I have to admit two things about reviewing Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins.” I knew that I liked Rob Bell when I took a doctoral class (DMin) from him at Fuller Seminary, when I got to sit in a room with thirty other people and ask him questions and pick his brain for a few days. I like him a lot. He’s a good guy. Secondly, I figured out in that class where I thought he was likely to go wrong theologically, and I asked him about that specifically. He’s done it in this book. And I’ll get to that. But first, a summary.
Rob Bell can claim in interviews to be an evangelical and not to be a universalist because he’s redefined those terms. Evangelicals claim Scripture as their highest authority. Universalists believe that everyone goes to heaven rather than hell. Bell cites scripture authoritatively, but at the end of the day defines the character of God along the lines of what he believes most intuitive, and perhaps most popular. Evangelicals are going to disown him on that one, as when John Piper tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Bell does seem to believe in a literal hell, and that people go there. However, he creates a bit of a loophole for the universalists and insists that he can’t imagine a God who would make people stay there forever. So he’s a circuitous universalist. It’s not that there’s no hell, it’s just that it’s purgatory (although he doesn’t call it that). That’s the book.
BELL ON THE BIBLE
Developing an understanding of God’s self-revelation is a messy thing. God speaks, but then someone else writes it down, and then we read it. In that process, there’s a middle man, who has a vocabulary that means certain things to him. The words in his vocabulary change meaning over time and through translation. We’re never wholly “in the mind” of the guy who wrote them down. And we’re only assuming that God meant by the words he uses exactly what the guy wrote. So you have to come down pretty clearly on how much you take that guy at his word.
Imagine someone telling you about meeting a famous person that you already know a lot about. In part you listen to what he says for new information. In part you read what he says through the lens of what you already know about the celebrity. See, if the reporter is the Bible and the celebrity is God, evangelicals have always relied more heavily on the words of the reporter than our intuitions about the celebrity. That’s where Bell is not an evangelical. He trusts his intuitions enough to interpret the reporter through them.
So when Bell writes, “Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father—or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father?” (p53, ebook) he’s created a dichotomy between a caricature of the biblical image of God and his own intuition for what God is like. Clearly, he favors his intuition. And intuitively, Bell isn’t into hell.
The result is a routine tweaking of the Scripture to bring it into submission to his intuition. His presentation of the biblical images of hell skirts around the overall effect of the many teachings of Jesus culminating in weeds being burned or people being thrown into darkness. He even does some exegetical contortion to get “eternal punishment” (Mt. 25) to be “a period of pruning” (48), disregarding that that parable follows on the heels of another in which people are thrown into darkness and another in which the God-figure says, “I never knew you.”
Bell will claim things like, “untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory” (56) and that the biblical portrayal of hell “isn’t a very good story” (57) and that a God who would allow hell to exist is only “sort of great” (50). Intuition trumps Scripture.
He ends up completely subverting certain teachings of Scripture. He suggests (60) that the image of the gates of Jerusalem remaining open in Revelation refers to heaven always being open (and thus hell being temporary), rather than the most obvious sense for the image: the gates are open because Jerusalem is finally safe. And he mentions once but never deals with the image of a “lake of fire” in Revelation, which parallels Jesus’ image in the story of Lazarus, which Bell writes off as a fanciful moralistic tale.
He also misuses Martin Luther, who once speculated that God is so powerful that he could bring people back from death and give them faith if he wanted to, though Luther states that there is no evidence that that has ever happened. Luther was talking about omnipotence. Bell uses that to cast Luther as a possible universalist.
WHAT BELIES IT
Now the exegetical sleight of hand is bad enough, but Bell actually coaches the reader on how to do it, and in this he’s to be held responsible as a Pastor. He tells the reader that we need a word to describe suffering and evil in this life, and “hell” is a good word for that, so we should keep the word (49). He says that if people ask you whether or not you believe in a literal hell, you can say “yes,” because Gehenna (37) was a real location and because the genocide in Rwanda was real (38). With a wink, Bell shows us how to avoid the conversation with people who really want to know what we think. And by the end of the book, Bell hasn’t ever come out and said, “Everyone gets to heaven in the end.” He’s only said, mostly in the form of questions, that he can’t imagine how a good God would allow hell to be eternal. Wink, wink.
I asked Rob Bell the question, “Given that your preaching is largely based on whatever subjects are most of interest to you at the present moment, what holds you accountable to the biblical canon?” He then told a story about a man in his congregation who knows the Bible well. He said that when that guy thinks Bell is off, he writes Bell letters pointing out his errors. And that’s it. One of the most influential voices in American Christianity is held accountable to theological orthodoxy by the kind of angry critic that most Pastors don’t invest a lot of time in. And when he said that, I had a pretty good sense that if Bell ever went sadly wrong, that’s how it would happen: a celebrity, alone, unchecked, applauded and protected by his fans.
I still like Rob Bell. He is, authentically, a good guy, and he really loves Jesus. Ultimately, he’s going to have to decide what happened when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Because the sacrifice wasn’t just of a son, it was of an intuition for what is right and wrong and what a loving God ought to be like. Abraham chose obedience over intuition, and Abraham is forever after the father of faith.
What God does in the end is God’s business. Paul asks, in a passage Bell ignores, “Who are you, a human being, to in turn judge God?” (Rom 9)