In considering Love Wins, I am struck by the very first proposition: “…Jesus’s [sic] story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.” It is this first premise, I believe, that guarantees a flawed conclusion – for at least two reasons.
First, Jesus’ story is the whole of Scripture, not just the Gospel accounts (see John 5:39). Jesus is active and involved in the Old Testament (though not given the name until His incarnation, consider Isaiah 48:12 and 16). If the book’s assertion is that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about God’s love then we must conclude that the whole of Biblical revelation is first and foremost about God’s love.
In fact, the Biblical evidence is to the contrary: the Biblical record is first and foremost about the glory of God. Examining every major work of God, we discover that God’s purpose in all those works is not to communicate His love, but rather to glorify Himself – to express His own character (consider Ephesians 1, for example, to see how each aspect of salvation is purposed for His glory).
The works of God serve exclusively the doxological purpose. Love Wins proposes one meta-narrative of the Bible (the expression of God’s love), when the Bible proposes a completely different one (the expression of God’s glory). If we miss the purpose of God in Scripture entirely, we are not likely to be able to piece together the individual components of God’s plan – such as the doctrine of Hell. Love Wins has missed this critical aspect of God’s overall purpose – making an oft-repeated mistake, but putting a fresh spin on it.
Second, while it is, of course, true that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8), this is not the primary characteristic with which God identifies Himself. Those who worship before Him in His very presence assert, with threefold emphasis, that God is holy, holy, holy (Isaiah 6; Rev. 4). They proclaim this in His presence, and He does not correct them. Note the emphasis: a twofold repetition is strong in both Hebrew and Greek, but threefold repetition is the strongest in both languages, and the only characteristic of God described so forcefully is his holiness. Of course, God is love, but we must understand His love through the lens of His holiness. If we reverse things – understanding His holiness through the lens of His love, we are distorting what the Bible has said about Him.
Notice the question on the back of Bell’s book, “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In hell.” “Huh?” Is this question beginning with the holiness of God, or is it beginning with some nebulous idea of love?
If the premise is correct (that love is the meta-narrative), then perhaps the conclusion logically follows (love would not allow eternal punishment – of course this would depend on the definition of love). However, if the premise is incorrect, and love is not the meta-narrative of the Bible, then we better pay very close attention to who God is, and what He has designed. As Solomon says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7) To deny that God is worthy to be feared is a foolish beginning point, and not one that can effectively begin a process of seeking knowledge – especially regarding how God deals with His own creatures.
What, by the way does Jesus say about fearing God? “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul’ but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt. 10:28) Let’s see if Love Wins cleans up these problems, or if it continues down the errant path on which it begun…
In the Preface of Love Wins, Bell adds,
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…This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s (sic) message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (p. viii)
Love Wins refers to the doctrine of eternal hell as misguided, toxic, and subversive – characterizations similar to Bertrand Russell’s critique of eternal punishment in “Why I Am Not a Christian.” (Recommended reading, by the way) Notably, Russell doubts that Jesus possessed superlative moral quality – precisely because, as Russell acknowledges, Jesus taught the doctrine of eternal punishment. Russell explains,
There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. (from Russell’s lecture on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall)
Interestingly, the atheistic Russell takes the Gospel accounts literally in his critique of Jesus, recognizing that in a plain reading of the text, Jesus’ position is clear. (Consider, for example, Mt. 10:28; 23:33; and Mk. 9:42-48.) Love Wins, on the other hand will take a different hermeneutic approach, and will consequently draw a different conclusion (Note: method goes a long way in determining outcome; if you don’t desire a particular outcome, the quickest way to arrive at a different one is to change the method). As we move forward with this review, we should pay careful attention to the hermeneutic methodology employed by Love Wins. Is it consistent, or is it arbitrary? Does the book handle the Biblical data fairly (or, at all), or does it appeal to other sentiments in justifying its case?
In conclusion, the Preface adds emphasis of the importance of open and honest discussion regarding doctrines. This reviewer agrees that such discussion is important, but I cannot help but question the sincerity of Love Wins in this regard, since it has already referenced the doctrine of eternal punishment as misguided, toxic and subversive. How open and honest will this inquiry be when such presuppositions undergird the argument of the entire book?
