A Luke B Kuhns Review
Love Wins Book Review Part 1
“Through the night you feel how it is to kneel asking God for all the world”- the Elms
Love Wins is the newest book by author/pastor Rob Bell which has caused a sensation of controversy. All over the news/blogs/social networks. For all the “hating” that has been going on my only reply could be, “wait until you read the book, and even in that, don’t shun Bell if he’s off track, in love correct him.”
Well here we are…book in hand. I live in the UK so for us the book is called, “Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions”
I have been excited to read this book since all the talk started. I think discussing issues of Heaven and Hell and eternal life are important to people of all faiths. Now I am a Christian, I believe in the One God who sent Jesus to be a redeeming sacrifice bringing salvation for all humanity and Jesus being God in flesh is the only way to the Father. I study Theology full time at the University of Manchester, and if there is something that I have learnt is not to pounce when you think something different from others, hear people out and formulate an ‘argument’ for you position. Don’t mindlessly scream at people and Bible bash, because that isn’t what is taught in the Bible and that’s not what Jesus did or what happened in the Old Testament.
So. Let us being this review which I will do in two parts. Chapters 1-4 will be part one and Chapters 5-8 will be part 2.
Bell begins the book with saying that he has written this book for all the people who have heard some fashion of the Jesus story that caused them to get upset because of its absurdities. Mainly focusing on the teaching that only a select few will spend forever in Heaven while others will spend forever in Hell. He acknowledges that the ideas in this book are not original to him, but have been around for centuries. But it is time we start asking questions again about a God so loving that sends people to hell.
Chapter 1:What About the Flat Tire
It begins with him talking about an art show held at his church where someone used a phrase from Gandhi and someone attached a note saying, “he’s in hell.” But is this a fact, does anyone actually know this for sure. That is what Bell wants to know.
The entire chapter is question after question regarding who will make it to heaven, and is it acceptable that God would allow a numberless amount of people to burn in hell. Is this hopeful or does Jesus offer hope.
Bell then goes on to say that Salvation is found in one’s response to Jesus, but he asks, “which Jesus?” (p 7)
He makes comparisons to issues in Church history where, in the name of God, people have been killed, shunned, or hurt people in that name. Bell says that some people when they “reject” Jesus are rejecting what they see of Jesus in his followers.
This is true. How one acts as a Christian is crucial to the very mission of God. If we are not living holy lives if we are not being “in the world but not of the world,” if we are causing confusion and hurting people then we are not being the Church that Jesus wanted.
Bell then travels through the Bible talking about various ways people are “saved” and how people respond and receive salvation. By the end we are left with a list of responses and with the question of do we have to do all these to be saved, or is God a unique God in his salvation.
Basically the title of the Chapter, if the missionary is on his/her way to preach and their car breaks down, is God not big enough to reach the tribe or village or is it that because the car broke down this village’s salvation went to hell.
Chapter 2: Here is the New There
Where is Heaven. Is it a geological location somewhere in time and space away/apart/outside of our realm or is it somewhere else, somewhere closer.
Bell talks about the idea that heaven is a place we are long to get to as an escape from this world. This is an idea that has been taught for ages by numerous pastors/Theologians. But is that True. The other idea taught is that Heaven will be an endless church service to which Bell and I agree will be boring. This is the notion that we won’t think about our “non-Christian” friends and family because we’ll be so wrapped up in the awesomeness of God.
Bell says there are other ways to think about heaven than those.
He uses the example of the Rich man in Matthew 19 who asks, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” and Jesus replies, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandment.”
It’s about entering life here and now and not about working for the life to come.
Bell goes on to discuss that the age to come will be where peace and justice are leaders. Where war and famine are no more, where tears are gone, where the the poor are fed and clothed and loved. In the age to come, in the next life, when Jesus returns these principles will reign. But It’s not solely about the next life. These principles that Jesus taught regarding social justice, freedom for the oppressed, healing for the sick all of this can and does happen now. It’s our choice to bring heaven or hell to earth.
