Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has generated a great deal of controversy in many Christian circles. While I have no desire to jump on the bandwagon of reviews just because everyone else is (I think some of the people freaking out are owed part of Bell’s royalties for the hand they had in making the book as popular as it is), the book is up for discussion in a class I’m taking this summer, and since I wrote up some thoughts on it anyway, I thought I’d put it into a blog post. For your perusal are three things I appreciated about the book followed by three areas of concern; I’ll let the length of the respective sections speak for themselves.
Things to Appreciate
1. Style: Bell’s book is written in his own unique voice, breaking up sentences as if they were poetry and seeking an aesthetic in writing which fuses theological discussion with art and conversation. While I personally don’t get a lot from this style of writing, I recognize that many people find it helpful and engaging. At the very least, Bell’s approach is a good reminder that there are many artists and other creative people who can be served by this style of book, and I wish more theologians and other Christians would speak at least occasionally to these people.
2. Identifying Problems: In Love Wins Bell does a great job of identifying the struggles and questions which many people have. He doesn’t pull any punches; when he asks “have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth,” Bell is identifying the raw, gut-level questions people truly have (p. 102). His critique of an escapist view of heaven nails the flawed picture many evangelicals have inherited (pp. 21-24). One of the greatest values of the book is that Bell unflinchingly articulates the difficult issues and questions of doubt.
3. Moments of Brilliance: There are points in Love Wins where Bell says true things beautifully. His discussion of the necessity of divine judgment would be spot-on if it wasn’t for the conclusions he goes on to draw (pp. 37-8). So are his initial few points about the sacrificial system, although even here a few flaws start to creep in (pp. 123-5). When Bell’s saying true thing he’s spot on; the problem comes with everything in between.
Areas of Concern
1. Logic/Careful Thinking: For someone who loves questions so much, it was surprising to me that Bell didn’t seem to have even a basic grasp of logical fallacies related to such questions. The book is rife with false choices (Bell dismisses the view that faith alone is needed for salvation by asking “[I]s it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter?” p. 6), equivocations, and excluded middles. The repeated question of chapter 4, “does God get what God wants,” is wielded like an argumentative hammer without ever stopping to define terms and consider other possibilities; Bell thinks the answer is either “yes” (and thus you buy into his arguments for universal or near-universal salvation) or “no” (and thus you hold the tradition view where God is only “sort of great” (p. 98) and “impotent” (p. 101)). This sort of shoddy argumentation is troubling, since it reflects a lack of respect and regard for the many people who disagree under the guise of benign question-asking. Another example of this shaky logic are the assertions which occur at many points in Bell’s argument. For instance, he insists that “telling a story in which billions of people spend forever…trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story” and so dismisses the idea (p. 110). However, Bell fails to argue why it’s not a good story, seeming to think simply stating that many of us don’t like it is sufficient. I could respond “Well I think it is a good story” and we’d be at an impasse; more importantly, I could argue it’s the true story and that we need to adjust our views of goodness accordingly.
2. Exegetical Problems: I know of no other way to say it; Bell’s exegesis is atrocious. He makes aion (the Greek word for eternal) a description of “a period of intense feeling,” which is nowhere in its range of meanings (NB: aion does have many meanings, not all of which are durative, but that’s another discussion). He confuses the purpose of texts, for instance making the story of the prodigal son into an analogy about the afterlife (pp. 169-70). He even commits one of my cardinal sins of exegesis by confusing a word with an idea, noting “the phrase ‘personal relationship’ appears nowhere in the bible” (p. 10). True enough, but the idea of personal relationship is contained within the language of “knowing” biblically, and “knowing God” certainly is a biblical idea. I could multiply examples here, but suffice to say I had to stop reading several times in horror at the way texts were (mis)handled.
3. Theological Issues: While he often dances around naked assertions of his views, I think it’s pretty clear that Bell comes down in worrying places. The most obvious issue is his view of second-chance salvation after judgment, which he pretty clearly articulates. It should be noted in this regard that Bell’s attempts to claim many figures from church history for this view is painful to read. The quotes he offers by Luther, Jerome, Basil and Augustine are taken from works in which these figures reject the view Bell espouses, and to quote them the way he does is the worst sort of dishonesty (pp. 106-7). In addition, there are serious questions I have about emphases Bell stresses. For instance, he seems to view heaven and hell as primarily descriptive of this life and only secondarily of the life to come. I agree that we can have a more hellish or heavenly existence in this life, but to make that the primary focus of Scripture is to distort the bible’s own focus on God ultimately executing judgment and making creation new. Lastly, it must be noted that Bell is extremely Arminian and this book requires one to hold this view. Virtually all of Bell’s arguments fall apart if this theological position isn’t presupposed, and Love Wins nowhere argues for it, presumably dismissing those of us who disagree as not worthy of consideration.
I realize this is a pretty negative take on the book, so I want to take a moment to offer a few more thoughts. Unlike many, the thing that troubles me about Love Wins is not its conclusions. Oh, I disagree with them, but they were what I expected and I’m not one to enjoy getting apoplectic at how wrong others are. What made the book so hard for me to read was its total lack of respect and honesty.
Like Bell, I value asking questions and encouraging dialog. However, I think many modern Christian authors have confused punctuation and lack of clarity with these values. Asking leading questions to force your opinion is not a mark of charity. When you say you’re genuinely interested in discussing whether my view is wrong or I worship a monster, I have every right to feel you’ve already decided not to listen. Over an over Bell represents the discussion in this way. It’s apparent that he’s read lots of hip books about second temple Judaism and eschatology; what’s less clear is that he’s read any careful defense of the traditional views he’s rejecting. There are lots of ways of answering the questions he poses; I just wish he wouldn’t pretend like his way was the only one worth carefully articulating.
To put a point on it, I have no question that God loves me. The question I had after reading Love Wins is whether Rob Bell does.