The Tenth Leper

Theology Made Practical

Review: “Love Wins” by Rob Bell, Part II- The Complicated Gospel

Alright let’s delve into the book.

To my recollection, in his promotional video for Love Wins, Rob Bell never actually declares something that’s heretical.  Most of the controversial things he says in it come in the form of questions which seem awfully rhetorical: “Gandhi’s in Hell?”  “Really?” “What kind of God is that?”  I found that same pattern in many sections of the book.  He asks a lot of questions in which, unless they’re rhetorical (meaning he believes the answer to them is obviously “no”), they never get answered.  The first chapter “What About the Flat Tire?” is a chapter full of such questions.  The first three pages contain much of what he said in the video.  He talks about the art show at his church.  He asks if God has “created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish” and, if so, how he could do or allow that “and still claim to be a loving God”. (p.2)  And if there are only a select few, how do you become one of them?  “Chance?  Luck?  Random selection?  Being born in the right place, family, or country?  Having a youth pastor who ‘relates better to the kids’?  God choosing you instead of others?  What kind of faith is that?  Or, more important: What kind of God is that?” (pp.2-3)

Some of Bell’s questions are good questions.  He takes some common Christian beliefs and explores the questions which arise from them if we believe in them.  Take the age of accountability for example.  Some Christians believe that a child up to a certain age is not held accountable for their actions before God.  Mr. Bell correctly says that a lot of people believe that age to be around twelve years old.  But what if your child lives past that age and ends up not believing in Jesus, dooming themselves to hellfire for all eternity?  In a passage that someone is sure to take out of context and say “Rob Bell Wants To Kill All Children Under the Age of Twelve!”, he writes “If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever.  Why run the risk?” (p.4)  This is, of course, rhetorical.  But it does give insight into Bell’s attitude on the traditional Christian doctrine of Hell. The fact that Bell would consider infanticide absurd is reflective of his underlying belief that it is unnecessary.

He also spends significant time probing traditional ways of thinking about what salvation actually is.  Is it simply believing the right things?  Is it saying “the prayer”?  What is the prayer?  What if you prayed it once but it means nothing to you now?  Who do you pray to?  Jesus?  Which Jesus?  The Jesus an abusive father claims allegiance to?  The Jesus people kill other people over?  The Jesus that hates homosexuals?  If Romans 10:14 is true, is our salvation in someone else’s hands?  “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”  Is someone else’s eternity my responsibility then?  (pp.5-9)

A simple Christian understanding of salvation is this: You’re a sinner in need of grace, and if you believe in Jesus and confess him as your Lord and Savior and enter into a personal relationship with him, you’ll go to Heaven when you die.  The number of questions Bell raises is indicative of the difficulties he feels are inherent to such a concept.  To be fair, he never actually says it’s false.  His rhetorical questions seem to do that for him.  And again, if I’m mistaken and these questions aren’t rhetorical, he’s just bringing up questions he never intends to answer.  What he does positively state is that the phrase “personal relationship” appears nowhere in Scripture.  “Nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures, nowhere in the New Testament.  Jesus never used the phrase.  Paul didn’t use it.  Nor did John, Peter, James, or the woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews.” (p.10)  (And yes, you read that last sentence right.)

I believe Bell’s dissatisfaction with such a view of salvation is seen most in his view of grace.  As I mentioned in the intro post, he never dismisses orthodox doctrine outright.  He redefines it.  Every good Christian knows and believes Ephesians 2:8-9:  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  I believe this and so does Mr. Bell.  But we understand it very differently.  If salvation is a free gift that “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?  Accepting, confessing, believing-those are things we do.  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?” (pp.10-11)  Isn’t that, he reasons, what has always set Christianity apart?   That you don’t have to do anything because Christ did it all on the cross?  (see John 19:30)

