I have been reviewing Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, with a particular interest in his theological views and how he argues for those views. I have not read the book before, so each review is fresh: I am writing these having just completed the chapter the post is on. This week, I look at Chapter 4: “Does God Get what God Wants?”
Bell starts the chapter by surveying a number of statements from church’s web sites regarding hell. These statements range from the unsaved being separated from God forever to eternal conscious torment. He seems to be pointing readers towards a kind of discontinuity between these statements and the statements about God’s power and love:
I point out these parallel claims: that God is mighty, powerful, and “in control” and that millions of people will spend forever apart from this God… even though it’s written in the Bible that “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” [1 Timothy 2:4- seems to be NIV]
…How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do… but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great. (97-98)
Bell asks a poignant question: “Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants?” (98). He then goes through a number of verses focused around God’s love. He notes the parables in Luke 15 about people pursuing their desires and concludes, “The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever” (101).
Bell turns to the reason that many people think God may fail in his desire to save everyone. From the perspective of those who advocate the views he outlined at the beginning of the chapter, “love, by its very nature, is freedom… God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end” (103). However, Bell argues that “We aren’t fixed, static beings–we change and morph as life unfolds.”
Tied into this notion of the unfixed nature of our lives, he seems to hold that it is possible that people can choose to come to Christ after they die. He asks, “why limit that chance [the chance to come to Christ] to a one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities… [The chance is given for] as long as it takes, in other words” (106-107).
Bell then traces this notion through Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius. He goes so far as to cite Augustine saying “‘very many’ believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God” (108).
He argues that “central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory” (ibid). Moreover, he argues that “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever…” (109). He notes that “serious, orthodox followers of Jesus have answered these questions [about hell and salvation] in a number of ways” (ibid).
Next, Bell turns to an analysis of the book of Revelation. he notes that the book ends with notion that the gates of the city “never shut” and infers that “gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go” (114-115).
Bell ends the chapter with what seems like a poetic inference. He goes into prose and concludes that: “[Love] always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (119).
There is much to discuss in this chapter. First, it is important to note that Bell has done much to cause reflection upon the subject of hell. It is something that we as a group of believers need to be thinking on. Too often, the subject is cast aside. Bell has done admirably in bringing the topic to the table.
Moreover, Bell is correct to note that confusion can be caused by simply throwing statements on hell “out there” in a void. It is important to contextualize statements about heaven and hell and make clear what is meant by the phrases that are used in the discussion.
Bell seemingly just assumes that there will be more chances to “accept Christ” in the afterlife. His discussion of the possibility of people changing after death implies this perspective, but he has done nothing to establish it. Perhaps he will do so in a later chapter, at which point we will evaluate his argument for that perspective. Indeed, thus far his argument seems to be a kind of straw man: he asserts the notion that people are changeable beings even in the afterlife as a counterpoint to those who hold that people will continue to choose evil in the hereafter as though this choice is the reason people hold to the eternal hell view. Yet this is not the case; many who hold this position do argue that people will continue to choose evil, but the reason that people are condemned to hell is because they rejected the God, whose existence and power are obvious (Romans 1) in their lives. No one has an excuse (Romans 1:20).
Bell’s utilization of church fathers is problematic. I can’t help but think there is a subtle twisting of some of their views to fit his position. In particular, he cites Augustine as “acknowledging” that “very many” believed in “ultimate reconciliation of all people” (107-108). Yet Augustine himself categorically denies and denounces this position. In fact, almost the entirety of Book XXI of The City of God argues explicitly against this tradition, including Augustine’s arguments against Origen, whom Bell cites in the same breath as Augustine. I hope Bell was merely being sloppy here, but the impression I get is really that the uninformed reader would see this and assume that Augustine is at least in the same realm as Origen, which is very, very mistaken.
I hate to beat a dead horse here, but let’s look what Augustine says (The City of God Book XXI, Chapter 17):
Origen was even more indulgent; for he believed that even the devil himself and his angels, after suffering those more severe and prolonged pains which their sins deserved, should be delivered from their torments, and associated with the holy angels. But the Church, not without reason, condemned him for this and other errors…
So we see that Augustine, far from being anywhere near Origen’s view on the topic, endorses the Church’s condemnation of Origen as a heretic in this regard. Yet where does Bell reveal this? Where does Bell interact with historical theology? No, he seems perfectly content to throw out a bunch of names out of context together and let readers make their own assumptions. I realize this is a popular level book, but I can’t help but be very worried about Bell’s style here. It is very misleading. Maybe he does note later in the book that Origen was condemned as a heretic for this view, and that Augustine endorses this condemnation, but considering Bell seemingly endorses Origen’s view, I very much doubt that he will reveal that it was condemned by the Church.
More damning is the fact that Bell is able to, seemingly seriously, say that “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever…” (109). I admit that I agree in one sense–there have been many universalists throughout church history. However, that view was condemned as heretical. Augustine upholds that condemnation in The City of God. One can hardly believe that Bell is capable of saying that this view is “At the center of the Christian tradition.” No, the church at large does not condemn this view as specifically heretical; but Bell is placing the view in a context in which it was condemned as heresy and then saying that it was the “center” of that tradition. That is a stretch, to say the least.
Here again we see one of Bell’s biggest methodological problems: he simply introduces a notion, argues that there are diverse views, and then assumes that they are all equally legitimate. but this is simply mistaken. Multiplication of viewpoints does not mean they are equally valid. Furthermore, Bell’s lack of interaction with historical theology on this point, when he himself is the one who introduces several of the church fathers, is questionable at best. Moreover, he says these teachers were “orthodox” when in fact Origen specifically was far from orthodox in his beliefs, as even a cursory study of Origen would reveal. Origen lived at a time before certain views were made explicit, yes, so he in a sense gets a pass in that his theology was intentionally exploratory. However, many of his views were later condemned, including the one Bell endorses. For Bell to turn around and use Origen to support his diversity of orthodox views on the topic is seemingly dishonest.
Moreover, one must wonder about Bell’s analysis of the meaning of the gates of heaven as open. Instead of looking at this passage in context, in which the notion of a city with open gates would imply a city unthreatened by outsiders because all enemies were defeated (which fits much better into the book of Revelation), Bell states explicitly “If gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go” (115). Think on this for a moment. What Bell has stated here undermines the notion of security of salvation. Now I do not hold to the doctrine of eternal security; however, I do affirm that once people are saved and in the New Creation in heaven, they are not about to change their status. They aren’t “going” anywhere. Bell’s view here undermines the assurance of salvation. His view of “love winning” also serves to illustrate this point, for if there is “always room for the other to decide” we must ask: is there always room to choose hell? Can “love win” by letting us walk away from the eternal salvation we are promised in Christ?*
I admit I have been highly critical in this chapter. I have tried throughout so far to find positive things to say about Bell’s work, and as I noted, Bell does well in this chapter to center discussion around the hard questions.
However, there are numerous problems with Bell’s work in this chapter. His use of the church fathers is highly problematic. I won’t rehearse the arguments again (see above). Oddly, his view also seems to imply that we have absolute autonomy and the ability to simply walk out of heaven whenever we wish. That in itself is another great difficulty, for it undermines the assurance of salvation we have in Christ: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
Bell continues to use the method of argumentation in which he simply notes diverse views on a topic and concludes that all are somehow equally at the table or equally valid.
Next week, we will look at Chapter 5: Dying to Live.
*My thanks to my wife for this point.
The book: Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
Review of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Preface and Chapter 1– I discuss the preface and chapter 1 of Love Wins.
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 5– I analyze chapter 5.
Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
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