"Love Wins" by Rob Bell

Love Wins is, shockingly, a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived. Imagine a "Nooma" video, but longer. Much, much longer. You now have a good picture of the style of this book. Typical Bell. 

In terms of content, the book is divided into 8 chapters. If I were to re-title them so that the title clearly conveyed the content/issue of the chapter, the table of contents would look like this:
Introduction: Millions of people will want to read this book, and enjoy it, because it will fix all the negative images you have of Jesus and Christianity. 
1. How are we saved?
2. What/when/where is heaven?
3. What/when/where is hell?
4. Does God get what God wants? or Does Love win? 
5. What happened on the cross and in the resurrection?
6. Jesus lives and works outside of the church too and you can meet him there even if you don't realize it. 
7. Who do we think God is and how does the rest of this book add up?
8. A personal touch from Rob Bell

The argument of this book is that we have conceived of God and the gospel wrongly, making good news into bad, by focusing on punishment and hell instead of the persuasive love of God that wins out in the end. We have built up tradition to the point where death has become a moment of great import because after death we are out of chances, but this tradition is wrong. God is not like that and neither is death. 

More specifically, Bell argues that hell is heaven experienced by those who would rather be elsewhere, both heaven and hell begin now, we are all forgiven but we do not all live because we can choose death, salvation is much broader than believing in Christ, and Christ is present in  many more places than the church.

Now, let me shift gears. Those last two paragraphs are the best I can do to make sense of Bell's arguments. I think that is what Bell is saying, but I could be wrong. Here are some things I know for sure about Bell in this book:

1. Bell is not a universalist - No, he is just confused. Really confused. Kind of like this book. He contradicts himself multiple times in this regard (claiming that 'eventually' God will win every heart, but also claiming that not everyone will choose God)
2. Bell is not a theologian - No, he is a just trying to ask and answer a few important questions. Such tactics work very well in a 10 minute video.  In a book... the end result is a sloppy mess. At times I wondered if he knew what he was saying. 
3. Bell is not a biblical scholar - No, he is a bible reader at best. His use of scripture in this book was sad and saddening. 
4. Bell is not a historian - No, he is a contemporary Christian with a slightly higher than average grasp of church history. Not much though. 

To be perfectly honest, if you really want to know what Bell is on about, you get about as much information by watching the teaser video and his presentation from last night.  Then, if you want to see how confused Bell turns out to be, watch this interview of Bell on MSNBC.  Done all that? There, you just read the book. 

More seriously, there are several major problems in Love Wins. He begins by noting that he has written this book for people who have heard of Jesus, a version of the story, which caused them to turn away. Interesting... and somewhat appropriate, as long as we remember that plenty of people reacted to Jesus in the flesh in this same way, and Jesus accepted that fact. 

Then he moves on, in chapter 1, to talk about salvation. He points to stories in Luke 4, 7, 18, 19, 20, 23, John 3, Matthew 6, 7, Mark 2, 1 Corinthians 7, Acts 22, and Romans 11, all of which have to do with salvation, and in which salvation seems to come about differently. He uses these as impetus to show that things are not as simple as Christians have thought as we try to say "believe in Jesus and you will be saved." But half way through the list, I wanted to yell at Bell: "DON'T YOU SEE? DON'T YOU SEE THAT THIS LIST YOU ARE COMPILING ACTUALLY ANSWERS YOUR QUESTIONS?" Apparently he doesn't. By the time we are in chapter 2 and Bell is again bringing up Matthew 19 and the story of the rich young ruler, Bell leaves out Jesus final command to this man: "... Then come, follow me." That is what it is about. That is the common thread in all the stories Bell brings up. How do you respond to Jesus? Here comes the servant of the Roman Centurion to ask for healing. You don't think the centurion had heard of Jesus? Had heard dissenting opinions of him? Was ridiculed by some to be hoping in a snake-charmer, another fraud from Galilee? And yet he had faith anyway, and this faith was rewarded. He responded to Jesus in faith. This is what Jesus asks of all who meet him, this is the thread of salvation, and it is writ clear as day, most notably in the stories Bell brings up, and yet Bell misses it. The problem, which Bell never actually gets to, is how we conceive faith in our modern world. 

So, we are now through chapter 1... In chapter 2, what you have is a watered down and poorly presented version of Surprised by Hope (by N.T. Wright). Bell takes a beautiful thing, Wright's book, and makes it confusing (this despite the fact that he recommends Surprised by Hope at the end of his book.) Just read Wright. 

