless of belief or deeds done in the flesh in this life. It results in an eternal heaven for those who follow Jesus Christ, and an eternal hell for those who reject Christ.

Again, Kevin DeYoung puts it well:

“At bottom, Bell’s vision of heaven and hell doesn’t work because his vision of God is false. I cannot imagine the angels singing “holy, holy, holy” or Isaiah crying out “woe is me” at the feet of Bell’s god. I see no place for divine wrath or divine justice in Bell’s theology. All our punishment, in this life and the next, is manmade. We get what we want and it makes our lives miserable, now and for a while in heaven. There is some truth to this. The pain of hell is our fault. But it’s also God’s doing. Hell is not what we make for ourselves or gladly choose. It’s what a holy God justly gives to those who exchange the truth of God for a lie. The bowls of wrath in Revelation are poured out by God; they are not swum in by sinners. The ten plagues were sent by God, they were not the product of some Egyptian spell gone wrong. God’s wrath burns against the impenitent and unbelieving; they do not walk into the fire by themselves.”

Conclusion

As I mentioned in the first post, I am a fan of Rob Bell as a communicator and creative pastor. Sadly, I believe Love Wins at least hangs ten on the line of heresy. I’ve written these reviews because I believe Love Wins is significantly off-track on matters of core doctrine and Rob Bell’s influence puts many people at risk as a result. I have not written to arm people with weapons to injure or condemn Rob Bell. Christians have an opportunity to stand for truth by engaging in spirited debate and preaching the truth. We also have a chance to stand for truth by practicing biblical love in our treatment of Rob Bell and others we disagree with. So, if you don’t agree with Rob Bell,

Stand firm.

But, don’t be ugly.

No witch trials.

No book-burnings.

Just rebuke and correction that would honor Jesus.

In love.

With humility.

And remember, in the end.

God wins.

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “God Wins – A Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Part 3 – Scripture and Atonement

  1. Very good stuff Tim. Just this week I picked up Love Wins at a local bookstore and read the first three chapters before deciding that I didn’t want to invest my money in it. I have read all of Rob Bell’s books and used his videos in small groups, Bible classes and workshops but this one I cannot put out there as having the same creative, spiritual value as Bell’s earlier books.
    Seems to me he has mounted the bully pulpit of a philosopher to raise a multitude of questions that he assumes can be answered with a strange mixture of what I believe to be faulty Biblical exegesis and humanist logic. Most his questions, at least what I read, aren’t all that new or difficult to answer. But, I do understand Peterson’s defense of Bell’s right to raise those questions. And heartily agree with that.
    I haven’t told you so in a long time but I appreciate your blog and will always fondly recall the short time we had together. I love you and Emily like my own kids. May the Father continue to lead you in the path he wants you to walk. I admire that about you. ks

  2. I would like to start by asking you two questions. One: Can you can give an accurate definition of the phrase: “Lamb of God”? We all know that this is one of the names used for Jesus, like Messiah, Savior, Son of Man, or Christ.
    But exactly what is the importance of the name “Lamb of God”? And why is it important to me as a Catholic? The second question I would like to ask you is: Why the Catholic Church would offer The Holy Eucharist every day at every Mass throughout the world in over 3000 languages.
    What knowledge do they have that would make them feel compelled to do this for thousands of years? In answering this question, we’ll see why the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.'” (CC 1324)
    For more information on Jesus New Covenant and how everything ties together — Passover Meal -> Manna -> Prophecy of the New Covenant — go to The 4th Cup.com and watch the video! You can also read along while the video is playing.

  3. Thanks for these articles. I know it is difficult to write this sort of review about an author and speaker you have supported. I too have been a fan of Rob Bell and was extremely disappointed at what I have heard from him as he has attempted to explain his views. Your review reinforces my concern. My only hope is that the Lord will use this the stir the hearts of many to look for themselves and so come to saving faith.
    Best,
    John.

  4. Again, thanks for the review (and for being able to be critical without being vitriol). I too think he has too easily slid over the big problem of sin that all people have. Even though I don’t hold the “totally depraved” view of humanity of Calvinism, there’s no getting around the problem of sin and maintaining a Christian theology.
    Grace and Peace,
    K. Rex Butts