I know I am late to this party. It has taken me a while to get around to reading Love Wins by Rob Bell. There are many other looks at Love Wins available online, both critical and positive. What do I hope to offer here? I will analyze Rob Bell’s arguments in three primary ways: in light of historical theology, in light of methodology, and in light of analytic theology. I believe this will offer a thorough look at several of Bell’s claims. I hope to offer as even-handed an analysis as possible.
Rob Bell’s argument will be examined for historical accuracy and philosophical rigor. Furthermore, I will examine how Rob Bell makes his argument, because method is often one of the primary ways that people err in their theology. I begin with an analysis of the Preface and Chapter 1. I am hoping to release one post a week as I analyze this text. I will post each section with an outline of the arguments followed by my analysis.
Before I begin, one more note on this analysis: I have not read the book yet. My reason for this is I want to have it fresh in my mind as I do the analysis instead of coming to the text with a preconceived notion of what I remember it saying. Thus, these analyses will be based on a reading of the book chapter by chapter. I will end with an overall review once I wrap up the book. See the end of the post for links to other chapters.
Preface- “Millions of Us”
Rob Bell begins his book with a fairly simple statement “I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us” (vii). Bell asserts that “Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories… it’s time to reclaim it” (vii-viii). He points out that some teachings about Jesus have caused people to stumble, and that others do not discuss the issue of hell for various reasons.
Bell is to be commended for taking on an issue that many are afraid to discuss. It is true that some people and even churches will not delve into the topic of hell. It is important to talk about this doctrine, as it has been part of Christian teaching from the beginning.
Unfortunately, it seems that Bell has already made a methodological mistake. He implored readers to “please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching… That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years…” (x-xi).
There are actually two errors here. First, simple diversity on a topic doesn’t somehow automatically validate all positions. Just because there was diversity about the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t mean that the Arian position is somehow a valid theological perspective. Thus, it seems that Bell’s point here is moot. Diversity does not mean validity.
Second, historic, orthodox faith is not a diverse array of beliefs. The historic Christian faith has been define in universally acknowledged creeds which state what the universal church teaches on various essentials for the Christian faith. In fairness to Bell, he may be using “orthodox” to mean a denominational perspective, wherein the wider spectrum of beliefs is what may be considered “orthodox.”
Chapter 1: “What About the Flat Tire?”
Bell starts with a story about a quote from Gandhi, which prompted someone to write “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell reacts to this with a series of questions: “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?” (1-2). Elsewhere, he focuses in on the individual again, asking whether it is true that the Christian message for someone who claimed to be an atheist during life has “no hope” (3).
He goes on to ask: “Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2).
After focusing on the case of an individual’s salvation and whether there is an age of accountability, Bell focuses on the nature of salvation. “[W]hat exactly would have to happen… to change [an individual's] future? Would he have had to perform a specific rite or ritual? Or take a class? Or be baptized? Or join a church? Or have something happen somewhere in his heart?” (5). Bell notes that some hold that one has to say a sinner’s prayer or pray in a specific way in order to get saved.
Bell continues to contemplate what it is to be saved, and points out that some believe that it is about a “personal relationship” but that that phrase is never used in the Bible. He asks why, if it is so central to salvation, would such a phrase not be in the Bible? (10-11). Bell asks whether “going to heaven is dependent on something I do” and then asks “How is any of that grace?” (11).
Then, Bell looks at various Biblical narratives, including the faith of the centurion, the discourse with Nicodemus, Paul’s conversion, and more, providing a constant stream of questions and noting apparently different things said about faith and salvation (12-18).
Bell is right to focus on the notion of one’s personal fate. It is indeed impossible to declare with certainty that a specific person is in hell. It is always possible that God called them to faith in Christ before they died, even at the last moment. We should never say with 100% certainty that someone is in hell.
Bell is also correct to raise doubts about various things that people allegedly need to do in order to “get saved.” His critique of such theologies is again based around questions instead of head-on arguments, but even that is enough to poke holes into works-based theologies.
There seems to be a rather major methodological error in Bell’s analysis of a “personal relationship” with God.” His argument against using this notion to discuss salvation is to say that the phrase is not used in the Bible anywhere. As noted in the outline, he asks a number of very pointed questions regarding this and notes that the phrase isn’t in the Bible. But there are other phrases not used in the Bible which are central issues for Christianity, like “Trinity.” A phrase not appearing in the Bible does not automatically mean it isn’t taught by the Bible. Things can be derived from Biblical teaching without having the exact phrase we use to describe that teaching appear in the Bible. Just to hammer this home, let me point out that the phrase “Love Wins” nowhere appears in the Bible. One using Bell’s methodology here might come to the conclusion that his book is unbiblical.
Just as an aside, I found it a bit of a methodological problem that Bell begins the book with a chapter that is almost entirely questions. He promises answers later, but for now it seems like all the reader is left with is a bunch of–make no mistake about it–leading questions. I think that leading questions are appropriate for teaching, but not so much for defense of a position.
So far, we have seen that Bell makes a few methodological errors, each at a central part of his chapter. First, he made the assumption that diversity of views means validity of all. We have seen that such is not the case, diversity of views does not put them all on a level playing field. Second, he argued that because a phrase isn’t in the Bible, it doesn’t seem to be Biblical. We pointed out that this would collapse Bell’s own work because “love wins” is not found in the Bible. Even if it were, however, we noted that the mere absence of a phrase does not entail its falsehood or unbiblical nature.
However, we have also had several good things to say about Love Wins. In particular, his analysis of works-based systems of salvation was helpful. The fact that Bell is willing to discuss a controversial topic and ask the hard questions is also commendable.
Next week, we’ll analyze Chapter 2, which is about heaven. I look forward to your comments!
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 2- I review chapter 2.
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 3- I look at Chapter 3: Hell.
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 4- I look at Chapter 4: Does God Get what God Wants?
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Chapter 5- I analyze chapter 5.
Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
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