Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A Review of Love Wins. By Rob Bell.

Apr 15, 2011

HarperOne, 2011.

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 –
Denny Burk –
Tim Challies –
Kevin DeYoung –
John MacArthur –
Michael Youssef –

[1783 words]

37 Responses to A Review of Love Wins. By Rob Bell.

  • Sorry you had to spend the time and the money on this book, but I’m glad you did for the sake of your review 🙂

    I can’t stand when those who hold influence distort scripture outright lie about what it says.

    We should all take this as a dire warning to ensure we are all reading the Bible for ourselves continuously so that we can’t be fooled by these so called theological experts.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • I had never even heard of Rob Bell before you mentioned him in some of your articles. Thanks for the insights. Do some Seventh Day Adventists also teach this?

    And – sorry you had to spend (waste) your money on reviewing his books… but I suppose you’ll be helping other people not to waste theirs!

    Annette Nestor, Perth

  • Thanks Mario and Anette

    Actually when some years ago concerned believers asked me to look into his earlier book, Velvet Elvis, I did just that: I went out and spent my hard-earned cash on the book. My review of that one is here:

    However I was debating whether or not to even get his new volume, as some good reviews had already been penned. But a friend who shares my theological convictions bought a copy of it for me, so thanks to him, I now have the book and you now have the review.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • What an excellent review Bill! I don’t even need to read the book now that I know most of the points of heresy Bell wrote about. Your Bible-based countering points blast through his man-made untruths.

    I feel sorry for people who do not know God’s Word well enough to recognize this charletan for what he is. Doesn’t Bell know that he is actually utilizing satan’s arguments – trying to get people to believe that “the father of lies” and hell don’t even exist?

    If everyone goes to heaven, what is hell for? Is there such a thing as perfect justice without the existence of hell?

    During his three year ministry on this earth Jesus warned people and talked about avoiding hell even more than he talked about heaven!

    Since I didn’t read the book, I can’t know whether or not Bell directly counters the Scriptures where Jesus Christ discusses the existence of hell. But I don’t even need to know that. It is obvious that he is committing grave heresy and by doing so, Bell is leading people away from God, His Word, the Bible, and the salvation that can be attained through repentance and forgiveness via the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. Bell makes a mockery of Jesus’ sacrifice by writing such a heretical book and it really sickens me.

    Thanks for providing links to additional reviews. I look forward to reading them, too.

    Christine Watson, US

  • As respectively as I possibly can be, Bill; take care that you don’t become Saul (of Tarsus) Muehlenberg, knowing without a shadow of doubt the depths of the mind of God; especially when the Bible is full of poetic symbolism.
    How often have any of us thought we understood a passage perfectly for years when suddenly a clearer understanding jumps out and we wonder how on earth we could have not seen the lucid cross checked intent of a Biblical passage.
    Grant Squelch

  • Thanks Grant

    If you don’t mind, your comment (and concerns of others) warrants an entire article, not a short comment in reply, so that I have just done:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Another accurate review, Bill – thank you..

    What you say about if you are Christian and the world loves you you’re in trouble is so true. After all, the main message of Christianity is the message of the Cross, which is the very thing this world finds so offensive, as scripture even says. Plus, Jesus Himself made it super clear that if we chose to follow Him that this world will hate us for it. Not *might* hate us, but *will* hate us.

    Morris Otte

  • G’day Bill. I’m a first-timer here. Mate, I agree with your take on just about everything. Like you, I’m a culture watcher, and I’m fascinated (in a horrified way) in the mechanics of irrevocable decline in almost every aspect of society. I know that those who disagree with your take on eternal damnation actually agree with every other point you make here. It only takes a vial of lies to corrupt an ocean of truth. I know this is your opinion as well. The only source we have is God’s revealed word. The world is conforming perfectly to God’s unfolding plan. However, learned discussions about Biblical hermeneutics will not mitigate the uncertainty certain Christians have as to the exact definition, location, and propositional “truth” of Hell and the actual fate of those who will reject God and Christ as saviour. They simply can’t find enough evidence in their Bible – even though there’s plenty of “evidence” in the paintings of Van Eyck and the works of Dante. The question is whether they are really giving lie to the teachings of Christ because they cannot prove the “centrality” of this doctrine. We can all proceed with certainty as to the truth of God’s word and his unfolding plan without defending less provable aspects of God’s word so vehemently. Indeed, I think God is more interested in the process more than the outcome in these matters. How do we respond to disagreement? How certain should we be of our condemnations of differing opinions from people who are obviously not “heretics” and deceivers? In my own “walk”, I’ve found that my attitude, rather than my knowledge, has occasionally forced me to go right back to square one!
    Robert Drane

