Reviewing Love Wins
I have been impressed with the attention Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, enjoys. Having read the book, I’m now ready to weigh in on its merits.
The marketing of Love Wins has been ingenious. Bell’s short video promo caught the attention of many, including me. After watching the video, I was hooked: I had to read the book!
The video highlights questions we all should be asking. In particular, Bell asks about the nature of the God in whom we believe.
After buying and then reading the book, my overall response is this …
This is a great book!
Setting the Stage
Early on in Love Wins, Bell claims the ideas in the book are not entirely original to him. Others in the Christian tradition have argued similarly. He is right in this – although the majority of people today are unfamiliar with these Christian voices.
Bell’s version of these ideas, however, is enticing. The prose is attention grabbing, accessible, provocative. Love Wins is not a technical academic book, and, overall, that’s one of its strengths.
From the start, Bell calls into question popular views of heaven and hell. He joins other Christians who say Jesus was much more concerned with the here and now than the then and there.
I like to put this point in this way: the eternal life Jesus promises is more about a quality of life in the present than a quantity of life forever. But God cares about both now and then.
Bell says the redemption of our lives and all creation requires our participation in God’s action in the world. Those in Jesus’ day expected the world to be restored, renewed, and redeemed. They weren’t thinking much about an afterlife.
“Jesus teaches us to pursue a life of heaven now and also then,” Bell says, “anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one.” He continues, “If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world? A proper view of heaven is not to escape from the world, but to full engagement with it, all with the anticipation of a coming day when things are on earth as they currently are in heaven” (46-47).
To begin his discussion of hell, Bell makes the point many scholars know but most laity do not: the Old Testament says little or nothing about the traditional idea of hell. “The precise details of who goes where, when, how, with what, and for how long,” says Bell, “simply aren’t things that Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with” (67).
In the New Testament, we find only about a dozen instances in which the Greek words have been translated into English as “hell.” One word, gehenna, refers to the city dump burning outside Jerusalem. Jesus’ listeners would have imagined this site, not a fiery pit below them. Another word, hades, is the Greek word for death or the place of the dead. The popular view of hell comes more from writers like Dante than from the Bible.
Bell believes in a particular view of hell, however. Hell emerges from the negative consequences of sin and evil. What Jesus says about hell “describes the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God given goodness and humanity,” says Bell (73).
When we choose other than God’s loving best, we experience hell. God allows us to live with the full consequences of our choices, says Bell, confident that the misery we find ourselves in will have a way of getting our attention.
“We needed a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good, and true, and beautiful life that God has for us,” Bell says. “And for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well. Let’s keep it” (93).
The Logic of Freedom and Love
The most interesting chapter of the book comes about halfway. Bell asks in its title, “Does God get what God wants?”
We find numerous passages in the Bible that speak of God wanting all people to find salvation. God’s desires to be united and reconciled with all creation. God works in us to fulfill God’s own good purposes. And God never gives up on us, ever. Does God get the salvation God wants for all?
“God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end,” Bell argues, “even at the risk of relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-ops, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us the freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is” (103-104). Therefore, “love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us,” says Bell. “We can have all the hell we want” (113).
I find this logic compelling. In fact, this is precisely the logic I use in my own work, including my book The Nature of Love. I now understand why one reviewer said my book gives a more complete theological rationale for Love Wins.
Like Bell, I believe giving freedom is an aspect of God’s love. If God always gives freedom and never coerces, we have no grounds to affirm a universalism that says God unilaterally saves all.
Let me explore this a bit…
At the heart of this book’s controversy is the claim that Rob Bell affirms universalism. Although universalism can be defined in many ways, it is typically understood to mean God unilaterally saves all to enjoy eternal bliss in heaven.
Universalism so understood sounds like the conclusion of a game of hide and seek. God says, “Ally-ally in come free!”
Those who reject universalism make several arguments. One of the most common is the Bible speaks against such universalism. A few passages in the Bible use words we translate as “hell.” (As I note above, Bell does a good job noting their scarcity and that they likely do not mean what many Christians have assumed.)
Many more biblical passages, however, speak of the negative consequences sin and disobedience cause. “The wages of sin is death,” to quote the Apostle Paul. Those who reject universalism often interpret these passages as referring to punishment in the afterlife. Bell argues (rightly, in my view), however, that these passages pertain to the suffering that comes in this life. Few if any biblical passages speak of suffering in the afterlife.
God’s Power to Send People to Hell
Oddly enough, many universalists embrace the same view of God’s power those who affirm the doctrines of predestination and unconditional election embrace. Predestinarians typically believe God, in solitary sovereignty, chooses who will go to hell and who will enjoy heaven.
Universalism and predestination take to its logical end the belief that God alone saves. If no one but God initiates and completes our salvation, God alone is the one who determines to save all (universalism) or only some (traditional view of predestination).
