Book Review: “Love Wins”
It’s official: Rob Bell and his new book called Love Wins has entered the “Charlie Sheen” zone (and that was 3 weeks ago). I imagine by now you either don’t want to hear/read another thing about the topic or you cannot get enough information on the subject. I apologize for adding to the slew of information floating out there, but I feel this subject is worthy enough to weigh in on. If you want me short and sweet answer (so you can move and stop reading) on what I think about the book, here it is: I do like Rob Bell, I do not think he’s a heretic, and I did not love the book, and I will not be recommending it as a resource to others. If you want more information on the book and my opinion of it, you can keep reading…
The bottom line is I do not believe this book has lived up to the hype surrounding it. I don’t think the circus surrounding its release was reflective of the content in the book. I have read everything Rob Bell has published, and I would say this is his least effective project to date. I do, however, think there are some redeeming qualities in the book that should not be lost in the shouting. So, here are my thoughts after reading Love Wins:
Many people have created an “all or nothing” dichotomy with this book rejecting it outright or slurping it all up. I believe it is extremely important to be able to glean the good or sacred from any source, much less a book by a Christian (despite what Pope Piper says). There are many redeeming qualities about the book that fall squarely within orthodox Christianity, including a few of the following:
- God loves everyone: Rob says in the preface that the basis of the book is built upon the idea that God loves everyone and wants to save everyone. These are very basic principles of the Christian faith that are hard for anyone to argue with. These two ideas are born out of verses like John 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:4.
- Heaven is a real place: Many times people misunderstand the Biblical picture of heaven. Love Wins does a great job of constructing a more accurate picture of heaven. Rob says heaven is not a never-ending church service (page 25) and is a very real place (page 42). These descriptions are Biblically sound and are much more helpful than the “floating on the clouds and playing harps” images often portrayed. These are also thoughts that ultra-conservative author, Randy Alcorn, talks about all of the time.
- Death to Life: There is a chapter called “Dying to Live” (pages 121-137) which talks about the pattern of death to life. This is something that is core to New Testament theology and is something we talk about a lot at Harris Creek. This pattern of death to life comes into play in other places outside of the “Dying to Live” chapter. A clear example is in the middle of his interpretation of the story of Lazarus and the rich man (page 76). Luke 9:23 is one great example in Scripture that talks about the importance of this concept. It is core to following Christ and is an important part of Love Wins.
- Classic Theology: Rob has plainly said in numerous interviews that he is not a Universalist and does believe in hell. Nothing is more annoying as a pastor than when you say plainly what you believe and people say, “No you don’t!” After reading the book, I’ve got to say there is a good amount of the theology Rob seems to subscribe to is lockstep with classic freewill theology. There is a lot of the book that is similar to C.S. Lewis’ theology on heaven and hell. These parts of the book are extremely orthodox and widely accepted by evangelicals (including myself). This strand of theology can be basically summed up in one sentence like, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” This simply means someone gets hell (or eternal separation from God) because it is what he or she wants. Rob hints at this theology when he says, “Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspective.” (page 50). The problem is Rob takes this classic theology two or three steps further and ends up being incoherent, in my opinion. Which leads me to…The Bad.
While there is good that can be gleaned from Love Wins, I ultimately will not recommend it as a resource to others when it comes to this subject matter. The reason why, primarily, is because it is full of incoherent thoughts not well thought through. There are much better resources and people to lead this discussion outside of Rob. Here are a few reasons I think Love Wins is not a worthwhile read:
- Incoherency: I am someone that can appreciate tensions and paradoxes presented by the Bible. For instance, I believe God has foreknowledge yet allows us to maintain freewill, which makes my philosopher friends mad. Many would contend this is simply not possible. That being said, I believe Love Wins never settles some paradoxes that Scripture does. Rob has said in a number of interviews that he is not a Universalist. I will take him at his word, but this sentence is probably the most discussed sentence in the book: “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts.” (page 108) To be fair, Rob does not explicitly say he subscribes to this view; he says “an untold number of serious disciples” have held to this view. He does, however, go on to ask questions in and draw conclusions that show he certainly leans this direction.
- Life Matters: Speaking of inconsistencies and incoherent thoughts, one of the biggest questions one is left with after reading Love Wins is, “Does this life matter in your theological system?” (Side note: The same question could be asked to a 5 point Calvinist.) Rob was directly asked this question a number of times in a widely-viewed interview (see it here) and could not give a clear answer as to why it matters if, indeed, God will eventually “melt the hearts of everyone.” He says it matters, but it’s hard to see how or why it would in his system after reading his book. I actually side with Martin Bashir here and have to understand why this life matters if he breaks with classic theology and everybody eventually repents. I believe in free will, but I also believe some are on such a track that they will choose eternity apart from God. That’s why this life matters: What you choose in this life will carry over into the next. Rob’s inconsistencies leave us with more questions that aren’t really helpful at all.
- Sloppy Exegesis: I’m not going to dwell here long, because this review is getting long and many others have belabored this point. Let me just say Rob is extremely flippant with Scripture and how he uses certain texts. Just a few examples are his conclusions about Jesus being the rock from 1 Corinthians 10 (page 139-following), his interpretation of the gate in Revelation never shutting (page 114-115), and his lack of a full treatment of texts that might go against his points (one being the “Parable of 10 Virgins” in Matthew 25 versus the gate never shutting).
