Love Wins

Alright, I’ve been waiting for Rob Bell’s new book to actually hit the bookstores and read it before writing a review on it.  Consider this a charitable review.  I could probably slam most of it, but others, namely the “Calvinist armada” will do that. :)  I’m going to try to say some things about “Love Wins” that you might not hear any other places.  Not because I’m sympathetic to Rob’s view, but because I’ve read a fair amount of material from Christians, who are also universalists, and this provides a good backdrop for some informative comments, I hope.

The first thing that struck me about Love Wins was the brevity.  This is an author with a large platform writing on a highly controversial subject and it’s less than 200 pages.  200 pages sounds like a lot at first, but when you consider the small size of the pages and, most of all, Bell’s ‘gaped’ writing style, I would guess that this book would add up to about 50 ordinary book pages.  I read this book in a single sitting.

The second thing that caught my attention was Eugene Peterson’s rave review on the inside cover.  Here is the quote:

“In the current religious climate in America, it isn’t easy to develop a thoroughly biblical imagination that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation. Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination. Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in this proclamation of the good news that is mostly true for all.” -Eugene Peterson

A lot of people will be surprised at this.  I wasn’t really surprised because I had already seen a positive review from Peterson on the back cover of a lesser known author’s book “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut” by, Brad Jersak; another book that leans toward Christian universalism.  My guess is that Peterson is not a dogmatic universalist, but maybe, perhaps, a “hopeful” one?  Right now, somewhere, some Christian is burning their Message Bible.

OK, onward… “Love Wins”

If Rob Bell is trying to make a cogent defense of Christian universalism, he fails hard.  He would have needed to deal with the hell texts more intently and also, the possibility of postmortem salvation.  He needed to delve more deeply into the Hebrew and Greek and above all, he needed to put his stake in the ground and declare, “I believe that all people who have ever lived will be reconciled/redeemed” and then work from a thesis toward a case for it.  He doesn’t do that, so the reader is left with a few positive statements about universalism and a couple “we can’t be sure about the future” kind of statements.  It would have even been helpful if Bell said something like, “I am a hopeful universalist… I think there is room for universalism in the Bible, but I can’t be dogmatic…”  But he never really clearly articulates a stance.  If he’s unsure, he could have at least said as much!

Rob Bell is a “free will theist” (like me and probably you too).  What’s that?… Bell basically believes that people have the freedom to self-determine.  This is contrary to Calvinist idea that our ‘freedom’ is pre-determined (by God).  For some Christian universalists this is the hesitation in being dogmatic about the redemption of all, and some opt for a hopeful universalism.  I don’t know if that’s what is going on with Rob or not.

Of course, the question, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” is superseded by the infinitely more pressing question, “Is God a universalist?” or we might ask, “Does the Bible teach universalism?”  Someone will say, “OF COURSE GOD ISN’T!  Jesus is the ONLY way!”  Right here is a good place to pause and explain that there is a distinct difference between “Unitarian universalism” and “Christian universalism.”  The simplest way to explain this is that, in unitarian universalism, “all paths (Muslim, Hindu… etc.) lead to God” and in Christian universalim, “Jesus is the only way to God, and everyone (eventually?) comes through Him.”  This is a distinction that is sometimes missed.  Bell claims that he believes that Jesus is the only way to God.  So, if he’s a universalist, he’s technically a “Christian universalist” unlike your Unitarian neighbors up the street.

I know it’s not possible to cover all the texts that speak about hell and postmortem judgment in a popular level book, but I expected a little more on, say, Revelation 14 or 20.  He basically lists off the texts that speak of hell by name, but never really dives in and tackles them.  It’s not that it’s never been done in compelling ways, he just doesn’t “go there.”  I assume Bell has a high view of scripture (I don’t have a reason to believe that he doesn’t) and he quotes a lot of verses, but he doesn’t really spend a lot of time dwelling on them.  Again, maybe this has something to do with the general brevity of the book itself.  He doesn’t spend a lot of time on any one thing throughout the book, with the exception of God’s love.

In “Love Wins” Bell references the original Hebrew and Greek words that are behind the words that are often translated “age” “eternal” “forever” “punishment” etc.  If he were going to make a good case for Christian universalism, he would have wanted to spend a bit more time here, as well.  Every author that I’ve read who is making the case for hell as something other than unending punishment, has always spent a fair amount of time unpacking the Hebrew and Greek language behind the English text and attempting to ‘unteach’ folks what they consider poor translation.  They do this mostly because the natural response to questioning hell as unending punishment is inevitably, “Well, my Bible says, ‘eternal punishment’…”

Bottom line:  He pushes toward universalism harder than he actually delivers content to sustain it.
But I want to end with a challenge…
At the heart of the book, Rob Bell is asking questions, and he’s giving answers.  He sets you up with a problem in chapter 1 and then proceeds with the solution in the chapters that follow.  You may not agree with his conclusions, but at the very least, the questions ought to be wrestled with, and some of the absurdities that are sometimes latent within Christian theology need to be addressed and not swept under the rug or relegated to the back of our minds.  Love Wins will put Christian soteriology and eschatology (especially hell) on the front burner for 2011 and beyond, and this is a conversation that just needs to happen.  This is a wonderful opportunity for Christians to practice maturity and discipline as we learn and grow together.  We shouldn’t label Rob Bell a heretic unless we are convinced that Christian universalism is a heresy.  Are you convinced that universalism is a heresy because you’ve actually looked into it? or just because someone told you it was?
Let our pronouncements about others be as loud as our prayers to God and study of the Word.

