Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Review of Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

I get it.

I’m late…really late with this review.

In fact, both Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung (amongst others) had actually written reviews on Rob Bell’s Love Wins prior to its public release.  Along with these two reviews, I’ve provided a few additional reviews that were helpful: Ben Witherington, Scot McKnight, Jim Spiegel and Mark Galli.  Or, if you want to pay to read some refutations, you can pick up books by Michael Wittmer, Mark Galli and/or Francis Chan.  With those reviews in mind, please note that it will be my goal to not belabor certain points that have already been addressed by other reviewers; rather, my intent will be to focus on some issues that concerned me personally.

For those that don’t know…

Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan (not to be confused with Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, led by Mark Driscoll), has a church following of 8,000+, is a renowned speaker and author of several books, to include Velvet Elvis, and has been described as a winsome, provocative, creative and engaging communicator.

HOWEVER, when we enter into the arena of Biblical scholarship, it is not enough to only be winsome, provocative, creative and engaging (emotively charged qualities), we must also be, and perhaps should primarily be, prudent and astute historians and exegetes (cognitively charged qualities); for, to be winsome, provocative, creative and engaging is, at best, empty without the use and foundation of accurate historical and contextual exegesis.

Quickly though, two preliminaries before we get to the review:

First, a word on making judgments: I think we need to be careful in assuming that someone is being judgmental simply because they disagree; or, for that matter, that someone is being judgmental just because they are a Calvinist.  It certainly seems ironic to me that the criticism, vitriol and “judgmental” attitudes claimed to come from those within the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement towards the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” questioning of “traditional” biblical/theological interpretation is absolutely similar to the criticism, vitriol and “judgmental” attitudes demonstrated by the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” movement towards the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement when they question the questioning of the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” biblical/theological interpretation. For, when those within the “emergent” or “neo-liberal” movement take personal jabs at the “neo-Calvinist” or “neo-Reformed” movement for being the claimed “key holders of orthodoxy”, they are, in fact, making an assertion that they are the “key holders of orthodoxy”.  In other words, there are opportunities for healthy disagreement and reflection if we can contest the position, rather than the person (although “attack” is a violent term which causes most people pause and concern).  For instance, within the same paragraph Jesus calls us not to judge and then calls his opponents dogs and pigs (Matt. 7:1-6).

Second, Bell's YouTube video, wherein he “comes clean” has a critical error to it.  If I say that I believe in the color “green”, and yet my understanding, interpretation and conception of “green” is actually the color “blue” (or some made up color) then I have misunderstood, misinterpreted and misconceived the color “green”.  Therefore, if Bell’s understanding of heaven, hell, salvation, etc., are misunderstood, misinterpreted and misconceived as compared with historical/traditional orthodoxy, then the statements made in his “coming clean” are, in fact, quite inadequate.

Now, onto the review…

One concern that is, perhaps, overall in tone is permitting philosophy to trump exegesis.  Now, please note that I am pro-philosophy (in fact, I teach several philosophy classes at a local community college), and I am well aware that philosophy and exegesis are linked; however, my concern is when we allow our philosophies (appropriately compassionate as they may be) to trump proper exegesis of hard texts.  For instance, before he even gets out of the preface Bell is already allowing his philosophy to trample upon exegesis:

“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.”[1]

Or, consider this example:

“[I]t’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others.  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.”[2]

More so, Bell’s exegesis, when employed, is quite disconcerting.  For instance, Bell insists that “[t]he…meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end”; or, that “[w]hen we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or year, and more to a period or era of time…it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever”.[3]  Now, I have addressed aion previously, so I will not belabor the point other than to say that I agree with Bell that at times this word can have a temporal meaning, however, it can also at times have an eternal meaning.