- Pet Peeve: Can we please…PLEASE…get people in the Emerging Church to stop using the argument, “This word doesn’t appear in the Bible.” This is something Brian McLaren does often and it is a tool used to upset people’s equilibrium. We’re supposed to go, “What?! The Bible doesn’t use the word ‘Second Coming?!’” Rob does this when he says words like “‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible.” (page 10) He also does this with the word eternity saying that eternity does not necessarily mean forever (page 31 and 91). These are half-truths when you stare at particular words or phrases alone, but completely false when you put it in the context of the whole canon. If we’re going to use the argument that this or that word does not appear in the Bible, we need to start with the word recycling. And that’s just the beginning of the list. Can we please stop propping this up as a valid argument to defend our positions?
- Deconstruction: My last problem with Love Wins is a problem with its “tone.” I feel there is far too much deconstruction. The point of chapter 1 seems to be solely intent on deconstructing evangelical faith by asking as many questions as possible. This is fine for those who are capable of putting the pieces back together. This is not ok for those who are skeptical and looking for easy excuses to dismiss the other side of the discussion. I will also argue there are good answers to many of questions, and God is not a God of confusion.
So far I’ve covered the good and the bad about Love Wins. Now I want to cover the ugly side of the book. Rob has mastered a skill that I like to call the “Dennis Rodman.” Dennis was famous in the NBA for provoking his opponents all game long and then acting shocked when they lash out at him like in this clip. As much as has been made about John Piper’s infamous tweet kicking Rob out of Christendom (or whatever “Farewell, Rob Bell” means), Rob knows exactly what he is doing. The way this book was marketed was meant to stir controversy. There are also a few things in the book that are meant to rile people up, such as:
- Lame Parties: One of the low blows in Love Wins comes when Rob turns into a character from “Mean Girls” in talking about those who see Scripture a different way. He says, “That’s why the Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.” (page 179) Really? What is the point of this statement? I know some people are going to defend it in the context of the Prodigal Son story, but come on! If you find yourself agreeing with this statement or believing it is partly true, I have to say you’re as close-minded as your opponents. Anytime you make generalizations like this you have a personal vendetta that is severely jading your reality.
- Woman that Wrote Hebrews: Another pointless jab Rob takes in the book is when he refers to the “woman who wrote Hebrews.” (page 10) If this is not a big deal to you, that is fine. All I want to say is this is clearly a political statement and not a theological (or hermeneutical) one. The bottom line is no one knows who wrote the book of Hebrews. Earliest suggestions included people such as Paul, Luke, Barnabas, or Clement of Rome. Adolph von Hornack made a suggestion that Priscilla (a woman) may have been the author behind the book. Some other scholars picked up that idea, but nobody knows. There is plenty of evidence that would point to the author being a male, but AGAIN: NOBODY KNOWS. Even Rob mentions the author of Hebrews later and does not include “the woman who wrote” in his sentence. (page 98) To make such a definitive statement about a topic that is impossible to prove one way or another is simply trying to get under somebody’s skin.
- Just Asking Questions: In the preface of the book, Rob says he wrote the book to ask the important questions. I believe he has done this and these questions are important. But then he goes on to say on the same page, “Some communities don’t permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most.” (page ix) Is this a true statement? Absolutely. But I don’t think these people happen to be his major opponents since the release of his book. In fact, I would say most people who fall into this category don’t even know who Rob Bell is. What am I trying to say? Just because someone disagrees with the book doesn’t mean they don’t ask the tough questions. Some may ask these questions and land somewhere completely different than Love Wins. My question is, how much tolerance is given to people on both sides of the discussion?
- Bad Story: Finally, to say you won’t talk about hell in a straightforward manner because “That’s not a very good story” (page 110) is a pretty lame excuse for someone as smart and talented as Rob Bell. If Rob is in fact wrong, then God must not be a very good story teller.
I want to close with a statement about the general tone of this discussion and a few common misconceptions. First, I do believe this conversation is important. I believe it is as important as helping those in need or practicing a spiritual discipline. We are called to love God with our entire lives, including our minds. In the same breath, these are discussions that have gone on for a long time and we should not be so naïve as to think that we are adding many new thoughts to the topic. While I do think this subject is important, what this discussion ultimately does to your heart is even more significant. Because this topic has polarized many people, I would challenge you to make sure you do not demonize either side in the process. There is good in everyone. There is bad in everyone. Everyone, from time to time, acts like a 13 year old and lets the flesh get the best of us. What would be tragic is getting to heaven and finding out you had all of the right theological answers to these questions, yet realizing your heart turned cold towards God and others during the process.
Here are a few other blogs I found to be intriguing on this subject, most of which take a 30,000 foot view of the situation:
 This is not an example used in Love Wins. Brian McLaren says this in his book called Everything Must Change, which is a fairly bold title considering we have 2000 years of Church history to learn from.
 Why did I use this example? Rob preached a sermon series a few years ago where he focused in on our role of being stewards of the whole world. Many of his examples were leading people to practice recycling.