Chapter 1 – What About the Flat Tire?
This is a chapter of questions. In fact by my (not so exact) count, there are 72 questions asked in this chapter. Perhaps one series of questions exemplifies the others:
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few years of finite life? (p.2) “Why them?…What kind of faith is that?…Or more important: What kind of God is that? (p.2-3)
These questions aim to the core of the character of God. As Love Wins has already identified the doctrine of eternal punishment as toxic and misguided, the presumptive answer to the question “What kind of God is that?” would be ‘the wrong kind.’ (My words, not Bell’s.)
Love Wins (rightfully) works from the character of God to His actions. Bell understands that if one is to reshape views on God’s actions, then one must first reshape views on God’s character.
What kind of God would punish people for eternity for things they did in a brief lifetime? Note a key premise in this question: that eternal punishment is based solely on what one does. Of course, Rev. 20:12 explains that the judgment is according to deeds, but ultimately where one spends eternity is based upon whether or not one’s name is written in the book of life (Rev. 20:15).
Romans 5:12 &18 describes that all mankind is separated from God, living in death. God has mercy on those whom He chooses (Rom. 9:14-16). Jesus illustrates this sovereignty of choice in Mt. 20:1-16 in a parable describing a landowner who gives to some what they deserve, and to others what they don’t deserve. What kind of God is this? Well, simply put, the God described in the Bible.
Love Wins seems to be working with an alternative (to the Bible) basis of moral authority. These questions appeal to moral sentiment, and imply that the kind of God that would punish eternally is an unjust ogre that couldn’t possibly exist. Apparently, we should not be able to stomach such a wretched deity – who also gets a number of other things wrong.
For example, if Jesus’ message “is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited an polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it.” (p.6-7)
If this kind of God exists – the kind that would give us a message of eternal punishment, and who gives us an otherworldly hope – then He might even be culpable for the problems of this world. But clearly, Bell does not believe in this kind of God. In fact, he suggests, “all that matters is how you respond to Jesus.” (p.7) Still, he recognizes that not all portrayals of Jesus may be accurate. He says, “Some Jesuses [sic] should be rejected.” (p.9) Thus the all-important question: Which Jesus should be accepted and how does that happen?
One way it doesn’t happen, according to Bell, is by “personal relationship” (p.10), which Bell observes is “found nowhere in the Bible.” (p. 10) I find it problematic that the Bible is inconsistently appealed to here. The Bible is used to undergird certain propositions but not others. While Bell rightly critiques (in question form) certain aspects of Christian tradition, he does not do so based on any stated method – so it is very unclear on what basis of authority things should be accepted or rejected.
Consequently, I have a question of my own: Is or is not the Bible suitable “that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work?” (2 Tim. 3:17) If not, then the whole conversation is moot. As Paul said, we are above all men most to be pitied, as we are misrepresenting God (1 Cor. 15:12-19). But if the Bible is adequate, then we must make consistent appeal to it. We are not allowed to choose as if from a menu the things which support our particular sentiments. Thus far, Love Wins seems to take the menu approach.
Chapter 2 – Here is the New There
The methodological errors of the book are very pronounced here. In a chapter entirely about description of what heaven is and is not, every verse used to support Bell’s description of heaven has one thing in common: not one of them is about heaven. Not one even uses the word. But more on that in a moment.
The focus of the chapter is on Matthew 19 and Jesus’ discussion with a rich young ruler. From the start, Bell gets this wrong. He assumes that because the ruler asks of eternal life that Jesus should answer him about heaven. But Love Wins completely disregards the OT promises made to Israel regarding eternal blessing. In alluding to a number of OT prophecies of restoration, Bell never discusses their immediate context and how they relate to Israel – or how Israel will be restored first, in accordance with (for example) the New Covenant (see Jer. 31). In fact, oddly enough Bell never even mentions the name Israel.