He picks up on various prophets who say what this renewed earth will be like, and how the pictures used are mostly about the earth, new wine, a new garden, a new city, and someone has to crush the grapes, till the garden, build the city. He talks about the restoration of heaven and earth a renewing of what life was meant to be in the garden of eden before sin separated us from God. So in this new heaven, there is the very strong possibility that we will do what we are created and commanded to do. Inhabit the earth in a relationship with God.
He talks about how certain things will not be able to be in the new heaven. Judgements will be made. God will one day say enough and all injustice will be ended and people who have rejected Jesus and caused hell on earth will be punished.
So for Bell he says, “How we think of heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.” (p 44)
“Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now.” (p 45)
He stresses the need to not talk about the future but let heaven invade earth now through our actions just as Jesus said, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Bell continues on to say that for heaven to invade it will inevitably confront issues within us. Issues and things that will not fit into the new heaven and that things must change. Attitudes must change. Jesus “calls and teaches disciples in order to teach us how to be and what to be; his intention is for us to be growing…in generosity, forgiveness, honesty, truth telling, and responsibility, so that as these things take over our lives we are taking part more and more in the life in the age to come, now.” (p 51).
He picks up issues of surprise. Using Luke 18 of the two men going to the temple to pray. Where one man who is making a public display, the “righteous man”, is the the one who is judged by God as pious while the other man, the tax collector, was quiet and seen as a public sinner goes home justified.
However, Bell fails to mention issues of Holiness. It would have been wise to pick up this topic here, because Christ calls people to live a holy life and what it means to live a holy life is crucial to understanding salvation/redemption/eternity.
With that, Bell insists that heaven is invading here and now. It doesn’t start when we die, it starts when we believe in Jesus and live for him. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of heaven is here and as Christians we are children of the Kingdom. It is their role to let heaven invade earth.
Chapter 3: Hell
This chapter is where things heat up. No pun intended. Hell, as widely seen is where God is absent. Where people who do not believe in and do not follow Christ go. So if you do not accept Jesus and live a life devoted to him when you die you can only go to hell.
Bell takes us on a tour again through the Bible regarding the passages that talk about “hell.” Discussing that the idea that hell was always vague. It was for the Old Testament understanding: Sheol/void/darkness/underworldly. For the New Testament the actual world Hell is used, which comes from the greek “Gehenna” “ge” which is valley and “henna” which means Hinnom so “Valley of Hinnom” which was an actual place in Jesus time. It was the city dumb.
But really this word was more or less a metaphor for Jesus to get people to understand what life apart from God is like. Bell’s point though is that there are vary few mentions of Hell or Hades in the New Testament. He stresses that the modern idea of hell is still primitive and its brute understanding is used to “control” people for different reasons.
Bell doesn’t challenge Hell’s existence but rather what he think about hell.
Similar to the last chapter where heaven can invade earth, so can hell. Where there is violence, greed, oppression, selfishness, murder, rape, abandonment and the list goes on. These are real life hells that people experience every day.
And it is all about choice. We have the choice to bring heaven or hell to earth.
He acknowledges that Hell is here and there is a hell after “death” using the example of the Rich man and the beggar Lazarus from Luke 16. And Jesus wants us to take both seriously.
He then talks about the prophets and how they predict that God “crushes, refines, tests, corrects, chastens, and rebukes.” (p85-6) But there is always a purpose for it. From there he picks up on passages that discuss God’s love. Where he will not rebuke any more (Zeph 3) where God’s anger will be turned away from them (Hosa 14) so in the age to come there will be renewing and “no more anger…punishment…rebuke…at some point healing and reconciling and return” will come. (p 86)
Around page 88 is where things get interesting if they weren’t before.
Bell beings talking about judgement.
Picking up on the idea that when Israel chose to turn from God, God let them go and they always returned. They always realised their wrong and repented. He picks up on Paul in 1 Tim 1:20 where Paul tells Timothy to hand people over to Satan to be “taught not to blaspheme.” As well in 1 Cor 5 Paul hands someone over to Satan and maybe on the day of the Lord his soul will be saved.
