LOVE WINS - A Review

I finally got down to Rob Bell’s book in my reading list, and I finished it this week. The first thing you notice about Love Wins is it’s not written for pastors, elders, or Bible teachers; it’s written for that guy sitting next to you in traffic, the one who hardly ever thinks about religion.

Parts of the book are arranged on the page like poetry, one short incomplete sentence stacked over another, and sometimes each line is

It’s often difficult to draw firm conclusions about specific ideas from poetry, so it’s not easy to do that with Love Wins. Rob often seems to say one thing here, and the opposite thing there. To some extent I think that’s intentional. A major thesis of the book is the fact that we know far less about God and the hereafter than we often pretend to know. In a way then, Rob’s style demonstrates his thesis.

If you’ve read the “Yes and Yes” chapter in The Gospel according to Moses, you know I believe the proper response to the apparent contradictions in the Bible is not to take a stand one way or the other, but rather to say “Yes,” to both halves of the paradox. Rob says exactly the same thing, on page 127.

While some may object to this as an affront to the intellect or a copout on important doctrine, it’s just as reasonable to view it as a proof of faith. After all, who has more faith: the one who insists he must understand everything in the Bible, or the one who believes God is big enough to make sense out of two apparently contradictory propositions?

So far, so good. And I especially endorse Rob’s take on heaven, which he presents not as something to be reached in the afterlife, but rather as a way of being, which starts here in this life for believers. It is, I think, a perfectly orthodox interpretation of the scriptures. Salvation is not a single choice to be made and then relied upon thereafter. On the contrary, Paul presents salvation as something we must "work out . . . with fear and trembling" throughout this part of our immortal lives. And Jesus didn’t teach us to pray “Let us come into thy kingdom when we die.” Rather, it was “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth [right here, right now] . . .”

Rob’s perspective on heaven as a state of existence in the present world has vital ramifications for how one lives today. It’s the difference between a Christian who leaves his religion in the pews when he walks out of church on Sunday, and a Christian who loves his neighbor with actions, all day every day. When you carry heaven in your heart, it’s much easier to be heavenly.

Several other points Rob makes in Love Wins deserve praise. I appreciated Rob's effort to expand his reader's thinking about how faith in Jesus leads to a loving relationship with God, and about who enters heaven. Like Rob, I believe many Christians are going to be very surprised at the company they'll keep in the hereafter. And again, there are strong parallels between much of what he wrote and The Gospel according to Moses. I'd love to go into more detail about this and other helpful points he made, but space is limited here, so I want to pass from praise to the one concern I had when I put down the book.

Like so many others, I'm worried about Rob’s perspective on hell.

In many places, it seems to me Rob says hell is a temporary condition, a teaching tool God uses to convince those who pass out of this life unconvinced.

Note my language, please. When I write, “it seems to me,” that’s because I can’t be sure. Again, this book is written like a poem, and different people may get many different meanings from the same line in a poem. On page 117 for example, Rob seems to say if we choose hell, then God will let us have hell. Rob doesn’t limit that statement in any way. He doesn't say God will only let us stay in hell a little while, for example. But the over-arcing sense I got from this book was of a hell that’s not really “hell” in the traditional sense of the word, because as Rob writes on page 86, “there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever.”

Unless I completely misunderstood Rob, he thinks hell is temporary. That idea is repeated in many places, across several chapters. Eventually, everybody suffering in hell will see the light, and enter God’s presence.

Rob quotes many scriptures to support this idea. Unfortunately his scholarship is often deeply flawed. He sometimes quotes a verse to make a point, when the prior verse in the scriptures makes exactly the opposite point. He even goes so far as to quote the first half of a verse without mentioning the second half, when the second half refutes his interpretation of the first.

Here’s just one example, although I could offer many others:

On page 91 Rob discusses Jesus’ famous teaching about two kinds of people: 1) those who try to take care of the hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick and imprisoned, and; 2) those who don’t. At the conclusion of that passage, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus compares the fate of those two kinds of people. He says:

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Rob writes about two Greek words in the verse, but rather than examining the words Jesus actually used, Rob focuses on the roots of those words. It’s as if a Chinese student learning English applied the meaning of the word “finite” to the sentence “The universe is infinite.”

Based on that approach, Rob concludes that the word usually translated as "punishment" should actually be rendered "trimming" or "pruning," and the word usually translated as "eternal" should instead be understood to mean "a period of time." So he suggests the first half of Matthew 25:46 should be translated this way: “Then they will go away to a period of pruning . . .” He then moves on without mentioning the second half of the verse.