Citing numerous verses throughout the New Testament, Bell then proceeds to wonder aloud how people even get saved.  Citing Luke 18:13, Luke 23:42-43, John 3:3, and Luke 20:35, he asks if salvation is about being born again, being considered worthy, or if it’s a matter of what you say or what you are.  Citing Matthew 6:14, Matthew 7:21, and Matthew 10:22, he asks: “So do we have to forgive others, do the will of the Father, or ‘stand firm’ to be accepted by God?  Which is it?  Is it  what we say, or what we are, or who we forgive, or whether we do the will of God, or if we ‘stand firm’ or not?” Or is it a matter of what we say we’re going to do, as in the case of Zacchaeus? (Luke 19:8-9) (pp.12-14)

The list goes on for a couple more pages, but the point is made.  For Bell, the traditional evangelical understanding of salvation seems to be fraught with difficulties.  It’s just far too complicated.  Every “simple” statement the Bible makes about how to get saved just leads to more questions.  That isn’t to say these are not legitimate questions.  In fact they’re good questions.  But the impression I was left with at the end of the first chapter was that Bell seemed to have such a hard time reconciling the verses above that eventually he concluded he couldn’t, at which point he decided the problem must be in how we understand salvation.  Later in the book (in a VERY bold passage I’ll address in another entry), he upholds Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one would come to the Father except through him. (John 14:6)  Again, orthodox Christian belief here (at least in name).  But here’s what he sees in John 14:6: “What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.” (p. 156)

So that pretty much sums up the first chapter.  I don’t plan on doing a chapter-by-chapter analysis, but this one I felt deserved some attention.  I agree with Mr. Bell when he points out that some people have a very distorted view of Jesus and that distorted Jesuses, not the actual one, should be rejected.  I’m honestly curious about which Jesus (if any) Rob Bell grew up believing in, because much of his book seems to be a reaction to a caricature view of salvation. (God is kind toward you in your life on earth, but if you don’t repent by the time you die he gets all mad at you and makes you burn in Hell forever, even if a Christian would have shared the gospel with you ten minutes later.)

Sorry for the length of this entry!  I’ll try and keep it shorter in the future.  Hope you enjoyed this post because I voluntarily lost some serious sleep time for you.

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31 thoughts on “Review: “Love Wins” by Rob Bell, Part II- The Complicated Gospel

  1. this is great, scott.

    The part you say, “That isn’t to say these are not legitimate questions. In fact they’re good questions. But the impression I was left with at the end of the first chapter was that Bell seemed to have such a hard time reconciling the verses above that eventually he concluded he couldn’t, at which point he decided the problem must be in how we understand salvation,” was great.
    I mean, asking questions is an integral part of how we understand the world, each other, and the Lord… integral… but giving up on finding an answer to search for an easier one will never work.

    love you brother.

  2. good post (again)! I can’t remember if we talked about this, but DeYoung wrote on the video and how questions can definitely teach and guide towards a conclusion even without answers.

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/02/28/bell-brouhaha/

    get some sleep tonight! :)

  3. Carrie on said:

    Great post! I can’t wait for the next one!

  4. Micah on said:

    Excellent reviews so far Scott! I appreciate your humor (the margin’s comment in your previous post was classic) as well as your humility. Good luck with the press!

  5. Hi there. A friend of mine recommended your blog to me as part of our Facebook-comments discussion on Rob Bell’s book. Just wanted to give a shout-out to a fellow Dallasite! I was born and raised there, although I’m all the way east in Athens, Georgia now. Any way, I appreciate you taking the time to sit down and write a detailed analysis for those of us who are interested in the book but don’t yet have access to a copy of it.

  6. Daniel on said:

    Hey Scott!

    I found your blog the other day by doing a search for “Rob Bell Love Wins,” and have stuck around to read what you have to say because a. I’m interested in the book, and b. you’re clearly a good writer. I was shocked when I saw the video blurb about the book, and was really curious about what he actually says in it. I look forward to reading more not only about Bell’s book, but also more on your blog in general. It’s awesome to see a brother in Christ really examining this kind of thing and taking time out of his sleep schedule to share it with thousands of strangers. I appreciate it!

