Love Wins Goes to College
In one of our pericopal studies involving fellow pastors in my area, I had my first exposure to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. The comments spoken registered with me because as I serve on a university campus I have witnessed the influence Bell has with younger generations. The awareness grew when I read the cover article in Time Magazine concerning the book. Finally, following Easter as the semester winded down, I had opportunity to read the book.
I read the book expecting things given the comments I had heard: universalism, Scriptures are contrary to each other, and the ‘love wins’ mentality of moralistic therapeutic deism. What I found was a conviction of assumptions and a pastoral reminder for me and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
First, the conviction of assumptions: 1. Love Wins does not promote universalism. It raises questions that are present among those trying to understand the faith; these questions raise possibilities following death, but they do not bring or even suggest resolution to them. 2. The book does not promote a notion that Scripture contradicts itself and we must decide among the contradictions. 3. It does not promote a mentality of ‘everything is okay because love wins in the end’. Love Wins affirms the reality of hell; it even provides a harsh reminder that Christ spoke of hell primarily to the religious elite.
But this conviction is not the reason for my comment on the book. I find that the greater value in the read is not as much a matter of content and conclusions (both of which I believe the LCMS largely would agree with) as it is the process and the inquiry. Here we find a pastoral reminder for us; here I believe we have something to learn.
Simply put, Love Wins asks questions and struggles with them. It raises questions largely revolving around matters of heaven and hell; it raises questions that attack the ‘if you died tonight’ evangelism that uses the fear of hell to scare people into heaven (a tactic that Lutheran theology, even if not ‘Lutheran’ practice, agrees is futile as we recognize that the gospel brings life not the law). But again, it is not as much about the content as about the willingness to struggle with Biblical theology and ask questions.
To be clear, Love Wins is not an exegetical work. It is a polemic that dabbles in exegesis, yes; but it is not an exegetical work. Others can dissect Bell’s exegesis, but I do not think that an exegetical masterpiece is his goal. I certainly feel that he pushes the envelope of speculation regarding the interpretation of specific texts, e.g. Luke 16 or Revelation 21. But he also avoids more difficult passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:29; 1 Peter 3:19; and 1 Peter 4:6, passages that might raise more questions. He is not presenting closing arguments to convince people of a doctrine of heaven or hell. Rather Bell uses his interpretation to invite questions; to invite struggles; to invite the reader to see that the emphasis in the Scriptures is God’s desire for relationship with people.
Love Wins is also not a systematic theology. Others can dissect his systematic theology, but a comprehensive look at heaven and hell does not seem to be his goal either. It is not presenting an argument for what will happen to those who do not believe after death. It raises questions for consideration and encourages humility in that consideration; it reminds us that we do not have all of the answers. Bell invites people to think about such things and struggle with them; he is not trying to establish a box to fit his thoughts. In the midst of such struggles with Biblical theology he points people to what is clear, namely that God desires for people to be brought to him by his love manifested in the Christ.
Here in what it is not is a brotherly admonition to our church body to be encouraged by what it is. Love Wins is a display of incarnational struggle with folks in their questions, and an effort to lead them in the midst of their questions to see the Father who has sent the Son to suffer, die, and be raised for the world, to see the Father whose love is powerful, persistent, and personal. In this struggle we learn how to walk with persons not seeking to be told what to believe but rather desiring to believe, to grow in the faith God is working in them.
In this endeavor, I believe Love Wins becomes not only a polemic against ‘scaring people into heaven’ but also a reminder of another law based religion into which we at times fall prey. While we tend not to have the problem of making hell the main thing, at least in theology even if not in practice, we can at times make doctrinal purity the main thing rather than the gospel; we at times forget that it is through the gospel we see the whole counsel of God and in it the natural purity inherent to it. We can approach doctrinal matters as issues of right and wrong and fail to see that doctrinal matters relate to people and exist for people, with which people struggle, for which pastors should be willing to struggle with their flock and their fellow undershepherds. Sometimes we can even treat matters as easy and settled, although they are not, as if we were the church body that suggests that councils and popes cannot err.
Might we be encouraged by this polemic to consider our understanding? to listen to questions and ask along with those struggling rather than to provide immediate answers? to continue our learning in this faith that is deeper than one lifetime can gather and rejoice in?
As I see university students struggling with questions of heaven and hell, of plurality of teachings within the Christian umbrella, of implications of teachings within their circles of relationships, etc., I see folks wanting to work through questions so that they can digest the truth and rejoice in it; I do not see folks wanting or even tolerating just a right answer. And my gut tells me that is not just a reality on university campuses; it is a reality among many Christians and non-Christians looking to be encountered by the living faith.
