LOVE WINS, by Rob Bell: A Synopsis of Cottrell’s Review

LOVE WINS, by Rob Bell: A Synopsis of Cottrell’s Review
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, June 1, 2011 at 11:04am

QUESTION: What do you think about Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins?

ANSWER: I have just completed writing an analysis of his book. The full analysis is too long to post here on FaceBook, but it can be accessed at http://www.ccuniversity.edu/seminary/academics/faculty-publications/ . What follows here is a brief synopsis of this more complete analysis and critique, without any page references. See the full version for quotes and references.

Two general conclusions: (1) I found not one single redeeming quality in the book. It has not one shred of value for anyone seeking a Biblical understanding of God, heaven, hell, or anything else. (2) The book sounds very much like classical, early-20th-century Liberalism wearing an Evangelical mask.

THE BIBLE. The Bible is used very selectively and is interpreted very creatively. Attention is drawn to the words, texts, and stories that can be turned toward Bell’s agenda. E.g., he makes much of the literal meaning of gehenna as a garbage dump (67ff.), and all but ignores the massive amount of Biblical teaching about God’s wrath as such. He transforms “eternal punishment” in Matt. 25:46 into a limited but intense “period of pruning.” He transforms the story of the rich man and Lazarus into a lesson on social justice. He uses the parable of the prodigal son as a metaphor of heaven and hell.

GOD. Bell accepts the common heresy that the essence of God is love and love only. This directly affects his interpretation of the work of Jesus, especially the cross. He denies that any one of the many NT view of the cross is necessarily the “correct” or “right” view, but he rejects (and caricatures) the substitutionary, propitiatory view because it pictures the cross as “rescuing” us from God’s wrath. That God is love only is the main reason why Bell rejects the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners. Bell obviously does not understand that God’s moral nature is eternally a combination of love and grace on the one side, along with holiness and wrath on the other side (cf. Rom. 11:22).

HEAVEN. What Bell says about heaven is just as seriously wrong as what he says about hell, if not more so. His view can be summed up thus: heaven is mainly a specific way of life we as individuals create for ourselves in the here-and-now world. The traditional view is that heaven is “somewhere else,” but when Jesus talked with people about “going to heaven,” he was telling them how to live—how to “enter life”—now. The heavenly city described in Revelation 21 and 22 is “a new world that God makes, right here in the midst of this one” (112).

Bell’s “new world” sounds almost exactly like the 100-year-old concept of the social gospel: a “post-millennial” kind of world in which social justice in all forms has been realized, because it will be a world in which love reigns. It will be pacifist, multiracial, multicultural, “multieverything,” with “staggering levels of diversity.” Israel was intended to be the shining example of this earthly heaven, but failed. Jesus tried to put them back on the road to “social revolution” through the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The point of the story was that even after he died, the rich man was still in hell, because he still thought of Lazarus as his servant (as when he requested that Lazarus bring him some water).

Does Bell believe there will be an actual heaven after we die, and after this world possibly comes to an end? He is quite ambiguous about this, but he is clear that the main thing we have to look forward to is a better future, a transformed future for this world. Both the OT and Jesus, Bell says, pointed ahead to “the day when earth and heaven would be one,” the day “when earth and heaven will be the same place.” “If this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally.”

HELL. Everything Bell says about heaven, he also says about hell. The traditional concept of hell—as eternal punishment for the wicked imposed by God’s holy justice—is rejected. Hell is reinterpreted mainly as the state of sin and suffering that individuals bring upon themselves (and others) now, in this present life. The prodigal son’s older brother was creating his own hell while everyone else around him was having a party, i.e., experiencing heaven.

For Bell, it is important to see that we create our own hell, because this allows him to attribute hell to God’s love rather than to some imagined divine wrath. If we create our own hell, that is our own free-will choice, and God’s allowing us to exercise our free will, even in this way, is the result of his love. Because God is completely loving and gracious, “we can have all the hell we want.”

Will hell last forever? It does not have to. One can repent and “enter life” (heaven) at any time. This is the basic meaning of the “judgment day,” the (figurative) flames of which are purging and corrective. Thus the “flames” usually associated with hell are actually the flames of heaven, designed to change us.

UNIVERSALISM. This leads to the question of universal salvation. Whether this salvation is limited to this restored earth or will somehow embrace a future “new heavens and new earth” is not made clear in this book, but one thing does ring clear throughout, namely, that the door is open for all people ultimately to be saved. Bell’s is the gospel of universalism, or as close to it as one can get without specifically saying so. God has provided universal and unilateral forgiveness, and has promised to restore all people to himself.

Indeed, says Bell, this has been God’s purpose from the beginning: “God wants all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:2). This states God’s purpose as well as his desire, and surely God will get what God wants. Love never fails. But what of those who never hear of Christ? It doesn’t matter. “Jesus is bigger than any one religion. . . . He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.’” All people are coming to God through Jesus, even if they don’t know about Jesus. Jesus is present everywhere, like an energy, a spark, an electricity that permeates all things, like “the Force” in Star Wars. He is the sacred power present in every dimension of creation. This is why all people, everywhere, can just “bump into” Jesus, without knowing what or who he is.

POST-MORTEM SALVATION. But what of the many who refuse to go through the hell-to-heaven transformation during this lifetime? It seems that many will pass from this life without the necessary conversion. The rich man, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, is a model for such a one, namely, one whose heart never embraces social justice in this life. Yet it seems that those who depart this life without accepting God’s love will in some way have continuing opportunities to do so in the “next life,” whatever that is. Throughout Christian history man have believed that after death there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. Ultimately the love of God will melt every hard heart. and “God will ultimately restore everything and everybody” (106-107).

Bell never declares that this is his own view; he leaves it in the form of questions: “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love?” Does not 1 Corinthians 13:8 say, “Love never fails”? We may not be able to answer such questions with certainty, but we do have to leave room for the love of God to do what love requires.

Indeed, all the way through the book much of what Bell presents is in the form of questions. This ultimately gives him some “wiggle room” if he wants to deny that he has actually affirmed this or that. The direction which Bell always seems to be leaning, however, is quite clear. The title says it all: LOVE WINS.

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