What is assumed in this chapter – but not explained, is that there is no future literal fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Even the kingdom that was a covenant promise to Israel (see 2 Sam 7) is consistently understood by Bell as referring to eternal life for everyone. He seems to represent the kingdom as heaven, and vice versa. It is this basic assumption that leads Bell to defend his understanding with passages having nothing to do with heaven, and to assert that the young man had “an obvious desire to know how to go to heaven.” (p. 29)
Another clue regarding Bell’s hermeneutic methodology: in discussing the ten commandments, he suggests that “the first four of the commandments were understood as dealing with our relationship with God…The remaining six deal with our relationships with each other.” (p. 28) The obvious question is: to whom does the “our” refer. According to Exodus 19, the covenant (the 10 commandments plus the other 603) is made with Israel. The Mosaic Covenant had a specific scope and specific rewards – Israel’s keeping the covenant would allow for Israel to enjoy the land of Canaan. It never was intended to provide the way of eternal life, but rather to show the need for eternal life – to show the reality of man’s impoverished spiritual condition (Gal. 3:19-22), and to anticipate the redemptive work of Christ.
If one adopts Bell’s hermeneutic presupposition (that Israel doesn’t really mean Israel), then it is pretty easy to accept that the kingdom doesn’t really mean a kingdom and heaven doesn’t really mean heaven. Hell doesn’t really mean hell. But why stop there? Does love really mean love? How about grace? How about God’s promise of eternal life to those who believe in the name of Jesus Christ?
God either means what He says, or He doesn’t, and in the early pericopes of Chapter 2, Love Wins subtly redefines a number of terms without any exegetical warrant. In short, by way of hermeneutic maneuvers, Bell is reshaping the teachings of Jesus to fit Bell’s presuppositions.
After explaining away heaven, Bell states that Jesus “doesn’t tell people how to get to heaven,” and that “It wasn’t what Jesus came to do.” (p. 30). Bell is actually not far off on this point, as Jesus came preaching the gospel of the kingdom of heaven – in fact, this was Jesus’ first public proclamation and the content of his early ministry. (Mt. 4:17) But if one divorces the gospel of the kingdom of heaven from God’s OT promises to Israel, there is no other way to go but to spiritualize the meaning of the kingdom.
Bell does just that. He asks, “What does Jesus mean when he uses that word ‘heaven’?” (p. 42) Again, Bell answers the question without referring to a single passage in which Jesus uses the word ‘heaven’. Remarkable. Instead he explains that “In Jesus’s day, one of the ways that people got around actually saying the name of God was to substitute the word “heaven” for the word “God.” (p. 42) “’Heaven’ in these cases is simply another way of saying ‘God’”. (p. 42)
In these cases? In what cases? Bell hasn’t mentioned any cases. In every case? Is Matthew doing that? If so, why does he use both words (God and heaven) in reference to the kingdom? Bell’s inconsistency on such a basic issue is sloppy. This is critical to his thesis, and it is based on no Biblical data, and the only support offered is that people in Jesus’ day used to do this. This is irresponsible scholarship at best and deceptively manipulative at worst.
Finally, on page 46, Bell betrays the ethical motivation for his Biblical interpretation: “If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world?” Bell’s social agenda is driving his theology, causing him to restate his orthodoxy in a way that will justify an earthbound ethic.
Sadly, his theological gymnastics are unnecessary. The Bible is loaded with imperatives and principles regarding most if not all of the social issues Bell raises in Love Wins. The imperatives are based not on where we will spend eternity, but rather on God’s sovereign rights over His creation – He is the owner of creation, not us. We are therefore to obey Him, regardless of what the future holds for us or for this world.
To illustrate: because I interpret Revelation 21:1 literally (that there will be a new heaven and earth, and that the old passes away) does that mean I believe it is justifiable to be irresponsible with the resources He provides? Of course not. This “old” earth is His, and what He plans to do with it is His prerogative, not mine.
Sadly, the exhortations Bell attempts to justify by reshaping soteriology, ecclesiology, Christology, and eschatology – and by concluding that “heaven and earth will be the same place” (p. 43), he could justify with simple, literally understood Biblical propositions.