Love Wins highlights a patience, a fellow struggling, and a love that helps people do just that. In the midst of its shortcomings in our world of exegetical, systematic, and historical theology, it does what Christians have been called to do: walk with each other in the challenges of the faith. And I believe, it trusts that the Gospel will ensure that God’s truth will come through to people in the midst of all of the questions. Yes, I believe there is something to be learned, or at least reminded of, from Love Wins.
Greg Michael is pastor of Christus Victor Lutheran Church and Student Center, Athens, GA (on the campus of the University of Georgia). He earned the M.Div and S.T.M. degrees from Concordia. He is too modest, apparently, to have a photo of himself posted on his congregation’s website.
This is the fourth in a series of posts on the popular books Heaven Is For Real and Love Wins. For previous posts, see here, here, here, and here.
Marc May 26, 2011
I have to say that I did not receive the same impression from the book that you have. I understand glossing over shortcomings because of an author’s intention, especially when it is pastoral, but while Bell used examples from his pastoral ministry I’m not sure the intention of his book was pastoral. It seems to me that much of the book was written to an un-churched or semi-churched audience. I could picture Bell saying “You have heard that your going to burn in hell if you don’t believe in Jesus, well the Bible actually says this…” To me, the book is filled with a kind of a shock value effect to start conversations.
In your third conviction of assumptions you say, “It does not promote a mentality of ‘everything is okay because love wins in the end’.” While Bell does indeed say that ‘everything is not okay’, he does say it will all work out because eventually God will refine everyone on this or that side of death. Or maybe not. Well, probably. Then again? On the other hand all that matters is the here and now and what you do and for whom. Oh and this is all on account of Jesus of course. (Sorry, thinking about the book again lapsed me into Bell’s argumentation style)
Which brings me to my conclusion, “Love Wins” is not a well done book. It’s not a good exegetical work, not a good systematic work, not a good historical work, not a good pastoral work (I’m not sure how it could be, it’s very confused), and it’s not a well written argument. If it would have been written by some unknown guy it never would have gotten anywhere near the attention it has. I also find it interesting that while the book may be best written for sparking conversations with unbelievers, I haven’t had any non-Christian friends show the remotest interest in it. Maybe it should categorized as ‘open-ended Christian apologetics’?
Okay, done ranting.
Greg Michael May 27, 2011
Thanks for your comment. I can appreciate your sentiments. Bell does indeed leave a whole lot open and thus the approach to the argument leaves us (at least me) a bit uneasy. I do have a few questions regarding your response with regards to Bell’s audience (which you put forth as “an un-churched or semi-churched audience”; and I do recognize the preface…): 1. But what do you do with the repeated references to the ‘if you were to die tonight’ type of presentation? As I see it, this is not just an introductory mention, it is persistent throughout the book. As a result, I cannot help but think that the initial perception of this book being written strictly (or even directly) for the folks who have been offended by such an approach misses a much greater polemic (and the real polemic) that Bell is presenting. If they were the sole focus of the book, this thread would not be persistent. In addition, as you said, how many folks do you know that are unbelievers have read this book? Do you think Bell (or at least his ‘team’), who seems quite adept at marketing, doesn’t recognize that? Are unbelievers intended to be reached by an approach that focuses on the God who loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for the sins of the world. I believe that Bell probably is hoping to reach those who are sharing the word more than those who have heard a different word. I believe that Bell is hoping to reach an audience of evangelicals, with whom he has significant influence, and persuade them out of a ‘you think it’s hot here’ approach. In fact, I believe that is why the evangelicals have taken this book so hard.
2. What do you do with the emphasis on the statements of hell to the religious elite? Do you see this as a ‘stick it to ’em’ cheerleading effort for all those who have been put off by someone who approaches them with hell as a motivator? I would have to say that the more likely reason for its inclusion is in fact a reminder for the folks who stand in judgement over people seeking to scare them into belief (and I would suggest that it could also include the propositional Christian who speaks the right words and has position in the church but whose faith is actually dead).
Regarding your second and third paragraph: Bell’s last chapter suggests to me that Bell still comes to the conclusion and presents the conclusion of ‘believe in Jesus now’ and don’t trust in hypotheticals. Yes he does this after struggling with balancing God’s omnipotence and omniscience, God’s desire for the salvation of all, the reality that salvation is only through faith in Jesus, and the reality that it sure seems that many die without faith; but the conclusion is ‘believe in Jesus now’ and don’t put your eggs in the hypothetical basket. Just because Bell brings to light (maybe for a person who presents the faith in the ‘think it’s hot here’ sort of way and has never struggled with the difficult questions (and we should recognize that the questions are difficult, especially for unbelievers)) some questions and possibilities, it does not mean that he comes to the conclusion that ‘everything is okay because love wins in the end’.
