Dr. Arnold Cook

Guest Contributions


Book Review

LOVE WINS - By Rob Bell

A Book Review by Ernie Klassen
June 2011

The book Love Wins is an unashamed apologetic for Universalism, the belief that everyone will ultimately be saved. Universalism means that God's radical love and sovereign determination and will that all should be saved implies that all will eventually be saved. Love is stronger than justice. Love wins out in the end… thus the title.

There are a number of good things about this book, but also several concerns. First, let me eulogize the virtues of the book. Rob is a very effective communicator; a fact attested to by the success of the Nooma series. Rob Bell is a clear and creative communicator. He knows how to get his point across. That particular strength is a two-edged sword. If he is endorsing universalism, something which most evangelicals traditionally eschew, then he has to be quite adept at persuading Christians of the viability of his arguments. He is quite adept. I'm not persuaded, but he is persuasive. It is an enjoyable experience reading a well-written and persuasive writer.

His emphasis on the kingdom of God as a present reality and not merely something "pie in the sky" is valuable. He does recover an aspect of the present nature of the kingdom that is biblical. I personally feel that he should adopt a "both/and" position rather than an "either/or" position. By that I mean, the kingdom of heaven has both a future and an immediate temporal dimension, instead of polarizing the two positions into either one or the other. In his efforts to recuperate a biblical emphasis on the present nature of the kingdom (a needed emphasis because of historical neglect), he goes to the extreme (in my considered opinion) of placing the kingdom of God entirely in the present and the here and now, with no future transcendent dimension to it that is indeed otherworldly. The kingdom of heaven is both this world and the other world. According to Bell, it's purely this world. But Rob is right in drawing attention to the early dimensions and implication of the kingdom of heaven.

His presentation of the Gospel throughout the book, especially in Chapter 5, Dying to Live, is exceptional. He is such a refreshing and creative communicator. Throughout the book Bell shows significant and fresh insight into the nature of truth and spirituality and the dynamics of our relationship with God. His use of other authors, like Keller, to explain the dynamic of the Story of The Prodigal Son, the Prodigal Father and the Eldest Son is excellent.

Bell's treatment of the multi-faceted nature of the work of Christ on the cross is rich. His use of the different biblical images and terminology to highlight aspects of the complete and multi-variegated work of Christ is valuable. If we focus in on only one aspect of the meaning of the cross, we rob ourselves and others of the richness of the work of Christ. (See 128, 129).

However, there are some definite concerns that Bell raises in the arguments he makes in favor of universalism. I will endeavor to enumerate those primary arguments and then respond to which I consider to be the primary fallacies in his arguments.

Bell's Main Arguments in Favor of Universalism

1. One of Bell's arguments is that in places where God's judgment falls, there is still hope. Take for example the case of Sodom and Gomorrah. God's judgment fell on that place, and yet those two cities are extended hope. "There's still hope" (84). His point is that there is a movement from judgment to restoration. God's heart is for restoration, and so punishment will produce, in all cases, a restoration of that person. Remedial grace. After punishment comes redemption. Even hell. "No matter how painful, brutal, oppressive, no matter how far people find themselves from home because of their sin, indifference, and rejection, there's always the assurance that it won't be this way forever" (86). There is one of his most blatant affirmations of universalism.

a. Response:-- I think that we need be careful that we do not extend the borders of God's mercy and graciousness beyond what He Himself has established. God is indeed gracious and merciful, and God's intent is remedial, but that only applies to this life. People are given numerous opportunities in this life, and God's call is a bona fide call to repentance and remedial salvation. But that "day of opportunity" has a dusk when the sun sets, and then comes the night. The many references to remedial judgment are not to be applied to a state beyond this life… all of those experiences of remedy are within the time frame of our temporality (See p. 87ff).

2. Along similar lines, when two characters in the Bible are handed over to Satan, the intent is that they be restored. The implication of that argument is clear … people handed over to Satan in hell are likewise part of a remedial process. "Wrongdoers will become right doers". Even when someone is turned over to Satan, the purpose is "to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way to getting their attention" (90).

a. Response:-- Hasn't Bell looked at the punitive system? There is an abundance of evidence that certain people are beyond restoration. They refuse to be changed. While they are in this life, no one is beyond the hope of the grace of God, but God has established that in the next life things are more determined, more "set in stone".

b. Response:-- I don't believe that Bell really believes in human freedom. He says that people will live with the full consequences of their choices, and yet he doesn't seem to want people to suffer the full consequences of their choices. If people want to be resistant to God, will God coerce them against their will? According to Bell, yes, for love always wins. But where is the freedom of man to live with the choices he makes?

3. Another argument is the argument from the etymology of the Greek words often translated "eternal". According to Bell many of these translations need a more pliable and flexible translation. (92).

a. Response:-- It seems to me that Bell is frequently guilty of investing meaning into words that are in agreement with his fundamental argument, rather than following the consistent meaning of the terms.

