If you know me at all, you know I’m opinionated. If you read my blog at all, you know I share them quite liberally. Sometimes I just rattle them off like a machine gun, but not so this time. Rob Bell’s controversial new book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” has shaken my core. It requires more than just a rant.
Many early reviews of Rob Bell’s book rip into him with accusations of universalism and heresy, and these came with only the few chapters he pre-released. The topics covered are too important to jump the gun or just write him off, so I ordered the book. I wanted some background on Rob Bell before reading “Love Wins,” so before it arrived I read scores of reviews, read or watched every interview I could find, and watched hours of Nooma videos he has up on YouTube.
In “Love Wins” Rob Bell asks hundreds of questions, many quite heavy. It’s wrecked me; not just his opinions about the answers, but the questions in general. Is there a heaven and hell? If there is, who goes where? What are the criteria for each destination?
I grew up in the church, so most were questions I thought had been answered, so I didn’t need to worry about them. I was wrong; I do need to worry about them. In the answers to these questions hangs the eternal destiny of billions, hangs the life of my wife and children, hangs my life and yours.
I’ve read “Love Wins” twice through, and countless pages re-read for clarity and study. I’ve looked at the verses he uses, followed his word studies, and studied further on my own. If I gain nothing else from “Love Wins,” it’s challenged me to the point of studying the Bible at a level I have not been at in years. Though Rob Bell skirts around giving a direct “yes” or “no” for many of his answers, I have come to some conclusions.
First, Rob Bell has an enormous heart for people. His words are ripe with compassion, for them. You can tell he has been with people who have experienced pain, and he’s concerned about how God’s love has been represented as small, narrow, and exclusive.
I agree. What a dark picture the gospel in America is portrayed as today. The “good news” has been reduced to the ominous “turn or burn.” Even though it holds truth, it barely sounds inviting, let alone good.
Rob Bell’s “gospel” is that Jesus died for all of humanity’s sin, and that in the end (even after our death), because of this free gift, all mankind will be reconciled (accepted, conformed, harmonized, pacified, re-established) back to Him. He teaches that there is a literal hell, but the only hell man will see is the pain and torment we have every day here and now, and that we can choose to live in that torment in the next life.
This is where I believe Rob Bell starts to veer away from truth. For me, it goes all the way back to the beginning: to the garden. There was a woman, a tree, and a serpent, and the serpent said to the woman, “Did God really say you would die? Surely you will not.” That is eerily close to, “A loving god wouldn’t really keep you out heaven. A merciful God wouldn’t punish you for eternity for one little decision (paraphrase).”
People, with Eve’s first bite, the God who is love, who is mercy, judged not only her, but every person ever born after her to a death sentence.
Mix into this Rob Bell’s claims of what a “loving god” would and would not do and that if God did behave in certain ways, he would not be a worthy god, but a cruel and heartless one. This too is hard for me to digest.
By whose definition of “love” are we holding God to? Ours? I hope not. We need only to watch the news and we see the distorted image man has made of love. For teens, it’s something they “fall” into, or see demonstrated on media ripe with promiscuity. Half the marriages in America end in divorce because by their definition they are no longer “in love.” Or is it the love Lyn Benedetto had for her kids when she killed them with a box cutter in March so they wouldn’t have to experience the “Tribulation?”(story here)
We don’t get to define love. We don’t get to define God. He sets the rules, not us. And if you don’t obey the rules, you are penalized. Even kids get it. Ask your kids, they see it every day in the games they play. Step out of bounds and the other team gets the ball. Commit enough fouls and you sit on the bench for the rest of the game. You get caught cheating and you lose. Without the enforcement of the rules, the game is ruined for everyone, and the same it is with life. The God who created all made the rules, and to live outside them brings consequence.
There are many instances in the Bible where obeying God brings life, and disobeying brings death, to even the Jews, his chosen people.
Remember in Genesis 6 and 7, where God so loved mankind He destroyed all but eight by drowning them? Yes, God loved them, but he regretted ever making man, and judged them for “doing what was right in their own eyes.” Or when God brought the plagues on Egypt, including sending an angel to kill the first born of every family whose door was not covered with the blood of the lamb, was He not love then (Exodus 5-11)? When His chosen people, the Jews, complained in the wilderness after a great victory God had given them, and he sent “fiery serpents” into their camp, and they were dying by the thousands, the only way for them to be saved was to look at the brass serpent he commanded Moses to make, was He not merciful (Numbers 21)? Notice in each there was a specific plan of salvation.
And what of Sodom and Gomorrah? Abraham prayed that if even ten were righteous in the cities, would God not judge them? Was Abraham more loving and merciful than God? Certainly not!
All that said, I do wish that Rob Bell is right, that in the end all are saved, but it can’t be so. That gospel can’t be what the disciples died for. They couldn’t have stood before rulers and said, “Jesus is the only way, but you can still have followed Him through your local religion and not really known it was Him you were following.” They would have been laughed out of courts, not stoned and crucified. That is a mush gospel not worthy of the persecution Jesus said would follow it.
If taken to just its logical conclusion, Rob Bell’s gospel teaches that we do not have to share the gospel or make disciples, which is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ commission to his disciples. If we look at Cornelius in Acts 10, we see a gentile man who feared God, fasted, prayed, and gave to the poor yet still needed to hear the Gospel from Peter to be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel must be preached, and that hurts bad because I haven’t preached it. I have neglected the command of Jesus to, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15).” As my friend and brother Christopher Hopper says, “There are souls waiting on the other side of your obedience.”
Romans 10 says this, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?
Do I understand it all? Of course not. But if you read “Love Wins,” study what Rob Bell speaks about and let the Holy Spirit, who is our teacher, show you the truth.
Have you read “Love Wins?” What did you think?
- C.R. Mooney