God Wins – A Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Part 2 – The Good

Love-wins This is part two of three posts reviewing Love Wins by Rob Bell. I would encourage you to take time to read yesterday’s post for background.

While I find Love Wins to be problematic at a number of levels, there are some critiques Rob Bell raises we should all take stock of. Such as:

We sometimes emphasize criteria for salvation not found in the Scriptures. One example would be the “age of accountability.” For those who hold to a belief in adult baptism by immersion, we need to rethink the “age of accountability” idea.

Despite the tastelessness of the illustration, Bell writes provocatively: “This belief raises a number of issues, one of them being the risk each new life faces. If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever. Why run the risk? (Kindle ed., 122)

This way of making his point is typical throughout the book. While I doubt anyone who believes in the age of accountability would argue for early termination of a child’s life in order to “save” them, Bell’s overall point that the “age of accountability” raises troublesome theological issues is valid. Where did we get 12? What questions does that theological viewpoint raise?

We sometimes overemphasize our part in the process of evangelization. It is tempting to exaggerate our role in the evangelistic process, minimizing God’s role. We need to make sure we remember it’s “God who brings the increase,” and that we are but planters and waterers. Sometimes, we may do neither. At the very least, the source of our redemption, Jesus Christ, was sent, crucified, and raised without us playing any role. Perhaps if God acted so definitively to redeem all creation, he isn’t removed from the process today.

Bell writes:

If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us—what happens if they don’t do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire? This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else’s hands? Which raises another question: Is someone else’s eternity resting in your hands? (Kindle ed., 180)

Well said, Rob.

We sometimes emphasize the role of God’s Kingdom in hereafter, neglecting the advance of God’s Kingdom here.

As I’ve blogged elsewhere, I feel this is becoming an outdated criticism. Today, it’s becoming en vogue to exchange activism for evangelism, still missing the integration of the two. The theological divide I see at work today isn’t as much between those who are concerned about the world today and those that aren’t. It’s simply a matter of emphasis and orientation. However, this tension should lead us to seek proper integration of the concept of Kingdom into all of life, beginning now and carrying over to eternity.

“If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world? A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it, all with the anticipation of a coming day when things are on earth as they currently are in heaven.” (Kindle ed. 626)

Now, I would differ greatly with Rob Bell on what heaven is. What Bell envisions seems to me an over-shot of N.T. Wright’s new creation theology. It resembles a sort of ongoing social utopia rather than a place where Jesus reigns forever, where angels cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and where God’s ransomed worship Him around the throne. Bell is careful to say what he imagines is more than a utopia. However, after looking for evidence of such, it’s hard for me to see how it is much more than a utopia.

Bell writes: “Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one. Honest business, redemptive art, honorable law, sustainable living, medicine, education, making a home, tending a garden— they’re all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with God now, because they will all go on in the age to come. In heaven, on earth. Our eschatology shapes our ethics. Eschatology is about last things. Ethics are about how you live.” (Kindle ed., 615)

———-

Rob Bell is right that eschatology shapes ethics. That’s why one could reasonably ask why someone who held to Rob Bell’s suggested eschatology would bother mentioning Christ to others in this life. Heaven for Bell is heaven on earth, the place where earth becomes what it is supposed to be. And, everyone ends up there eventually. For those who have yet to embrace Jesus’ values, living in the heaven Bell imagines will be hell. Hell is, in Rob Bell’s view, essentially self-created. Thus, our reason for leading people to Jesus is because it prepares them best for the age to come, a new heaven on earth. Those who don’t prepare for “heaven” will struggle in the age to come. All of the biblical language of flames, hell, anguish, etc. is down-played or viewed metaphorically. I have done my best to choose quotes that are in this context, but I would encourage everyone to read for themselves:

Bell writes:

  • “Imagine being a racist in heaven-on-earth, sitting down at the great feast and realizing that you’re sitting next to them. Those people. The ones you’ve despised for years. Your racist attitude would simply not survive. Those flames in heaven would be hot.” (Kindle ed. 662).
  • “Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t” (Kindle ed. 1349)
  • “Some agony needs agonizing language. Some destruction does make you think of fire. Some betrayal actually feels like you’ve been burned. Some injustices do cause things to heat up” (Kindle ed., 945)
  • “Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. It is bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes” (Kindle ed., 1376)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Love Wins is a book trying to make sense of God’s love and wrath. It doesn’t, in my opinion.

To say that God wouldn’t be glorified if eternal torment was true again betrays Bell’s discomfort with God’s wrath and His intrinsic glory. God remains God, and what brings God glory is not that His ways match up with our Western sensibilities. God is glorified because he is God. Every biblical encounter with Him shouts that. He is who He is, and who He is altogether worthy of worship. I suppose we could look at the Passover for instance, and say, “How could a loving God have a hand in slaying the first-born of all Egypt?” Perhaps that is a good question on the one hand. On another, we understand it was a magnificent display of God’s power and deliverance. Jesus celebrated it. It’s not barbaric. It’s worthy of praise.

Our call is to love God as He is with heart, mind, soul and strength. I’m sure Rob Bell would agree with that. However, who God is must be taken from the whole biblical witness, and especially the testimony of Jesus, God’s Son. Rob Bell probably feels like he is doing that as well. However, his hermeneutic echoes Adolf von Harnack and the theological liberalism of yesteryear. I find his theology flavored with Schleirmacher and Tillich. Whatever the case, Bell’s perspective on salvation, heaven and hell is not truly in the stream of orthodoxy, as Bell claims. That in and of itself does not make him wrong. It simply leads Bell down a path of conforming certain biblical claims to Western existential philosophy.

It’s okay for us to contemplate and grapple with God’s love, justice, mercy wrath, and holiness.

However, we cannot rewrite them.

We cannot rewrite the Gospel story…which is more than a story.

It is His story.

And, it includes a real heaven and a real hell–heaven that is far greater than a utopian earth and hell that torments eternally. They aren’t the same place, and not everyone will be there. Jesus (not us) will decide who goes where, and His blood alone saves. I believe that to be the biblical witness.

I’m thankful to Rob Bell for causing the Church to examine it’s eschatology again. It’s been a while for the Church, in truth. Perhaps some improvements will be made because of Love Wins–if for no other reason than the Church needs to rearticulate and clarify it’s beliefs as a result. I’m also thankful to Rob Bell for making the case for a more gracious hope that all will be saved.

Tomorrow’s post will deal with the two issues most (including me) have with Love Wins–its view of the atonement and his use of Scripture.


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.