4. God always gets what he wants. Always. God is not frustrated. And since God wants the salvation of the lost, a fact clearly affirmed in the Scriptures, God will ultimately get what he wants (Chapter 4). "God has a purpose, something God is doing in the world, something that has never changed, something that involves everybody, and God's intention all along has been to communicate that intention clearly. Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?" (98). God gets what He wants! "Everybody who dies will kneel before God" (100). "God will be united and reconciled with all people…" (100).

a. Response:-- This is one of Bell's more persuasive arguments, and requires a theologically perceptive answer. Basically, I believe we need to allow the co-existence of God's sovereign determinations and humanity's freedom. In the ultimate instance, I believe Bell fails to recognize the true freedom of humanity. I believe that Bell believes that fallen humanity is coerced into believing and accepting the love of God against their own free will. He as much says so. Love wins, meaning that God wins. I believe this is shortsighted. How would I respond? God's love is broad and all embracing for all of humanity, true but He has placed conditions on which that love is experienced and appropriated. That love is expressed primarily in and through the person of Jesus. Rejection of Jesus means that people reject the love of God. God allows for that.

b. Response:--A second response has to be with understanding God's eternal decrees. God has foreordained people for salvation. Those who are not foreordained are left to the freedom on their choice to reject God. God respects that choice. But others, according to God's sovereign mercy, are elected to receive salvation, and He graciously illuminates them to want His salvation. It is all of grace. God wins, love wins, true, for those who accept God's ways. And God's electing love assures that His decrees will be fulfilled. But what about those who aren't elected? Does God's love win there? I answer with another question: What about the justice of God? Doesn't that win too? Can't God's justice win? Can't God's love and God's justice win? Yes indeed, for God always wins. The true title of the book that describes the harmonization of these difficult themes is not LOVE WINS but GOD WINS. God's sovereignty in seeing the elect saved and experience His love brings praise to God. God's sovereignly in punishing the ungodly and experience His justice brings praise to God's justice. God wins. His attributes will be praised. Not according to man's smorgasbord approach to selecting the attributes of God – but according to the way God truly is and has chosen to reveal Himself. According to Romans 9:16 "It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy." When we try and penetrate the mind of God, we come up short (surprise, surprise). "One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resist his will?" But who are you, O Man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?" (Romans 9:19-21). Love is not the only attribute of God. Why are we so keen on selecting that particular attribute and making it the be all and end all of God. Never does the Bible say that God is "love, love, love". Never does the Bible say God is "mercy, mercy, mercy" but it does say God is "holy, holy, holy". Why are we so keen to select those attributes that we think are preeminent in the Godhead, and force our thinking to reconcile everything that happens (including hell) around those attributes of God that we consider to be preeminent in the character of God. In the final analysis, it becomes us who are rationalizing and theologizing and creating a theodicy (defense of the justice of God) because we have set up a straw-God (an understanding of God filtered by human reasoning instead of by Divine revelation).

5. Bell argues for a new etymology of "eternal" which would allow for a period of pruning (91) instead of a period of time.

a. Response:-- It seems that Bell allows his bias to creep in, creating an understanding of words that is more suitable to his presuppositions of what has to happen in the end. If eternal can be downloaded of its meaning and uploaded with another set of meanings, whatever will happen with other words. So eternal means eternal in one context and not eternal in another context, according to the particular presupposition and bias that we bring to the text. I don't think so.

b. Response:-- So Bell keeps the word "hell" (93) but reinvests it. Bell does believe in hell, but he has reinvested it with a meaning that is foreign to the traditional understanding of the Biblical teaching.

6. God is frustrated if hell is real. God wants certain things. People go to hell. God doesn't want people to go to hell. Ergo God is frustrated and that's not the kind of God that the Bible presents. God gets what God wants. HE is all-powerful. Man cannot frustrate his purposes. Ergo hell has to go. (Chapter 4). IF PEOPLE GO TO HELL, THEN BY IMPLICATION GOD DIDN'T GET WHAT HE WANTED, AND THEREFORE HE IS ONLY "kind of great" or "medium great" or "great most of the time" but "not totally great". (97, 98).

a. Response:-- Man has become the measure of God's greatness? Since when? Our happiness determines God's character? Hello? Does anyone sense something is slightly skewed here.

b. Response:-- Here we have love without justice. Whatever happens to the justice of God in all of this? How is the justice of God accounted for in this universalism? Oh, but that isn't a problem, because man is the beneficiary. You see, when man is the recipient of God's justice, then man is all concerned about the apparent travesty of God's love… but there is no corresponding concern about the travesty of God's justice when man is the recipient of God's love.

