You can always tell when someone is losing the plot biblically speaking. Whenever the mainstream media starts lapping up what you have to say, then you need to worry about whether you can still maintain your Christian credentials. Rob Bell is a perfect case in point.
He seems to now be the darling of the secular media, and is getting plenty of attention from it. So much so, that he is now on the cover of Time magazine. His new book questioning the biblical doctrine of hell is now splashed all over Time and other MSM outlets.
When secular media outfits are happy to run with your stuff, then one has to start asking hard questions. Would Time have featured a cover story about his book if it were a defence of the orthodox Christian teaching on this topic? Somehow I just don’t think so.
Would any of the MSM be talking so much about this book if it argued for what Jesus and the disciples taught? That there is eternal punishment reserved for those who reject the gift of God’s grace in Christ? I sort of doubt it. But throw out a bit of heresy, and disguise it in evangelical packaging, and you become an instant sensation with unbelievers.
What was that warning that Jesus gave? Didn’t he say to watch out when all manner of men start to speak well of you? That is usually a good indication that your friendship with God has been replaced with a friendship with the world. That seems to pretty well fit the description of Bell and his book.
For several reasons there is no pressing need for me to review this book. Plenty of other good critiques of this book have already appeared. Also, I have reviewed his earlier works and found them to be far from satisfactory. And one of the key concerns about this book has already been nicely addressed elsewhere.
I refer to the implicit universalism that runs throughout this volume, and the trenchant critique which C.S. Lewis offered some 60 years ago. This is how he put it in The Problem of Pain:
“There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture, and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of the creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies “How if they will not give in?’”
That is as good a reply as any to the theological heterodoxy which Bell is pushing in this volume. But Bell seems to think he is more compassionate than God, and has a better idea than God on how to deal with these sorts of issues. As such, his work is not really a work of theology, but anthropology.
More specifically, his book is not so much biblical Christianity as humanism. It is all man-centred and man-orientated. Now given that we are all humans, all theology of course must deal with us. But theology, as the terms suggest, is first and foremost about God. It is not primarily about us.
We must always begin with God and his self-revelation when we discuss any Christian theme. But Bell, and many others like him, seems to take self as the starting point instead of God. He begins with mankind and moves from there to God, when he really should be working in the other direction.
And in this case, he also commits another major theological error in attempting to set up one attribute of God over against all the others. But Scripture does not allow us to do so. All the attributes, or perfections of God, describe and reflect who God is, and none can be used as a trump card to belittle or discredit any of the others.
But that is just what Bell seeks to do here. He of necessity has to minimise or downplay other divine attributes, such as God’s holiness and his righteousness, in order to give pre-eminence to what turns out to be a sentimental and unbiblical understanding of love.
But the Bible is clear that all God’s perfections cohere in the Godhead perfectly, eternally, and fully. Thus God’s love is always a holy love. His justice is always a loving justice. His holiness is always a just holiness, and so on. To strip God of attributes which modern secularists – and trendy evangelicals – find to be unpalatable does nothing to help God and his image.
Instead, it destroys God as represented in the Word of God. Sure, Bell uses plenty of evangelical buzz words, and lots of biblical phrases. But like the older theological liberals, he can only do so by diluting them of their biblical content. This book is full of such theological strip-mining.
And like every cult or heresy, there is enough truth mixed in with error to make it all look pretty good. Not everything he says here is wrong. Lots of it in itself is OK. But it is the whole package which needs to be looked at much more carefully.
Indeed, most of the successful cults don’t come straight out and tell you things like: “There is no hell and everyone will get saved and go to heaven.” They instead murder truth by beating around the bush, offering 99 shades of grey, using lots of equivocation, and making good use of ambiguous and nebulous prose.
The emergent church in general and Rob Bell in particular have turned all this into an art form. Half the time you have no idea what in the world they are saying. But eventually a pattern emerges and themes become discernable. In all sort of ways Bell is making one prolonged argument – in the end, we will all be in heaven because somehow love wins.
That sounds like a pyrrhic victory to me. Indeed, it sounds like out and out heterodoxy. But this is how Bell is operating. Don’t come out and say exactly what you mean, just beat around the bush a lot. You still end up with death by a thousand cuts.
Instead of denying hell outright, he comes up with gems like this: “there are all kinds of hells”. Hell is now, for those not in right relation to God. Oh yeah, right. Having a rough time with your wife? Well there you go – that is hell for you. Forget about eternal punishment which Jesus and the disciples so clearly and so often spoke about. Just redefine hell out of existence.
It’s just like the homosexual activists in their attempt to destroy marriage – they simply redefine it out of existence. This book is full of theological revisionism, but again, it is done so cleverly and with enough evangelical jargon to make it seem palatable.
Of course almost anyone will swallow a bitter – even poisoned – pill, if it is sugar-coated enough. Bell is quite adept at the sugar-coating, so he can get us to swallow his poisonous theology. And he does so by continuously mangling and distorting familiar biblical material.
For example, he even manages to change the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, which clearly speaks of an unbridgeable chasm between the redeemed and the lost, into a story of how everybody “is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favouritism”.
Incredibly, the message given by Jesus is the exact opposite of this. We are not all equally God’s children. We may be by creation but we are not by redemption. Only those who have repented and turned to Christ are born into God’s family and become a brother to Christ.
Jesus teaches here quite powerfully that there are no second chances after we die and no further time allowed to repent. Our destinies are sealed for eternity based on the choices we make in this life. This of course is exactly what passages like Hebrews 9:27 teach us. But Bell will have none of these biblical truths.
There is just so much other material found here that can be directly challenged. But I will simply end by saying that reading this book was a very distasteful experience. I found it to be deceptive, full of weasel words, tortured logic, mangled Scripture, childish theology, hermeneutical bastardry and intellectual cowardice.
I was actually angry after reading this. I felt like I just read some popular New Age mumbo jumbo. I felt like I just read some slick cultist’s book. I felt like I was being conned big time. I felt like I was theologically defiled and intellectually assaulted. I felt like I had just been to some sleazy used car salesman. I felt like I had just been taken advantage of and exposed to a major sleight of hand scheme.
Indeed, let me put it just a little bit stronger for you. If there is such a thing as theological rape, then I feel I have just been a victim of it. I have been violated by this book, and it leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth. Mind you, I get the same feeling when I read some idiotic New Age best seller, or some work by the popular cults.
The truth is, we expect this kind of rubbish from heretics and cults. But when a big time evangelical leader tries to get away with this nonsense, it simply is appalling. Of course Jesus fully warned us to expect this sort of thing to happen. But one of his warnings about leading little ones astray and the millstone hung around the neck of such people especially comes to mind here.
At the end of the day, it is not love which wins in this book. And it is certainly not truth which wins. All we find here is a nicely packaged rearrangement of heterodoxy. But heresy repackaged is still heresy.
Postscript: Other very helpful and incisive reviews of this book include the following:
Al Mohler – www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/
Denny Burk – www.dennyburk.com/revising-hell-into-the-heterodox-mainstream/
Tim Challies – www.challies.com/book-reviews/love-wins-a-review-of-rob-bells-new-book
Kevin DeYoung – www.christianpost.com/news/god-is-still-holy-and-what-you-learned-in-sunday-school-is-still-true-a-review-of-love-wins-49407/
John MacArthur – www.gty.org/Blog/B110412
Michael Youssef – www.onenewsnow.com/Perspectives/Default.aspx?id=1318164