Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins (Part 3)

Chapter 1: What About the Flat Tire?

It seems to me the purpose of this chapter is to deconstruct as many things as possible and leave the reader pretty discombobulated. Maybe that is because that is where many people already are and he is trying to resonate with people who have some of these same serious questions but don’t know how to come to solid conclusions. Or maybe there is another reason (see the last few sentences of this post for my guess on that one). The gist of his questions in this chapter goes something like this:

  • How is one “saved”?
  • Why some people and not others?
  • Can a loving God send billions of people to hell?
  • Is my salvation dependent on someone other than myself (If I depend on someone to preach it to me, etc)?
  • What happens to someone who dies the day after they turn whatever age God has defined as the “age of accountability”? Would it have been different if they had died the day before? (His question assumes this is a fixed point in time and not a process)
  • What happens to non-Christians who act more like Christians than some Christians?
  • Which Jesus are we supposed to believe in and…
  • What if the Jesus someone gets presented does not accurately reflect the one we find in scripture? Is that their fault for not believing in Jesus if his followers don’t portray him properly?
  • How is one saved…by faith or works or grace or a prayer or baptism?
  • “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”

There are many more but that pretty much hits the root of it all. What all this boils down to, in my opinion, is whether salvation is up to us or if it is up to God? Bell sure knows how to ask the questions that will lead you the direction he wants you to go. In some cases that is a good thing. Some places I appreciated his questions and it really got me examining things and trying to expand my own view of God’s grace. But in other places it was ill-conceived and showed a gross misunderstanding of what sin and salvation are all about as a whole.

Here are two examples that fit in the ill conceived category for me. I would balance this with a few of his better questions but I would rather just be critical and judgmental of the book. Just kidding! On page 3 he tells the story about a young woman who was killed in  an accident. A Christian asks if she was a Christian. When they learn she was an atheist the Christian’s response is, “So there’s no hope.” From that statement Bell responds, “No hope? Is that the Christian message? No hope? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is the sacred calling of Christians-to announce that there’s no hope?” (p.3-4). Bell’s point is that there should be hope for all. This young lady did have hope. She had Jesus dying for her sins. She had God pulling for her to put her faith in Him. She had all kinds of hope if she would just recognize it. There is no line between saying she died and has no hope and saying that she never had hope at all.

Bell is all about choosing his stories wisely and which stories from life and scripture to include or exclude. To be fair we all do this. I can’t help but wonder how comfortable Bell would be with inserting the story of the rich man and Lazarus right about here in his book and then see how he unpacks it. He is all about honest inquiry and tough questions. So what if we brought up another narrative? How would he deal with what Jesus taught in Luke 16 that everyone has hope while alive on earth. The Christian message is a message of hope. But if one dies in rebellion to God Jesus taught that there is no more hope. That is not my opinion. That is what Jesus taught. Bell is saying that to agree that there is such a thing as hell and judgment is to say that anyone who ends up there never had any hope. He is then making the connection that if that is the case then our mission as Christians would be to preach a hopeless message. I can’t help but wonder if he has totally disconnected himself from what the New Testament teaches about salvation at all. It it not either all have hope for all eternity or none have hope ever. There is a third option and that option is a biblical one. But he doesn’t touch that because, although it is scriptural and a point Jesus made, it doesn’t advance his thesis. That is upsetting but it is even more upsetting because he is the one who said we need to be open an open and honest discussion about these matters and be challenged in them but finds no room to take on these stories that challenge his main points. Maybe he does that later and I am not there yet but I haven’t seen it yet. And I don’t expect an author to tackle every opposing point of view along the way. That is not reasonable. But what I am trying to do here is take Bell’s point of choosing the right stories to tell and show that if you do that it can actually point away from what he is trying to communicate rather than forward his main points. I guess I am deconstructing his deconstruction.

Let me give you another example. Bell totally misses or at least drives right by the whole interplay in scripture between grace, faith and works. He writes, “If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs? And aren’t verbs actions?…Does that mean, then that going to heaven is dependent on something I do? How is any of that grace? How is that a gift? How is that good news?” (p.11)

It all makes me wonder, and I ask this carefully because I am not far enough in the book to really address this fairly, but if God is going to win everyone over by love…won’t that mean that ultimately every single person who ever lived would accept God, confess God, and believe in the end? I ask that carefully because that is where I hear Bell is going with this but I haven’t read far enough to see it for my own eyes. In other words, it seems to me like his own explanation for the alternative he is pushing would result in all of these things he seems to be saying just don’t fit the gospel or what salvation is all about.