  • Thanks Robert

    It’s nice to hear that you like some of my stuff. But on this issue I am not sure you are making a very helpful contribution, with all due respect. It seems two questions have to be carefully answered here before we can proceed.

    One, does the Bible in fact warn about the dangers of heresy? Two, does the Bible in fact warn about the dangers of deception? These are two crucial questions which you need to answer before we can proceed. If the answer is yes to both questions, then it seems to me that every single Christian is under a solemn obligation to identify such heresy and deception, warn others about it, and avoid it like the plague.

    We need to take seriously what Scripture urges us to take seriously, in other words. Sure, there can be some room to move here, but to imply that such matters are either no big deal, or are something none of us can speak on with any sort of certainty is not all that useful here – it certainly is not biblical.

    And even more unhelpful is your (and Bell’s) contention that at the end of the day no one can know anything with certainty about the doctrine of hell. Sorry, but I am not buying this for one moment. Given that Scripture in general and Jesus in particular have both thought that this is such an absolutely vital topic that both have devoted huge amounts of space to it, it is ludicrous and disingenuous to somehow suggest that we all should just glibly remain in a theological fog about it. What Scripture is clear about we need to be clear about, otherwise we forfeit the right to call ourselves biblical Christians.

    Sure, there will be some disagreement and some debate – as with anything – but the overall teaching found throughout the Bible on this topic is incessant, clear and unequivocal. It is only those who don’t like the doctrine, and disagree with God about it, who seek to make it one big equivocal soup.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill, as a senior physician takes his graduates, you have exposed the falsity of robbing the Lord of His regaility. Thank you.
    You have also disclosed your deep distaste with an author who sought to filter God’s majestic word.
    If the redeemed find the distortion of eternal truth, how much more does the Lord of glory recoil when authors or preachers mangle God’s pure word?
    May the Lord prosper you, Sir.
    Harrold Steward

  • Brilliant expose of a heresy that is spreading across christendom. Thank you for a great review. I intend to use this at my own church. Excellent way of exposing the heresy that is in Bell’s theology and his book. Thank you and God Bless you for having the guts to write this.
    Bruce McBride

  • Rob Bell is in this book calling Jesus the Christ a liar. Since Jesus spoke more about Hell, and Hades then about the Kingdom of God. It literally saddens me to see these false shepherds leading the sheep astray and in doing so dooming untold millions to Hades and then Hell all because they think of God as a buddy rather than as the Holy, and Righteous Creator who will not accept sin in heaven and has to punish the unrepentant because they refuse to recognize God as God.
    John R Bloxson Jr

  • I read Velvet Elvis many years ago and was so shocked by the deception and veiled new age teaching that I wrote to the organisation to refute the heresy in the book. They were very quick to correspond with me in order to maintain their position. I wrote back without shifting from my position; ‘as I was considered a sort of New Age guru, both in India and Australia with even the local barristers (plural) visiting me I sensed a very subtle but real threat to biblical truth. Say no more about Rob Bell – a true false teacher!’
    Ilona Sturla

  • Isn’t there a logical fallacy in the emergent proposition (along with the postmodernists) that one can never know anything for certain?

    Isn’t this the same as the point Schaeffer made that those who deny the proposition of absolute truth (the “relativists”) are stuck in a logical fallacy?

    The proposition that “all is relative, there are no absolutes” is an absolute, and consequently a self-denying nonsense.

    It seems to me that the proposition “no-one can know anything with certainty” is yet another formulation of the same fallacy.

    It proposes that we can’t know anything for certain – including that we can’t know anything for certain!

