A Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell

Mar 15

Yes, I have read the book.

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.

Kevin Deyoung’s take on this could not be written any more clearly:

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.

Bottom Line

“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?



  1. Whoa. I have been waiting for hype to die down, so this is one of the first articles I have read regarding this.

    Scary stuff. Universalism?

  2. “If no one is really perishing, then who needs rescuing?”

    This, in a nutshell, is the problem with traditional evangelical theology. What you are effectively saying is that if there is no reason for fear than sharing a gospel of the purest and most passionate love for the world is unnecessary. I do not love my wife because I fear she will boot me to the doorstep if I do not. I don’t tell others that I love my wife for this reason either (well, maybe there are certain moments…haha!).

    The reason I tell others about Jesus, about God, is because of how much he has proven his love for me through unwarranted grace, compassion, and blessing. Do I reject the notion of an eternal separation from God in hell? No, but only because I believe God’s love is so great that he gives us the free will to choose to be separated from him. However, as scripture states, at the appointed time “all knees shall bow and mouths confess that Jesus is Lord.” I think at the end of the day, it will be more difficult to reject the Lord and be cast into eternal separation from God than it will be to accept his Lordship and enter his eternal kingdom. The blessing of knowing Jesus in this lifetime, of being counted amongst his people today, is the joy of knowing who we are, to whom we belong, and actively offering peaks into His Kingdom with our daily lives.

    Am I wrong? Should we be preaching the gospel out of the fear of hell? Maybe. But I simply cannot reconcile this methodology with the message Christ preached in the gospel – a message of radical grace, unwarranted compassion, and unapologetic judgment on those who cast judgment on others.

    just my two cents…

  3. Jack Hoey III /

    Tom, thanks for the comment! We certainly aren’t trying to suggest that fear is the only (or even primary) motivating factor in evangelism. It isn’t. Rather, the comment you quote points to the consequences of Bell’s theology: if there is no hell, then no one needs to worry about eternal separation from God.

    If there are no eternal consequences to sin, then the importance of preaching the gospel is diminished to the point of irrelevancy.

  4. “If there are no eternal consequences to sin, then the importance of preaching the gospel is diminished to the point of irrelevance.”

    My point is that this statement is not true. If there are no eternal consequences for sin, how much more of a reason do we have to preach and share the gospel of a God who forgives all through the sacrifice of his son?

    I have a colleague who serves with me in the Air Force. He often tells a story about how his father was saved from certain death in the Korean war by the courageous act of a man who leaped in front of him in a gun fight. This colleague of mine and his father tell this story of rescue from certain death, not because they are afraid that others might not experience the same kind of salvation if they do not hear it, but because they simply must tell the story out of thanksgiving and love. I believe Bell, and many others, are suggesting the same thing about hell, judgement, and eternal damnation.

    Is there a hell? I believe so. Scripture teaches clearly that hell is made for the devil and his angels. Will there be unrepentant sinners in hell? Perhaps. Perhaps not. That is thankfully not up to me. However, if ultimately “love wins” and no one is cast into an eternal separation from God as orthodox theology has suggested for millenia, the gospel I preach will remain as fervent and unapologetic because I have experienced the grace of God and believe it is through the unwarranted sacrifice of Jesus that I will be welcomed into the eternal Kingdom of God upon the resurrection. I do not preach out of the fear of hell, I preach out of the love I have for God knowing that even though I am a wretched sinner, he still loves me.

  5. Shawn, (and Jack)

    As a fellow author, I knew you took risks by writing this review. And I respect you even more for it. Blessings my friends. Thanks for speaking the truth in love.

    Galatians 1:10

    Kary Oberbrunner

  6. Travis /

    Is Rob Bell about to become irrelevant or will his message resonate with a new generation of Christians? Your thoughts and comments are appreciated at:

  7. Shawn, it’s been a long time! I hope you are well! I actually used your book in a devotion I led last week, so I had been thinking of you, and then found your blog today during a google search!

    I’m very interested in reading Rob’s latest, but it unfortunately hasn’t arrived yet (Amazon… sigh).

    The more I reflect on the whole situation, it makes me wonder why it seems that Christians are afraid to even ask these types of questions? I understand the need to protect doctrine, but I struggle with where the sheer animosity comes from whenever a person starts a conversation that isn’t in line with everything that’s been said before.

