Bell’s Hell: A Pastoral Analysis of Rob Bell and Love Wins
Reading Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, was an exercise in sadness and frustration. I like Rob Bell. I always have since I was first exposed to him about 6 years ago. I’ve read all of his books and have even used his NOOMA videos at various times. I’ve always thought he had a keen and creative mind, one that explored the ancient depths of Scripture with careful insight. I know longer think this…
I read Love Wins last weekend. I have marked the book up and down, inside and out, with highlighter and pen. There is so much in the book that deserves comment. It would make for a great exercise in theological debate and some and already moved to do this. In the interest of brevity I can sum up my analysis of Bell’s latest book in one word…Doubt.
What Rob Bell has done is cast a long shadow of doubt over the most core doctrines of the Christian faith. This book is much more than a tome on universalism and the existence of hell. Using the device of “asking questions,” (and Bell asks a LOT of them in this book), what Bell has done is deconstruct the Christian faith. Sadly the book leaves the reader with few answers and Bell does nothing to rebuild what he has torn down. In the end he proposes quasi-familiar Christian faith that smacks of the Gospel according to Oprah.
Here is a quick synopsis by chapter…
Chapter 1 – Bell casts doubt regarding how one is actually saved and why Jesus really came.
Chapter 2 – We are presented with doubt about what exactly Jesus was talking about when he spoke of heaven and who actually gets in.
Chapter 3 – This whole chapter is on hell. Bell questions exactly what the Bible means when it says “hell.” Once again doubt. Bell’s focus is on the “hell” we create for ourselves while on earth. At best he de-emphasizes and at worst throws out the concept of an eternal hell. He re-translates the words for “eternal hell” to instead mean “temporary suffering.”
Chapter 4 – In this pivotal chapter, Bell casts doubt on God’s ability to accomplish His purpose on earth if orthodox Christianity is true. Bell simply ignores the justice and holiness of God and what that demands. He proposes that everybody ends up with God in the end and only in this can God be seen as omnipotent and omnicompetent. Here Rob Bell reveals himself to be a universalist. He makes this jump by taking Scripture out of context. He quotes verse after verse; instances where God speaks of scattering the nation of Israel only to draw them back to Himself in the end. Bell takes these verses meant literally for Israel and applies them to the whole of humanity. Very surprising for a man who in the past took great care with parsing God’s Word. Bell claims that no one can run from God forever but eventually all will give in to God’s love. Thus Love Wins. Bell leaves room for this to happen even after death.
Chapter 5 – Here Bell creates doubt in the message of the cross and Jesus death, the importance of a blood sacrifice, and the meaning and effect of Jesus’ resurrection.
Chapter 6 – Doubt in the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to heaven is the focus of this chapter. Bell attempts to redefine universalism in order to have it both ways. There is a key concept presented on page 155 where Bell essentially says that Jesus is the only one that saves but that he saves everybody without most people even knowing it. Bell makes this jump by continuing to take Scripture out of context.
Chapter 7 – In many ways this is a recap chapter. Bell goes over the same ground again and this time he uses the parable of the Prodigal Son to redefine heaven and hell and to push universalism. We are left with doubt that death is the end of our opportunity for eternal life. And we are left with doubt in the justice of God for sin. Bell begins to slip towards a works salvation. The more we work to be closer to God, the more of heaven we will experience here on earth. Conversely, the more we work to run from God the more of hell we will experience. In this way two people living in the same house can be living, one in heaven and one in hell simultaneously. Bell reiterates that everybody is saved, some just don’t know it yet, but eventually they will make a turn toward God. Bell seems to paint a picture of this earth becoming better and better, a heaven, as more and more people eventually turn to God and realize their salvation. But Bell virtually ignores the after-life other than to suggest that people will still have an opportunity and eventually turn to God.
Chapter 8 – This is a short summary chapter where Bell challenges the reader to doubt everything they’ve been told. Doubt the “truth.” Embrace universalism. Love Wins.
Reading Love Wins, as I said, was very frustrating. This is a book about more than just universalism. It is a book about the gospel and Jesus. About God and eternity. The implications are great.
I found myself asking, “How could this happen?” How could a guy like Rob Bell jump the shark? Where did he go wrong? And then I found it…
It was so subtle I could have missed it, but I didn’t. On page 44, in speaking of creation, Bell refers to “the Genesis Poem.” The what? I highlighted and filed this away to come back to later. But before I finished the book, Bell came back to this idea not one but two more times! On page 133 he refers to “the poem that begins the Bible.” And on page 145 he goes one step further to speak of “the creation poem that begins the Bible.” What exactly does that mean? I asked several people what came to mind when they heard the phrase, “Genesis Poem.” Without exception all were left with the distinct impression that this phrase refers to a non-literal view Genesis. In other words, a non-literal very of God’s Word. And it was in this that I found Rob Bell’s great blunder. He simply does not have a high view of God’s Word. He does not think that the Bible means what it says. And this becomes a pattern through the whole book. Bell takes that which is to be literally read and instead reads it as a metaphor. The problem with metaphors is that you can read into them what you want to read into them. There is no standard. Each one can interpret as they see fit. Bell even says at one point in his book that all stories are not equal, some stories are better than others (page 110). And a story that says everyone makes it to heaven in the end is a better story than a story that says only a few make it and everyone else goes to hell. Yes, it might be a better story, but is it TRUE? Rob Bell seems to have little care for the truth of Scripture and opts instead to bend God’s Word to create a story that is more palatable for him personally. This explains why Bell can take Scripture that is clearly intended for literal Israel and apply it metaphorically to all of mankind. But in order to fit a square peg in a round hole, Bell tries to have it both ways where in the whole of chapter 7, he takes a parable (which is a metaphor) and pulls a very literal doctrine on heaven, hell, and universalism out of it. The whole book becomes a stunning display of the misinterpretation, misapplication, and misuse of Scripture.
When you don’t believe that the Bible is God’s inerrant, infallible Word, and that it can be trusted regarding all matters to which it speaks, you step onto a slippery slope that can lead to all sorts of heresy…like the universalism of Love Wins.
To use Rob Bell’s own technique of casting doubt I have a few questions of my own I would like to ask him.
So Genesis is a poem? Because Rob Bell says so? Well how does he know? And exactly what part of Genesis is poetry? Just chapter 1? Chapters 1-3? The whole book? Does this mean Adam was not a literal person? What about the gospel of Luke where Adam appears in the genealogy of Jesus? Was Luke wrong? Who else in the genealogy wasn’t real? Was Jesus real? What about Abraham? Was he real or a character in a poem? What about Noah? What about Jacob? What about the sons named for the tribes of Israel? What other books in the Bible are poetry? Can we trust any of it to be literal? Can we know anything for sure about the Bible? About God? About Jesus? About us? About love?
I think I need to go write a book called Jesus Wins.