That omission is understandable, when one considers that the word “eternal” in both halves of the verse is the same word in the Greek. Had Rob translated that word in the second half the same way he translated it in the first, he would have had this to explain away:

“Then they will go away to a period of pruning, but the righteous to a period of life.”

"A period of" life is not what a believer hopes to experience in the hereafter, of course, nor is it what the Bible teaches, either about heaven, or about hell. The actual Greek word Jesus used is unmistakable: it means everlasting, eternal, or forever.

Some compare Rob’s apparent theology on hell to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but it is a flawed comparison. Purgatory, in the Catholic sense, is a place where believers who die in a state of grace suffer appropriate punishment for their venal sins, a process which completes their sanctification and allows them to enter God’s holy presence.

Whatever one may think of that theology, purgatory is not a place where people who reject God in this life have a second chance at faith along the lines Rob seems to suggest. Roman Catholicism, like traditional Protestant theology, is quite clear: those who die without accepting God’s grace in this life pass directly to eternal suffering in hell.

Now, having written those terrible words, I also want to be clear on one thing: I wish Rob was right.

I wish the Bible taught that there will be an infinite number of chances to confess, repent, and step into our loving God’s embrace. I wish the Lord would give us an eternity to make that choice, if necessary. I wish the Bible didn’t say, “. . . man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” I wish it didn’t say, “. . . whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” I wish Jesus hadn’t warned us the day will come when he will say once and for all, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and “Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”

But the Bible is consistent about this: after this life come a eternity in hell or heaven for us all. The choice of where we’ll be is ours, and the time to make that choice is now, because when we leave this part of life, our fate in the next is sealed.

While I wish it wasn’t that way, who am I to protest that this isn’t fair or just? After all, God is God, and I am not. A slug might as well complain to me about pesticide. As God himself explains, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Who am I to explain ideas like love, mercy and justice to God, the one who merely spoke, and galaxies sprang into existence?

Still, I wish it wasn’t that way.

I read an old story somewhere recently (it may have been Adam Clarke's excellent Bible commentary, or perhaps Barnes), about two preachers discussing their sermons the previous Sunday. One says he preached on the topic of hell. The other asks, “And did you cry?”

That is how any true follower of Jesus feels about hell. To live in heaven on earth is to live with a broken heart for the lost on earth. Along with Rob, I would never presume to say Gandhi is in hell. “Judge not, or you will be judged” means such awful words are for God alone to speak. And I certainly don’t revel in the thought of people in eternal torment. On the contrary, I weep.

But because my heart does break at the thought of hell, the last thing in the world I want to do is write a book that lets an unbelieving reader think she can ignore Jesus in this life, because there will be (or even might be) a chance to set things right in the next.

Is that what Rob Bell believes? Or might believe? Even after reading and re-reading Love Wins, I still don’t know for sure. And that is precisely the problem.

There is a difference between speaking judgmentally about specific people, and speaking truth about God’s coming judgment. The judgmental aspect of Jesus' relationship to creation is very clearly written in God's word, because it would not be just, or loving, to be vague about a thing like that.

Sometimes the most difficult and uncomfortable things must be spoken very carefully and clearly, if love is really going to win.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:33 AM  


Lynn Dean said... May 27, 2011 at 3:14 PM  

Beautifully said. Thank you.

Kay Day said... May 27, 2011 at 4:18 PM  

I haven't read the book and don't intend to, but I really appreciate hearing your thoughts.

I do believe Love wins. How could it not?

And I'm of the persuasion that those who end up in hell are there because they chose to be. I don't believe people will be there because they didn't have a fair shot. They will be there because they rejected Christ.
I don't think God will let any seeker go without finding.

Athol Dickson said... May 28, 2011 at 7:36 AM  

Thanks, Lynn.

And Kay, I completely agree. "Seek and you will find" means exactly what it says. If we seek the Lord sincerely, we WILL find him. Jesus would never break that promise.

After reading LOVE WINS, I know Rob would agree with us on this. In fact, it's a good way to summarize the main point of his book.

I just wish he hadn't left me (and presumably many other readers) with the impression that it's possible I’ll be okay even if I don’t seek God in this life, because there will be an eternity for that after I die. Even if it's POSSIBLE that's true (and there are a few verses which—taken out of context—might imply it) at most it's only POSSIBLE, so why take such a risk with readers? Why even mention the possibility, when the results will be so tragic beyond our worst imagination if it isn’t true?