Chapter 3 is a discussion on Hell, and once again Bell doesn't know how to read the bible. If you want to read some good books on hell, start with Bell's own recommendation: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. There are lots of other good books on hell. 

Chapter 4 is where Bell gets really confused/confusing. Does love win? Does God get what God wants? These are the wrong questions and, taken seriously, lead straight to the traditional formulation of the problem of evil (God is all powerful, all loving, and evil exists = problem.... does God get what he wants? and if Bell is so hot on talking about eternity now, how does he handle this? I think Martin Bashir, in that TV interview, picks up on this and several other problems which Bell cannot answer). Furthermore, Bell firmly forgets, with so many it seems, that God is Love and God is Light (and in Him there is no darkness at all). 

I am going to stop there... the rest of the book is more of the same. Interesting questions, shifty answers (if any at all), misuse of scripture, lack of understanding of history, and confusing theology. 

A lot of people have been saying that Bell asks good questions. In parts of this book that is certainly true. Asking us to consider Christ's presence in the world, who we believe God to be, and what we think of eternal issues are all important questions. Conversations about heaven, hell, and the fate of everyone who has ever lived are important to have and the church has not always done well in having them. Bell has certainly succeeded in getting people talking. However, for the most part, Bell is asking leading and misleading questions based on biblical, theological, and philosophical errors. I found this disheartening, as I do think Bell is on to something in exploring these issues. 

Conclusion: 1.5 of 5 stars. Not Recommended. If you want to read some good books on the subject start with the two I recommended already. Your time and attention will be rewarded. If you want to hear some 'good questions' go talk to a precocious 13-14 year old who has grown up in church. 


Jeremy Rios said...

Dude, you're so fast. How'd you get through that so quickly?

Also, I'm glad you read these books so I don't have to.

Andrew said...

Lol, glad to be of service.

As for speed, it is a fairly easy read, with lots of pages that are basically lists of questions (so really half-pages).

muzik_lova said...

Thanks for the review. :D

Andrew said...

Your welcome!

Dana Ouellette said...

This is a very common problem that I've noticed in christianity. Pastors know very little about the bible, and yet sadly they teach people about the bible, and people believe what pastors say. No offense Andrew i'm you're a great pastor (although I no doubt disagree with everything you say). But pastors don't know anything. Most don't read greek or hebrew very well. And far too many get canned sermons from books.

Exegesis and critical thinking are not priorities, in fact in many christian communities they are threat, (and they are probably right, I don't think there is any threat to christianity as strong as critical thinking because I believe if people thought critically about the bible they would not be christians). Yet people are sadly under the impression that pastors know something about the bible. Even if I thought there might be a god, i couldn't go to church because I couldn't stand sitting there for 1/2 hour listening to someone who knows less about the bible than i do tell me what it means (and be totally wrong). I can recall at least 4 (i'm sure there are hundreds more) sermons i've sat through where the pastor was 100% and totally wrong and the greek word didn't mean what he said the english word meant at all, and even an extra 5 minutes in a concordance or lexicon would have prevented the whole sermon.

I haven't read this book, but I wanted to make the point that what you describe about Bell is epidemic in evangelical christianity, where greek, hebrew, and exegesis are not emphasized as important. And if the pastor is ignorant, then the people stay ignorant. It's very sad to see. It is a very very very tiny minority of christians that i've met who actually know anything about the bible.

Andrew said...

I'm not going to argue that it is an all too common problem.

Taking it from another perspective, I just finished reading "Under the Unpredictable Plant" by Eugene Peterson, in which he describes his struggle early on as a pastor between doing what he thought a pastor should (studying and knowing God's word so he can present the truth being one of three things on that list) and what the church was pushing on him (programs and activities and more).

Speaking from my own experience, I can agree that it is a difficult line to walk. Of course, being a pastor myself I am more sympathetic to the plight Bell represents :)

kering said...

Haha wow that WAS fast, thanks for the review :)

Thoughts From Jeff said...

I enjoyed the book. I did not agree with everything but I enjoyed the read and thinking about a different perspective.

Thoughts From Jeff said...

Dana, I would like to point out though that Rob Bell uses hebrew and greek thoroughly in most (if not all) of his teachings.

Netherland said...

Biblical views of God, salvation, heaven and hell are not really challenged through argument but are dismissed through a series of rhetorical questions that caricature conclusions that most Christians have historically maintained on the basis of looking at relevant passages. He constantly contradicts himself throughout the whole book and ends every question with what kind of "god" would do this or what kind of "god" would do that? I guess Rob Bell's "god" and anyone elses "god" who would believe this wolf in sheeps clothing. It sure isnt the GOD of the Bible.