Furthermore, Bell’s historical accuracy is lacking:

“Gehenna, in Jesus’s day, was the city dump.  People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley.  There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash.  Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap.  When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound.  Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out.”[4]

Although, this has been a common myth throughout Christian history, other scholars would argue that “[t]here is no convincing evidence in the primary sources for the existence of a fiery dump in this location”.[5]

Now, although I am pretty certain that we are all flawed (including me!) to some degree as historians and exegetes, my concern is that, whereas our flaws might take place in the home, or small group, or even larger church congregation, Bell’s flaws are done via world-wide monograph publication.  With that said, Bell should have employed a bit more scholastic due diligence within his monograph; and, henceforth, anything I (and you too) read or hear from Bell should be scrutinized for historical and exegetical accuracy.

An additional concern of mine is Bell’s apparent rehashing of liberal Christianity.  Liberal Christianity is generally thought to emphasize social justice at the expense of doctrine/propositional truth.  Now, although I certainly affirm that a critical aspect of Christianity is to care for the orphan and widow (Jam. 1:27), I would also affirm that this is not the ultimate or final goal to the Christian life.  Consider the following quotes by Bell:

“Compassion for the poor, racial justice, care for the environment, worship, teaching,
and art are important, but in the end, for some followers of Jesus, they’re not ultimately
what it’s all about.”[6]

“Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now…[a]round a billion
people in the world today do not have access to clean water.  People will have access to
clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean water access for all is
participating now in the life of the age to come… [i]t often appears that those who talk
the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to
earth right now…[a]t the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most
about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die.”[7]

Should access to clean drinking water (in this life) trump our eschatological (and perhaps more urgent) need for a Savior (in this life and the one to come)?  In other words, we ought to be cautious in espousing a Christ-less, moral, therapeutic deism, wherein, at best, our actions (as important and compassionate and charitable as they might be) are empty, and, at worst, are simply an attempt at self-aggrandizement.

But why…?

It’s because, although I partially agree with Bell that “eternal life is…about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God”, I also believe there are serious eschatological implications regarding the future destinations of all humanity.[8]

In fact, at times, Bell actually seems to be agnostic toward his position on hell.

“[i]n other stories he tells, very religious people who presume that they’re ‘in’ hear from him: ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’”[9]

“[h]e tells entire villages full of extremely devoted religious people that they’re in danger, while seriously questionable ‘sinners’ will be better off than them ‘in that day’”.[10]

“Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  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.”[11]

“This invitation to trust asks for nothing more than this moment, and yet it is infinitely urgent.  Jesus told a number of stories about this urgency in which things did not turn out well for the people involved.  One man buries the treasure he’s been entrusted with instead of doing something with it and as a result he’s “thrown outside into the darkness.”  Five foolish wedding attendants are unprepared for the late arrival of the groom and they end up turned away from the wedding with the chilling words “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”  Goats are sent “away” to a different place than the sheep, tenants of a vineyard have it taken from them, and weeds that grew alongside wheat are eventually harvested and “tied in bundles to be burned.”[12]

But if Bell believes in ultimate reconciliation, then why these warning passages?  Where are the evildoers going?  What are these devoted religious people in danger of?  Is it only about not living your best life now?  Or is there more to it?

Another concern is that Bell seems to make a critical error in over-emphasizing the love of God as the ultimate attribute.  Yes, God is love.  God is love.  However, that statement does not negate that God is also many other things: patient, merciful, just, holy, righteous, kind, creative, wrathful, etc.  And, what we must reconcile is that God’s attributes work together in perfect unity.  In other words, although God is love, his love is patient, merciful, just, holy, righteous, kind, creative, wrathful, etc.  What this indicates is that God’s love cannot be separated from his holiness; God’s love cannot be separated from his righteousness; and God’s love cannot be separated from his wrath.  Let’s pause a moment and reflect on a few quotes from Bell regarding this subject:

“That’s how it is – because that’s what God is like, correct?  God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy – unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever.  That’s the Christian story, right?  Is that what Jesus taught?”[13]

