[This review can also be read at my Yahoo! Contributor Page here].
Long before Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, hit the shelves, John Piper left a tweet on his Twitter profile that simply said, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” The Tweet was motivated by the release of a promotional video for Love Wins in which Bell questioned whether Jesus’ sacrifice really saved us from a wrathful God and whether good people went to Hell. Piper met with much criticism for this tweet and Bell himself might have even taken a subtle shot at Piper in a video that later came out on YouTube in which Bell says, “It’s best to only discuss books you’ve actually read.”
Yet, I believe Piper’s tweet did nothing more than demonstrate that he has the ability to apply biblical wisdom to discern when a false message is on its way. Piper was simply reacting to snippets of information that preceded the book’s release. These were not mysterious and cryptic signals that effectively concealed what Love Wins was really going to be like (Bell didn’t run a Dark Knight viral marketing campaign). The promotional video essentially summarized fundamental themes of Love Wins—themes of universalism and a denial of a literal Hell with a burning lake of fire, which Piper rightly identified as bad doctrine. If it is possible to discern that the train is coming in one’s direction, then it’s best to get out of the way—and that’s all Piper was doing. One doesn’t need to experience the sensation of having your body crushed in order to know that it is not desirable.
Disregarding my own advice, I laid myself down on the train tracks, knowing it was going to be painful. I read the book cover to cover, taking a lot of notes as I went and looking up relevant Scripture passages along the way.
To be clear, the book was not 100% wrong. The first chapter of Love Wins (not the preface) is partially worthwhile. Bell began the book by questioning a lot of commonplace practices and beliefs of the modern church. I found myself agreeing with many, though not all, of his critiques. He rightfully revealed the absurdities behind the “age of accountability” doctrine which many people hold to in order to get out of answering the question: “Do babies and children go to Hell?” As Bell says, this belief entails accepting that “up to a certain age children aren’t held accountable for what they believe or who they believe in, so if they die during those years, they go to be with God” (p. 4). Yet, as Bell points out, there’s no way to know what the “age of accountability” really is; the question arises about the eternal fate of an atheist teen who dies just a year after hitting this arbitrary “age of accountability,” etc.
Bell also rightfully critiques the proclivity of Christian evangelists to get people to chant “the sinner’s prayer.” As the theologically conservative preacher, Paul Washer, points out, the sinner’s prayer is not found in Scripture and it is never something that could be rightfully considered to guarantee our salvation—as many contemporary pastors use it today. Thus, I agreed with Bell’s critique of its use in modern evangelism.
With a few commendable critiques, Bell begins his book questioning some of the practices of modern churches. However, this is not a feat worthy of great applause. A child could, in some instances with the right questions, poke holes in what happens in much of the modern American church today. One’s presentation of solutions to these problems is what really merits our applause—if such solutions are based on sound scriptural teachings and doctrine. This is where Bell fails miserably in Love Wins.
Cosmic Humanism in Love Wins
Briefly summarized, Bell’s solution is to embrace an inconsistent, ethically bankrupt belief system that is not established by Scripture, but rather established by a plethora of modern viewpoints that have arisen in contradiction to Christianity. The best way to describe Bell’s beliefs is that they are the result of taking Christianity and baptizing it into a fruity blend of cosmic humanism, postmodernism, and existentialism, none of which should have anything to do with establishing a Christian view of the life to come. This might seem to be a harsh criticism, but as a student of comparative worldviews who has a deep interest in theology and philosophy, I couldn’t come to any different conclusion.
As one example of the influence of Bell’s cosmic humanism in Love Wins, Bell teaches that “The gospel Jesus spreads in the book of Luke has as one of its main themes that Jesus brings a social revolution, in which the previous systems and hierarchies of clean and unclean, sinner and saved, and up and down don’t mean what they used to. God is doing a new work through Jesus, calling all people to human solidarity. Everybody is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favoritism. To reject this new social order was to reject Jesus…” (p. 75-76). Elsewhere, Bell says that when God brings the new heaven and new earth, he’s going to eliminate a host of terrible things such as “war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace, etc.” (p. 36). Even further, Bell says that God will act decisively on behalf of everyone “who ever been stepped on by the machine, exploited, abused, forgotten, or mistreated.” (p. 39). Notice throughout all of this, Bell has not said once that God will get rid of sin. This is ultimately because Bell can’t believe that God can do that, since as he later says, humans will always have the choice to reject God even beyond the grave. But since sin inherently begins and is defined by “not choosing God,” then God can’t get rid of sin, according to Bell’s own premises. Yet, if God can’t get rid of sin, then Bell’s utopian vision of a perfect future without evil is lost since all evil is the product of sin. Now, to get back on track to the point of cosmic humanism…
Nowhere in Scripture, much less in Christ’s words, can Bell’s westernized, modern view of a new coming social order ever be found. I’ll pull a Rob Bell and use a one-word sentence to emphasize what I just said.
