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.