Those who believe God alone initiates and completes salvation are likely to quote biblical passages like this: “By grace you are saved, through faith. This is not of yourselves, it is a gift from God. It is not because of your works, so no one can boast.”
Often set aside are numerous biblical passages that suggest we have a role to play in our salvation. For instance, the Apostle Paul says, “work out your own salvation, with fear and trembling. For God is at work in you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”
If God initiates the possibility for salvation, empowers us to choose freely this salvation, but never accomplishes salvation all alone, we have a role to play. If free creatures play a necessary role, we should not affirm universalism or predestination as these have been commonly understood.
To put it another way, I argue that we should not affirm universalism, in the sense that all will go to heaven by divine fiat. Instead, we should affirm that creatures play a role in cooperating with God to establish the kingdom of God in this life and the next.
Does Love Win?
Near the end of his chapter asking whether God gets what God wants, Bell gets to the issue in the book’s title. He correctly notes some Christians have argued hell is not forever. Hell can be temporary. These Christians believe that in the end, love wins.
Not all Christians have believed this, of course. But, says Bell, some “envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than [all other things] put together” (111).
Bell doesn’t answer the chapter question, “Does God get what God wants?” At least he doesn’t directly. He says the real question is “Do we get what we want?”
“If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours,” argues Bell. “That’s how love works. We can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (119).
What Does it Mean to Say Love Wins?
I’m not sure what Bell means when he says love wins.
One interpretation would be that as long as God loves us and we are free to embrace or reject that love, love wins. Love wins because God always loves and offers us freedom. As long as God is love and we exist to respond to God, love wins.
I generally like this view. But it doesn’t tell us whether all creation eventually freely says “yes” to God. It doesn’t tell us whether, to use more traditional language, the Kingdom of God will finally be consummated.
Another interpretation of “love wins” says God’s love eventually persuades all creatures to say “yes.” Love wins not just in that God never stops calling us to love. Love also wins, because God’s love eventually persuades all creation to enjoy God’s invitation to salvation.
I like this second view too. But I think this meaning of “love wins” remains a Christian hope and not a foregone conclusion or certain guarantee. I wholeheartedly affirm this hope. But if creatures are always free to resist God’s love and God never coerces, there’s no certainty that the Kingdom of God will be entirely fulfilled. This idea is unsettling to some Christians, because they want a 100% guarantee. I think Christians should affirm this hope on biblical faith, not as a guaranteed certainty.
The Cross and Resurrection
It’s understandable that Bell would include a chapter in his book on Jesus’ cross and resurrection. But in my opinion, this is not a very strong chapter.
Bell rightly shows that Scripture offers different explanations of what the cross means. He rightly says atonement metaphors are more or less appropriate given the context. The resurrection provides the source of hope for overcoming evil. All of this makes sense to me. But I don’t see a strong link between the cross/resurrection and the ideas Bell advocates in previous chapters. I think the case could be made. But Bell doesn’t do so, in my opinion.
Bell wisely addresses Jesus’ well-known words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” He correctly notes that this verse doesn’t give specifics of how, when, and in what matter people get to God through Jesus. “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody,” says Bell. “And then he leaves the door open, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities.”
Speaking of Jesus, Bell says “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” (155). This generally fits my own view on the central importance of Jesus for salvation.
What Is God Like?
I was initially provoked to read this book upon watching Bell’s video. In it, he wonders about the nature of a God who allegedly sends people to heaven or hell.
In the closing pages of Love Wins, Bell addresses this issue directly: “We have to ask: just what kind of God is behind all of this?” (175) Having undermined the idea that God alone sends people to heaven or hell in the afterlife, his answer makes sense: “God’s very essence is love” (177).
Returning to themes I like most, Bell says God’s love can “be resisted, and rejected, and denied, and avoided” (177). “God is love, and to refuse this love moves us away from it, in the other direction,” he argues, “and that will, by very definition, be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality” (177).
And then we have what may be the best line in the book:
“We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell” (177).
I suggest we use this quote to interpret the recent recording — apparently of Bell — in which he denies universalism.
While God never gives up calling us to live lives of love, we can freely respond improperly to God’s loving call. When we do, we reap the natural negative consequences that come from choosing something other than God’s loving best.
Bell’s book leaves some questions unanswered. That’s fine with me. No book can answer all our questions. Even the Bible leaves questions unanswered.
This doesn’t mean that we should refuse to construct the best answer we can to our questions. And I think the Bible can play the central role in our quest for such answers. Part of what it means to love God with our minds is that we search honestly. And God can help us find answers that are more plausible than others.
But in our searching, I agree with what I think is the heart of Bell’s book: we must keep the themes of love central. Love should be at the heart of our answers to the biggest questions of life. Too often, answers to questions about heaven and hell have not followed the logic of love.