God Wins – A Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Part 1

Rob-Bell I should say up front that I am a Rob Bell fan. Every now and then a communicator comes along that really alters the craft for the better. Rob Bell is one such communicator. He is creative. He blends humor, interesting facts, and some fresh insights into Scripture. I read Velvet Elvis and Sex God with a furrowed theological brow at times but also thoroughly enjoyed his creative agitation and fresh persective.

However…

Love Wins is another matter.

People were quick to dogpile on John Piper, Justin Taylor and others who were early detractors of Love Wins, because they assumed they were jumping to conclusions. Having now read Love Wins, I believe unfortunately, their perspectives were valid in great measure. Love Wins is first a book of theological art, rather than “hard” theology. I say this because like Rob Bell’s trademark writing style, his theology is shaped on rather “artistic” ways of reading texts. This would be OK to an extent as long as he remained respectful of other viewpoints throughout. That’s what makes art, art. It’s one’s own work from deep inside. Everyone understands it isn’t a photograph of reality…it’s self-expression for beauty and creativity’s sake. However, Rob Bell isn’t just painting a canvas, he is making a series of serious theological claims, artfully.

It will become clear to the reader that Rob Bell believes traditional Christianity’s view is more or less unsophisticated, perhaps barbaric, and certainly lacking imagination. Based on Love Wins, I believe Rob Bell’s theology of heaven and hell to be unsophisicated and his exegesis sometimes inexplicable. This isn’t to say he doesn’t raise some very good questions that are someone has needed to ask for a long time. I’m also not saying it’s harmless and dismissable in the way some bad freshman research paper is. Love Wins is much more than that. It has some new and true insights. It’s obviously been agonized over by the author. However, second, the claims of Love Wins have real import, perhaps even eternal import. His reading of key texts of the Bible and discomfort with God’s judgment lead down a poor theological path of real consequence.

Disagreeing with Rob Bell’s perspective’s does not make one a Calvinist, a Fundamentalist, or any other “ist.” I am neither. I’m confident those who applaud Rob Bell’s new work for “raising questions,” won’t mind me raising some questions of my own.

Rather than write a billion word post, I will break the review into three smaller posts, this being the first.

What troubles me about Love Wins isn’t that Rob Bell brings up questions on a volatile subject. When one reads, Love Wins, it becomes quite obvious in the book’s opening pages more than “raising questions” is going on. There are indeed a number of sincere questions–many of which are simply classic Rob Bell agitation and exploration. Such questions are what endears Rob Bell to so many. However, there is no doubt those questions make an argument throughout the book that those who hold the orthodox Christian position are injuring the Gospel itself:

“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” (Kindle ed. 48)

Later in the book, Bell does say there is room within Christianity to hold different view on the subject of heaven and hell (I agree in part, disagree in part). However, the overall tenor and claim of the book is that a God who would send people to an eternal hell is foreign to the Bible, fails to achieve what He claims He wants (the redemption of all people) and is theological inpalatable to many. The God who judges the sins of people and their rejection of Christ with eternal torment is altogether unacceptable to Rob Bell.

Here was something that haunted me throughout my reading of the book… it was a sense that Bell was saying that if God was in fact a God who judges the living and dead with eternal heaven and hell…He wouldn’t be worth following. Rob Bell caracatures such a God as moody, one who is all love until the judgment…then he morphs into the punishing God.

“If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye. Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating.”

First, such a statement is based on a caricature of the traditional view of God…not a fair representation. Second, God is active in human history right now disciplining and judging evil in various ways. So, even if Bell’s caricature was right, it isn’t like God is some cosmic sweetheart right now. We pray because we believe God can and will act according to His will. Third, God is worth following because He’s God, not because we find Him acceptable enough to be God. God doesn’t need to satiate our human, Western conceptions of right and wrong, power and submission, inclusion or pacificm. Those who would follow Jesus must understand the call is for us to understand our humanness, weakness and biases and submit them to Christ’s Lordship, seeking to conform our desires to God’s. The question isn’t, is God good enough that I can follow Him? The question is, will God’s goodness to all creation seen in Christ compel me to be crucified with Christ and follow Him? There is a big difference in orientation and attitude. One is biblical. One is not.

God is good. God is love. God is all of those things…regardless of whether He meets the moral standards we set that we think are so high. Our standards of right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate are not as high as we think they are. God isn’t bound by our sensitivities, and He will not change to make himself more acceptable to us. He is who He is. Fortunately, as Rob Bell suggests, He does want all people to be saved. However, the Scriptures teach that salvation, while offered to all, is given to those for whom Jesus, God’s Son, is Lord (more on whether Bell believes this tomorrow). This doesn’t make God less great, as Rob Bell suggests:

“So does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great. According to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, “God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear.” (Kindle ed. 1219)

The underlying concept Bell plays with through the book seems to be that God wants everyone to be saved so everyone must be saved in the end or God isn’t very great. This is based on some creative, sometimes unbelievable readings of Scriptures, which we will look at in the next couple of posts.

Again, it is not incumbent on God to meet what we think are our high moral standards. Even the best of us is not that good. Even our highest science is foolishness to God. Even our most profound conceptions and feelings of love are not fully pure. I hold the Scripture’s testimony to be that God, not love, wins in the end. Without God, love itself has no true definition free of human self-interest either in description or incarnation.