This willingness to struggle with things as people struggle with them is something that is important when we share the faith (this does not mean Bell is intending this book to be a direct appeal to the un-churched or semi-churched). This willingness to struggle does not mean we distort the truth (although we could struggle through false notions without immediately proclaiming them false); it means we struggle with them and lead them to the truth [this I would suggest is akin to the ‘holy conversation’ presented in Dr. Schmidt’s sermon available on this same site]. A prime example of this I believe (and I am not preaching on this text this weekend) is how Paul handled things on the Areopagus. Would we be comfortable of someone speaking this way if this example was found in popular Christianity today (and we did not have this example in Scriptures)? Does the example speak clearly enough to these unbelievers? Or would we say that Paul should have explicitly said that these others gods are false? Paul brings them along to see the truth of the God the creator of all who desires salvation for all through repentance and faith in Jesus.
One last comment: the referencing of a pastoral reminder in my comment on the book is not to suggest that Rob Bell had us in mind. The reason I overlook his glaring deficiencies is because the book is popular literature and by definition I expect popular literature to be deficient in those areas or at the very least not with great argument; it is not because it is a pastoral work.
Thanks for your comment!
Carol Geisler May 27, 2011
Rob Bell’s message seems intended to raise questions and so raise doubts about the Christian faith. He provides his own definitions in order to offer more acceptable answers to those doubts. Bell does speak of trust, forgiveness, and mercy. He writes that both our “badness” and our “goodness” can separate us from God’s love. But Bell also asks, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?” Those are questions, Bell responds, that we cannot answer (Bell 115). God does not get “what God wants.” Instead, we get what we want. If we “crave light” or if we are “desperate for grace,” God gives us what we want (Bell, 117).
In Matthew 25, according to Bell, the King does not necessarily send those on His left “away into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), but into “’a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming.’” Bell continues, “Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever. Jesus may be talking about something else, Bell remarks. Bell defines hell as the “terrible evil” in our hearts and the societal collapse that comes “when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way” (Bell, 91-93).
It isn’t necessary, Bell says, to believe that only some people will be saved and others will be damned and that the matter is settled at death. Christians don’t have to believe that, he writes, and offers a better opinion: “In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story” (Bell, 110-111). Bell doesn’t want the Christian faith to be expressed in such a way that the message scares people. That may be a worthy goal, but I do not think that the LCMS could, as the reviewer say, largely agree with Bell’s content and conclusions. St. Paul did tell the people of Athens that it was wrong to represent God as an idol of gold or silver. He did speak of a coming day of judgment. Bell’s story has no place for any mention of the Creator’s will, mankind’s rebellion, judgment, or of any serious consequences for sin. And without such serious consequences, is there really any need for a Savior?
Greg Michael May 27, 2011
Carol, thank you for your feedback. I do not have the book with me and so will provide a couple points to recognize your response, but I will be unable to speak directly to the quotes you provide.
First, I would caution providing a judgment on whether or not Rob Bell intends to raise doubts about the Christian faith. Putting the best construction on the presentation of the questions raised, I believe would lend itself to a conclusion of raising questions that are present in the world today. He is recognizing these questions and engaging them. Given the way the book ends, I would suggest that Bell is encouraging folks not to cling to an expectation of a second (or insert which ever number of opportunities here) chance opportunity for faith, but rather to believe and evangelize now. Given the genre of the work and recognizing how much he only suggests and does not affirm, I doubt that Rob Bell if asked expects additional chances of life after death. At any rate, I caution you as to go as far as claiming that Bell is intending to raise doubts about the Christian faith.
Second, the conclusions of the book are few and far between. The book is a discussion and not an answer to that discussion. He makes one statement/question at one point and another at another point (which is frustrating for me, but is a style that appeals to and connects with many today). The genre of the book is clearly not a systematic theology. As a result, a specific statement (or exegesis for that matter; I find the exegesis to be poor or grossly insufficient in many places, your reference to Matthew 25 is but one good example of that).