Bell suggest this means that people, who turn, will eventually realise their path and will come back. That this handing over to satan is what will take for them to see their wrong.
He picks up on the word “aion” which has several meanings. For us it is the same as when we say “forever” like when sitting in a boring class and we feel like it is going on forever. However, other meanings for “aion” means “a point so far ahead we cannot see it.” It depends on the translations and the context of what is being said to depict what it refers to.
Judgement/aion for Bell might not mean eternal judgement in that it goes on forever and ever. He believes when Paul “handed” people over to satan that they would come back. So when people are punished after death Bell suggests the idea (not as fact but as an idea) that possibly the eternity of punishment is not going to last forever but is rather an “aion” or “a period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or an “intense experience of correction.” (p 91).
This idea definitely opens a lot of questions, like Bell is most often good at doing. But for Bell one thing is certain, he does believe in Hell, and he does believe in a judgment.
Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants?
This chapter beings with a look at various Church declaration on their websites. And All affirm that those who do not believe in Jesus will suffer punishment in hell forever while at the same time promoting a God who is loving, gracious, sovereign, unchanging and all-knowing.
Bell asks, does God get what God wants? Well, what does God want? 1 Tim 2 says “God wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
So put simply if God wants all to be saved does God not get that because its something he cannot do. Can God not save everyone? Is God only so great, but not enough to save everyone?
Hebrews 6 “God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear.” What is God’s purpose? To restore and bring all into the salvation knowledge of Jesus and live in a loving relationship with his creation.
Psalms 65 “all people will come” to God
Isaiah 52, “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God
Philippians 2, “Every knee should bow…and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
For Bell he sees that initiative of God’s salvific plan to reach all peoples and sees this threaded through scripture. “Surely the arm of the Lord is not to short to save, nor his ear to dull to hear?” Isa 46; 59.
God is “good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” Psalm 145.
Bell Stresses that God has a plan, a goal, and never stops pursuing it. So he asks, “Will all the ends of the earth come, as God has decided, or only some?”
He also says that God does not get what God wants because some chose to not repent and believe. But this has to be understood in the nature or Love. He sees God as all loving and love does not force or push things to get ones own aims achieved. People bring hell to earth all the time when we make the choice to reject our God-given humanity. But he asks, “Could a person reach the point of no longer bearing the image of God?” (p 105) The answer is no.
He picks up on various church fathers like Martian Luther, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Basil and Augustine who all believed God will ultimately restore everything and everyone. As Paul says in 1 Colossians 1 that through Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
Where there is restoration, there is glorification of God, where there is suffering and torment there is no glorification of God.
As Bell picked up on the word “Aion” to mean a period of time, he suggests that perhaps though people die as unbelievers their “eternal” torment and separation is not to last forever, because God is restoring all things back to himself, “Hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.” (p 109)
He believes that people will be punished. That those who reject Christ will be separated from heaven. They will be in hell. But Bell looks at Revelation where the new heavens and new earth are established and the gates of the city “never shut”.
He looks at these gates and sees that if they are never shut, then people are free to come and go. He asks, is God able to bring about proper justice, and banishing evil and the evil doers while at the same time still have hope for reconciliation with said evil doers? “Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom?” (p 115)
All this is, is one big question. One Bell says we do not have the answer to, but it is worth asking to help us expand out understanding of God, and our understanding of God’s love and desire for salvation. For Bell how the new world will look like and be is unknown to some extent. We do not know how God will ultimately design everything and after this new kingdom is established what we will do next.
So he changes the questions. from Does God get What God wants to Do we get what we want? (p 116) And he says Yes, because God is that loving. That is, if we want isolation from God i.e. eternity in Hell we get that. If we want to love God and serve God for eternity we get that, but we can only get that if we reject our own selfish desires, follow Jesus, and live by the commands he taught.