    Surely I can’t be the first to point out that the emperor has no clothes on!?

    John Angelico

  • Yes quite right John.

    They are absolutely sure that we cannot be absolutely sure about anything.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thank you Bill, for posting your review of Rob Bell’s book!!!
    The Bible speaks of “doctrines of devils”, “false doctrine”, doctrine that when preached will lead people to hell. Also the Word of God warns of the bad shepherds!!
    When Christians are Biblically discipled, held accountable, under a 5-fold ministry that equips them and grows them up and spiritually matures and equips them under the power of Holy Spirit, then they will not be sucked in to and swayed by false doctrine!
    If Rob Bell had known the Word – known Jesus, read the Bible in context and studied it out, examining scripture with scripture, then he would not have the false doctrine he now has! He is anti-Christ (against Christ) ; Anti- the anointed one; Anti- the anointing
    If Rob Bell had been properly discipled, the deception of his thinking would have been exposed, before he had the chance to write such a book which will lead people to hell!!!
    If that man humbles himself under the Anointed WORD of GOD = JESUS, and repents with Godly sorrow, that leads to Godly repentance, that leads to Godly fear, then he can be saved – but if he does not repent he will continue to lead people to hell.
    Barb Hoc

  • Thanks Bill for the great work you do with keeping up with these modern trends.
    Just a word to Annette: I am a Seventh Day Adventist – was not always one, and no, I have never heard of any Seventh Day Adventists not believing in the doctrine of hell. Why heaven, if there is no hell? And the fact that Bell teaches that we all will go to heaven is absolute nonsense. Jesus makes that so clear in His Word.
    Margaret McKay

  • It’s my hope that violent distortions and heresy of God’s word stir up every believer and minister of Jesus to rise up and bring God’s truth in the power of the Holy Ghost back in to the world.

    Let’s get into the Word for ourselves, grow up, and get out there!

    Maxine Prosper

  • Perhaps the most accurate and probing comment in your review was the bit about starting points, anthropology as against theology. The common point about so many thinkers today is that they will not let God be God. Instead He has to be like us and conform to our standards and wishes as human beings.
    Jon Newton

  • Thanks Jon

    An excellent collection of essays on that theme can be found in No God But God:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Margaret McKay states that “I am a Seventh Day Adventist … I have never heard of any Seventh Day Adventists not believing in the doctrine of hell.”

    Margaret, to put it bluntly, I am stunned. One of my best friends during my 1st University degree was an SDA. My wife’s cousin is an SDA pastor. They have universally told me that …

    1 – the SDA church does not believe in hell, in so much as most other Christians believe it to be a place of everlasting torment
    2 – the SDA church believes that non-Christians simply cease to exist. Maybe it is this state of annihilation that you are referring to as hell?

    Graeme Cumming

  • Thanks Graeme

    Yes you are quite right. From their own Questions on Doctrine: “We reject the doctrine of eternal torment” (p. 543). The SDA Church officially teaches annihilationism. A number of cults teach annihilationism, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Christadelphians.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • For what it is worth, John Stott holds to annihilationism.
    Mihael McCoy

  • Thanks Mihael

    Yes I know. It is unfortunately a very sad blemish on his otherwise rather sterling work over the decades.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • One’s theology ought be distinctive for sure, but like spokes in the wheel of a car, the spokes are distinctives, but the hub is the ‘Who’ of God, from whence the spokes project. Who is the “I Am that I Am?” The Bible leaves no guessing, as you made clear. And so Bell’s hacking and heckling away at Fundamental Bible truth is not only a demonic attack upon a healthy theological check-box (merely), but it is also an assault, even a declaration of war upon the ‘Who’ of God presented in the Bible. And as Rob attempts to cut himself from certain theological ‘spokes,’ he likewise cuts himself off from the hub – the LORD God of Glory. In this sense, Bell really does cut the branch he is sitting on, and great shall be his fall (Matt 7).

    This is the fearsome aspect of such men. They feel they are playing marbles with theological check-boxes, (which is a respect they definately are), but there is something far worse – the pelting of rocks at the Heavens in atheistic hatred. Hell is Hell because God is God. That won’t solve the debate of course, but it sheds some light upon the heart of these men. They abhor Who God testifies He is. They abhor Him!