As an alternative to Bell’s method of undergirding social responsibility, the following is a small sampling of passages, which, if considered in context, offers some commentary on many of the issues Bell seeks to address, and does so within the scope of a literal, grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible. No need for hermeneutic extremes or spiritualization:
Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow. James 1:17
For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created by Him and for Him. Colossians 1:16
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. Ephesians 1:3
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Philippians 2:3-4
Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
Is it too slight a thing for you that you should feed in the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pastures? Or that you should drink of the clear waters, that you must foul the rest with your feet? And as for My flock, they must eat what you tread down with your feet, and they must drink what you foul with your feet? Ezekiel 34:18-19
Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, Until there is no more room, So that you have to live alone in the midst of the land! Isaiah 5:8
And the nations were enraged, and Thy wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to give their reward to Thy bond-servants the prophets and to the saints and to those who fear Thy name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth. Revelation 11:18
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:7-10
Chapter 3 – Hell
The methodology introduced in Chapter 3 to define hell is commendable, and a marked contrast to that used to define heaven in Chapter 2. The reader may wonder why an encyclopedic handling of a word is good for understanding hell, but not for heaven. Nonetheless, Bell says,
To answer that question [regarding Jesus’ teaching about hell] I want to show you every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word hell. (p 64)
Bell correctly notes that the term is connected to the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, but he fails to acknowledge the illustrative use of the term. It is not, as Bell concluded, “Gehenna, the town garbage pile. And that’s it.” (p. 69) He references Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:28, “Be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell,” but never explains how the soul can be destroyed in the town garbage pile.
Bell does not deny the reality of hell, rather he concludes that the term is just a metaphoric way to communicate agony, destruction, betrayal and injustice (p. 73). There are all kinds of hells (p. 79). “There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now and there is hell later…” (p. 79)
Bell first establishes that hell is not about “someday, somewhere else.” (p. 81) From there he argues that hell is not forever, saying, “there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever.” (p. 86) In support of this point he references a number of examples in the Hebrew prophets where God promises restoration.
It is notable that every OT reference cited here is referencing national restoration (for Israel and Egypt, specifically), except for the Lamentations 3:31-32 reference, “People are not cast off by the Lord forever, though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” (NIV). It is notable that the word “people” is not in the Hebrew, and the nearest antecedent is “the person that seeks Him.” (3:25). The rejection of which Jeremiah speaks in Lamentations 3, is of His people whom He is testing. Bell does not distinguish here between national and individual restoration, and further, he suggests that God’s testing and correction (p. 85-86) extends even to those who do not acknowledge him. Thus it seems that Bell also does not distinguish between correction, chastening, and testing of God’s own people and judgment of those who are unwilling to acknowledge Him.
To further support the idea that judgment is not permanent, Bell considers the example Hymaneaus and Alexander who Paul delivers to Satan in order that they might be taught not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20). Bell understands this to be an example of wrongdoers becoming rightdoers (p. 91). In mentioning this, however, Bell does not consider the position of the two men – it is clear that these two men have faith, but that faith has been shipwrecked. In other words, these are believers who have stumbled even so far as blasphemy. Bell also alludes to 1 Corinthians 5:5, in which an immoral man is handed over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, but so that his spirit will be saved. In referencing these two instances, Bell does not consider that these are men of faith – believers – who have fallen into sin. There are consequences, and they are not eternal. Yet, these are not at all relevant to Bell’s thesis that God does not judge those who reject Him eternally. These men Bell cites are under (severe) discipline, but not punishment.
As a final point of support for the view that God does not punish forever, Bell considers the Greek words kolazo and aion, and the Hebrew olam, concluding “‘forever’ is not really a category the biblical writers used.” (p. 92) He does admit, however that there are some uses of the word that reference time without beginning or end, but he concludes that any references to punishment or judgment that include these words are not of that quality – they don’t refer to forever.
(Forgive me if perhaps I am not charitable enough in reading Bell’s comments here, but it sounds an awful lot like he is saying, “God doesn’t punish forever, because the biblical writers didn’t really talk about forever, except when they actually did, but of course they didn’t in regard to eternal punishment, because God doesn’t punish forever.” Even if my reading is uncharitable, it seems that Bell’s theological bias against eternal punishment influences his understanding of the meaning of words.)
