Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 1 of 6)

Several reviews have been written already regarding Bell’s new book, some of which defenders of Bell (and Bell himself, in a recent public interview) have accused of being mean-spirited, venomous, unloving, and even slanderous. I would question those labels of the reviews I have read, or I would at least desire someone to show some specific examples of what may be understood as an attack on Bell himself. After all, almost every book that is ever published receives some forms of negative criticism in book reviews, and we don’t find every author making public accusations of slander. Nevertheless, I hope to be a charitable reader.

With that said, I am writing this review primarily for my own benefit, but I intend to approach commenting on Bell’s writing in a way that perhaps he himself would appreciate. Namely, I desire to raise certain questions about parts of his book along the way. Thus, most of my comments will be addressed to Bell himself, using second-person pronouns. This is a way of being direct and it reflects my own reading strategy; I view every book I read as a conversation with the author. Indeed, I also desire to highlight some points that are incredibly praiseworthy. Throughout the book, however, my overarching question remains this: Who were you critiquing, Bell? I thought you were critiquing conservative, evangelical-types, but sometimes, being one who would accept that generally vague label, it seemed like you were critiquing someone else, someone I would critique also. The questions I’m asking are genuine questions; I really want to know these things, and I’m not in a position to assume that I know the answers. Knowing that as you articulate your own understanding of these matters you are critiquing other understandings, I will continually raise questions about why you deal with certain biblical texts and not others. It seems to me that often you did not deal with the most relevant texts in explaining your understanding of these matters. At times, I’m sure I’ve missed your point, but here I plead for more clarity. So, we will proceed with a chapter-by-chapter reading, raising questions and making observations along the way.

Preface: Millions of Us
Your opening gamut lays out God’s “expansive love…for everybody, everywhere” (vii), which is a great place to start! But, is this love the same for everybody, everywhere? If so, is this love that God has equally for everyone, everywhere the love that you are claiming “wins”?

You go on to introduce us to the “millions of us” who have heard versions of the Jesus story that repulsed us. You summarize a version of this story (or at least a part of this story): “…a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (viii). Have you ever heard “the Jesus story” summarized in just this way? Really? Did you choose the phrase “select few Christians” intentionally? In general, I would agree with this statement as a part of Christian theology, but I don’t think I would ever articulate it in these terms, and, as far as I can recall, I have never heard it put in just these terms. You go on to indicate, “This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” Characterizing Jesus’ message this way is certainly laudable, but isn’t it missing something? If we’re talking about the Jesus of the Gospels (and I assume we are), then doesn’t Jesus’ message include warnings of judgment and a call for a certain kind of response? You go on to say that you’ve written this book “because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them.” I agree totally that the faith of Jesus “doesn’t skirt the big questions” about these and a million other things; but, with these topics in particular, wouldn’t you say that Jesus’ message answers these big questions?

You were right to highlight some communities’ failure to “permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most” (ix). This is truly sad, and I’m glad that I’m not a part of one of those communities.

You then note how Jesus “responds to almost every question he’s asked with…a question” (x). Surely you’re using hyperbole here, though that is definitely a rhetorical strategy Jesus uses with great poignancy. But, isn’t it also important to notice that Jesus’ evasive responses are usually directed to questioners who do not seem to be genuinely seeking the truth?

You close your Preface by indicating that what you will be introducing in this book is not new. Did you fear that some people would believe that what you are writing was new? Indeed, you state, “I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences” (x-xi). How do you decide what falls into the category of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith”? (We will return to this question several times.) We can acknowledge the wideness and the diversity of the stream of traditions, but mustn’t we also recognize that every stream has boundaries?

Chapter 1—What About the Flat Tire?
Your opening story about the painting with the quote from Gandhi and the note attached with a pronouncement on Gandhi’s current whereabouts to introduce the question “will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever” was effective (1-2). Would you have used the story if it were a painting of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or others who don’t have the same reputation as Gandhi? If someone claimed that Hitler, for example, is in hell, would you argue the same way? Then, you ask, “Can God do this or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” Do you expect a negative answer to this rhetorical question? The way you’ve framed the question seems to be pushing for an “Obviously not” response. Why is this not “acceptable to God”? Then, you ask, “How does a person end up being one of the few?” Your suggested responses start off fairly absurd (chance, luck, random selection) and then climax with “God choosing you instead of others” (3). Is that intended to be a summary jab at those who affirm God’s election of believers? If so, why is this objectionable? You follow this up with the questions, “What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that?” Would you say that those who affirm God’s election of believers, as historically taught within the Calvinist tradition, is part of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith”? If so, why do you here choose to caricature it to make it look as awful as it can look?

