“Love Wins” – Book Review 2

(Apologies for the length of this post.  I do love the sound of my own keyboard…)

What is Hell?

Rob Bell, as many of you will know, is a famous American pastor and writer.  In 2011 he published “Love Wins”, and the resultant furore led to his leaving his successful church, Mars Hill.

The thesis of “Love Wins” is that God is really not going to sentence everyone who hasn’t knowingly accepted Jesus as their saviour to eternal punishment; that everyone or virtually everyone will be joyfully reconciled to God in the end (because this is His desire, and Love Wins); and that this does not involve at any stage saying “so the Bible is wrong.”  His views have been vociferously opposed, and for a thorough and civilised hostile review my son has directed me to “A Review of Love Wins” by Kevin De Young, easily available on the internet.

I had not read any Bell before.  This is a highly individual book, and I think responses to both its content and its style are also likely to be highly individual.  It reads less like a book than like the script for a passionate speech, complete with pauses for table-thumping.  There are gaps between each paragraph, as is the norm in blogs and letters but not in books, and there are numerous paragraphs set out like this:

“There’s heaven now, somewhere else.

There’s heaven here, somewhen else.

And then there’s Jesus’ invitation to heaven




in this moment

in this place.”


One thing that surprised me was that, for a book all about love, it feels as if it is fuelled by anger.  In the early chapters especially, Bell’s frustration at church websites that state “The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment” pours from the page.  (For someone so obviously steeped in the work of C S Lewis, he seems to have missed the passage in “The Problem of Pain” where Lewis says “everyone talks as if St Augustine wanted unbaptised infants to go to hell”.  Lewis’ point is that people may believe in an eternity of torment for other people because they think the Bible teaches this, and not necessarily just because they like the idea.)

Similarly, Bell comment that Christians seem to care either about promoting heaven right now, or about getting people to it after death – I know lots of people who are passionate about both, and I’m sure so do you.

Heaven, to Bell, is where and when God rules, and where everything is Godly.  So to work for heaven means promoting everything Godly and good, whether it be clean water in developing countries, or faith in the resurrected Christ.  Heaven is where nothing ungodly can survive.  So some of us will have to change a lot.  It’s difficult to disagree with any of this.

Then one comes on to universal salvation, as supposedly taught in the Bible.  Bell says that nothing in his book is new, which is probably true, but a lot of it is highly unorthodox, and is meant to be.  When someone is challenging traditional doctrine so thoroughly, I would personally prefer a little more humility than is shown, and also a lot more references.  This is a short book, with a shortish list of other books and websites at the back.  Bible quotes are of course referenced, but nothing else is.

So, on the belief that God will ultimately be reconciled with all people, he says that St Augustine himself  “acknowledged” that “many people” believed this.  The word “acknowledged” is perhaps a clue, but I think he could have told us where to go to discover whether St Augustine did say this, and whether what he said was “many people, of whom I am one, believe this”, or “many people, led astray alas by heresy, believe this.” 

More serious is his use of the Bible.  “The insistence that God will be united and reconciled with all people is a theme the writers and prophets return to again and again.” (page 100).  This is justified by some quotes from the prophets taken flagrantly out of context.  It is true, as he says, that Zephaniah 3: 9 says “I will change the speech of all peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord”, but the previous verse says “my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my jealous wrath, all the earth will be consumed.”  Bell does not differentiate at all between all nations bowing before God, and all nations being reconciled in His love.  When you last read the OT prophets, did you get the impression that Israel’s enemies were going to be loved and forgiven?  You did if you read Jonah, but the others?

This use of selective quotes does seem to me to be bordering on dishonest.

In the New Testament, Bell points out that Jesus’ parables are metaphors, clever and meant to disturb and challenge.  I do not think he is successful in trying to show that what they all mean is “you need to change, or else, like the Prodigal Son’s older brother, you will feel grumpy and resentful at the party”.  All Jesus’ talk of fires, worms, chasms, torture and punishment?  All Paul’s talk of destruction?  All Revelation’s pictures of wine presses filled with blood, and pits of fire?

He talks learnedly about the Greek phrases usually translated as “eternal punishment”.  I do not know Greek, but I do know that the idea that this can be translated as “for ages” rather than “eternally” has been around since at least 1848, when the heroine of Anne Bronte’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” argues the point.  And yet those pesky translators still translate it as “eternal”!  Is this a conspiracy, or are they genuinely convinced this is the better interpretation?

In short, does the Bible really read the way Bell says it does, and if not, why not?

His (table-thumping) discussion in chapter 5 of the different explanations of the significance of the crucifixion points out that they are all metaphors.  This may well be true, and is again reminiscent of Lewis, but I did not grasp what the fundamental truth is that Bell is saying they are metaphors for.  Could God could have loved us for eternity without the cross?

I seem to be being very negative, but Bell’s passion for saving people from despair and resentment is very attractive, and the book contains nuggets of wisdom and lovely anecdote.  Everyone will have their favourites, but I related very strongly to his comments on Paul’s connection in 1st Corinthians of the rock from which Israel drank in the wilderness with Christ, with the implication that Jesus really is at work all around; and his powerful (although slightly over-long?) meditation on the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.  He is very good on the “stories” (a very meaningful word for Bell) the two brothers tell themselves, and on the power of the father’s words to the older son – you know, the nasty one – “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

There is not much detail on the exciting life-out-of-death that we are called to, but perhaps that’s the next book!

I was sorry not to like this book better.  It is brave and challenging, and tells us to love and enjoy God and each other.  And…

As Bell would say, there is a story that says “God creates people who, alas, choose to do bad things during their finite lifetime.  If they do not believe the right things or trust the right Saviour during this time, having been placed in a world where believing in and obeying God are often extremely difficult, He condemns them to unspeakable torment, for infinity, without parole; and He expects everyone who loved them in life to be happy with this.”

Bell thinks this view is intolerable, and that such a God is not just or loving.

I find it impossible to disagree with him.

So what do we believe?  In the Church of England we talk about salvation, but rarely about hell.   But salvation only has meaning if one is saved from something.

Do we believe there are second chances in hell… or that hell is annihilation… or that only a few really bad people go to hell… or that it doesn’t last for ever after all (Bring Back Purgatory!)… or that hell is just heaven with an uncomfortable feeling that we don’t fit… or that my view of what is “intolerable” needs adjusting?

What is our belief about the hell we never talk about any more?

“Love Wins” makes us ask the question.

From the PPI Blogger

Feel free to defend or criticise Rob Bell below…

  • Malachi Malagowther

    1st March 2016 at 7:01 pm Reply

    I was an unruly child and never learnt my catechism. However I do vaguely remember being taught that God made humankind for His own pleasure. I was also taught in double predestination. I could never believe that God would derive great pleasure from creating the vast majority of humans so that he could enjoy seeing them tormented in Hell. If He/She/They were that kind of a god then it would seem completely out of character to want any saints hanging around in heaven. Unless of course that all the saints were so self-righteous, bigoted and generally insufferable that the only people who could put up with them were the martyrs – in which case heaven and hell wouldn’t be so very different.

    I preferred to concentrate on the teaching that said that God is Spirit, Light and Love and there is no life without Him/Her. In as much as we stray from God our life is diminished and if we stray from God completely then we will cease to exist. I look on life as a winnowing process and we can just hope that we have some grain left at the end and that we didn’t turn out to be an empty husk. I like to think of God taking pleasure in planting us at the end of our mortal lives in order to give us a new spiritual body even if in my case the grain is smaller than a mustard seed.

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