I’ve been reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. I’m 89% done (percentage courtesy of Kindle).
***I wrote this a week ago; I’m finished with the book now.***
Originally I was not going to blog about it. After all, a thousand blogs have already covered his book. What could I possibly add?
Then I reached 89% of the way through the book.
I definitely have something to add.
First, a couple things need to be stated clearly. Rob Bell most definitely teaches universal salvation in the book. He doesn’t hint at it. He doesn’t suggest it might be true. He doesn’t ask questions only to get us thinking about it. He clearly and forcefully argues for universal salvation, providing one of the most comprehensive list of verses on the subject I’ve ever seen.
I read a blog post by Greg Boyd back when he was one of the only people who had read the book. Boyd suggests that Rob Bell is just speaking generally and asking questions. That’s very sweet of Mr. Boyd, but I don’t believe it’s accurate.
It’s true enough that when Rob Bell gets down to the very heart of the question—when he directly confronts the issue of universal salvation—he does indeed refuse to answer it. He says we can be free to speculate. But look at what he says along the way.
Chapter 4 of Love Wins is entitled “Does God Get What God Wants?” In that chapter Rob Bell points out that God wants all people to be saved, referencing the statement to that effect in 1 Tim. 2. 2 Pet. 3:9 says the same thing.
He makes it clear what the central point of the chapter is:
Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end? (ch. 4; emphasis his; I have no page numbers since I’m reading this on Kindle)
A little later he adds:
This insistence that God will be united and reconciled with all people is a theme the writers and prophets return to again and again. They are very specific … constantly affirming the simple fact that God does not fail.
At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.
Finally, at the end of the chapter, when he dodges the question of universal salvation, he dodges it by saying the following:
How could someone choose another way with a universe of love and joy and peace right in front of them—all of it theirs if they would simply leave behind the old ways and receive the new life of the new city in the new world? The answer to how is “Yes.”
Bell goes on to explain that we see people “choose to live in their own hells all the time.”
Thus, the question is left open, but look at how it is left open! It is left open by the statement that anyone can be saved, even in the afterlife, because God wants everyone to be saved. They will only not be saved if they continue to reject the love of God eternally.
Saying What You Mean
I don’t have a problem with questioning tradition until it’s proven to be apostolic. I do it myself regularly. But I believe one should honestly admit when he’s purposely disagreeing with the status quo.
When people ask if Rob Bell is adopting a position of universal salvation, they are asking if he is rejecting the common teaching that some—and probably most—people will go to hell eternally, being tormented by God.
Bell not only rejects that teaching, he says that teaching creates a God that is horrific and that no one could possibly want to believe in. He spends a lot of chapter 5 explaining why.
Again, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. In fact, I agree that eternal torture never seems just. But why deny it when asked about it?
And I’ve seen Rob Bell being interviewed about his book. He does not get to the point.
Do I Agree With Love Wins?
I’ve already said that I agree that no one can really believe that it’s just to torture a person eternally for sins committed during a short time on earth.
Even worse, most fundamentalists believe that God will torture a person eternally if they commit even one sin during their lifetime. In other words, we’re supposed to believe that God is a just judge when he torments a person in flames—eternally—for cheating on a test in 5th grade.
Sorry. That’s nonsense.
If that’s Scriptural, then I have to admit that I’m prepared to reject the Scriptures. That’s not justice. Only a monster would do such a thing, and I refuse to believe that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who delivered me at the name of Jesus, is a monster.
I don’t believe that going to hell for one sin is even remotely Scriptural, however. That teaching is less than a thousand years old, and the teaching it came from, that we’re all guilty because Adam sinned, didn’t show up until at least three centuries after Christ. We inherited death from Adam, a death we are already living in (Eph. 2:1-3), but we did not inherit a guilt for Adam’s sin for which we will have to face judgment on the last day (or immediately after death).
Scripture teaches that even those who don’t know about Christ can be “excused” by living according to their conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). Scripture also teaches that God will forget all the sins that a person has committed if they turn from their sins to a righteous life. No sacrifice is mentioned as necessary for this (Ezek. 18:21-22). Even further, King David says that God doesn’t want sacrifice to forgive sins; he wants a contrite heart (Ps. 51:16-17).
Thus, it’s clear that Scripture does not teach that people go to hell for committing one sin. In fact, people won’t go to hell even for many sins if they turn from their wickedness and do righteousness. Their wickedness will be forgotten, says the Scripture, and because of the righteousness which they have done they will live (Ezek. 18:21-22).