Next, you tell a story about a student who was killed in a car accident whose peer pronounced that, because he was a professing atheist, there was no hope for the dead student (3). You hone in on the pronouncement of “no hope” here, and then ask, “Is that the Christian message? ‘No hope’? Is that what Jesus offers the world?” But, wouldn’t you grant that the young Christian student who made this statement believed that the Christian message surely offers hope, that Jesus surely offers hope, and that he was commenting on his understanding that the dead student’s profession of atheism had indicated a rejection of the message which offered hope to him? How does God respond when his love, his offer of hope, and indeed his sacrifice is spurned and rejected or ignored? In light of this story, you raise the issue of “the age of accountability” (4). I’m not sure belief in an “age of accountability” is as prevalent in evangelical churches as you’re assuming. Moreover, you’ve over-simplified a delicate issue that serious Christians wrestle with and the Bible does not address clearly. Rather than dismiss it outright, wouldn’t you value people actually wrestling with this aspect of reality? You then apply this line of thinking to the situation of the student who died in the car crash and question whether or not God just needed more time. Doesn’t that treat the boy as though he were “spiritually neutral”? You ask those who believe he needed to make a decision “to change his eternal destiny,” “And what exactly would have had to happen in that three-year window to change his future?” (5) How would you answer this question? Would you say that he was OK as he was, believing that God does not exist? Would you say that nothing needed to change? You then go on to proffer some of the possible answers to that question that some evangelicals might suggest. You then criticize the “sinner’s prayer” that many would say must be prayed in order to be saved. This is something that needs to be criticized in the broader evangelical church, indeed, for the Bible does not teach anything like this. Stemming from this, you begin to critique the view that Christianity is all about “going to heaven when you die,” a critique which N.T. Wright has already wonderfully leveled in Surprised by Hope. Wouldn’t you say that many church leaders in evangelical circles are no longer thinking in these terms? It seems to me that there is an increased emphasis on the reality that the Bible teaches that eternal life begins now, that the Bible emphasizes Christian living now among evangelical writers and pastors and churches.

Next, you raise the possibility that Jesus may be misunderstood or presented falsely. This is the “they like Jesus but not his followers” recognition that people tend to develop their understanding of Jesus based on how Christians (and those who profess Christianity) live, which doesn’t always cast Jesus in an overly positive light. But shouldn’t we be about introducing people to the Jesus described in the Gospels? Shouldn’t we call people to encounter Jesus in the Gospels and, as much as possible, don’t project the failings of Christians to be Christlike onto Jesus himself?

Then, you set your eyes on Christian emphasis on evangelism and the proclaimed necessity that people actually hear and respond to the gospel message in order to be saved, commenting on Rom. 10:13-17. You raise the question whether people’s salvation is then dependent on other Christians’ obedience. It’s a good question and needs to be engaged. But, rather than engage, you shift gears slightly, and note that someone who would argue with you would at this point indicate that you are making the issue too difficult and forgetting that it’s all about a personal relationship with God through Jesus. Do you really think someone would bring this up to disagree with your discussion of Rom. 10? It seems an odd point in the discussion for this to come up, but it is an important point. You state, “The problem, however, is that the phrase ‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible” (10). How about the word “covenant”? How about the phrase/concept “knowing Jesus”? Don’t those get at the same idea as “personal relationship”? In fact, isn’t the phrase “personal relationship” just a way of referring to the reality of covenant without using biblical language? You emphasize that none of the writers of the NT use this phrase, and you (cutely) add in that it was a woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. Why do you stick this in your books (I noticed it also in Velvet Elvis)? No scholar that I am aware of would claim to know that a woman wrote Hebrews. Indeed, most scholars would point out a grammatical issue in Heb. 11:32 which requires that the author be a male.

At the heart of Protestant orthodoxy is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but you seem to imply that we don’t actually believe that. You challenge the emphasis that Christians place on our salvation being completely a gift, implying that the way we tend to characterize the message contradicts this reality. You write, “If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him—a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds—and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs? And aren’t verbs actions?” (11) Isn’t that a tricky question? I can think of lots of verbs that may not refer to specific actions. Hope, for example. And, as you must be fully aware, Protestant theology typically characterizes “believing” as involving a reception of a gift, which uses the imagery of the “empty hand of faith.” But beyond this minor quibbling, even if we grant that these things are “things I do,” doesn’t Phil. 2:13 provide us with a way to see how all of that is a result of grace, all of that is a gift, and all of that is the result of the good news as it impacts my life?

You conclude your chapter with a look at several stories in the Gospels that are intended to illustrate “salvation” in one form or another, and you ask a series of questions about these stories, about what actually “saves” the individual in view. You juxtapose the questions in such a way that it becomes difficult to maintain that there is “one way” of salvation. Concerning the stories of Luke 7, 18, and 23, “So is it what you say that saves you?” (12-13) Is that what you actually see in these stories, that their confession “saved” them? Is it not possible that these stories are told in this way to illustrate that it is God/Jesus in each case who guarantees and/or effects “salvation” (healing/justification/Paradise), but that their “salvation” is connected to each man’s response? Then, you juxtapose Luke 20 and John 3 and ask, “So is it about being born again or being considered worthy? Is it what you say or what you are that saves you?” (13) Are you expecting that these questions should require opposite answers? For I would answer each question “yes.” Those who have been born again are considered worthy (because Jesus has made them worthy), and your confession flows out of your identity. You then juxtapose Matt. 6, 7, and 10 and ask, “So do we have to forgive others, do the will of the Father, or ‘stand firm’ to be accepted by God?” (13-14) Perhaps the texts are teaching that once we’re accepted by God, we forgive others, do the Father’s will, and stand firm till the end. By situating all these questions together this way, ultimately, aren’t you actually putting Jesus in a bad light? How do you avoid implying that Jesus muddled these issues?

In Mark 2, when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic on account of “their faith,” isn’t it probable that Mark is noting the faith of all 4 men, including the paralytic? (15)

Why do you juxtapose 1 Cor. 7:16 and 1 Tim. 2:15, both difficult texts, and both impossible to understand outside their contexts? (16)

Haven’t you left out a lot of important details about Paul’s conversion? (15-16)

No one denies that there are a variety of stories and ways for speaking of salvation in the NT, so why are you juxtaposing all of these stories? What is your point? Finally, at the end of chapter 1, you indicate plainly that your book is “a book of responses to these questions” (19). So, you have set us up to expect certain answers to the questions you raise. Some have defended you for merely raising questions; but, here you indicate that this book is intended to answer the questions you raise in a certain way. How do you handle those who answer the questions differently?


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