The basic content I intend by the original comment on the book is that eternal life is a present reality. The future has begun in Christ and we live with the future joy and completeness in mind (hence all the reference to the present manifestations of that hope and the statements of hell in relation to the religious leaders). Hell is real separation from God. While he raises the questions about the eternality of hell, and these are questions not conclusions, he does accent that hell truly is separation from God. And yes, we LCMS folk can agree that death is a present reality even as eternal life is. People living separated from God are living in death; no the absence of the Creator’s life giving rain is not yet present (or breath for that matter…), but the reality of that separation is tasted now. Scaring people out of hell or into heaven is not appropriate (I don’t remember him getting to this point, but we would recognize this approach as a preservation of the old self and a continuation of selfishness). And the Scriptures do emphasize the love of God manifested in the work of Jesus Christ. He does not deny Christ’s work and its necessity; he affirms it. It is the manifestation of God’s love. He emphasizes the proper work of God and the gospel to bring people to faith rather than his alien work and the law. These points, I believe are the key points of content in the book and just about the only things that I believe can be affirmed as conclusions.
Finally, concerning your comment on Acts: You are right that St. Paul referred to the divine being as being like silver and gold in reference to the unknown God which he was proclaiming; he did not however explicitly say that those others gods were false in this text. Yes, I believe he got to that point (indeed the text mentions that they requested additional opportunity to talk); but he was participating in conversation to get there. Personally, I think Paul’s argumentation was great and winsome. I just wonder how some might view it if it were used today in today’s context…
Hope that helps to clarify.
Marc May 27, 2011
Thanks for commenting back. There is no doubt that Bell is writing against his suppressed binary opposite–fundamentalist evangelical Christians–and thus many of the questions he raises about common theological assumptions made by that camp I question too (as expect most LC-MS pastors would). So I agree with you that the initial premise is of the book is well intentioned, however deficient the final product may be. There is also the question of for whom the book is intended.
You bring up an interesting point that perhaps the book is really written towards evangelicals (laity that is, not theologians) that cling to the ‘turn or burn’ idea of evangelism and brotherly comfort (if one could call that ‘comfort’). In other words, Bell is in a way writing a new and current “Out of the Salt Shaker: and into the world”. I think that if one were to begin reading the book with such presuppositions such a person would very likely come to the same conclusions that you have. I however, did not come to the book with such presuppositions.
My situation is very like what you describe,
Greg Michael May 27, 2011
Your gut is right. I am certainly not a turn and burn guy. I live among a culture where turn and burn is certainly popular; and it is for that reason, I had that perspective on my radar.
Nonetheless, even if we understand those folks as the primary audience, I think the book is relevant for our discussion, because it accents the joy of heaven and the goal of restoration, rather than the ‘think of all those lost people going to hell’ mentality that is present among some in our church body. While I do not believe Scriptures suggest that those who die without faith will reap any other reward, I do believe we have a hope to proclaim that is greater than (and in fact contrary to) self preservation (and I believe that Lutherans, according to our doctrine, are to emphasize that hope and joy in our proclamation). The book, while it fails to emphasize or suggest (since most of what he does is suggestive not declaratory) the reality of eternal judgement, does a nice job of emphasizing the joy of heaven and for that matter the problem of hell as separation from God (a problem that we have a taste of already).
The other reason I think it is relevant is for his example of discussion. Bell strings the reader (obviously not the trained theologian) along without saying a whole lot. While this is frustrating to no end, it does emphasize struggling with someone’s questions. I certainly encounter folks who struggle with the exact same problems of faith that Bell struggles with. While I think he might be too suggestive on possibilities (i.e. I would not suggest some of those things in conversation with a struggler), I do think that he tries to think through the issue with the struggler in a way to show an understanding of the struggle and yet in the midst of it accent the ultimate joy of God’s desire for relationship brought through the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This example does not sit well with us as we like to have the right answer and be doctrinally accurate at all times (ironically in the face of being the body that prides itself on its willingness to leave things in tension); but it does seem to engage the hearer in a way that brings them along in discipleship and faith. Here I think there is relevance to those among us who are quick with the answer and fail to see the deeper questions involved (hence the holy conversation reference).
But as a matter of relevance in the arena of academic pursuit… I think I agree with you (hence not engaging the systematic or exegetical sides of the matter). Nonetheless, I do want people to know that, from my perspective at least, the book is not as inherently toxic as some would suggest.
Marc May 27, 2011
Greg, by the way, I love the way you used Aereopagus (Mars Hill) in defense of Bell’s approach. Genius!
Carol writes better and more clearly than I and her second paragraph is what I was getting when I wrote
Marc May 27, 2011
My blockquote didn’t work, it was supposed to say this
“he does say it will all work out because eventually God will refine everyone on this or that side of death. Or maybe not. Well, probably. Then again? On the other hand all that matters is the here and now and what you do and for whom. Oh and this is all on account of Jesus of course.”