To conclude the chapter, Bell says the word hell refers to, “the big wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.” (p. 93) It seems that just as Bell argues for an earthbound heaven (Chapter 2), he views hell in much the same way – not about someday and somewhere else.
Chapter 4 – Does God Get What God Wants?
The chapter begins promisingly, as Bell argues Biblically that God is great enough to get what He wants, and asks the simple question, “Does God get what God wants?” (p. 97)
1 Timothy 2: 4 reads, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Referring to this verse, Bell asks whether all men will be saved (p. 98). Already establishing the premise that God is great enough to get what he wants, the answer Bell anticipates is “yes,” but he recognizes the issue is not so simple.
Notably, Bell does not consider the grammar of the passage. – the same word (thelo) is used in Mt. 26:39 when Jesus expressed a desire to seek an alternative to His death. He said “yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” It is important to recognize that Jesus used this word to communicate that He did not get what He wanted, but instead submitted to the will of the Father. God does not always get what He “wants,” and sometimes even what He “wants” is not in accordance with His own divine doxological plan.
Bell suggests that the reason God wants all people saved is His divine love (p. 99), and considers two perspectives of that love. The first perspective says that God’s love requires free choice, and consequently “God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself” (p. 103-104).
Here, Bell’s idea of love places God in a position of obligation. God is apparently governed by love – no matter that God created, defined, and best illustrated love – apparently Bell thinks God is bound by a human estimation of love.
By the way, God demanded – commanded – that His people love Him, thereby making it non-optional for believers. God commands husbands, for example to love their wives –again, not optional. In fact Biblical love has absolutely nothing to do with freedom and choice. Where, then, does Bell get this idea that God’s love requires Him to respect our freedom to choose? It is nowhere presented in Scripture.
Another problem with Bell’s argument here is that it suggests God’s entire purpose in all things is simply to love. In fact, the Biblical evidence leans another direction: God’s ultimate purpose is to demonstrate His glory (see Eph. 1, for example), and He goes to great lengths to accomplish that. How about the blind man of John 9 – was it “loving” to allow this man to go through his entire life to that point without aid of sight? And yet the purpose for the man’s blindness, Jesus said, was that God’s works would be demonstrated (Jn. 9:3). God is love (1 Jn. 4:16), of course, but His love is an expression of His holiness (Is. 6; Rev. 4). In short, Bell gets it wrong when he assumes the overarching purpose of God is related to His love. Love is important, but God wins – not love.
The second perspective of love that Bell considers says, “given enough time, everybody will turn to God” (p. 107). The idea is perhaps that people will be given some kind of second chance. No attention is given, however, to Hebrews 9:27, which asserts it is appointed once for man to die and then comes judgment.
To add weight to what he perceives as mounting evidence, Bell invokes an aesthetic evaluation, suggesting that the eternal punishment option just “isn’t a very good story” (p. 110), and that a story in which all the wrongs are made right is “better” (p. 111). This subtle maneuver illustrates what I believe to be the core problem for Bell – his focus is on human perspective. Love Wins has thus far betrayed a very anthropocentric view of things. Who are we to judge God’s story? (Rom. 9:20) Apparently, a story in which God judges eternally would not meet Bell’s aesthetic standard. This is anthropocentrism.
Further, Bell considers the Revelation account, noting, “the letter does not end with blood and violence” (p. 112), but instead ends with a description of a new creation “in which the nations are healed and there is peace on earth and there are no more tears” (p. 113).
Curiously, Bell makes no mention of Revelation 20:15, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Perhaps because Bell earlier suggested that the lake of fire was an earthly punishment, he might understand that hell was done away in Revelation 21:1. But that would not account either for what happened to all those people or for what happened to death, Hades, the devil, the antichrist and the false prophet.
From there, Bell returns to the question of universal salvation. “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices” (p. 115)? His answer is nothing short of remarkable: “We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires” (p. 115).