A very interesting concept. This isn’t traditional universalism that all roads lead to God, this is an understanding that the Bible teaches that all will acknowledge Jesus is Lord and that God’s purpose is that of reconciliation and salvation and desires all to be saved. Will there be a chance for people to gain salvation in the new heavens and new earth, that is an unknown question. Is it something impossible for God, no.
My concern is this. If we teach the idea that you might possible get a second chance, will this turn people away from the Church, from God, from Jesus. Because if they get a second chance whose is to stop anyone from living their own life their way and if they end up in hell its okay because they can apologise afterwards and get out. Like hitting the easy button. God’s love is enough, and I believe that when people show real acts of genuine love for people love will win, and heaven will break in and invade where we are. We don’t have the right to say who is and who isn’t in hell, but we can love people, we can share with people the Light of the World. Hell is real, hell is punishment for those who reject. I think in this first half of the book there are some interesting ideas, but its a teaching that must be taught with careful and clear understanding of God, Salvation, and Judgment.
What Bell does lack here is historical references. In fact there are no footnotes or bibliography in this book. This fact limits the reader who would like to go further in a study on what Bell is talking about. There is a “further reading section, but its not enough to satisfy me, or believe it was what was all that was used in creating this book.
Love Wins Book Review Part 2
Love Wins By Rob Bell: Book Review Part 2.
Chapter 5: Dying to Live.
Where the first part of the book tends to speed alone things slow down for chapter 5. Bell discusses Old Testament sacrificial practices which inevitably turn towards Jesus being the final sacrifice.
In Jesus’ sacrifice we no longer have to perform ritual sacrifices because we have been atoned through Jesus’ death.
Though this is true, Bell seems to stress that all sacrifice is over, but even though ritual sacrifice is not needed there is a sacrificing of self that one must do to follow what Jesus did. We have to die to our sins, sacrifice our selfish desires, put others first, in other words Love. Its a shame that Bell did not pick up on this element as it would have been a far better topic to address rather than talk about Eminem’s come back concert. (See page 121)
He Spends the next few pages discussing the Divinity of Jesus and the importance of the Cross and resurrection. That where there is death there is life. He makes connections with nature i.e. the changing of the seasons but I think here also Bell missed another opportunity regarding the Christology of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He makes his point and affirms Christ divinity, but he in same way cheapens it by suggesting the idea of death to life is typical. Where in nature things lay dormant during the winter and awake in the spring, but beings don’t. There is importance in Jesus’ physical resurrection that a nature metaphor will not completely grasp.
There wasn’t much in Chapter 5 really worth noting. He doesn’t raise many questions and doesn’t suggest anything that is not already known or understood. In other words nothing new is brought to the table. That isn’t a bad thing, but for a book so heavily controversial chapter 5 is an anticlimax when it could have been more full of life than the chapters on heaven and hell.
Chapter 6: There are Rocks Everywhere:
Here Bell picks up on the story in Exodus where God tells Moses to strike the rock. In doing so water gushes forth so that people can drink. Later on Paul says that this rock is Jesus. Bell picks up on the idea that Jesus is timeless, like in John 1:1 Jesus is the eternal world. And that God will intervene in our lives when we don’t expect it and not always in typical ways.
This is a theology I do agree with. Theology isn’t putting God in a box theology is opening your mind to the vast expanse of the universe that is beyond our understanding but littered with hints at how to understand.
Where things start to get interesting again is page 154.
He picks up on John 14 “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me”
What Bell says is, “What he (Jesus) doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.” (p 154)
He says that there is an “exclusivity” and “inclusivity” to Jesus. That is the idea that 1) Jesus is the only way and if you don’t accept them in the western way you are going to hell. 2)There is the way that all roads lead to heaven.
This is why Bell calls Jesus’ salvation inclusive and exclusive. Because there will be people in heaven we did not expect. So to speak.
Christians get shaky when the door is open to all religions and claims that when the door is open to all it limits Jesus and the cross. Bell says that is not true. “What Jesus does is declare he, and he alone, is saving everybody.” (p 155).
