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’…”