Rob Bell’s view of God’s love seems to redefine God as a cosmic pacifist whose most judgmental move is to give us what we want. If we choose hell, it’s not forever and it’s self-made through the consequences of the decisions we make. God will give us what we want? Is that the climax of history? We get what we want, because God is just that loving?

The biblical testimony isn’t that in the end we get what we want. It’s that God gets what God wants. He offers eternal life to all and bids us come to His Son, who will return to judge the living and the dead with a righteous judgment. We can trust that His judgement will be right. Perfect, in fact.

In the end…

God wins.

The Bible tells us that God is love. God defines love. It is His essence. The full extent of His love is demonstrated on the Cross. In the end, whether we like Him or not, whether we find Him cuddly or cool, He is who He is…and He is love. Billions of people through the ages have found Him to be altogether beautiful and worthy in ways our tongues cannot describe–and believe in an eternal hell.

In the end…

God (who is love) 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.

Share Your Thoughts

16 thoughts on “God Wins – A Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Part 1

  1. I would like to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in writing this website. I’m hoping the same high-grade website post from you in the upcoming as well. Actually your creative writing abilities has encouraged me to get my own blog now. Actually the blogging is spreading its wings quickly. Your write up is a good example of it.

  2. Can someone please address Bells view on Eternity and forever. I think he makes a point that our view on eternity and forever our different then the Bibles view. He brings up the point about Jonah in the book if you have read it. If God is love why can’t he save people from “Eternal Torment”. I grew up in a perfect christian home so I get to live in heaven, but my friend who got raped by a pastor and grew up with no parents stops believing in God and he has to go to hell. Your telling me the Bible says and you can tell me without a doubt that my friend will be in hell “forever”. I think Bell is just trying to make us think about stuff and have these discussions.

  3. God is love. God is also, just as much, Holy. God does not send people to hell. We choose it (or not). So far this seems to be new wrapping on an old debate: Calvinism and Arminianism.

  4. I really appreciate your humble responses to the book. I am still reading. I refused to buy McLaren’s “New Kind of Christianity” but decided to get this one because of the hype. I felt like I needed to have a reasoned response to it. I agree so far with your reviews. I feel the same way. I am working on my own review and will post it when I finish reading.

  5. Aaron, I believe in all three. The concepts and passages quoted, when read in context and canonically don’t dispute one another. That is to say, if one takes these three to the exclusion of the rest of Scripture, one could reach a conclusion that only 2 can be agreed with. However, even then, I believe one can make sense of all 3 without reading anything in.

  6. Tim,
    Just curious; which two of the following do you believe? Can’t really believe all three…
    1.) God is omnipotent and will achieve all that He desires. (Luke 1:37, Psalm 135:6, among others)
    2.) God desires for all men to be saved. (1 Tim. 2:4, among others)
    3.) Some, if not many, will never obtain salvation and will either be cast into everlasting torment or annihilated. (Matt 22:1-14, among others)
    It would seem that scripture supports all three ideas – but one of the ideas must have been read into the scriptures, not taken from them.
    -Aaron

  7. It is interesting how we define God in our own image rather than allowing everything He is and all that we are about to be for His glory. He is creator and we are the created. We want to define who God is and what love is based upon how we (or the society) defines it.
    The more I understand about the differences between Heaven, the Kingdom, and Eternity, the more I’ve come to understand God’s incredible love… but love never forces itself and if ultimately there is no choice, that’s not love. While I believe there are going to be many more people in eternity with God than I used to, we still have a choice. God gave Satan the ability to choose and he chose against God, so even without numerous other scriptures it would reason that we would ulitmately be able to do the same whether you believe that “choice” needs to come before ones physical death or not… and that choice would allow for rejection of Christ.

  8. Tim,
    Thanks for taking the time to write this review, with such a heart of respect and compassion (for both the author and his readers, and searching spectators). Bell’s book stirs up deep issues and questions, and I believe this resulting debate and clarification of the true message of the Cross and the Gospel (even on mainstream TV!) is healthy for today’s generation. We need to have solid answers to tough questions; and to find them, we need to review GOD’S BOOK to find out what He wrote. I love your conclusion, that GOD (who is love) wins. AMEN!!!
    Ann Dunagan – The Mission-Minded Family

  9. Thanks Tim. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your analysis. I’m beginning to think I’m going to have to read Bell’s book, though I’ve resisted because I hate to see it generate additional sales just through controversy.
    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  10. A lot of what Bell is going after isn’t “traditional Christianity” at all but “traditional” quasi-Calvinist evangelical Protestantism, which is at odds with traditional Christianity on a number of points.
    Bell’s answers have their own problems, granted.

  11. Thanks Wes, Scott and adotingmama. My purpose is not to bash Rob Bell but simply to offer a basic assessment of his claims in light of the biblical witness. Thanks for logging on.

  12. In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell says he believes 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 rethink 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.”

  13. First visit to your blog! Just last Monday I was standing w/ “Love Wins” in hand and heading to the cashier, but for some reason I decided against it. Thanks for such a great review! Look forward to the next!

  14. This is my first visit to this blog. Actually, last week, I had “Love Wins” in hand…but I read the reviews and was kind of “weirded” out by it. Thanks for this review! look forward to the next!

  15. Thank you for writing this. I can’t wait to see what part two and three say. To say I am shocked by Rob’s new book would be an understatement!