What he seems to be missing is that in no way does belief or confession or baptism or any of the rest of it warrant or earn Jesus on the cross or an empty tomb. God didn’t look down on us and say, “Well they are going to believe this is for real so that means they earned you going son, get to it.” Our confession didn’t twist God’s arm or force God’s hand into saving us. It is all a gift. These actions are reactions. They are re-sponses to what God has already done. Surely he knows that. He goes on to write,

“Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart…that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus Christ.” (p.11)

I don’t mean to sound harsh here but I just don’t know what version of the New Testament he is studying from. Has he read the Sermon on the Mount? I am trying really hard to not be defensive. I know how annoying that can be when you are reading a review and I don’t want you to hear me that way. There is a difference between doing acts of righteousness to earn our salvation and the things God calls us to do as followers of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is about following, doing, loving, etc…right? Didn’t God call us to lots of actions? What Jesus has already done is to defeat sin and Satan and death…we don’t do that on our own through belief or baptism. God does it. So I am thrown off by his remark that somehow Christians want to teach we don’t have to do anything but then teach a list of to do’s as earners of anything.

Then Bell writes something that nearly made me laugh out loud,

“At this point another voice enters the discussion – the reasoned, wise voice of the one who reminds us that it is, after all, a story. Just read the story, because a good story has a powerful way of rescuing us from abstract theological discussions that can tie us up in knots for years. Excellent point.” (p.12).

Who is this well reasoned, wise voice making an excellent point? Are we to assume this is Rob or God or Ghandi or who? Sorry if that sounds obnoxious. I am trying really, really hard not to do that. I just can’t believe he actually put that in the book. So let me deconstruct that a bit. Just read which story? Read the one about the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man is in eternal torment and cannot be reached and has no hope (Luke 16)? Read the story where Jesus teaches that if you struggle with lust you better pluck out your eye before you end up in hell due to your rebellion and sin (Mtt 5:29)? Or maybe he is referring to the story about Jesus sending out the twelve and he tells them it is possible for both your body and soul to be destroyed in hell (Mtt 10:28). Would he have us read the story about God’s judgment of the dead in Revelation 20:11-15? If anyone is an expert at abstract theological discussions that can tie us up for years I think we know at this point that Bell is a master at that.

Last, he turns to a dozen or so stories from the New Testament that show how different people responded and asks what God is really after in our lives. He comes to the point of saying maybe we are to just believe. But then believe what? Believe who Jesus is? Well, who did they think Jesus was? So he points to different conclusions people had about who Jesus was in order to say maybe even that was confusing when Jesus was right there for them to see and hear in the flesh. The problem is, people really did get Jesus. They got him loud and clear. Were the 3000 at Pentecost confused? Were the apostles confused? There was some confusion sometimes but not everyone was confused all the time. Jesus revealed who he was in a very clear and real way.

Rather than point to the clarity of the Gospel, over and over again Bell likes to move to the murky spots and the confusing spots. If you land on solid ground it is hard to say you are some place else. But if you can keep things murky, unclear and deconstructed, you can more easily point things another direction and have people agree with where you are headed.

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

11 Responses to Review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins (Part 3)

  1. Charlie Sohm says:

    From the book: “Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart…that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus Christ.” (p.11)

    Sounds to me like Rob has a problem, not with Christianity, but with Calvinism.

  2. Kevin M. says:

    Matt, you are doing an excellent job… Biblical and appealing to plain reason. You don’t have to apologize, Scripture is the authority. He is clearly not an advocate of the Jesus of the Bible… he would disagree with Him. “MANY will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord!’…. then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me you who practice lawlessness.'” And those are people who profess Him!

    • K. Rex Butts says:

      I’m also reviewing Bell’s book and there are things which I strongly disagree with him on but I don’t think he disagrees with Jesus any more than the rest of us. I don’t know of one person who has the teaching of Jesus perfect. One of the things I disagree with Bell on is his use of biblical proof-texts to take a passage from the Bible, isolate it from the context that informs its meaning, and then use it for a purpose that cannot be supported by the context…much like your proof-texting of Matthew 7:21. If we really want to understand what Jesus means by “the will of the Father” then lets keep that verse in the context of the Sermon on the Mount.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

      • Kevin M. says:

        I’m sure you mean well, but I am not proof texting. I know what the context is, and it is directly relevant to this review.

  3. Drew Custer says:

    I am doing a class on Early Church History and I found it interesting that early church father Origen, in the first half of the 3rd century, believed that God would ultimately saved every created being, including the Devil, based on his abounding love. His belief was influenced by Christian and non-Christian Gnosticism. Christian gnostics believed that all physical matter was bad, the Creator God was evil for creating it, but the Christian God was a good God of love that would ultimately rescue everyone’s good spirit imprisoned in their evil fleshly bodies. This of course, freed many Christians and non-Christians from moral responsibility. “Hey, my evil body made me do it, but I am still good inside.” Does any of this relate? I ask this rhetorically because I think it speaks to our time and speaks to some that Rob has talked about, especially the point that God is love above all. One more thing, I think Origin, being a learned man in Greek philosophy got in trouble when he used faulty philosophical starting points in constructing a theology. Could Rob’s theological conclusions be based on contemporary philosophical underpinings first, before Scripture?

