Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. By Rob Bell. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011. 202 pp. Cloth, $22.99.
The fanfare that surrounded the release of this book was enormous. Bell, Pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids, MI (Mars Hill Bible Church), previously garnered a lot of attention with his book Velvet Elvis.
Since Bell is openly postmodern, this book should not come as a shock to anyone. Postmodern Evangelicals believe in salvation now (psychological wholeness, saving the planet via ecology, instituting peace and justice in our time, etc.), in tolerance, and in pluralism. Thus the notion of eternal torment in hell is one that unsurprisingly is rejected by Bell. His view of reality makes a place of eternal torment unthinkable.
It should be noted that Bell, like many postmoderns, deliberately couches his views in such a way as to make it hard to pin him down. Bell practices theological doublespeak. Hence the reader knows where he is going, but those who wish to defend him as being orthodox can find snippets that indeed seem to suggest that.
This book is filled with questions, many of which are rhetorical. For example, on pages 5, 11, 60, and 102 there are at least seven questions per page. About one page in five has one or more questions on it. And these questions are rarely answered. Bell assumes that we know his answer to the questions. By the way he slants the discussion, he clearly is pushing the reader to accept his postmodern conclusions.
Any fair-minded reader would come away with the following understandings of what Bell says:
- No human being will spend eternity in eternal, conscious torment (pp. viii, 1-3, 84, 109, 155, 173-74).
- People will be given another chance to be born again after this life is over (p. 108).
- “There is hell now” (p. 71, 79).
- “There is hell later” (p. 79).
- “Hell is not forever” (p. 109).
- Salvation is here and now, not pie in the sky (p. 6).
- Homosexuality is okay with Jesus (p. 9).
- The death of Christ eliminates the possibility of eternal condemnation for everyone: “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (p. 155).
- People of every religion are exempt from hell and guaranteed eternal joy: “As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy…” (p. 155).
- God has one overriding attribute: love. Love wins in the sense that God pours His love on all of mankind. All of His other attributes are subordinate to His love (pp. vii, 1-9, 178, 195, 197-98).
- There will be life after death with God (pp. 21-62).
Unlike most Christian books, there are no chapter and verse Bible references. None. Bell only gives book and chapter, and even these references are very sparse, occurring on only 51 of the 202 pages, by my count (pp. 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 22, 30, 31, 33, 44, 48, 49, 52, 59, 61, 65, 68, 74, 84, 85, 86, 87, 92, 98, 99, 101, 101, 103, 108, 109, 132, 134, 135, 142, 146, 148, 149, 150, 151, 152, 153, 154, 159, 160, 164, 188, 189).
The book is written in an odd mix of prose and poetry. Sometimes Bell goes pages using an odd poetic style. Here’s an example with his punctuation and line breaks retained:
Yet on these very same websites are extensive
affirmations of the goodness and greatness of God,
proclamations and statements of belief about a God
“full of grace and mercy,”
This God is the one who created
“the world and everything in it.”
This is the God for whom
“all things are possible” (pp. 96-97).
While I’m sure Bell meant this punctuation and style to be attractive and to communicate well to his audience, it had the opposite effect on me. And I bet it does as well on many who reject postmodernity.
One of Bell’s stories is of a man’s conversion. This story tells a lot about his theology. Bell tells of a young man who told him he smoked marijuana each night till dawn. Then one night “he became aware of the kitchen filling with an overwhelming presence of warmth and love…He said he knew without a doubt in that moment that it was God telling him that he is loved absolutely and unconditionally and that the only possible path for his life was to receive that love and become a follower of Jesus” (p. 139). Bell indicates that he has heard countless other stories like this of encounters with God and that he believes these are accounts of how people were born again (p. 140). This is not surprising since for Postmodern Evangelicals faith in Jesus is not believing something He has promised, but it is instead an existential encounter with God.
For Bell being born again is not a matter of believing the right things about Jesus. It is about having an encounter with Him. If you have a story to tell about Jesus, then you are “saved.” He is not picky about whether one says he became “a follower of Jesus,” or that he “trusted in Jesus,” or that he “believed in Him,” or “committed his life to Jesus.”
There are no Scripture and subject indexes. That is unfortunate, since it makes it harder for people to dig out what Bell is saying.
I found this to be a very annoying book. Bell is like the emperor with no clothes who claims to have on beautiful garments. Bell’s theology is naked. There really is nothing substantive to his rhetoric. His main point is that God loves everybody and that God’s love wins. That is Bell’s gospel. That is his good news. God’s love wins. Regardless of what people believe, God’s love wins since all will eventually get into God’s Kingdom.
This is a dangerous book. I only recommend it for those who are well grounded. For such people it can be a helpful expose on Evangelical Postmoderns today. However, the reader should beware that this will not be an easy read. Bell obfuscates his views in such a way as to make his heretical statements seem orthodox.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society