Jim DeYoung reviews Love Wins (Pt. 1)
By Jim DeYoung
[The following is the beginning of a lengthy review of Bell’s book. If you lack the time to read it all you may recover the heart of the review by reading the Introduction, the summary of the preface, the summaries at the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion. Overall I will cover the book in a total of eleven blog posts.]
In the following review I first give an overview of my impressions, then I give a detailed rebuttal to much of what the book contains.
Having read Brian McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That and William P. (Paul) Young’s The Shack, I find it remarkable how all three, and other universalists, write in such a starkly similar way. I’m referring to how they interpret the Bible. It is my conviction that Rob Bell is a follower of universal reconciliation, as are the other two. Paul Young as early as 2004 wrote a 103 page document in which he explicitly embraced universal reconciliation and repudiated his “evangelical paradigm” (these are his words). From the content of the works of McLaren and Bell it is clear that they too are on this path and turning from the evangelical gospel.
What binds such writers together? There are several things. First, there is a refusal to explicitly embrace universal reconciliation (although in his unpublished paper Paul Young is the exception). Such writers are deceptively adroit at embracing all the basic tenets of universal reconciliation while avoiding the label (they spurn all such labels, even the name “Christian”). While they may not make explicit statements they raise questions about evangelical faith that intend to show that such faith is suspect in dealing with the great questions of life and faith. Bell even goes so far as to present universalism as the best alternative.
So let’s be clear regarding the meaning of universal reconciliation. Pagan or general universalism asserts that all roads lead to god/God, whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist. Christian universalism, also known as universal reconciliation, maintains that all people come to the God of the Bible, by believing in Christ as the way to God, either before they die or after they die. The idea is that God’s love trumps his justice, that his will that all be saved and experience heaven will not be frustrated. Even the devil and the fallen angels in league with him will finally repent and be admitted to heaven. It is universal reconciliation that the above writers, and many more, are adopting in recent years.
This form of universalism (which term I use to capture Christian universalism) has serious consequences. Since the Bible tells us that the death of Jesus Christ only affects the situation of human beings—that he died not for angels but for humans (see Heb. 2:16), then the fallen angels and the devil get out of hell and into heaven by some other means. Universalists claim that it is God’s love that finally is victorious (“wins” in the word of Rob Bell); his love cannot be thwarted. Thus the justice or holiness of God is usurped or overcome by his love. But this is a serious consequence. It means that Christ’s death, called forth by the justice of God to deal with the penalty of sin, is not the means of reconciling all things (so Colossians 1:19-20) but God’s love alone is. Thus in the end the work of Jesus Christ on the cross becomes unessential, unnecessary, unacceptable. And in the end Christian universalism joins in league with universalism in general.
In reading Rob Bell, it is clear that universalism is his basic conviction. Both in his general assertions and affections and in the particulars of how he defends his view he embraces universalism. Also the many questions he raises are common to universalists.
Regarding his general assertions, Bell, as the others, redefines hell so that it is not punishment in the future but whatever sorrows and sufferings one brings on oneself now for spurning God’s love. Hell is whatever a person makes it. In addition, suffering is always remedial, even the bad consequences for our choices that God brings or allows in our lives. God’s judgments are not punitive or retributive but chastisement and correctional. Further, Bell rejects the idea that hell could be forever since the term “forever” only means something for a determined period of time. “Eternal suffering” does not mean everlasting suffering but only suffering for an “age.” He embraces the idea that “eternal” refers to a quality rather than a period of time. Jesus did not believe in an eternal or everlasting hell, but only employs strong, intense terminology to lead people from their own hells to himself.
For all of the claims above I will provide detailed supports below.
Other specific ideas also embraced by all universalists include redefining who a child or son of God is (all people are such); a resistance to the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ as the only way to God (Bell says he is both inclusive and exclusive); a redefinition of the good news (it isn’t if it includes any negative preaching about hell); an attack on the nature of God, since he cannot be both a God of wrath and a God of love; a putting down of evangelical churches and preaching of the gospel; opposition to the institutional church; a renunciation of the name “Christian”; and rejection of evangelical teaching regarding the meaning of the death of Christ.
The hermeneutic, the method of interpretation that Bell and others practice, is deeply flawed in many ways. The common practice is to cite or quote all the biblical texts favorable to their view and virtually skirt or omit discussion of the ones differing from universalism.
Another ploy is to multiply the proposed interpretations of a text to give the impression that one can never know what the correct interpretation, or the most plausible interpretation, is. The idea is that Bell can add his own view into the mix, and his view should be considered as serious as any other. This is a favorite tactic of universalists, similar to the idea of “divide and conquer.”
Another practice is to engage in horrible caricaturizing. For example, evangelicals are portrayed as presenting Jesus as the one “who rescues us from an angry God” (184). Such caricatures pit our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ against the nature of God, which is actually a parroting of the old liberal doctrine that God is a God of wrath and Jesus is characterized by love.
Another significant part of this universalist approach includes glaring omissions, or to down play (so Rob Bell) essential truths. This is especially true as one looks for an explanation of the atonement of Christ. Just what did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Bell takes up the great doctrines of redemption, atonement, justification, reconciliation, and the victory of Christ as metaphors employed in the New Testament to meet the need to communicate to contemporaries. He asserts that these doctrines are culturally determined and have no more significance than other metaphors we may create today. Indeed the old metaphors no longer have relevance. Bell would make relationship with a loving God the supreme message of the Bible. The gospel is not about entrance into heaven but about relationship. His favorite metaphor is expressed in the words, “death and rebirth” found throughout creation (pp. 131-135).
There is little if any place given to the role of faith. Faith is rejected as the only way to “become a Christian” or one of God’s children. There is no mention of the Holy Spirit. There is a downplaying of the devil/Satan.
There are also glaring contradictions. For example, according to Bell “trusting” does not bring God’s love. His love “simply is” (p. 187-188). Yet in the same chapter he claims that “our beliefs matter” (184) and that trust is “required,” along with repentance (195-196). But, I ask, what is it that one must trust? Bell says that “we trust love” (195). Yet the Bible never says such a thing. Instead we trust, we believe, a person, the Lord Jesus Christ (“whosoever believes in him”—John 3:16) and we trust God (“believe in your heart that God has raised him [Christ] from the dead”—Romans 10:9-10). It is not love that saves us but the atoning, substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The phrase, “God is love” is not interchangeable with “love is God”; yet Bell and other universalists seem to understand it in the latter way.
Another trait of universalists is to attack the nature of God as traditionally understood. For example, Bell and the other two claim that by evangelical teaching the God of love becomes “vicious” toward people once they die because God will judge those who reject him (174). He stops being the loving God once a person ceases to live.
A major feature of Bell’s presentation, and of others,’ is to raise questions about key doctrines—questions that he fails to answer in order to cast doubt on such doctrines. These concern a multitude of issues. Universalists fail to show how Christians through the ages have given plausible, in not absolute, answers that are satisfying enough to people of faith.
The number one philosophical, emotive, and biblical problem for evangelical teaching is, in the mind of Bell and others, the question: How can a loving God punish people in hell for all eternity for a sin they commit during a brief time of living on earth? Bell raises this issue at least four times (pp. 2, 102, 110, 175). This matter goes to the most basic question: What is God like? What is the nature of God? Clearly, these questions lie behind the writing of Love Wins.