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Love Wins, but Truth is Better
on 29 May 2014
I came to this book with very mixed feelings. I'd been told Bell was a universalist, or even a heretic.
I was prepared to be angry at this book and scribble lots of things out and was imagining that I was reading this book simply to be sure of myself how wrong Bell was.
I am sorry to say that I judged this book by the media hype it caused rather than the content. I was pleasantly surprised and found myself agreeing with some of what I read inside. The keyword here is "some". Bell is NOT the big bad wolf I had imagined.
The trouble lies in his communication. In his videos and talks online, he is a great communicator, and the church can learn a lot from him. However, this style doesn't translate very well to the written word. He writes very short paragraphs, sometimes with only one of two words in them. Like this. On. Every. Other. Page. It can get quite frustrating, but makes it an easy read.
Secondly, the style leaves massive room for misinterpreting what he says. You can't quite pin him down on what he actually believes, rather than what he offers as mere suggestions. Concerning the charge of universalism for example, he never quite says it explicitly, but he suggests its something we should want to be true.
Third, when quoting from the Bible, he only offers book and chapter, not verse, meaning that its easy to decontextualize or forget the rest of the passage he is quoting from. (See below for why this is a problem).
Fourth, there are no footnotes to anything he suggests. I'm sure Bell has done some further reading (this is listed at the back), but you don't exactly know where he's getting his ideas from. As an historian, when he takes quotes from Origen, Augustine or Martin Luther, one wants to know where these occur. I suspect they are omitted because certainly Augustine, with his belief in predestination and original sin, wouldn't have agreed with Bell in the slightest! This is especially apparent in Chapter 4 where Bell suggests "an untold number of serious disciples" have held his views (or ones similar), yet fails to mention them! And just because someone else holds the same opinion, doesn't mean that its true! I wish he'd presented better evidence to back up his assertions.
Chapter 1 was perhaps the most frustrating, asking a series of open questions teasing the reader with half-answers, possibilities and suggestions. This was probably the most annoying chapter in the whole book. Yes it sets up where he is going, but in quite a provocative way. I wanted to suggest this book be re-named "Emotion Wins" due to this chapter, and that analysis largely stands overall.
Chapter 2 on heaven I actually agreed with. You can clearly see the influence here of NT Wright ("Surprised by Hope" is listed in the Further reading section). Basically, we should stop seeing heaven as somewhere we escape to, but a reality we can enjoy in the present, and that our future hope is not simply cloud 9 but the renewal and recreation of all things. Earthy, as Bell puts it.
Chapter 3 and 4 on "Hell" and "Does God get what he wants?" caused me issues and this is where the controversy mainly lies. Bell rattles through/skips over all the biblical references to hell fairly easily without engaging with any literature defending the doctrine. Yes, hell is a difficult issue for Christians, but that doesn't mean we should jettison it as it has traditionally been understood. Instead, he opts for some form of internal hell now in the present which somehow continue on after death as a result of our sinful actions. Hell as a state, rather than a place. Again, this is an issue of his loose way with words - I'm not 100% sure What he was proposing, but it didn't sound right! Then he gets to the main suggestion that Love will (eventually) Win. He suggests God always leaves the door open, even after death, for us to turn to him. Hell is of our own making, so the ball is in our court to return to God, who always loves us. Bell then delivers a series of passages looking at reconciliation, return from exile, restoration etc. However, many of these, I suspect if you look at them closely are taken out of context, referring to the Israelites, or the Church. What Bell does is distort the text, so that verses referring to some apply to everyone. If you have a strong view of the Bible, this chapter appears Very pick-n-mix!! Its sad to think that in a book 198 pages long he only mentions the word "holy" once (to my notice) - you'd think this concept when referring to God would be central when discussing our sin and eternal destination!!
Chapter 5 talks about the cross and the resurrection. The resurrection part I was very happy with, again, building on NT Wright. However, with the cross he appears to set up a false dichotomy between various theories of what the cross actually means, then in the space of a page suggests they are all images and metaphors 4 times!! Does good doctrine not matter to Bell? It appears not - "The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood". Right! But "Jesus" or "the cross" doesn't explain very much in and of itself - we need to know what he did and why it matters.
Chapter 6 I was again pleasantly surprised with, as it essentially agreed with my understanding of the unevangelized or those unable to respond to the Gospel for various reasons. In one of the most definitive statements Bell makes in the entire book I found myself saying "Finally! Thankyou!" as he pinned himself down on this point: That once you open up the love and power of God to save those who don't even know Jesus properly "many Christians become very uneasy, saying that Jesus doesn't matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn't matter what you believe, and so forth", to which he replies "Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true." For Bell, quoting John 14:6, Jesus is THE Only way to God. But how that happens, and how inclusive that really is, is defined only by the limits of God's love. He says, and I partially agree with him, that we'll be surprised who's in heaven (and who isn't), and its not our place to define people as "In" and "Out".
Chapter 7 is very much based off of Tim Keller's excellent work "The Prodigal God" (also referenced at the back), based on the parable of the lost son(s) in Luke. The title "The good news is better than that" sums up this Chapter - God's love is bigger and the gospel is greater than we can imagine or have limited it to. Its not simply a free ticket to heaven but a relationship we are called to enjoy in the present. Anything less than that impoverishes the message and ultimately makes our God look small. Its a very hopeful chapter. Read Keller's book!
In summary then, did I enjoy the book? In parts, very much so. Was it frustrating at times? Yes, very much so!! I wish he'd been tighter in his argumentation, so that biblical Truth trumps what often felt like an emotions-led book exploring a difficult topic.
But I'm also very glad it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and has left me feeling more in love with a good God.
Would I recommend it to a non-Christian or a new Christian? No. Discernment is needed. "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light" (2Cor 11:14), so we need to be careful! Rob Bell is not a heretic, but a false teacher? I'm honestly not sure. He certainly has got plenty wrong alongside plenty right, and wise Christians shouldn't be afraid in learning from him.