Robert Bell’s “Love Wins”– How Does Love Win?/Part 1

By: John G. Weldon, PhD, DMin; ©April 5,2011
“Emergent Church” leader and Pastor Rob Bell is the author of Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It is currently number two on the New York Times bestseller list – and it also claims to offer a nice surprise — that somehow in the end, even after death, no matter how long it takes, everyone who has ever lived may be saved and go to Heaven; as a result, probably no one ever need worry about an eternal Hell.
“Love… rejoices with the truth…” (1 Corinthians 13:4,6)
“In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (Jesus, John 18:37)

Life is full of surprises, some good, some bad. Few things are nicer than receiving a wonderful gift from someone who truly loves you. Few things are worse than walking into the bosses’ office and receiving an unexpected termination notice that throws your family life into chaos.

“Emergent Church” leader and Pastor Rob Bell is the author of Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It is currently number two on the New York Times bestseller list – and it also claims to offer a nice surprise — that somehow in the end, even after death, no matter how long it takes, everyone who has ever lived may be saved and go to Heaven; as a result, probably no one ever need worry about an eternal Hell.[1]

This is a teaching otherwise known as Universalism. Pastor Bell wrongly thinks that Christians who believe in universalism[2] should be considered just as orthodox as those who don’t, although his own position might best be described as that of a contradictory Universalist. He denies he is Universalist, and in the book does leave himself an “out,” but that doesn’t help matters much. For the most part, he clearly wants people to believe they don’t have to worry about eternal punishment. And people are getting the message.

For example, in a review of Bell’s book by a good friend who was also a student with him at Wheaton College, she describes the doctrine of eternal punishment as “…toxic and a lie. The Good News, Bell insists, is better than that.”[3] New or untaught Christians who read Love Wins (to say nothing of unbelievers) and then read the Bible from beginning to end might end up truly disappointed by the sacred text and perhaps led away from the Bible (as Bell seems to have been; see below) — or lead to interpret it subjectively in accordance with their own desires rather than God’s truth. By seeking to use “the most beautifully compelling pictures and images and metaphors and stories and explanations possible”[4] to center on God’s love (to the exclusion of God’s biblical holiness), distortion and misunderstanding are unavoidable.

And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? (Jesus, Matthew 16:26, NLT)

The simple truth is that it is logically and exegetically impossible to deny the biblical teaching of eternal punishment (See Note 1), a doctrine the Church has successfully defended for 2,000 years despite many attempts to refute it both within and without the Church. Consider just a sampling of Scriptures on Hell and eternal punishment, most of them by Jesus, God incarnate and as such (by definition) the final authority on everything.

Here is what the Bible plainly teaches:

“Then they [the unsaved or unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)
(Note that any Interlinear shows that the same Greek word translated as “eternal” (αἰώνιον, aiōnion) is used to describe the fate of both the unrighteous and the righteous, indicating that if the unrighteous do not experience eternal punishment, then neither do the righteous experience eternal life.)
“In hell, where he was in torment…” (Luke 16:23)
“… hell, where the fire never goes out.” (Mark 9:43)
“… into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt 13:50).
“…. this place of torment.” (Luke 16:28)
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
“… their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)
“I am tormented in this flame.” (Luke 16:24)
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:4-6)
“… the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever and they have no rest day nor night.” (Revelation14:11)
“… the punishment of eternal fire.” (Jude 1:7)
“… for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.” (Jude 1:13; Cf. 2 Pet. 2:17)
“… shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2)
“… punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9)

Because an eternal Hell is real, Bell’s book might be said to powerfully illustrate the aphorism that, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Bell wishes to soothe peoples’ concerns and have a more “acceptable” God, but at what cost? Given a strong bias against Hell (Hell supposedly impugns God’s character), the book may lull readers into a false security, potentially setting them up for the worst surprise of their life: in doing so it raises questions over biblical authority, informing Christians that what they believe on an absolutely key doctrine is wrong and harmful, even dishonoring to God. As the book’s cover flap asks, “What if what Jesus meant by heaven, Hell, and salvation are very different from how we have come to understand them?” Of course, what if they’re not?

Many evangelicals have endorsed this book[5], illustrating the unfortunate state of much evangelical Christianity today, ungrounded as it is in sound theology and apologetics, unable to discern what is biblical and what is not, or even why the Bible can be trusted word for word, from beginning to end as God’s inerrant revelation and why biblical doctrine that has withstood the test of time for 2,000 years really can be trusted. After all, Jesus clearly trusted the Bible—for him what Scripture said, God said.[6]

Because of Bell’s bias against an eternal Hell, he even goes so far as to mistranslate Matthew 25:46 (“eternal punishment”) as a time of pruning or trimming (pages 91-92, apparently implying Hell might be remedial or purgatorial), trying unsuccessfully to make his case, also misquoting the Greek text. (He also misquotes Martin Luther.) As one sympathetic reviewer observed, “… he stretches and squeezes Scripture, Church history and doctrinal consensus to meet his needs.”[7]

Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary observed that, despite Bell’s indecisiveness as to whether or not he is a Universalist, he “attempts to reduce all of the Bible and the entirety of the Gospel to story, and he believes it is his right and duty to determine which story is better than another – which version of Christianity is going to be compelling and attractive to unbelievers. He has, after all, set that as his aim – to replace the received story with something he sees as better.”[8] As Dr. Mohler further points out, Bell leaves God “unable or unwilling to bring true justice.” After showing how pastor Bell denies the gospel, Dr. Mohler points out, “Yes, we have read this book before. With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism. His message is a liberalism arriving late on the scene. Tragically, his message will confuse many believers as well as countless unbelievers.” Indeed, he calls it “a massive tragedy by any measure.”[9]

Rejecting the teaching of Jesus and the apostles (e.g. John 6:47; Romans 10:14-17) pastor Bell further claims that a person does not need to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in this life in order to be saved. But the Bible declares of Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), and of salvation. “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2; Cf., Hebrews 3:15; 9:27) Nowhere does the Bible teach or imply we can receive salvation after death if we don’t believe in Christ in this life. Perhaps none of all this is necessarily surprising, given the sad interview with Pastor Bell and his wife in a 2004 article in Christianity Today:

“We’re rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life”….In fact, as the Bells describe it, after launching Mars Hill [church] in 1999, they found themselves increasingly uncomfortable with church. “Life in the church had become so small,” Kristen says. “It had worked for me for a long time. Then it stopped working.” The Bells started questioning their assumptions about the Bible itself—”discovering the Bible as a human product,” as Rob puts it, rather than the product of divine fiat. “The Bible is still in the center for us,” Rob says, “but it’s a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery, rather than conquer it.” “I grew up thinking that we’ve figured out the Bible,” Kristen says, “that we knew what it means. Now I have no idea what most of it means.[10]

When the Bells have no idea of what the Bible teaches, that’s a serious problem for a Christian, to abandon biblical authority. If one looks at both Bell’s book and his church’s website, one is not necessarily surprised to collectively find recommendations of Christian mysticism, subjective spirituality (such as selectively citing the Scriptures on God’s love, ignoring those teaching his wrath against sin), or classes in “Holy Yoga,” because once biblical authority is abandoned, the gates swing open to a variety of unbiblical teachings and practices. (For documentation that yoga postures and theory are inseparable, and some of the consequences of Christians practicing yoga, see my article at ApologeticsIndex.org.)[11]

Bell is an excellent writer who, unfortunately, utilizes a good deal of beautifully expressed truth to support some fundamental errors. He promotes false doctrine in such a way that it sounds good and appears logical and biblical on the surface, his words coming across as a heartfelt expression of love, common sense, and spiritual goodness. Who can argue with something so genuine and reasonable? For example, he cites the truth of 1 Timothy 2:4, that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, and argues simplistically that because God gets what he wants, therefore “love wins,” which implies no one goes to Hell.[12]

Read Part 2

Notes

  1. I am capitalizing Heaven and Hell because they are real places, just as cities, states and countries are capitalized.
  2. For a critique of universalism and its implications, see the online copy of Evangelical Affirmations, edited by Kenneth S. Kantzer & Carl F.H. Henry: Chapter 4, John Ankerberg, John Weldon, “A Response to J.I. Packer,” [who does not believe in universalism] at: http://www.ccel.us/EV.ch4a.html
  3. Cathleen Falsani, “The Heretical Rob Bell and Why Love Wins,” The Huffington Post, March 14, 2011; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cathleen-falsani/rob-bell-heretic-schmeret_b_835606.html
  4. Bell’s words in Ibid.
  5. Eugene H. Peterson of “The Message” fame, professor emeritus of spiritual theology at the evangelical Regent College says the book achieves its message “without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction…” (Cover flap) Really? I guess this would be true if the term “evangelical” no longer has much meaning. Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary argues that “Rob Bell is calling us away from a stingy orthodoxy to a generous orthodoxy.” But how is the book orthodox? What is the definition here of orthodoxy? (Richard J. Mouw, “The Orthodoxy of Rob Bell,” March 20, 2011; http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-orthodoxy-of-rob-bell-49500/) According to Christianity Today, pastor Bell “cast[s] fresh light on biblical truths, … reminding all that the love of God is more powerful and sweeping than we can imagine.” (Amazon.com review) I remember subscribing to Christianity Today as a new Christian in the early 1970s; it had good, biblically-based articles. Fuller Seminary was originally founded on a position of inerrancy, which it later abandoned. To look at these organizations today (and many other evangelical institutions), in my opinion, is to illustrate the tragic consequences of the declining use of the Bible as one’s final authority for theological, cultural, and other teaching and analysis.
  6. Reminiscent of Clark Pinnock’s fine book, Biblical Revelation, John Wenham penned Christ and the Bible, an excellent text proving Jesus’ full trust in an inerrant scripture. Both men somehow ended up questioning (Wenham) or abandoning (Pinnock) eternal punishment.
  7. Ryan Hamm, “Review: Love Wins, by Rob Bell,” 2011, http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/reviews/25070-love-wins-by-rob-bell
  8. Albert Mohler, “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology,” The Christian Post, March 18, 2011; http://www.christianpost.com/news/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology-49476/
  9. Ibid.
  10. Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today, November 1, 2004; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/november/12.36.html?start=2
  11. John Weldon, Yogasanas: Physical Postures, Spiritual Method or Both?; http://www.apologeticsindex.org/y06aa.html
  12. For three reasons why Hell is eternal see Hell – Why It’s Eternal and the Remarkable Ease of Entering Heaven

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