Friday, March 18, 2011

A Review: "Love Wins"

This is a review of "Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived" by Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as if the internet does not already have enough of those. I've mostly read the critiques, and there are a lot of them, and there are a lot of people defending Bell and his latest work. There are charges that he is a Universalist, charges that he is a heretic, and a lot of people feel that this book is his most dangerous yet. Still more people have felt freed by his latest work, liberated from things that have held heir lives hostage for years, and their theology has been changed or reaffirmed by this latest fire starter of a book.

If there is one thing Bell excels at, it is sparking conversation.

I am not writing this to lay out Bell's theology and exegetically defend it or deconstruct it. There are many that could do that better than I. I am here to lay out for you what I think this book represents, and you can decide from there.

Despite the absurd amount of controversy sparked by "Velvet Elvis," Bell's first book, that was minor compared to what this book is now causing. The reason for this is because Bell finally laid his cards on the table. As he recently said when responding to the repeated accusation that he downplays Hell, he wrote an entire chapter on the subject in this book. He also wrote about Heaven, Eschatology (the study of what happens at the end of the age), Salvation and just what it is, and naturally, a Jewish Rabbi named Jesus.

If "Velvet Elvis" was Bell's theological introduction, "Love Wins" may be his theological masterpiece. Indeed, only time will tell. Since the release of his first book in 2005, Bell has written 3 other books, "SexGod," "Jesus Came to Save Christians," and what is likely his least controversial work ever, "Drops Like Stars." He has always written about theology, Jesus in his Jewish context, which is easy to forget about in the Western World where we get hung up on the particulars of language, and he's always had his own particular flavor of writing.

He write in questions, and they're questions that resonate deeply, in all cases. From repainting the Christian faith to Sexuality to Social Justice to Suffering and Art, and finally to what many would say is at the center of the Christian faith and what Jesus did and still does, Salvation.

That hasn't changed. However, what has changed is his tone. In this work, he is more confident than ever, more explicit than ever, and he machine guns the reader with Scripture. He's always referenced the Bible in his works, but in this book he quotes them in the chapters every single time, and he creates systematic coherent structures for his arguments.

One would almost think that Bell has gotten more Western, except that his book is profoundly Eastern in theological tone. However, one thing is clear: the past 5 years of people criticizing Bell's view of Hell and eternity without a clue what he is actually saying about it are over. That is of course assuming that people read the book before they criticize it, which one would think is common sense.

The cards are down on this topic, and Bell unapologetically and passionately argues his points with stories, scripture references, and question after question, which he proceeds to provide answers for. As he states in his book, this is not a book of questions, it is a book of answers to those questions.

Some of the answers, some of the theology, are different than what you typically find in Evangelical Christianity and indeed, in Western Christianity in general. Some of it is very much the same. He argues that his theology is within the wide stream of Christianity, full of differing perspectives and differing traditions and theologies. However, his Philosophy comes into direct conflict with one of those traditions in this book, and he makes a compelling and whole-hearted argument against it.

To be clear: this book represents a coherent laying out of a different kind of Christian. This is a Christian dissatisfied and even horrified with the answers given by contemporary Evangelicals, and under this argument lies a Philosophy. It is a Philosophy of Love, and it comes from the same place as what many of the Reformed and many Evangelicals will argue: the presuppositions the speaker brings to the discussion, and its constructive tools are Scripture and Church history.

So who's right? You'll have to decide that one.

To those of you that are angry or outraged at this work, I encourage you to carefully consider your words before using terms like "universalist," "liberal," and ESPECIALLY "heretic." By Bell's own proclamation, he is not a universalist (and he isn't in the traditional sense), and to call him a liberal is to jam him into a category that doesn't fit in a postmodern world. Don't oversimplify matters, and don't allow this situation to schism Christianity any further, please. If you disagree, state why and engage the man, engage his followers, engage whoever reads the book, and engage his theology. Do you really think any of this would've come about if Christianity wasn't broken and incomplete in some way in its' current state anyway?

To those of you that think this book is the best thing ever written: I entreat you to treat it critically. Do not return the name-calling, do not take this book as the truth and the last word on the matters written about, and remember what Bell entreats us to do in his first book: do not take it face value. Test it, turn it over and over in your mind, figure out if you agree on every point, every question and every answer. Bell's writings are not perfect, and he's not right about everything.

To everyone else that doesn't understand why this is such a big deal and think it's absurd that Christians are fighting again when they claim to "have the truth," I hear you. I assure you, I'm sick of it too. Let's have a beer and talk about it sometime.



  1. The thirteenth paragraph is "it". We should talk about it after we've both read the book, or at least one of us... Probably you... Otherwise it'll simply end in a rant... Probably mine... About issues which have not yet presented themselves. I'm commenting more to let you know I read it than anything as you made it a point to let me know you wrote it as if I don't stalk you enough already.

  2. Dan,

    Just a couple of thoughts to share. First, you make a point of the quantity of Bell's discussion of hell and use of Scripture. My concern is that quantity does not equal quality. Often, an author will use an "avalanche of verbosity" (Jon Tal Murphree's phrase) to cover up poor philosophy or theology. You overwhelm them with words and win by exhausting them. I am not God and do not know Bell's motives, but at times, in my opinion, he seems very close to doing this.

    Second, Bell does claim that he is within the "wide stream of Christianity," which I believe is a true statement, but it is what he doesn't say that concerns me. Among the historic Christian traditions, those who hold the kind of beliefs that he espouses are a minority. While being a minority in and of itself does not make them wrong, that the major branches of Christianity have never embraced this view should say something to us.

    Just some thoughts.

  3. I think those are good points.

    I personally do not see Bell using the "avalanche of verbosity" tactic to overwhelm, however I do imagine the massive amount of Scripture references used are in response to the accusation of vagueness directed at him since he published his first book. People have been trying to determine what he believes, so he wrote a book about it. Do I think the machine gun references make for good hermeneutics? No, I do not. But I do agree with his theology for other reasons. Still, you make a good point: quantity does not equal quality.

    I also think the point regarding the theology of the majority is a good one, and I think a discussion about what that says is a very, very good idea, especially since the ideas are so prevalent now with the introduction of this book and the advent of a "New Kind of Christianity."

    Thanks Chris, good thoughts.