    Rob Bell has before and just now again, made undeniably evident his lostness of soul, his abhorration of the Divine Godhead, his loathesomeness to the One True Creator! Rob loves his idol, primarily because it is the work of his own hands. Rob Bell: a sinner in the hands of an angry God! Might God’s 1 John 4:10 ‘love’ win for Bell – the propitiatory sacrifice alone, the Christ who drunk hell for all His chosen.

    Forbes Morrison

  • Hi Bill

    Thanks for the review. Bill (and others that have also written) with the strong conviction that Rob may be leading others astray, are you able to write to Rob and warn/tell him? I haven’t read the book, however I did read Velvet Elvis a number of years ago and have also seen a few of his short movies. I have found it hard to relate to how he shares, and have felt a little confused at the end to what he is trying to say – but I just put that down to my own intellect and style of learning. Deception just so subtitle and we can so easily fall into wrong ideas through lack of understanding. I have seen many times however through greater understanding of our Father and the loving guidance/discipleship of other believers in conjunction with God’s revelation, this can change.

    I would strongly encourage you and others to start dialoging with Rob Bell. I’m sure Rob deeply loves Jesus and is doing his best to lead others to Him also with the revelation he has. It would be a terrible thing to have insight and yet not appeal to Rob, as the Body of Christ, on the views he shares.

    Morag Paton

  • Thanks Morag

    Yes it is always worth trying some dialogue here. Mind you, whether he would pay any attention to the likes of me is a moot point. And I suspect that plenty of other concerned leaders are already in dialogue with him, seeking to correct some of his theological errors. Of course, whether he is open to their concerns and corrections remains to be seen. Aside from that, I guess all we can do is keep praying for the guy.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill. My concern would be that other leaders have not been in dialogue with him, or the input that he has has is from others of the same mindset. I would urge you to write to him (and again others that have the same concerns) so he does have opportunity to hear, what he does with that is then up to him.
    Morag Paton

  • In regards to Morag’s comments: If Rob Bell had been properly, Biblically discipled, under a 5-fold ministry, submitting to anointed, appointed leaders, accountable before God under a discipler, and being a doer of the word, not a hearer only, his wrong theology would have been made visible and then rightly corrected!!
    The lack of such leadership over him, has meant his wrong / deceptive doctrine will lead people on a path to hell – just as that wrong doctrine of “once saved always saved”.
    When we are rightly discipled in Biblical discipleship, then you abide in the Word, you also hear the word preached uncompromisingly, and you don’t waver when wrong doctrine comes along, because you know the Word, you know the Truth.
    Until I came to a church where they have been Biblically discipling me, I used to waver and be tossed to and fro, as the Word says. I was a lukewarm, wishy washy person who called myself a Christian, not realising that a Biblical pre-requisite to calling yourself a Christian, is to be discipled!!!
    Praise God for discipleship – I am at last maturing in Christ and being equipped and now being released into the call of God on my life!!!

    Barb Hoc

  • Thanks Bill. I haven’t read the book – but know the argument – satan is so incrediblly subtle, yet so often uses the same guile. – and we are so blind!

    Please keep being a ‘watchman’. Thanks, look forward to meeting you, maybe with my brother in Christ, Warwick Marsh and co. some day.
    John Cornford

  • Look forward to it John.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill thank you again for a good article. I have read a few reviews and watched Bell’s video clip and kept having this creepy feeling “Is this Wormtongue (Lord of the Rings) or Mr Withers (That Hideous Strength)?”
    What is really really sad for me is that someone close is sucked into all this and is trying to suck my kids into it too.
    Marion Isham

  • Thanks Marion

    Yes, two very good images to think about in this regard.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks guys

    Here is another good article/review:

    “Bell is guilty of trivializing salvation. He writes about an ooey-gooey God of love but leaves out God’s justice and holiness. His gospel, at times, sounds squishy and spineless.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The problem with Rob Bell is not just simply what he believes BUT how he gets there.
    Here’s another review of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.
    Sean Scott

  • I’m glad you read it – now I don’t have to.

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