    Daniel

  7. Ryan Duffy on said:

    Great post. Thanks for your insight. Just to answer your question about where Rob grew up…..He grew up in East Grand Rapids (which is a bit of a yuppie type town) and went to somewhat of a fundamentalist church. His father is a federal judge, whom I had as professor in law school and his mother is teaches lit at local college. From what I understand Rob was a teacher at his church and was considered pretty hard core when it came to christian orthodox. I grew up in a town near East GR and his church is 3 blocks from house. Needless to say I feel it is important to understand where he is coming from as I engage many of his church followers on a daily basis. I look forward to your future posts.

    He is good and does good!

  8. I appreciate your honest approach to reviewing the book. I look forward to reading the rest of your posts on the book.

    I agree with Tiffany that asking questions is healthy for us as believers. As a college student and youth ministry intern, I encourage others to ask questions as long as they are doing so to find answers. This is where being a part of a local body of Christ and having a strong network of believing friends is crucial. Not only can members of the church walk alongside you and offer advice from their past, it provides you with an opportunity to pour into others. In fact, when I am involved in the lives of young people, it challenges me to have answers to questions they may have and to know my stuff. While Bell asks legitimate questions, he doesn’t offer any answers like you said, thereby making it potentially harmful for readers, especially those young in their faith.

    So yea, thanks again for doing this review and doing it in as unbiased of a way as possible. I’ll be praying for you as you continue writing them.

    -Lawson Hembree
    Learn It. Love It. Live It.

    http://lawsonhembree.wordpress.com/

  9. awesome again, thanks! Very clear and concise for such a complicated topic. The impression I’m gradually getting is that Rob Bell (at least in his writing) seems to be stuck in the position that so many people reach who are on top: the need to have absolutely every answer to everything. When those gifted to answer get asked questions they can’t answer, they get distracted by them and lose focus on faith and trust in God. All who are gifted with a love for knowledge and understanding are also cursed by this twisting of it in this fallen world, we’ve all been there.

    There’s a reason that Paul wrote (2Cor13:12)”For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” in that very famous chapter about Love, Love being the ultimate characteristic of God Himself.

    I do agree with him that we don’t know whether Ghandi (or anyone else) for that matter, is in hell! God knows their hearts (Psalm 139, Proverbs 20:24) better than they do (He knows us better than we do!) and it should be good enough for us to know He is just. For each of us, however, we can be sure of our salvation! Our knowledge and relationship with Christ (“We love Him because He first loved us (1John4:19″ and the method Christ taught us to pray, calling God “Abba-Daddy-(Matt6:9))” is more than enough to say that salvation involves a personal relationship. (sorry, that’s going to end up on my own blog, it’s so long, but I must join the conversation!)

  10. Chad Minton on said:

    Longer post = better reading for all

    I just hope Rob Bell talks about “fruits”

    Matthew 7:16, I believe its ones “fruits” that proves to ones self that they are saved and going down the narrow path.

  11. Following the discussion from Beijing … thanks for the post and the comments.

  12. You’re doing a good job, and you have a natural and articulate writing style. And you seem unbiased. I’m sure there’s some Divine intervention going on here, and that it’s no mistake you have ended up with this role.

    Keep up the good work, be sure to get the rest you need, and keep your girlfriend as a priority before any of this stuff ;).

    Thomas (UK)

    @thomas_abbott

  13. By ‘stuff’ I mean blogging to the world. Not your faith…

  14. Pingback: Review Of Rob Bell Part II « Him we proclaim…

  15. Great post here.

    I read Rob’s three previous books and I think you really hit the nail on the head: it’s not so much that he comes out and says blatantly un-Biblical things. But rather, he asks questions in such a way and with such a tone as to suggest that there must not be a good answer in the Bible or at least in the popular ways of thinking about the Bible.

