I'm rarely intimidated approaching a book review. However, this book presents some unique challenges, many of which have very little to do with the book itself. This book has become something of a lightening rod for both opponents and proponents of a particular form of universalism that it was reported to contain, by some prominent critics of Rob Bell, based upon their viewing a promotional video and before they read the book. There's a great number of people who have drawn conclusions about this book, the author Rob Bell, and what the book is or is not saying, and a remarkable number of those people have not read the book themselves either. That's the way things are. Issues of public attention like this take on a life of their own.
So, as much as I have tried to avoid getting too deeply drawn into the conversation before actually reading the book, I have to confess that I've heard a great deal of things and it's perhaps not possible to take things and set them aside completely. To the best of my ability though, here's what I saw as I read the book and then I'll make some comments following about my observations of the controversy surrounding the book.
Often times, when evaluating a review of a book, the views of the reviewer are as important to know as a point of reference. I am a former evangelical pastor and denominational worker who left formal ministry about 6 years ago for honorable reasons. Since that time, I've also left institutional church membership and am a proponent of organic or simple church. I have a degree in Biblical Literature and am fairly broadly read in several different veins of theology. In the past, I've been closely associated with reformed theology or Calvinism and while I do not reject everything in the tradition, I am moving away from several elements of it. Not too surprisingly, the most vehement renouncings of this book and the author tend to come from a reformed theological bent.
So, my initial response to all the hype was and to some extent still is, to come to the defense of Rob Bell and advocate restraint in jumping to unwarranted conclusions. Much of the criticism to me has the whiff of smoke from torch and pitchfork carrying critics and that type of reaction tends to take on a life of its own to where people feel almost obligated to take a position in order to confirm their own identity. So because certain leaders, whether fairly or not, have made some public statements and declared Love Wins to be heretical, that settles the matter and to argue otherwise is to draw your own faith into question.
Setting that aside and now after having read the book I'd make the following general observations. Rob Bell's writing style is highly conversational and employs a Socratic technique of asking questions which are obviously designed to lead people in a particular direction, but it avoids for the most part making declarative statements. Because of that Bell has been criticized for being indirect and that quality maddens several of his critics who would much prefer that he just come out and say something as opposed to teasing. If Bell were writing a formal theology that would be a fair criticism. As it is, Bell book while certainly theological, appears to be directed to an audience for which that sort of book would not appeal. Post-modern unchurched people for the most part are more concerned about the questions and impressions they have about the nature of God and the church that are what they are, and Bell expresses the questions and guides the conversation in a manner that appears designed for them, not academics and theologians. Bell too, has been writing books and pastoring for quite some time and he's obviously well aware that people follow stories much more willingly than they follow lectures. Part of effective story telling is maintaining tension. Bell isn't about to make a clear statement that resolves that tension until the time is right. Anyone going into this book who's looking for a 3 point outline and clearly stated conclusion will be disappointed.
Bell opens his book with a preface that makes clear what he is attempting to do. He notes that Jesus has a story. Further Jesus' story is often very different than the stories told about him by others who knowingly or not, are hijacking it for some other story the source of which is decidedly not Jesus, not necessarily Biblical. In fact Bell goes further than that and states that the purpose of his book is to reclaim that story and that includes revealing some of those other stories. Many of those criticizing Bell and this book I think are completely justified in believing that Bell is rejecting many things that they believe to be important. Bell is clearly taking a stand here and that stand is to refute and dispense with several popular representations of the nature and character of God. Not surprisingly many of these are part of the reformed tradition and they're not misreading his intent, even if they're frustrated that he's not being completely direct about some of his premises.
Bell intends for his book to initiate some dialog about God, Jesus, Heaven, Hell and what a relationship with God looks like. He intends to be controversial and he clearly wants to call into question some things that are tightly held by Evangelical, Fundamentalist and Reformed traditions (to name a few.) Bell clearly intends to widen the definition of what is "Christian" and to draw to the attention of people outside of Christianity or on the fringes that the popular representations of many of these issues are not all there is to Christianity.
Bell asks provocative questions. He opens with asking if Ghandi is really in hell, as a note he examined suggests is irrefutably true. He moves things from theory to where the rubber hits the road for many people, speaking of tragedy, accidents and the death, not just of theoretical people, but real people; people we know and love and with whom we can identify. He then speaks about how people come to Christ. The sinners prayer, a relatively recent development in Christian history and it's vitality is questioned, not to exclude but to put in the context of 2000 years most of which never heard or thought of such a formula in its precise form. Bell looks at some Scripture passages and questions why some are elevated above others and some are seemingly unaddressed or ignored.
A dominant theme of Love Wins is to remove the separation of "Now" and "Then". He clearly questions the value of what is sometimes called "pie in the sky by and by" meaning the disconnection of the present from the future. He doesn't discount the future state of heaven. He questions the current view and shows from scripture and culture that this isn't the only view that has characterized the church in the past. Moving on he goes to the more controversial issue of Hell and addresses it in similar terms in essence stating that Hell is more than just a future state; we can and do create hell for ourselves by the choices we make. He doesn't deny evil and he doesn't deny hell as a future state. He does however bring questions and makes observations that are not new, and are indeed fair and must be addressed by anyone seeking to understand what the scripture has to say and the impact of those beliefs upon us today.
To answer the more direct questions that come about the book, it appears to me that Bell does believe in heaven and hell. Bell is not a universalist in the manner that he is being accused of, and he clearly affirms the uniqueness of Christ. What is evident as well is that Bell is not afraid to question traditional definitions and redefine what familiar words and concepts can mean apart from their standard issues.
More at the heart of this work I do identify something that comes through clearly and I'm frankly a little surprised that it doesn't take center stage in the discussion swirling around the book. Bell clearly rejects the "traditional" view of penal substitutionary atonement as the exclusive means of understanding the nature of God and the analogous understanding of Christ's death on the cross. He appears to pretty clearly accept a broader understanding that is usually referred to as Christus Victor. This is in keeping with the broader questions that he is asking and if anything, this should in my opinion be the target of focus of discussion by those seeking to call his views into question. Here there's clear indications in the book than the spurious charge of universalism. That said, Bell's work falls into the category of other equally controversial books and authors of recent years such as The Shack, and Greg Boyd. That said, personally I find Bell's thinking and positions appealing and I agree with him, that many of the traditional positions within the church don't really have a great appreciation of what the history of the penal substitution theory of the atonement is, when it appeared and how the church viewed things before it came along. Some study in that regard reveals a lot. Frankly what it reveals makes a lot of people angry who either don't want to face the implications of the answers or who prefer to deny them.
Love Wins is indeed a provocative book that asks hard questions and it's clear it demands careful consideration. Those who are most angry about it are those who appear to prefer that the questions not be asked in the first place.
4 stars. I'm not completely on board with everything Bell states or implies. I think the questions are worth asking and Bell asks them well.