Wait. What? Has Bell just admitted that he doesn’t know whether some will perish? Has he just suggested we don’t even need to answer the question? Is that what we now do with difficult theological issues? We respect them and create space necessary for our own anthropocentric views? I must admit, this is a brilliant maneuver, in that it removes all responsibility from Bell to answer any questions pertaining to his proclamations, but it does have the perhaps unintended consequence of making his thesis irrelevant.
To conclude the chapter, Bell revisits the original question regarding what God wants and suggests there is a question more relevant. “Do we get what we want” (p. 116)? “Yes…God is that loving” (p. 116-117). “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option” (p. 117). “We can have what we want, because love wins” (p. 119).
This is another shocking admission, as Bell seems to indicate that God is like a parent who must allow His children to play in the proverbial street – if that’s what they really want – even if they could become mangled by oncoming traffic (what kind of parent expresses love that way? Sure, Johnny, go ahead and drink the Clorox if that’s what you really want to do – my love requires that I allow you to do it!). After all, that’s what God’s love requires Him to do.
I think I understand now. Love wins not just over eternal punishment – but Bell’s kind of love has another victim: “Love” even beats God!
Chapter 5 – Dying to Live
Bell invokes a number of passages here (pp. 123-127) to build a case against eternal punishment: Hebrews 9:26, that Christ did away with sacrifice; Colossians 1:20-21, that peace has been made; Romans 3:24, that sinners are justified; 2 Timothy 1:10, that Jesus has destroyed death; 1 John 5:4, that Christ has won the battle against evil; Ephesians 1:7, that we have redemption through His blood.
He suggests that these are literary devices used by the Biblical writers in “reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp” (p. 129), and that “The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism” (p. 129). While Bell correctly notes that the point is Christ, he sets up a faulty basis upon which to build his cumulative case: that these are not technical and precise statements, but rather that they are simply illustrative of the greater truth of the person of Christ.
In establishing this point that these texts are illustrative, he draws an odd comparison of John’s Gospel account in which he recounts 8 signs of Jesus – culminating with His resurrection in a garden – and the Genesis account of seven days of creation followed by activities in a garden (p. 133). Bell says, “John is telling a huge story, one about God rescuing all of creation” (p. 134).
Bell neglects to mention that John records his purpose statement for his Gospel in 20:31 – “But these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” The book is written to a particular audience (you, the reader – not all of creation), to illicit a particular response (believing), in order to create a particular condition (you may have life in His name). John’s proclamation in this context is of not of God’s rescue of all creation, but rather God’s rescue of those who believe in His Son.
Now, to Bell’s credit, he recognizes that the death of Christ was not only about facilitating our relationship with God (p. 134), but that it was about a much bigger program – one that impacts all of creation. Bell calls it a cosmic event (p. 135), and rightly so.
But Bell’s argument breaks down if he considers that the reconciliation of which Paul spoke in Colossians 1:20-21 and the unlimited atonement John described in 1 John 2:2 implies that Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished a current and ongoing universal harmony with God. In this chapter, Bell doesn’t explicitly make that case, but he does lay that foundation.
Chapter 6 – There are Rocks Everywhere
Chapter 6 begins with a description of the presence of Christ in the experiences of people, illustrating the assertion with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 10:4 (that Christ was with Israel, and thus He is also elsewhere – like the force in Star Wars, as Bell further illustrates).
Bell does well at this point to note that Jesus wasn’t “a new idea,” but rather He has been around from the beginning (p. 147-150). The implications Bell identifies are significant: “Jesus is bigger than any one religion” (p. 150), “he is present within all cultures” (p. 151), and “he refuses to be co-opted or owned by any one culture. That includes any Christian culture…Any church. Any theological system” (p. 151).
While Bell references John 14:6, recognizing the exclusivity of accessing God through Jesus (p. 153-154), he suggests that Jesus “is saving everybody” (p. 155). Bell refers to this as “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” (p. 155), and seemingly differentiates it from the idea that “there is only one mountain, but it has many paths” (p. 154-155). Bell adds, “He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation” (p.155).
Bell considers three implications of this exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. First, “people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways” (p. 158). Second, “none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will” (p.158). Finally, we should be careful about how we judge since heaven is full of surprises (p. 160).