Yet, as James W. Sire in his book, The Universe Next Door (2009) says, one of the tenets of the modern strand of cosmic humanism within New Age worldviews is a belief that “the human race is on the verge of a radical change in human nature; even now we see harbingers of transformed humanity and prototypes of the New Age” (p. 181). This is a central theme of Love Wins: heaven is fully now and fully then, for as Bell says, “Jesus invites us, in this life…to experience the life of heaven now.”
Ultimately this sounds more like a cosmic humanist simply making Christ the convenient force that brings about his utopian view of human solidarity. Whether or not Bell realizes this is not the case in my argument, let that be clear. My point is that Bell’s teaching shares much more coherency with cosmic humanism—that is itself a symptom of modern social beliefs and democratic conditions—rather than biblical theology backed up by thousands of years of church history. One educated in the wisdom of the political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, would immediately know that Rob Bell’s belief in Christianity as a means for human solidarity and establishing equality is merely a product of democratic notions within a modern society driven by an undying passion for equality. Thus, Bell’s beliefs are not grounded in divine revelation, and therefore, are not ultimate truths that transcend time periods and cultures.
Postmodernism in Love Wins
Further, Bell exhibits his prior commitment to postmodernism throughout Love Wins. A specific and brief example will have to suffice for now. Toward the end of the book, Bell rejects the notion of a violent God that punishes sin out of righteous anger because “the good news is better than that” (p. 181) because God couldn’t want to “inflict pain or agony on anyone” (p. 177). Disregarding the fact that Matthew 25:41 (ESV) very explicitly says “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (implying that God prepared the eternal fire for the devil and his angels), let’s look at the reasoning here.
The view that God is just, the punisher of sin and the redeemer who brings his elect unto himself is just not a good story, according Rob Bell. So he rejects it. Let me pull another Rob Bell, but this time, I’ll use a fragment as a complete sentence in addition to a one-word sentence:
Not a good story. Rejected.
It’s not a good story that 9/11 happened. I don’t believe it happened. It’s not a good story that the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. I don’t believe it happened. It’s not a good story that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. I believe he does.
The problem of reasoning from “good story” to truth is a fundamental error that affects much of postmodern thinking. Accepting it, as Bell does, will inherently lead to false conclusions because it is a bad methodology. Again, according to Sire, postmodernism gives stories the primary position in the race to discern truth. Specifically, this is because “the truth about the reality itself is forever hidden from us. All we can do is tell stories.” (p. 222). Clearly, such a position makes absolutely no sense to the educated and scholarly student of truth, but we see Bell employing postmodern techniques of reasoning even if he is not himself an openly committed postmodernist. Just as Bell is a cosmic humanist without knowing it, he is also a postmodernist without knowing it.
Existentialism in Love Wins
Lastly, Bell presents a strong commitment to a hedonistic existentialism that might be one of the most destructive aspects of Love Wins. Again, I have to limit myself to one small example, but there are many more to choose from. When Bell tries to define what Heaven is, he returns to using more modern 20th century humanistic assumptions about the concept of happiness. For Bell, Heaven is the place where we get to do what we love to do on this earth forever. Specifically, he says, “So when people ask, ‘What will we do in heaven?’ one possible answer is to simply ask: ‘What do you love to do now that will go on in the world to come?’ What is it that when you do it, you lose track of time because you get lost in it? What do you do that makes you think, ‘I could do this forever’? What is it that makes you think, ‘I was made for this’?” (p. 47).
Therefore, Heaven, for Bell is merely the extension of what we love to do on earth. What makes this so problematic is that, since Bell does not understand the doctrine of original sin and human depravity (as I already demonstrated), he cannot account for the infinite amount of ways in which people love to spend their time that is directly contrary to the holiness of God. The Marquis de Sade (from whom we get the word, “sadist”) loved to sexually abuse women. It was what he lived for. Jack the Ripper derived his pleasure from murdering women. The 9/11 terrorists probably were chanting passages from the Qur’an as they flew planes into the World Trade center and the Pentagon. Michel Foucault, one of the most influential postmodern thinkers, is reported to have knowingly transmitted the AIDS virus to homosexual partners because he couldn’t give up such a lifestyle. The point is that people all around us exist for distinctly evil purposes and it hurts others. Bell will simply say, “They aren’t believing God’s version of the story, so they’re in they’re own sort of Hell.” But isn’t Heaven that which you could do forever? Which is it, Rob Bell?