“[I]f your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.”[14]

“But there’s more.  Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different to them forever.  A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.”[15]

What these statements mock is the apparent “Jekyll and Hyde” characteristics of the traditional/historical conception of God: loving and desiring a relationship with all of humanity during life and damning, with hateful vengeance, all those who die apart from a relationship with God, in Christ.  Moreover, an argument rejecting the traditional/historic understanding of God’s wrath answers the question, “how we would respond if an earthly father did to his children what God will eventually do to part of humanity?”, with “we would throw that father in jail for life” (i.e. surely a loving, kind and merciful God could not be involved in something this heinous).  However, if this is the criteria by which we judge God, then should we not have already thrown God in jail for “murdering” Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:1-11), or Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11)?  Of course not, because we know that God, in his holiness, justice and righteousness, must respond to sin.  Therefore, the critical error in this reasoning is that our eternal fate ought to rest on the (often) triteness of our sin, rather than the majesty of the One sinned against.  For instance, if I attempted to attack a regular “Joe”, I might end up in prison for a short while; however, if I attempted to attack the President of the United States, I would, most likely, remain in prison for the remainder of my life.  This is because the crime, although the same, has a different consequence when committed against someone of greater renown.  Therefore, we surely ought to not place Almighty God on the same level as our earthly fathers.

Furthermore, Bell’s emphasis on the love of God promotes his confidence in post-mortem opportunities for reconciliation:

“And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.”[16]

“At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.”[17]

“In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people.  In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well.  In their day, Jerome claimed that “most people,” Basil said the “mass of men,” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God.”[18]

“Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory.”[19]

My concern with the above statements is the lack of biblical evidence to support such claims.  I have already, albeit briefly, addressed post-mortem evangelism, and therefore will instead stress that although some argue that Scripture is silent on the possibility of future (post-mortem) opportunities for reconciliation, I would contend that if we affirm that God is sovereign, why would he not have found it relevant to indicate these future opportunities?  In stark contrast to this argument from silence, it seems more appropriate to affirm the New Testament writers’ emphasis on the “faith decision” in this life. 

Two additional issues raised by Bell, which certainly deserve more space and thought, are inclusivism, which Bell addresses here:

“As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.”[20]

“Within this proper, larger understanding of just what the Jesus story even is, we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody.”[21]

“What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.  He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”[22]

“Sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t.”[23]

…and Bell’s apparent denial of penal substitutionary atonement addressed here:

“Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue.  God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life.  However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.  Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God.  God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction.  God is the rescuer.”[24]

So that’s it.  There’s my review.  Those are my concerns with Bell’s most recent monograph.  I believe Rob Bell is a Christian brother who simply allows his philosophies to trump his exegesis.  Ergo, it is my hope and prayer that those reading Bell’s book, those reading this blog, and those reading any other reflections on biblical matters will approach them with critical minds, examining their content historically, exegetically and theologically.

[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), viii.
[2] Ibid., 110.
[3] Ibid., 31-32.
[4] Ibid., 68.
[6] Ibid., 26.
[7] Ibid., 45, (cf. 78-79).
[8] Ibid., 59.
[9] Ibid., 52.
[10] Ibid., 53.
[11] Ibid., 115.
[12] Ibid., 196-197.
[13] Ibid., 64.
[14] Ibid., 175.
[15] Ibid., 173-174.
[16] Ibid., 106-107.
[17] Ibid., 107.
[18] Ibid., 107-108.
[19] Ibid., 108.
[20] Ibid., 150.
[21] Ibid., 150-151.
[22] Ibid., 154.
[23] Ibid., 159.
[24] Ibid., 182.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, this went a little above my head at points, but thanks for taking it apart piece by piece! In your abundant free time you could even go a step further and refute some of Bell's assertions with verses that are in direct contrast to what he's saying. (I mean, Jesus meant one thing when he said he was the ONLY way to get to God.)

    Nice work, prof!