Much of what Bell says is mostly true. Jesus has been around forever. He is not bound by cultures. But what Bell seems to miss is that Jesus taught a theological system. The Scriptures speak of Him (John 5:39), and He has much to say about method of meeting God through Him (e.g., John 3:1-21). Method demands exclusivity. Of course, Christ died for the entire world and to pay for the sins of all (1 John 2:2), but – just as illustrated in the first Passover (Exodus 12:7, 13, 21-23) if that payment is not applied to the individual, then there remains death. How does one apply the payment? John 3:11-16 makes this clear enough: belief in Jesus Christ. Bell doesn’t deny this outright, but he seems to muddy the issue in order to allow for a universalist inclusivity.
Chapter 7 – The Good News is Better Than That
Introducing Chapter 7, Bell uses the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate that “People get what they don’t deserve” (p. 168). He describes the different versions of the story (contrasting the older son’s misperception of his fathers unfairness and the fathers retelling to show his fairness) as “the difference between heaven…and hell” (p. 169). Bell discounts that heaven and hell should be distinguished by separation (p. 169-170), noting instead that heaven and hell are integrated, “within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other” (170). He suggests that “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (p. 170), and consequently, “we create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story” (p. 173).
The chapter title, “The Good News is Better Than That,” indicates that Bell will hold certain ideas to some standard of good. The ideas he contrasts are eternal punishment and (at least some form of) universalism. He suggests that if God demonstrated love in providing payment for sin, and then punished eternally those who rejected it – that would be bad. “If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities,” he says (p. 174). “If God can switch gears like that…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.” “That kind of God is simply devastating” (p. 174).
Bell is holding God accountable to a standard of good, but he never accounts for where that standard comes from or who determines it. Here, Bell is attempting to resolve the trilemma (the problem of evil) without accounting for the most fundamental issue: the nature of good. Further, Bell asserts that many Christians don’t and can’t love God because the God about which they have been taught “can’t be loved…That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable” (p. 175).
What then are the consequences for rejecting God’s version of the story? “To reject God’s grace…will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on its own” (p. 176-177). Wait a minute. So Bell is OK with God allowing misery? Bell says, “We are that free” (p. 177). But if freedom can result in such misery, then how is that freedom good by Bell’s description? This is remarkably inconsistent.
On a positive note, Bell reminds the reader that Life has never been about just ‘getting in’” (p. 179). It seems Bell wants the reader to understand that life in Christ is about a relationship rather than a ticket for admission – and he is correct on this point.
Returning to the universalist theme, Bell notes, “Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together…God has already done it” (p. 189). If Bell is correct, then how can God allow misery as a result of rejection? Hasn’t that already been forgiven? If the forgiveness for sin has already been unilaterally provided, then there should be no consequence for sin whatsoever. Otherwise, the forgiveness is lacking, and God’s work was ineffective. How can one degree of misery be OK, and another not? How can one consequence of sin be allowable under a unilateral forgiveness and another not? On what does Bell base any of his assertions? Shockingly inconsistent.
Chapter 8 – The End is Here
Despite earlier assertions that hell did not involve separation, Bell concludes the book with an illustration of “strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities” (p. 197). Despite the asserted reality of such images of judgment, Bell boldly proclaims “that love wins” (p. 198). Poetic, though Bell’s assertion is, it is nonsensical. God’s love apparently is not strong enough to overcome this pesky freedom that so often stands in the way of the happiness of people and often leads to the kind of misery Bell considers to be hell.
Further, the idea that love wins is based on an idea of good that Bell never even seeks to justify. The argument of the book, then rests upon faulty logic on the one hand and an unjustified premise on the other. I pray that Rob Bell will reexamine his own presuppositions in the light of Scripture, rather then working backwards, as he has done in Love Wins.
Reprinted from Biblical Sufficiency Applied, Christopher Cone, Gen. Ed., (Fort Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2011)
 See Christopher Cone, Prolegomena: Introductory Notes on Bible Study & Theological Method (Fort Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2009), 7.