  16. Raegan Driskell on said:

    This sounds like a typical first chapter or a beginning for a Rob Bell book. I’ve read most of what Rob Bell has written (I’m behind a book and about to be behind two) and I listen to his podcasts. This book seems to be very much in the same spirit of Velvet Elvis. I think that book made me like Bell more than anything because of how he started it. He started by saying that we was going to get things wrong; he was going to say things I wouldn’t agree with. His point in writting the book wasn’t to get me to agree with his idea or restate something I already agreed with, but rather, he just wanted to add to conversations that have become rather stale honestly. There are several believers out there who have just accepted the cookie cutter answers to some truly tough questions. They never test their faith by asking questions. Even if we end up at the same place we started, shouldn’t we ask the questions so we know how we got there, and know that we got there without someone putting us there? I’m getting off on a rant. All I’m saying is that it sounds like Rob Bell is doing what he usually does, which is ask questions about things we usually just accept in an attempt to get us to think about it. I haven’t read the book yet (I plan to), but I don’t think he’s going to end up on the heretical side of things here.

  17. Paul Rutherford on said:

    Thanks for delving into the first chapter. I love Bell’s questions, and I’m so glad to have a conscientious friend like yourself who can react wisely, thoughtfully, and yet offer a distinctly biblical perspective as well. You bless the world because you are more valuable than birds, my friend. BIRDS! Above all, you definitely matter.

  18. brad on said:

    hey scott – i appreciate the time you took to read thru LOVE WINS and give, what i perceive as, an honest and humble opinion. Thank you. I look forward to reading the whole series.

    comment-ers – i like you am struggling with ‘where are the answers?’ but alas that is another question. This concept of having the answers to the hard, big questions reminds me of this haunting song by Brooke Fraser called FLAGS. You might enjoy it – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNSemrzbtek

  19. Bethany on said:

    Don’t go shorter! I loved your analysis and wouldn’t want to get less of it. :)

  20. An excellent and fair analysis, Scott. It sounds to me as though Bell himself is finally (beyond his earlier career) delving thoroughly into Scripture and finding himself challenged by concepts theologians have faced since the early Church Fathers. He joins the rest of the postmodern church in drifting further away from studied, exercised, Orthodox theology (practiced for 2000 years) rather than accept something that seems “unfair” to our human nature. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. Amen.

  21. Very interesting. Funny thing, I’ve made a lot of those same arguments myself. His rhetorical questions are devastating, but not against Hell. They don’t highlight inconsistencies with divine wrath, but with the idea that faith is an act of the will – against Arminianism and Pelagianism – which would make it subject to circumstance, going to Hell because the missionary’s car broke down, etc, etc.

    It sounds like Bell is just one step away from reasoning to unconditional election. Definitely the right questions, but alas, wrong answers.

  22. Scott,

    Thanks for the post! Looking forward to hearing more about the book and your analysis of it.

    Grace & Peace,

    Justin

  23. Pingback: Rob Bell Should Be A Calvinist - Thrica

  24. If you’re interested, I just wrote a post expanding on that thought and linking back here: Rob Bell should be a Calvinist. http://thri.ca/archives/530

  25. Brad Rhame on said:

    Great post. Love the longer insight to the book. Keep at it! I love asking questions myself, but Rob Bell does it almost to a fault. He is sometimes too philosophical, but that is who he is and what makes a lot of people enjoy reading his books. The bad part about that is when young Christians read his books they may have different perceptions about what he is saying. Anyways, sounds like you are getting a lot of praise for your efforts. Thanks for doing this!!!

    Brad

  26. Ken, your conclusions about Rob Bell remind me of Maslow’s hammer: “that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” To state that his drift comes down to a certain practice of spirituality is simplistic and shallow. There is so much more that causes one to depart from orthodox theology and until you get beyond the contemplative mysticism as your only “nail” when it comes to discernment, your view will not be thought of as much more than a “tabloid” blogger. I write not to belittle you, but to help you have a much more fruitful ministry.

  27. Peterson on said:

    Great review!

  28. Ron Krumpos on said:

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell says he believes that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to an eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to rethink the Christian Gospel. People of of all faiths should look beyond the letters of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

  29. Pingback: A bloody Cross and a bigger Gospel: if the atonement loses so does love « Dalit Discussions

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