Basically here is where we come to the question of universalism: all roads leading to the same place. Bell does not out right say that all roads lead to heaven, but rather seems to insinuate that salvation cannot be limited to a strict Westernized frame work of understanding. That Jesus can reach people beyond our means because Salvation is for all.
However, Bell is not clear. I feel page 155 is the dividing point of the book. Where things were thoughtful now they get tricky. Bell is promoting a kind of universalism. But at the same time he balances on Jesus being the only way. Its just a matter of what way Jesus is taking.
This idea can appear frightening to some Christians, but what seems to be Bell’s over all point is that we cannot limit the power of God and Jesus sacrifice.
Like earlier when Bell mentions Martin Luther (See review part 1) Luther’s point is similar, that God’s power is enough, but in the end Luther does not say all will be saved for sure like Bell insinuate with his judgment/aion understanding. (See review part 1).
So for Bell it seems he in some way supports a form of universalism that revolves around Jesus’ interaction in peoples lives through means beyond our own. But there is no declaration that all lifestyles, all religions lead to heave. Hell exists for those unwilling to accept Jesus when and however Jesus is revealed.
In some ways I can agree with Bell. In others I see his thought causing confusion because of his lack of clarity. But everything connects for Bell in the “rock” in Exodus. As that rock was giving living water Paul understood the Rock to be Christ, as Christ gives living water. He see it as Jesus working and saving in a way that we would not expect. And to that, I can see his point.
Chapter 7: The Good News is Better Than That.
Here Bells entire chapter revolves around the parable given by Jesus in Luke 15 of the prodigal son. He points out three sets of eyes in the story. The prodigal son, the Father, and the Brother.
Bell’s view of heaven and hell encompass this story. He sees the prodigal son as the lost, the one who turned away until he lost everything and was forced to come back, feeling unworthy of even being his Fathers son. Being happy to be a worker than be lost and empty.
The Father willing accepts and rejoices in the sons return and throws a party.
And the Brother is jealous. Feeling ripped off and that his father is unfair. As he worked so long for his Father and received nothing but when his brother returns all is poured on him. To which the father tells the brother “You are always with me. And everything I have is yours.”
Bell’s point is that there is no fairness in grace. That the Brother wanted what was fair, but God does not work on merit. People don’t get what they deserve because Jesus has come lived/served/died/resurrected/atoned/redeemed/reconciled all things to him.
He sees the brother as bringing hell to earth in that he is at his brothers party but refuses to join. Bell sees the son, who thought he was unworthy of returning as many people see themselves. Unworthy. Bell stresses that both brothers idea of God was wrong. There is nothing that makes us so unworthy of God’s love nor like the other brother that there is no amount of Good that makes us any better than anyone else.
Our failures and flaws that keep us away from God are just as bad as our greed, ego, and pride that keep us away from God.
He stresses that God is not the sitting waiting and hoping to judge people for their sins. Rather it is a matter of choice to be in a relationship or not. We can choose God, choose Jesus and live for him and enjoy eternal life, a renewed world. Or we can choose hate, greed, immorality, selfishness, vengefulness, lack of love all these things that are separated from God which is inevitably…Hell.
He talks about understanding that if God was a flesh and blood father right in front of you that would at the drop of the hat throw you into hell one second or love you unconditionally the next he’d be put in jail for abuse…this kind of Father could never be trusted.
C.S. Lewis gave a perfect illustration of God in his character Aslan the Lion. Aslan is said to be “not a tame” lion but he is “Good.” That is he holds the power of life and death, and chooses to love and give life to those who trust in him. But at the same time his power is so great that he has the ability to do whatever he pleases, however, the point of love is choice. Love over wrath.
Bell at times seems to back track because one minuet sin will send you to hell, but then the next God can save you from hell even possibly in the next life. The point Bell seems to be making is that there shouldn’t be such a ridged view of heaven and hell salvation and grace.