  8. Andy,
    Great to hear from you again. Thanks for the encouragement.

    I totally agree that questions should be permitted, even encouraged. I honestly don’t think most forward thinking evangelicals are afraid of questions. Had Bell posed these questions to his small group as things he was strugling with but did not have the answer to, I would think it was a brave thing and that God would prove himslef in the answers over time.

    What is so dangerous about this is that Bell asks questions to teach. Do not be fooled, when Bell asks, “Ghandi’s in hell?, he is?” he is teaching. He is not simply posing questions, you dont take an entire book to pose questions. In fact Bell himself writes, “But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions”

    Questions are great. But when your questions bring into question thousands of years of Christian orthodoxy and re-write the story as Bell himself even suggests we should do – it’s probably best to have some answers before you print a couple million of them.

    Conversation is also great. But I will end by quoting what Kevin Deyoung said brilliantly in his review,

    “On the subject of conversation, it’s worth pointing out that this book actually mitigates against
    further conversation. For starters, there’s the McLarenesque complaint about the close-minded
    traditionalists who don’t allow for questions, change, and maturity (ix). This is a kind of pre-
    emptive “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach to conversation (cf. 183). In essence,
    “Let’s talk, but I know already that the benighted and violent will hate my theology.” That hardly
    invites further dialogue. More practically, Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and
    rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when
    he is less than careful in backing them up.

  9. I would disagree that Bell asks questions to make hard fast claims. Yes this is a teaching method that he employs but is it a rhetorical question similar to “what shall we say then shall we continue in sin” that Paul poses? No. There’s no question that when he asks the Gandhi question he is certainly suggesting that we could be wrong about Gandhi’s eternal location (I think a very good suggestion by the way) but he is certainly not suggesting that he is sure about Gandhi’s eternal location either.

    Evangelicalism is dominated by propositions. In other words, in today’s mainstream church we are the sum total of the things we believe. When we see Jesus teaching however he sets forth very few propositions. In fact if we didn’t no better it would seem like he is trying to confuse people with his extensive use of analogy, metaphor and parable. He invites people to experience a Kingdom and is careful not to see lines of demarcation. Paul supports this and perhaps goes even further in some places…

    Two comments on the book from someone who has read all of his work and heard 90% of his sermons over the past 7 years.

    1. This is a fairly poorly written book. I think if he has it do over again he will tighten the overall thoughts he’s trying to communicate. I love the the fact that he’s willing to journey and verbalize things he’s still working through himself. The world is sick to death of self-assured preachers. Again, he missed the mark pretty big just on quality with this one…halfway through I found myself saying “this part just isn’t really very good” That being said the questions are good and the conversation that this will generate (this “dangerous” conversation) will greatly benefit a whole group of Christians who will be validated by an alternative view (which is by the way not universalism but some sort of annihilationism, something both C. S. Lewis and NT Wright espoused at least in part, among many others) and maybe even greater is the effect this teaching will have on skeptics and non-believers. Fear doesn’t work. There is no fear in love.

    2. I am realizing in review after review (including this one-disappointed to say the least) how concerned pastors are about the how the loss of hell (the eternal torture in fire version) will negatively effect their financial bottom lines. I’m not saying it’s conscious for all of us but there’s no doubt that is the main reason the reaction has been so strong. We don’t feel like it will be good for business. Jesus had a better idea…show them the treasure in the field. Give them a vision of Jesus and that will be all people need. The treasure is irresistible.

  10. Kevin – appreciate you stopping by and keeping it civil and being willing to admit at a minimum that this was not a very well written book. We disagree at such a DNA level – including your rather preposterous statement that Pastors are clinging to the Idea of eternal punishment for monetary gain – that it would be rather futile for us to volley back and forth so I’ll just let my review state my case.

  11. Shawn,

    To be clear, when I say the book is “poorly written” I mean it is disjointed, and just not the quality of work I wold normally expect from RB. (Chapter 3 is really rough) That being said it is typically beautiful work and chapters 1,2 and 7 are really important. The questions Rob raises are worth the church considering. Rob denies classic universalism which is what makes the Gospel Coalition bandwagon jumping so shameful.

    I don’t expect you to dialogue with each commenter but to refer me to the content of the review does not address the issue I raised. I agree that it’s preposterous but that doesn’t make it any less probable. I also realize it’s a cynical view but the question remains; Which view is better for business, eternal torment by fire or everyone is accepted regardless of the life they lead? (Which by the way Rob does not argue for.)

