Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rob Bell -- Who Wins in "Love Wins?"

Numerous reviews and posts and interviews have been leveled for or against "Love Wins," a new hot-seller by Rob Bell (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, HarperCollins, 2010), pastor of the megachurch, Mars Hill Bible Church, in Grand Rapids, MI. Interestingly, on the book jacket, no one less than Eugene Peterson says the book tells about the "comprehensive and eternal work of Christ . . . without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all." I guess he should have waited for the intense firestorm that has erupted in evangelical circles concerning the book. Reviewers have weighed in, and many, if not most, deem it controversial, heterodox, wanting theologically, linguistically, historically and philosophically. (Go to news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2011/03/ rob_bell_book_reviews_roll_ in.html  for a summary of viewpoints, and note especially Martin Bashir's interview on MSNBC). For a most thorough negative review, see Kevin DeYoung's "God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of 'Love Wins'." John Piper simply says, "Farewell, Rob Bell."

I actually think one of the most damaging reviews comes from Julie Clawson at Sojourners who writes, "Christianity isn’t about being right or wrong, it’s about living joyously and transformatively for Jesus — and this is a message we can all benefit from being reminded of." Wow! Now the Christian faith has no universal truths, no propositional revelation, no absolute standards. It's all about how we feel, how we live, how we make the world a better place. It's about US. Thank you, Julie Clawson!!

Unlike other reviewers who dive deeply into Bell's historical and theological wanderings, I want to give a few "overview" notes to readers. First, Rob Bell seems to be well-intentioned. He really cares about people and their journeys of faith and life. He cares about people who have gotten a terrible, misguided view of God and Christianity from past bad experiences or people. The problem, however, is with the approach. If we approach God and truths about God and His Word with people-stories, we will see God through the lens of those stories and through the fog of peoples' experiences, good or bad. Of course, Bell and others would say Jesus told stories all the time to communicate truths about God. But we are not Jesus, not divinely inspired, not equipped with a comprehensive view of truth to be able to extract absolute truths by using a few tales. 

Second, to use "word studies" to definitively prove theological truth is tricky to say the least, and foolish to say the most. I know anti-Trinitarian writers who use word studies to show that the One God cannot be a Trinity. Thus, the entire orthodox Trinitarian declarations are wrong according to these studies. Word studies can be and have been used by sects, heretics and people of no faith to contravene Christianity. Linguists and semantic experts have warned about over-using word studies, as if the Bible were an atomistic collection of terms and words. Contextual studies must be used, and sad to say, Rob Bell fails to give such contextual and thorough study of the words for "heaven," "hell" and "love" itself. Simply amassing Bible verses where terms are used does not do the trick. And to the word "love," he assumes everyone knows what the phrase "God is love" means. That is pure presumption.

Third, such a book reveals Rob Bell's lack of respect and wisdom for orthodox formulations and tried-and-true exegetical studies. I had a seminary professor who warned us as fledgling pastors and students of the Scriptures to be VERY, VERY careful of publishing anything in the Christian field of studies, especially when our conclusions disagree with or disapprove of years and years of sound historical, theological and philosophical study of the Scriptures. Rob Bell has plunged in over his head--way over his head.

Fourth, and I add this note for my Calvinistic friends, Rob Bell's book will cause you either  wild laughter or the constant no-no shaking of your head. Bell's foray into human freedom and how that interrelates with God's love is ludicrous. He assumes humans have complete, untarnished freedom to choose, reject, or wait to choose God and His love. He assumes unconditional freedom of the will. While many evangelicals have no problem with this, Calvinists have serious reservations. Further, he obviously dismisses unconditional sovereign election, the ravages of total depravity, limited or definite atonement, irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints. He has had problems in past writings with the sacrificial system of the atonement as well. Penal substitution and imputation have no room in Bell's musings. No wonder Piper dismisses Bell's book out of hand.

Fifth, I have problems with Bell's insistent questioning of foundational theological Scriptural formulations about heaven and hell. He dynamically interprets "hell" and maintains that hell is here and now for those who commit certain heinous sins and turn their back on humanity. So, here's my questions. If we forsake our humanness or humanity by rejecting God's love, do we become "less human?" What does it mean to be "less human?" Do we become sub-human? And what does that mean? Are we reduced to an evolutionary state of non-humanness? What may be "obvious" to Bell is not so obvious anymore, is it?

Sixth, Rob Bell claims he is not a universalist. And that is true in the historical sense and use of the term. However, his wanting to say that God's love wins in the end and that somehow all people will be loved by God forever begs the question. Other reviewers have ably and amply exploded Bell's wanting view of God and His attributes.

I feel sorry for Rob Bell. Sorry that he felt compelled to write such a book. Sorry for the sticking of his toes into very deep historical-theological and exegetical waters. Sorry that his place in the evangelical world is in question. And mostly sorry, that if he is wrong, he will stand before a holy, just and loving God and be held accountable for his deceiving thousands of people God has entrusted to his care (cf. James 3:1; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15). Our church and my ministry have used a number of his Nooma video productions, and I have mostly enjoyed his post-modern edgy books and messages. But there are serious problems with Love Wins.