I don’t think Rob would stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and tell someone, "Before the time comes to jump, let's just focus on the view up here and not worry about putting on parachutes. It's possible you'll survive the fall off of this cliff without one." Yet in the interest of speaking against judgmentalism and legalism, that is what he's done.

Kay Day said... May 28, 2011 at 10:22 AM  

I agree completely.
I just didn't want to be one of those people who comments on a book I haven't read.

I'm interested in the comments about heaven, though. I find them depressing. This is heaven? Lord, I hope not.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you are saying.

I think that the kingdom of heaven and heaven are not the same thing. We are living in the kingdom now. Serving the King. But heaven is the place we will be when our service is finished.

But I'm no scholar, so I'm interested in hearing more about this.

Athol said... May 30, 2011 at 7:35 PM  


Thanks for your transparency in asking for more on the subject of heaven.

What I'm saying, and what Rob Bell is saying (I think) is that heaven is where God is, and God is in us, therefore heaven is already here on earth, in the person of every sincere believer.

That said, the Bible also makes it clear that:

1) While God is here in every believer, He is also somehow elsewhere in a special way, which is sometimes described as a place called "heaven," which is distinct from earth. We see this at the start of Job where God and Satan have a conversation in a place that is somewhere other than the earth, and in Jesus' words before he ascends (John 20:17). Jesus also says more than once that he came down from heaven to the earth (John 6:38 and others), and of course he tells of to pray to "Our Father who is in heaven."

2) A time is coming when there will be a "new earth" (Isaiah 65:17, 2 Peter 3:13, Rev 21:1) which will be our eternal home. This is what we usually mean when we think about "going to" heaven. We will be with God (Jesus) forever in that place. But even then, the Bible also speaks of a "new heaven" (see all three of the same verses) so there will still be a separate place where God somehow exists apart from where we are. In that one sense, the “world to come” will be much like the way it is today, earth and heaven still separated, although the new earth will of course be free of suffering and death, so compared to this fallen world, it will indeed be heavenly.

The danger in thinking of heaven strictly as another place where we will be in the future, is that it leads toward a misunderstanding of our state of existence here and now, in this place, where we are called to create heaven in our lives. As I mentioned, when Paul says "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling" this is what he’s saying. He means we must not sit back and rest in the knowledge that we're "saved," as if that were a one-time event, an entrance into a static condition like joining a club. It is instead an entrance into a calling, or a profession, an ongoing and completely different way of being. So while we do look forward to a day when heaven is complete, we also remember that the process of establishing heaven has already begun. It started with the cross, and continues today in us. Heaven has come down into our hearts, and we are called to “work it out” every day by revealing the literal presence of heaven on earth in the way we live our lives. To the lost and suffering people of the earth, you and I are heaven, because we are the hands and feet and eyes and ears and heart of Jesus Christ on earth.

I hope this helps.


Tim George said... June 1, 2011 at 7:40 PM  

Fair and balanced review as I expected.

What bothers me most about Bell and others of the Emergent variety is how they often present their ideas as revolutionary new paradigms of doctrinal thinking. They are far from it.

My experience in a Christian college in the mid to late 70s was to sit under the first wave of "new evangelical" theologians who had received their PhDs in Germany and England. Most were good men but could talk around a subject much like Bell, leaving you with no idea of what they believed to be truth.

There are many mysteries in Scripture and to those I defer to Deut 29:29. But there are also many propositional truths that are both plain and spelled out. I read the book, have listened to Bell before and am not sure if he believes in propositional truth. I may be wrong but I don't think so.

Macki said... June 9, 2011 at 5:19 AM  

I think one of the greatest aspects of Heaven is that there, in that glorious place, only Truth exists. There are no lies, no half truths, and nothing to confuse a person.

Once, I almost gave up in hopeless despair before surrendering to Jesus and doing things God's way. After following half truths similar to ones found in Love Wins and other books that are more “new age,” and because I was utterly worn out from never-ending friction in my life, I was at the end of my rope. I began the process of taking my own life. I wanted to take the "time out" that these teachings say death is. Of course, I know now that I fell for a great big lie. I say to any weary and aggravated seeker that feels the same way I once did, "Hang on! Keep seeking the Truth!" Giving up without knowing your Savior is just what our Enemy wants for us.

One of the greatest things a person can do in this life is to dig out the truth, even if it seems a cruel, long process for God to allow. To keep at it and never give up is the greatest investment anyone can ever make. Yes, Jesus said, "Ask and it shall be given, seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened." BUT he never said just how fast or how slow that would happen!