    Your statement “Love Wins is a handbook for plurlastic universalism” is careless, not well-researched and is a statement you will be ashamed of at some point in the future. Evangelicalism is leaking to its extremes and I expect the group of pastors you associate with (who I hold in the highest regard) to a higher standard than this grandstanding, bandwagoning blog you have written here.

  12. Theresa /

    I appreciate the insight and respect you showed in your review of “Love Wins”. I, too, struggle with speaking out against what I feel to be biblical error and yet not get caught up in “hate mongering”. I pray Mr. Bell will find his way back. My concerns without the beliefs espoused in his book are many but it centers on one main issue. In my opinion he negates the Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. If I can reach God on my own, if I don’t require a mediator, if there was no debt to be be paid…..then why did my precious Lord suffer so. And if He did have to suffer to provide a way for me then isn’t the next logical step is that I must receive that for myself? It just seems like those who want to defend the theology in this book or those the Bible warns us about who will just want to have their ears tickled. The truth is sometimes hard. God is love! He does win! He provided a way for us to win as well. His name is Jesus!

  13. To Shawn and those in the discussion:

    I am by no means a theologian or a scholar of the bible. However, from what I have learned form reading the New Testament (and of course the Old Testament) is that Jesus came to save us from sin and bring us into life in him and through him. It is surely not up to us to make this happen and it is out of his love and grace that we can have eternal life. That being said, I read this book with pretty renewed interest as I have felt for much of my life that billions of people going to hell does not match with the Jesus I see in the New Testament nor in my personal relationship. In reading your post, I would agree that most of what you proposed I can understand and can see how both your point of view and Rob Bell’s can coexist.

    I think where you and Rob Bell (and I guess myself) truly break is the last part when you say:

    “Of course, if no one is really perishing, then who needs rescuing?”

    In my understanding, Rob Bell was still clear that the only way to God is through Jesus, but that He never withdraws the invitation to experience life in the Trinity. Now as you know, life outside of God is in a “real” sense hell so I don’t think his claim puts Jesus’s sacrifice in vain. The fact that all people at some point will be reconciled to him only in my mind makes it more miraculous.

    The point I see differently from the book is that Jesus still is saving all people whether it is in this life or the next. To me, this only makes God more miraculous and awe-inspiring in that He is more patient and also “soul changing” than any human can be or probably comprehend.

    None of this to me puts in jeopardy God’s justice or wrath because as you know when Jesus died, he died for “all” sin so that has been dealt with. Thus it simply the acceptance of God’s free gift to all individuals that is left. Above all else what God seems to express to me through the scriptures is his unrelenting pursuit of all of us because of his love for his bride (us). It is in this thought I see Jesus still rescuing people until “all knees bow” that makes Rob Bell’s words so inspiring.

    I look forward to reading more posts and being apart of the conversation.

  14. Zach,

    Thanks for stopping by. I believe the only issue I would take with your read of the book is that “Rob Bell was still clear that the only way to God is through Jesus”.

    Let’s say I were to write this sentence. “I don’t believe in stealing”. Sounds good doesn’t it? All would say, “bravo Shawn, we don’t either”. But what if just after that I said, “The thing is we don’t really know what stealing is. In fact I think if you were to have a good reason, or maybe even if its on a Tuesday it’s okay, in fact for many we may simply think it is our right to have something so that would not be stealing at all – so who knows if we would be accountable for that?”

    Kinda changes my stance on stealing because I redefined it right? Probably wont go leaving money sitting out in front of someone with that definition of stealing.

    So to simply say “Jesus is the only way to heaven” but then go on to redefine “Jesus”, “only” and “heaven” makes that sentence a little unreliable.

    Case in point:

    “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)

    Quite frankly I am not as concerned with the fact that Bell gives people more time (although I disagree with him) I am concerned with the fact that he gives them more “ways”.

    Thanks for joining in Zach – hope to see you around on lighter posts :)

  15. Wow. You are one arrogant SOB.

    I just stumbled on your mindless rant while surfing the internet. I will off now to find someone who isn’t such an arrogant ass.

    You are what is killing the christian religion in the world today

  16. Thanks Bob – I take it as a compliment that I’m killing religion- it’s all about Jesus!


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