Rob Bell makes some beautiful, powerful points in Love Wins. I highly recommend reading it … unless you haven’t read the New Testament a few times. If you haven’t, then you should read the writings of the apostles first. Read Rob Bell later.
Rob Bell is a great, great teacher, but it is the apostles to whom Jesus committed the faith.
And Rob Bell leaves some important parts of it out.
Vengeance and Wrath
Jesus, according to the apostles, really will take vengeance on those who reject the Gospel.
The Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and that do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord. (2 Thess. 1:7-8)
Admittedly, Bell takes the time to argue that the word “everlasting” there shouldn’t be everlasting. Okay, fine. Let’s give him that.
Nonetheless, nothing about Love Wins acknowledges the God who punishes with “age-lasting” destruction and takes vengeance.
Nor do I think he’s terribly honest about the history of universalism in the church.
Errors in Love Wins
I’ve read all the writings of the 2nd century church. The claim that those who deny an eternal hell have been “at the center” since the first church is just not true. No one in the 2nd century church suggests such a thing.
Rob Bell references Origen and Clement of Alexandria as sources for such a teaching. There is no doubt that Origen taught universal salvation. Clement of Alexandria was one of his teachers, so it’s not a stretch to think that Clement agreed with him, but I don’t think it’s true, and Bell gives no reference and no quote for his claim.
Origen, by the way, belongs to the third century, and Clement began teaching around A.D. 190, almost at the end of the second century.
Either way, two men do not constitute “at the center,” especially when we remember that one taught the other. They were both from Alexandria, though Origen moved to Caesarea over disagreements with the bishop (probably jealousies by the bishop). Alexandria was a center of learning, the kind of place from which unusual speculation is likely to arise.
Descriptions of the Faith Vs. Teachings
Not only that, both Origen and Clement are teachers, and their writings are teachings.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want to find what is “in the center” of Christian teaching in the early churches, you should read descriptions of the faith, not teachings and arguments.
Justin Martyr, for example, writes a description of what Christians believe to the emperor in an effort to have persecution dispelled. He is not trying to argue a position or think through a teaching. He is trying to honestly describe Christians and Christianity. He writes:
Among us the prince of the wicked spirits is called the serpent, satan, and the devil, as you can learn by looking into our writings. He will be sent into the fire with his host, and the men who follow him, and will be punished for endless duration. (First Apology 28)
Thirty years later, Irenaeus wrote a defense of the Christian faith directed against gnosticism. In it he describes “this preaching and this faith,” which the church “although scattered throughout the whole world … carefully preserves … as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart” (Against Heresies I:10:2). Only a few sentences are given to describe this faith that the church held through the whole world as though she had one on the same heart, but it includes this:
… just judgment towards all, so that he may send … the ungodly, unrighteous, wicked, and profane among men into everlasting fire, but may … confer immortality on the righteous, holy, and those who have kept his commandments. (ibid. I:10:1)
Punishment of “endless duration” is what you find being taught by the early Christians “as though they have but one soul.” These things represent what was “at the center” of the first churches. Speculation by two men from Alexandria don’t change that.
Really Great Things in Love Wins
Rob Bell has some really great teachings in Love Wins.
For example, I think his description of the story of the Prodigal Son is by far the best I’ve ever heard. He explains that there are several stories in this one story. Each son has a story about himself, and the father has a story about both sons.
The father’s story is different than the sons’ stories, and believing the father’s stories about themselves can be life-changing.
The prodigal son himself believes that he is unworthy to be the father’s son. The father explains that nothing of the sort is true. The brother believes that he has slaved for years for nothing. The father explains that he was not a slave and that everything that belonged to the father belonged also to the sons.
Bell also provides a pretty decent description of the atonement in Love Wins. He explains that there are many descriptions of the atonement, and that we should embrace all of them and use the ones that are most relevant in explaining the atonement.
That portion will give you a bigger–and more Scriptural–picture of the atonement than you’ve ever had before. Simply excellent.
It’s not what Bell says to which I object. It’s what he doesn’t say–what he leaves out. That I’ve explained above in the errors section.
It seemed to me that these things were worth mentioning. My conclusion? It is the same as what I said above.
Read Love Wins, but make sure you’ve read the apostles repeatedly first.