Next Bell talks about how we some see Jesus as saving us from God and how that understanding of God the judge needs to change. Jesus doesn’t save us from God, but rather is Gods saving us through Jesus from sin that separates us from God. God is a rescuer.
I can agree with Bell’s point on this. Through the Old Testament and New Testament God’s plan is always restoration, it’s always a returning, a salvation, a rescue from oppression.
Bell position is that “Jesus meets and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don’t.” (p 190)
Chapter 8 The End is Here:
The shortest chapter in the book Bell talks about his accepting of faith in Jesus and his understanding that beyond anything else in all the world Jesus loves.
Bell says, “Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can being to imagine.” (p 197) He stresses that the love and gift of salvation is open for all who will accept it. A teaching that can be backed up Biblically. And that he wishes that you will experience the unbelievable love that Jesus has for you and now that “deep in your bones, that love wins.” (p 198)
These points I can agree with. To be honest Chapter 8 in some ways seems like a last minuet rambling. It flows but isn’t anything that couldn’t be summed up in on page (as I just did) and thrown on the back of chapter 7.
Further thoughts and Criticisms
Bell gives an a unique picture of what Hell means in his book Love Wins. Its something that could last forever or something that could last for a period of time until God completely restores “all things”.
There are universalist ideas, but the main issues is Bell’s lacks clarity (as can be seen in some of his t.v. interviews). Christians do get shaky when someone opens the spectrum to encompass all religions, all peoples, no matter what, but Bell doesn’t promote that kind of universalism. Salvation is still the choice to choose Jesus over sin, light over darkness, life over death. Hell is our choice to live outside of God’s mercies, and love and grace. And each and every person has the ability to bring heaven or hell to earth here and now as it invades our daily lives.
Bell’s understanding on the restoration of all things engulfs all people. He leaves the possibility open for people to be saved after this world is renewed. As I said earlier the issues with this teaching is you run the risk of people not caring what happens in this life if they get a second chance later on. As Bell acknowledges Jesus’ stressing for your choices and lifestyle here and now.
I think it is far better to live like there is no tomorrow. Which means being the best, bringing heaven, not hell. Loving God and doing what he calls you to do and call people to that. I don’t think a message of fire and brimstone is always good. God, Jesus, the Bible, its a book of hope and love, but it gives us warning of what happens when we reject our God given nature to not love and be selfish i.e. Hell.
I also think its better to show God as love not as judge. Judgement is made, the sacrifice is paid, Jesus’ blood has saved the world, it’s your choice to accept it or not, its your choice to enter into a personal relationship. Because a life lived in relationship with God is much more satisfying than a life lived apart from God.
I do think Bells’ writing style has run its course. Four books all done the same way makes it a little dull. In some ways After chapter 4 the book slows down incredibly and is less exciting. The Climax of the book is chapter 4. 5 through 8 are just extras.
From an academic point of view the book can seem a little juvenile. As well Bell’s use of historical sources could be vastly improved. Where he runs the risk of taking things out of context because of his one-liners. His exegetical method needs improved greatly. There are no reference points and no complete bibliography just a “Further reading” section that is not satisfying. The book isn’t a heretical piece of literature that needs to be burnt. Bell should not be treated as the devils toy, he’s clearly reacting to an understanding that traditional views can be expanded, but they need to be expanded properly. Not everything goes. On issues that are “shaky” I recommend people not bashing Bell, but forming a clear argument for what you believe and why. There’s not point in judging Bell when we should, if we have questions, simply bring them up in love.
Finally, for what you spend on the book its not worth what you get. If your understanding of heaven, hell, salvation, and grace are not developed please do no start with this book. There are lots of good solid academic piece of work that are much better and much more clear in discussing some of these issues Bell brings up. But also if your understanding of heaven, hell, salvation are developed I suggest leaving this book on the shelf. Lastly don’t fear the word “Academic”. If the modern Church taught from a more academic point of view there would be far less insecurities and a greater understanding of the Love of God.