I received a copy of and read the book in early March with the agreement that I would not blog or tweet or Facebook until today. (For those who sit near me in the office you know that I did not agree to not discuss though.)
To tackle this issue I have asked my friend Jack Hoey III to write this post with me. We read the book on the same day, have discussed often and I thought his voice would add much to this discussion.
Before I dive into my actual review of the book I want to cover a few things in response to the chatter over the last few weeks.
1. This is not a Matthew 18 Issue.
I am very encouraged by the recent rediscovery of Biblical conflict management. I think this is a positive thing for the kingdom. I had no idea that so many people were so concerned about the proper method of church discipline. But let’s be clear, having public discourse about a public video and a public book does not fall in that category. Rob Bell has not sinned against me. He has however put some very opinionated views on Heaven and Hell into writing and done everything possible to make sure we read it – it would be irresponsible for those who do read it not to carefully examine these opinions to see whether they should be affirmed or rejected..
2. This is not an issue of honor.
I have really struggled with this one. My desire is to always show honor to fellow Pastors and not be a hater. My friend Steven Furtick has cultivated this desire in my heart over recent years and I am thankful to him for it. So let me just say that I have nothing against Rob Bell the pastor. I’ve never met him and he has never given me a personal reason to attack him in writing. What Rob Bell has done is make some very serious claims and statements in his book. Statements that I believe are dangerous. To “honor” him by not addressing these issues would be a violation of the trust of those who look to me as their Pastor. Most of all it would be dishonoring to God. I am choosing to honor God and people who look to me as a leader. I pray that in doing that I in no way dishonor Bell. I will continue to pray with that spirit. Besides, Bell is an intelligent man. He knows full well that the history of the church is full of debates and discussions. Responding to something another pastor has written is not dishonorable; it is in keeping with hundreds and thousands of years of church practice. I think Bell expects—and maybe even welcomes—the controversy.
3. This is important and should not be ignored.
A friend of mine and I had a Direct Message discussion on twitter the day the video broke. He had some great points that maybe we should not give Bell his “15 minutes of fame” and just ignore it. I thought about that. If it would have worked, maybe that could have been a good idea. But Bell has way more than 15 minutes of fame cached. He has the respect and influence of millions of evangelicals. Ignoring Bell would be easy, but the issues he raises are important and need to be addressed.
Another friend wrote, and I paraphrase, “Bell and all his critics are both in need of the grace of God -enough said.” I would assert that in its simplest form that is the issue with this book. Are we in need of the grace God or have we already received it? That is a huge issue that must not be ignored.
So, what about the book review? There are plenty of people smarter than me that will review this book from a theological standpoint. Like this guy. And this guy. I will lean on them and you should too. Frankly, I think both reviews are spot on. Their take on Bell’s book is extensive, but what I would like to do is concentrate on a few issues that I think need particular attention, a couple of highlights (or perhaps better stated low-lights) of the book. To be frank, I don’t have the time to tackle every issue Bell raises that would see as unorthodox- there are just too many. But here are a few:
Bell Believes Love Wins, not God.
How would you answer this question: “Does God get what God wants?” It’s a question Bell addresses in his chapter of the same name. At first blush all of us who love God would agree with the assertion in the chapter that God wins. God wins? Of course He does – he is God. Of course, the subtle suggestion is that to disagree with Bell’s interpretation is to say that God loses. That is what Bell would like you to believe and that is where I believe that Bell manipulates his readers. The real question we need to answer is: “How does Bell define ‘winning’?
Manipulation #1: Proof-texting 1 Timothy 2:4
“[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (ESV)
Bell reflects on this scripture as he writes:
“How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. sort of great. a little great.” (pg 136)
In reading Love Wins however I would say that to Bell God wins only if we win. And if that’s true, then God is our servant now because his goodness depends on our well-being.