Books like "Love Wins" make me mad. I will be praying for Rob to find the complete, shining Truth and write a counter to his book, and then truly, Love will have won. In the mean-time, this book remains on shelves and lying on tables with a title that is very tempting to explore---like a loaded gun waiting for a child (spiritually) to pick it up. Jesus warned us that if anyone causes a little child to stumble it would be better for them if they were never born. I'm sure that Jesus was not only referring to little ones, but as well, to people that are immature in Spirit. I get completely, flat out angry now considering how many souls are lost to this lie that sounds so sweet! Just like I know I would if I saw folks jumping off the edge of the Grand Canyon, in faith, as you put it so well. I wouldn't, I couldn't just stand by and be silent fearing that I was being judgmental or legalistic towards their choice. I still praise God that someone was bold and told me the truth before it was too late. Sadly, I know of many families that have lost loved ones that died at their own hand, believing they were going to a place of relief where some form of God would love them. Most of these were non-believers.

In many situations God's grace helps us to gently, patiently help seekers get their blinders off. Here though, I am speaking about something different, and I hope that I can make an impression on the reader. When someone is driving their car the wrong way on a one-way freeway blind to the fact that they are about to crash, or when someone is posturing for their spring out into thin air, it is important to ACT, to speak out. It can be tricky knowing when it is that we are to act in love, and when we are to be patient and quiet and just pray. Jesus did both, perfectly, never being legalistic. The Holy Spirit's gift of spiritual discernment is the tool to help in all situations. I highly recommend a person pray to receive it. We all need it.

Lance Albury said... June 13, 2011 at 7:50 AM  

Haven't read the book--don't intend to.

From reading your review, I'd say the most troubling aspect is its consistency with scripture.

The New Testament agrees with the Old; it acts as a flashlight on the rock of truth. Any exposition on the Bible or part thereof must act in the same capacity else it deserves our most ardent condemnation--as Love Wins does.

Lori said... November 25, 2011 at 8:33 AM  

Hey....Just stopped by your blog to see if you had any books I have not yet read....and I was so happy to see that you do! I love your work...each book is different. I also wanted to say that I loved your review of Love Wins. I have not read it but I have heard all the buzzing about it. After your review I haven't really changed my opinion about whether I should read it, (I lean toward not) I think we need more certainty and not more gray area in our theology if you ask me. Anyway, I appreciate the objective review! Lori

Athol Dickson said... November 28, 2011 at 8:35 AM  

I know what you mean about certainty and gray areas in theology, Lori. I sometimes wish God would just make everything crystal clear. But the thing is, the Bible does have gray areas doesn't it? I mean, there's the Trinity and monotheism. Freewill and predestination. God in a manger. So as believers, we have to accept there is much we cannot understand.

God puts it this way in Isaiah 45:8: "'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, 'declares the LORD. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'"

Fortunately, God seems to want us to understand as much as we can, even though the vast majority will always be a mystery. We see this in the Bible's apparent contradictions and paradoxes. Those are the places where God comes the closest to revealing the aspects of His nature we can't fully understand, so whenever I encounter them, I try to push in deeper, rather than pulling back. Rob shares that instinct, and I'm glad he's out there trying to get other Christians to do the same.

For example, Rob and I both believe many of us claim to know far more than we really do about what it means to place one's faith in Jesus. A generation of evangelicals was raised to think salvation is a simple matter of agreeing with four spiritual "laws" and praying a particular prayer, as if Christianity were a kind of club with a password to get in. I find that nowhere in the Bible. On the contrary, the Bible seems quite clear that Jesus expects much more. He expects us to give up everything and follow. People in the scriptures come to that place of surrender in many different ways. Nowhere do we see a single prayer they pray, or a four-part statement of belief.

So even the path to faith in Christ leaves some room for grayness. And the Bible does leave room for debate about the exact nature of hell. But there is no gray area about the fact that hell exists, and the fact that it is an eternal condition for those who refuse to genuinely follow Jesus in this life is very clearly expressed in many places.

Those, like Rob, who seem unable to reconcile hell with a loving God have not properly considered the fact that sometimes love requires you to step back and allow the one you love to destroy themselves. Anyone who loves a alcoholic or a drug addict will tell you that.

Chad A Cole said... September 16, 2012 at 1:00 PM  

I just stumbled on this, while searching for information on chever torah.

Thank you! You have so eloquently expressed my feelings about Love Wins. I have have tried expressing these things to others, and done such a poor job of it. I have found a resonance with your review that I can use to help me as I discuss these concepts with my fellow believers.

Thank you, thank you, thank you! God Bless!

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