Love Wins: Review by Tony Cook
Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is yet another stimulating and controversial book from the hipster theologian who brought us Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. A provocateur and self-styled “re-narrator” of the Christian faith, Bell once again ignites the blogosphere with what many consider to be the next installment in a series of poorly researched best sellers. While the title brings to mind romantic imagery of love conquering all sin and adversity, a more appropriate title might have been Hell is Hyperbole: What God wants, God gets.
Bell’s book is an inside look into one man’s internal struggle with the crux theologorum as he struggles to answer the question, “Why are some people saved and others are not?” or more precisely, “If God is God and wants everyone to be saved, then why do we believe in eternal damnation?” However, Bell creates more questions and doubts for his reader than he seems to answer.
As one whose pastime is studying the thoughts and trends of emerging Christianity within postmodern contexts, I am well aware that the scandal of particularity and the marginalizing nature of any grand narrative is suspect, even when the narrative is one’s own. But creating a neo-universalistic answer based seemingly more on C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce than the clear teachings of Scripture seems a poor choice in light of the fact that Bell specifically challenges the interpretation of dozens of Biblical text that are used to support the traditional understanding of Heaven and Hell. Throughout Bell’s book, the postmodern struggle to embrace the mystery and transcendence of God gives way to a rather rational attempt to convince the reader of a God that fits more into Bell’s understanding than that of the Scriptures.
While I am sympathetic with Bell’s struggle, as probably most readers will be, his approach to answering the question is a combination of creative exegesis, modified universalism, and a heart-felt attempt to answer an age old paradox not unlike Homer Simpson’s famous theological question, “Could God microwave a burrito so hot that not even He could eat it?” All joking aside, while Bell’s argumentation creates more theological problems than it solves, he does bring up some good points to consider.
The first point concerns the nature of the Christian message itself. Bell’s background seems to have left him with the belief that the many Christians believe that “Turn or Burn” is the message that Jesus came bring – or that it is at least the predominate message that the many Christians are trained to share. While some might find that the hellfire and brimstone approach to proclaiming the narrative of salvation lacks the essential qualities of being “Good News” and is more reflective of an attempt to convert out of fear and the threat of eternal punishment, the abuse doesn’t negate the potential eternal separation from God that is clearly described in the same Biblical narrative.
I am also sympathetic with the general confusion over the paradox itself. If God desires all people to be saved, if Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, and if in the end we are told that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, then why do we believe that so many people will be lost? Viewed in this way, one is tempted to believe that God’s plan of salvation is pretty much a failure. If God is God, then why is he only able to save a select few? If objective justification is true, then why does God create a plan of salvation where His heart’s desires are overcome by the sin and frailty of humans? It’s questions like these which with I believe many readers can identify. My greater concern is that because these questions are a common concern for theologian and layman alike, that Bell’s conclusions might be accepted too easily without considering the Biblical validity of his claims.
Another point where I am sympathetic with Bell is in the lack of clarity with which many Christian preachers and teachers speak about Heaven and Hell in their daily pastoral practice. I have attended hundreds of funerals and have heard everything from “The reason this young mother died was that God needed another angel in heaven,” to veiled accusations that the death of a young man was the result of someone in the family not “living right.” Compound this confusion with the common emphasis on heaven as the intermediate state after death with little to no mention of the new creation to come, and it is no wonder that people are looking for answers.
Another place where even Lutherans might feel Bell’s struggle is when dealing with the loss of an unborn child. It is common advice, that at the birth of a stillborn child, one can tell the family that even though the Church was unable to utilize the means of grace and bring the child to the baptismal font, we place the child in the hands of a loving God, who is not bound by the Church’s means. Is this attempt to offer hope in the absence of a clear promise really that different from Bell’s attempt to reconcile his struggles as he contemplates the billions of those who die without the gift of faith? In the end, while I don’t agree with the steps Bell takes to answer the question or the conclusions he makes, perhaps the question itself is worth exploring yet another time if it means that we might gain greater clarity in our teaching and a renewed sense of God the Father and His saving work in Jesus Christ.
Tony Cook is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Associate Dean of Curriculum and Instruction at Concordia Seminary. He is very near completion of a PhD at Saint Louis University on the affect of seminary education on the devotional and spiritual life of students.
This is the second in a series of posts on the popular books Heaven Is For Real and Love Wins. For previous posts, see here and here.
Gary Krekow March 21, 2013
Thank you! Thank you for having the courage to admit (more or less) that the big questions that Love Wins tries to address (while failing to find scripturally faithful answers to them), are valid questions that cut right to the center of the difficulty people today have with the Church’s message. So many–perhaps most–theologians of all denominational stripes seem either to be afraid of these questions or to be oblivious to the way that the Church’s reluctance to face them head-on relieves sincere yet skeptical seekers of the onus of answering for themselves Jesus’ claims to be who scripture says He is and to have accomplished what scripture declares He has accomplished.
Sure, we the orthodox can fault Rob Bell for his flirtation with/espousal of Universalism. But who can blame him for trying to address the question of the Gospel’s apparent failure so far to accomplish its goal. The Church’s fear of this particular question and others like it lends plausibility (in the cynical mind) to the accusation that the Church is merely another temporal institution concerned primarily with its own survival and unashamed to use the fear-of-death power it still wields over our collective psyche to extract what material assets it can from the gullible in order to perpetuate itself and protect its own all-too-worldly interests.
I don’t pretend to have the answer to how the Church should respond to such charges, but I feel strongly that admitting first to ourselves and then to the world that our best work up to this point has failed to adequately answer these big questions is the right place to start. Doing so will demonstrate the sort of humility and authenticity that this cynical, skeptical, postmodern generation will recognize as the signs of a trustworthy partner for further dialogue. This admission obviously shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. But it seems to me to be a very good place to begin.
Rob Stroud April 24, 2014
As a huge fan of C.S. Lewis, and counting The Great Divorce among my top ten reads, I found it interesting that Cook writes, “creating a neo-universalistic answer based seemingly more on C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce than the clear teachings of Scripture seems a poor choice.” He’s certainly right about that, and if Bell has done that, it’s a shame. That was not at all Lewis’ intent when he published the book.
It’s sad to see people who disregard the clear consensus of the Scriptures on topics such as this possessing such great influence. The “comforting” misbelief that all roads lead to heaven is one of Satan’s most destructive lies.