7. There are numerous passages that talk about God being reconciled to all and all to God. God does not fail. This God simply doesn't give up. Ever. (101). Does God give up?

a. Response:--The reconciliation of all things involves the cross (Col. 1:19). This has several serious implications, but does not necessarily imply universal salvation for all. The Bible is clear that there is a difference between the sufficiency of the Gospel and the efficiency of the Gospel. Redemption is both accomplished (by the cross) and applied (by the Spirit) according to the sovereign purposes of God. One text isolated from other texts becomes a pretext for all kinds of heresy, and universalism is heresy. Make no mistake about it. The fact that grounds have been provided for the reconciliation of all men to God does not mean that they appropriate and stand upon those grounds. Furthermore, there may be a sense in which even the physical creation is reconciled to God, in that some of the effects of the fall come upon the physical creation (Romans 8:20-26). The physical creation will be redeemed and reconciled to God because of the work of the cross, but not those who persistently and perniciously oppose the grounds of that reconciliation and despise the cross. Be careful, Mr. Bell, with a selective hermeneutic, choosing those passages that line up with your doctrine, and shunning or revising those passages that fly in the face of your doctrines.

8. On a slightly varied version of annihilationism, Bell proposes a gradual dehumanization in hell, where there emerges a new "formerly human" or "posthuman" or "ex-human" (106).

a. Response:--But where is the biblical basis for annihalationism. It flies in the face of both the biblical evidence as well as in the face of justice. If sin is to be punished, and it is a violation and offence of an eternal Deity, then there is corresponding justice to eternal punishment.

9. Bell speaks of a second chance (106).

a. Response:-- Where does the Bible teach a second chance? On the contrary, in this life there are numerous chances, but beyond this life, there is no evidence of a second chance, on the contrary, it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment (Hebrews).

10. There is a long tradition of universalism (107) and "The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most "depraved sinners" will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God" (107)

a. Response:-- It is true that there is a long history of universalism, but that does not make it right. We could cite the long history of many beliefs, but that in it self does not constitute truth. Unless of course we place tradition on the same level as Divine revelation, but what part of the Bible authorizes us to do that? And if we appeal to tradition for the right to do that, then appeal can be made to various traditions to establish various shades of beliefs.

11. "Untold masses of people suffering forever doesn't bring God glory" (106)

a. Response:-- God will be exalted in the salvation of untold millions of His elect and in the just judgment of untold millions. God's attributes will not be maligned or compromised by anything that God does. He will be exalted even in the wrath of man, even that brings praise to Him.
b. Response:-- But we are beyond our ability here to fathom this. It is humanly difficult to grasp how this can be so, but we know that it is so for God does all things well and is not culpable of injustice. He will be able to judge the world injustice without in any way being maligned. (Romans 2).

12. God would appear as a cruel taskmaster saying "sorry, too late" to someone who repents after realizing the error of his way in eternity. (108). "History is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God" (109).

a. Response:-- This conjures up a scenario that the Bible no where contemplates. This presumes a kind of humanistic repentance rooted in humanity and not in God's sovereign grace. As if somehow God is caught by his own offer of mercy and seen as an ogre and a bigot for refusing to extend forgiveness even though it is genuinely sought after. But the Biblical doctrine of prevenient grace assumes the previous work of the Holy Spirit creating repentance and faith. It depends on God to produce that. God's day of working that grace in the life is established, and a different phase where a different mode of His attributes is manifested kicks in.

b. Response:-- There is something tragic, from a human perspective, about hell. That is why is is a powerful motivation for evangelism. Not the exclusive motivation, not even the primary motivation, but it is a legitimate motivation for evangelism. God's other attributes, and the exaltation of all of His attributes makes both hell and heaven not a tragedy but rather, from God's perspective, a testament to His character and to all of His attributes.

13. Hell makes the Gospel and the character of God incompatible with His love. Let's remove it and make God more accessible to others (110). It doesn't sell… "isn't a very good story" (110).

a. Response:-- So, let's water down those parts of the truth that we find not palatable and grating to our sensitivities and to the sensitivities of others.

b. Response:-- So we assume the role of determining if it makes for a good sell or not?

14. You can be a Universalist and still be evangelical (110).

a. Response:-- So where does one draw the line? If one deletes certain aspects of Scripture, can one delete other aspects as well? The deity of Chirst, the centrality of the blood, the resurrection, the exclusivity of Jesus, all of these are offensive in today's pluralistic society.

15. "To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now."

a. Response:-- Grace trumps everything else? Including truth? He does raise a good point… just how much latitude do we allow for variance among evangelicals. The real question is: Just how much variance does God allow?

16. God will keep the pearly gates open (115)

a. Response:--What about respecting the choices that people make? Where is the argument for that? God made man in his image, with the capability of choice. IF that choice is wrestled away from man, doesn't that somehow dehumanize him?

17. God respects that desire on our part" (rejecting the truth) ….

a. Response:-- I don't think Rob Bell respects that desire on our part. If we chose in this life, God leaves us with our choices.

CONCLUSION:-- At the end of the book Eugene Peterson states Bell makes his case for a thoroughly biblical imagination that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation." Then Peterson goes on to say that Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination …without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all." I seriously challenge this endorsement. How Peterson can say that this book does not compromise an inch of biblical conviction…? I fail to grasp how Peterson can claim that. One can be a Universalist and still stand in the mainstream of evangelicalism with evangelical convictions? I don't think so. If so, then we need a new term for biblical Christianity.

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