About kurtkjohnson

Husband to Abbey Johnson, proud father, irregular blogger and occasionally creative. View all posts by kurtkjohnson

14 responses to “Love Wins

  • Steven Andrews

    Good post, bro.

    What would you say is the best book you’ve come across that deals with Christian universalism? I agree that some unpacking needs to be done in regards to the difference between what you call “Unitarian universalism” and Christian universalism…

  • Harold Bowen

    Universalism: definition
    a system of religious beliefs maintaining that all men are predestined for salvation.

    No, sorry, the bible does not teach that. I wish it were true. If Rob Bell believes it is so then he should align himself with churches that do believe this. Univeralist unitarian churches teach this doctrine.

    By your standards and I quote:
    “We shouldn’t label Rob Bell a heretic unless we are convinced that Christian universalism is a heresy.”

    I would say that anyone who believes in a universal salvation for everone; by definition, “a system of religious beliefs maintaining that all men are predestined for salvation” is in a position of heresy.

  • Tim

    I think this is a pretty good summation of the book.

  • Steven Andrews

    I suppose we should also define “heresy”. Is heresy a damnable doctrine that will result in the damnation of those who hold it?

    If that is the case, I struggle to understand how the idea that hell might be redemptive, as in, a means to draw men to repentance and faith in Jesus, is a heresy.

    The cross is still necessary in that equation. If it wasn’t, hell could have no redemptive potential.

    I am NOT a Christian universalist, for the record. I just don’t necessarily see it as heretical.

  • Steven Andrews

    I realize one of my statements didn’t really make sense :)

    I meant to say:

    The cross is still necessary in that equation. From that point of view, as I understand it at least, if it weren’t for the work of Christ on the cross hell would have no redemptive potential.

  • DougA

    Steven – where do you see ANY Biblical text that intimates that hell has redemptive potential?

    • Steven Andrews

      Well, truth be told, I actually don’t think there is much Scriptural support for the idea (certainly not any verses that say it outright).

      From what I’ve seen, people who defend the doctrine of universal reconciliation will draw from texts like Colossians 1:20, Philippians 2:9-11, and a number of others that seem to hint at such a reality. They also will point to the fact that aion and aionios don’t always = “endless duration”. A case could also made for post-mortem forgiveness of sin from Jesus statement in Matt. 12:32.

      I personally can’t make that leap, considering the entire witness of Scripture on the subject at hand.

      That said, I just don’t see how the idea of universal reconciliation is “heretical” (if the definition of “heresy” is the one I mentioned above, which I’m not even really sure of).

  • kurtkjohnson

    Steven, the best defense of Christian universalism that I have read is Gregory MacDonald’s “The Evangelical Universalist.”

  • Micah

    someone’s comments from the Bashir interview..

    “If you asked your wife, “Have you been cheating on me?” and she replied, “Well, I define cheating differently. Many people have argued about that definition for a long time. For me, it’s about love in the end and that’s what I’m looking for; that’s what matters most.” Would anyone feel OK with this answer?

    • Harold Bowen

      Christian universalim, “Jesus is the only way to God, and everyone (eventually?) comes through Him.” I am a little confused by this defiition. Are you saying that by definition everyone, everywhere and in every time period will eventually be saved in spite of what they have believed?

      Micah had a great response.

      • kurtkjohnson

        Harold, Christian universalists believe that everyone, everywhere and in every time period will eventually be saved through Christ. Not only do they believe in postmortem (after death) salvation, but they believe that God’s love will win everyone over and that God will be “all in all.” I’m NOT saying that I believe this. I’m just describing what Christian universalists believe.

  • Alan Oberg

    Rob is not interested in constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion. He is far more interested in questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers.

    The reason people many people think he’s got spotty theology is because he doesn’t speak (or think) like an analytic philosopher – that is, he doesn’t lay things out systematically. Instead, he’s a continental thinker. Analytic thinkers break the large picture up into smaller parts, and believe they can better understand the whole picture by doing so. On the other hand, continental thinkers take the little pieces and fit them into the larger story. They focus on the metanarrative, believing the pieces are so intertwined they cannot be separated. Analytical thinkers and continental thinkers can never see eye to eye. Most traditional Christians in America are analytical thinkers, and see everything in terms of analytical philosophy.

    To put it another way, analytics define things and see things in terms of definitions. Continentals give examples. Analytics focus on, “What does it mean?” and Continentals focus on “what does it look like?”

    By the way, Jesus was a continental philosopher. When asked black and white questions, he didn’t answer the question either. He went off into story after story – much like Rob does.

    Above all, Rob responds to critics and enemies with love, in comparison with the “orthodox” pastors and theologians whose words are dripping with anger and malice.

    For those analyticals to want to compare the arguments for each case, here are some good references:
    Hell on Trial by Robert Peterson (Conscious Eternal Punishment)
    The Fire that Consumes by Edward Fudge (Annihilationism)
    The One Purpose of God by Jan Bonda or The Evangelical Universalist by Greg MacDonald (Universal Reconciliation)

    If you don’t have the time to research the nuances of each, but just want an overview to better understand where each side is coming from, pick up a copy of Across The Spectrum by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy. Chapters 11 and 17 are relevant to this discussion.

    • kurtkjohnson

      Hey, Alan thanks for the comments and the book recommendations. I’ve read most of those books, except the Bonda book. MacDonald’s (Robin Perry) book, TEU, was probably the best defense of Christian Universalism that I’ve read. I also read Talbott’s and a couple others. I don’t think “Across the Spectrum” covers Christian universalism, just eternal conscious torment (ECT) and annihilationism. Good book though. I’ve really enjoyed Greg’s books over the years.

  • T. C. Moore

    Great post bro. Thank you for writing it.

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