All this is built on the statement that God wants everyone to be saved. There’s no exegetical work on the meaning of “all people” and no discussion on the dual-nature of God’s will. In Bell’s mind, if all people do not end up reconciled to God its tantamount to God saying, “Well, I tried, I gave it my best shot, and sometimes you just have to be okay with failure” (103). Bell has taken one statement from 1 Timothy 2:4(God desires all people to be saved), avoids any contextual work on the passage (e.g., all probably means “all kinds of people”), and refuses to bring any other relevant passages to bear on this one (e.g., Rom. 9:22, “What if God desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”) The result is a simplistic formula: “God wants all people to be saved. God gets what he wants. Therefore, all people will eventually be saved.” This is a case of poor theologizing beholden to mistaken logic. If it is “the will of God” that Christians “abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thess. 4:3), does that mean God’s greatness is diminished by our impurity?
Manipulation #2: Bell counts on the reader’s ignorance of basic theology and biblical interpretation. I pray the readers will show themselves more prepared than he thinks.
For example: Bell notes correctly that the Greek word “aion” is quite flexible in its meaning (as far as length of time) and that it could mean an “age” and “forever” in a more hyperbolic way like “it felt like it was taking forever”. Fair enough. Apparently, however, the word’s flexibility does not include the traditional literal translation:” forever.”
Another infuriating example is that Bell switches from Preterism to a more literal eschatological view depending on what serves him best to prove his argument. Now many of you would say, “that’s not the end of the world” (sorry could not resist) but it is actually a very lazy and convenient stature for Bell.
For instance, according to Bell Jesus is obviously not talking about “hell” or anything to do with the afterlife when he speaks of the coming judgment. Rather he is speaking of the political suicide the Jewish people would be committing if they chose rebellion against Rome over love. Thus, Bell blows up the orthodox view that Jesus himself talked about Hell more than any other Biblical writer. Indeed, he insists that Jesus actually never talked about an eternal place of punishment. Yet in the same chapter Bell lists several minor prophets who seem to point to a “hope” for the people and a renewal as the evidence that they were speaking of the afterlife for all not just the Jewish people. Interesting—if there is no eternal judgment, no everlasting separation from God, one wonders what the prophets got themselves all worked up over. What need is there for hope, if there is no hopelessness standing in contrast to it?
The worst case of Bell’s lazy and naïve Biblical interpretation, however, is how Bell uses Jesus words in Matthew 10 to the village of Capernaum as “evidence” that Sodom and Gomorrah have hope – a second chance even – after death. Because Jesus said “it will be more bearable” for Sodom and Gomorrah than then for the village so there must be hope for them still.
This is so…well, stupid. And I know Bell is many things but stupid is not one of them. So if not unintentionally stupid it must be intentionally manipulative, or at best negligent. It’s like the scene from Dumb and Dumber when the girl tells Jim Carey’s character “your chances are like one in a million” and he takes that to mean – “So you’re telling me there’s a chance”. Jesus was saying it will be worse for you than Sodom and Gomorah – that’s not the same as giving them hope. That means it’s going to be really, really bad. By comparing Capernaum to hopeless cities, he is illustrating just how desperate their situation is.
“Love Wins” is the handbook for Pluralistic Universalism.
Here is a quote to illustrate:
“What he (Jesus) 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…(page 156)…As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptist from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus does not matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true. What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation” (page 157)
What Bell says here sounds open-minded and tolerant and even loving.
It is not. His words seem vague but the underlying teaching is clear: faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is simply not necessary to be reconciled to God.
The furor that erupted weeks ago over the promotional video for Love Wins focused exclusively on whether Bell is a Universalist. As the above excerpt makes clear, Universalism is only one of several very troubling teachings found within the pages of Bell’s book.
This is a very big deal. The issues Bell addresses are not minor theological points that have no impact on the everyday lives of people. The subtitle of Love Wins conveys perfectly the magnitude of Bell’s teaching, for it deals with “the fate of every person who ever lived.” And Bell’s conclusion is this: there is no eternal judgment and faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not essential for salvation.
I pray that this blows over and that many are not deceived. I fear, however, that Bell’s words are what many people have been waiting to hear.
I pray that we continue to spread the gospel and rescue the perishing.
Of course, if no one is really perishing, then who needs rescuing?