    • mattdabbs says:

      I don’t know if I am far enough into the book to answer your question yet. It seems like he is taking the same track – God’s love will win everyone eventually. But he doesn’t use the gnostic rationale/philosophy to get there. He is taking a different track. I think he is beginning with his conclusion and then figuring out how to make scripture say that. I think his framing question of the whole thing is this, “How could an all loving and all powerful God create a universe with billions of people that the vast majority of them would never hear about him and be lost in hell forever, even if they lived exemplary lives?” So he starts looking to scripture to fine tune definitions of heaven, eternal life and all the rest to try to make it answer that question with, “Of course God wouldn’t do that…here is what he is really up to. Love wins!” That’s my take so far. I just posted part 4. That will explain a few things more in depth.

  4. Barth says:

    Quote:
    Then Bell writes something that nearly made me laugh out loud,
    “At this point another voice enters the discussion – the reasoned, wise voice of the one who reminds us that it is, after all, a story. Just read the story, because a good story has a powerful way of rescuing us from abstract theological discussions that can tie us up in knots for years. Excellent point.” (p.12).
    Who is this well reasoned, wise voice making an excellent point? Are we to assume this is Rob or God or Ghandi or who?

    Not at all familiar with this Bell or any of his writings, but I am pretty sure that on the basis of the snippet you provided he is an advocate of ‘narrative theology,’ and so that ‘reasoned, wise voice’ is this current of thought. If you are so disturbed by his methods or conclusions, check out the story paradigm. Not only will it give you an additional approach to understanding biblical text, it will also arm you with a valuable resource and method in nurturing faith communities.

    • mattdabbs says:

      In the midst of all the comments comes a wise and reasoned comment that makes it all fit together, at last!

      You are right on the money. He is a huge proponent of narrative theology. That is how he couches the entire premise of the book. It just sounds silly when you build a straw man, tear him to shreds and presume everyone is standing around saying, “oh my…what now?” but then the wise voice of reason whispers in your ear another story line that you need to follow to get the answers you need. The problem is the story line he chooses is exclusive and is not informed by some extremely significant texts and theology. So his seemingly wise voice doesn’t come out fairing so wisely after all, not because the Bible isn’t clear on these things or that the narratives don’t work…he just doesn’t pick which narrative threads to follow in a way that is always very consistent with orthodox Christianity.

      Hope that makes sense…I think your comment is very wise and is well stated.

  5. Barth says:

    Let me put it more bluntly: Bell is actually just ‘prooftexting’ (but with stories, not verses) his un-orthodox beliefs.
    Not even a good demonstration of narrative theology. If he was concerned with, let’s say, the ‘story’ of the NT community, he would have considered every faith story of that community, careful not to handle any out of its context or ignore stories promising alternative theological conclusions. An incomplete story can be misleading, and the story-teller’s or hearers’ sharing (the point of narrative theology) in that story false.
    Thanks for the review.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Thank you Matt for your review. I’ve not read Love Wins but in my view you can’t believe in the words of Jesus and NOT believe in hell. However there are other words of Jesus that make the issue appear less black and white than many evangelicals suggest. It’s clear from what Jesus taught that there is a day of judgement coming for all human beings and we will all be judged fairly and equitably by God.

    It is also clear from Jesus’ words that that judgement will be based on how we responded to the light that we have received. On several occasions Jesus likens the people of his day who had seen him, the light of the world, and witnessed his many miracles and yet rejected him with the people of Sodom and Gommorrah who had received no such revelation and he uses the phrase “it will be better for them on the day of judgement”. I’m not sure exactly what “better” means and Jesus does not say, but it indicates to me that God’s judgement is not simply black and white but that there are degrees of judgement. It will be worse for people who had a clear revelation of the truth but rejected it that it will be even for the wicked people of Sodom and Gommorrah. It also shows that God will judge every man according to the thoughts and intentions of his heart.

    John 12:46-49 makes it clear that we will be judged according to how we received the words of Jesus. There is another interesting reference in John 5:24-29 to the dead having the opportunity to hear and respond to the words of Jesus. I’m not sure what this means (the context talks about people beyond the grave, not just spiritual dead), but I do believe that God knows the thoughts and intentions of every mans heart and is able to judge people who have never heard the words of jesus on the basis of how they would have responded to them if they had that opportunity.

    • mattdabbs says:

      I am not so sure John 5:24-29 is about the dead hearing and responding to the Gospel. In the very next chapter in John, Jesus identifies those who will be raised to life at the last day and it is those who have already put their faith in him prior to death (John 6:40, 54). So I don’t think the context or broader theology of John or the NT as a whole would warrant an interpretation of John 5:24-29 to be a postmortem opportunity for repentance and salvation.

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