Amidst its absurd inconsistencies, such a view cheapens, if not obliterates, what Heaven really is. If one wants to know a more definitive and biblical picture of what Heaven will be like, read Revelation 5 and 7, which don’t talk at all about the pursuit of mere existential and temporal pleasures. For me, I will be content to stand before God and worship him for the rest of my days for what He has done in me through Christ. I could care less about reading theology books and competing in a debate round (things I love to do now) at that point.
How Does Rob Bell Use Scripture?
Any review of Love Wins at this juncture would be incomplete if it overlooked the absolutely non-existent exegetical practices employed by Bell in his interpretation of Scripture. Outside of a select few instances where Bell decides to analyze the original Greek or Hebrew behind a specific phrase, Love Wins is rife with scripture verses that are quoted partially, out of context, and without any critical effort to understand what they mean. As bad as the modern church has become at using Scripture for its own purposes and its own agenda, Love Wins is much worse on this issue. Even when Bell does try to analyze the original Greek, his arguments are highly suspect because of his flippant approach to scriptural interpretation. As a specific example, Bell tries to argue his way out of Matthew 25:46, which says “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (ESV).
To show how this passage does not really mean that there is such a thing as “eternal punishment,” (since that can’t fit in with Bell’s preconceived notions of what a good story is), Bell says that the Greek term that Matthew used for the English phrase “eternal punishment” was “aion of kolazo,” which really means “a period of pruning or a time of trimming, or an intense experience of correction” (p. 91). And Rob Bell might very well be correct on this translation of the phrase “aion of kolazo.” If he is, it would totally transform our understanding of Hell as a permanent place of punishment into a view of Hell as a temporary period of correction. The problem?
This is not the actual Greek phrase used in Matthew 25:46.
The actual Greek words that are used are aiōnion and kolasin. Look it up (or click on the links I’ve provided for these definitions). While sharing similar roots with the words in Rob Bell’s phrase, they do not mean what Rob Bell would want them to mean. Strong’s definition of aiōnion says that it means “eternal, unending” and it is the same word used to describe the unending nature of eternal life with God in the same verse. Further, according to Strong’s definition of kolasin, the word means “chastisement, punishment.”
In short, the proper Greek phrase (not Bell’s Greek phrase), literally means “eternal punishment,” just as it says when we read it in our English translations. If Bell can make this kind of mistake, whether ignorantly or intentionally, how can we really accept any of his use of Scripture with any kind of serious consideration? It is a serious and dangerous flaw to mishandle the Word of God, especially for someone who calls himself a preacher.
So Does Love Really Win?
Yes, it does, but not according to Rob Bell’s definitions. In fact, it can’t according to Rob Bell’s definitions. If one does not have a view of God that recognizes his holiness, his justice, and his hatred of sin but that he loved sinners so much that He sent Christ to bear the unbearable punishment of His justice, it is impossible to appreciate the magnitude of God’s love. It minimizes and cheapens it. Bell gets so close on this point when he says God as righteously angry and just would be too “psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.” (p. 174). And for the last time, I’ll pull another Rob Bell:
No one can handle that kind of punishment, yet Christ did for us. How in the world does this not constitute the greatest victory of love in all of history? He did this so that his sheep would be reconciled unto himself and his love would be made manifest to them. When Rob Bell rejects the idea that God poured out his just wrath upon Christ, he destroys the only way in which love can truly win. As this review has demonstrated, he replaces God’s love with a vague concept of human solidarity and equality that relies upon God as the convenient motivator that makes it all happen, but it’s not really love, properly understood.
But Rob Bell’s version of the story is not correct. Love will win, because Jesus saves and God justifies. Love will win because God’s story is correct and Rob Bell’s is not.
Love Wins is not a book that shares its teachings with Christianity, properly defined. It instead takes Christianity and molds it into a new blend of postmodern, cosmic humanist, and existentialist philosophy that uses the name of Christ to advance agendas that are not found anywhere in Scripture. I wish I could take the time to refute the teachings in Love Wins page by page, point by point, line by line, because there’s so much of it that flies in the face of what truly biblical Christianity has stood for in over two millennia. Moreover, I wish that I could take the time to individually analyze the multitude of very poorly used Scripture passages. Yet, it is not possible for me to do so in this medium, so I trust that my review has demonstrated enough support to justify my conclusion on Rob Bell’s Love Wins:
Thanks for the warning, John Piper.