a fundamentalist's review of rob bell's new book: love wins

This post was recently featured on youthworker.com's book review page. There has been a lot of uproar about Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins. After watching the video, and reading a couple of blog posts, watching some news items and listening to the rumor mill, I figured it was time to read the book for myself and see what all the hub bub was all about.


At first, this book made me really upset:

The book opens with the same story that is presented in the video, an art show to help communicate his series on peacemaking. After watching the video and after reading the chapter I realized that I was really angry and upset. What drove me crazy was not his theology, but the way that Bell paints the picture of his community being one of love, peace, art, and beauty while contrasting it with the knuckle dragging church folk who only that they are in the “in” group.

For the next four chapters, Bell continues to build up straw-man after straw-man to only destroy them with biting questions. Every anecdotal story is one where the traditional Christian is pictured as small minded and judgmental and contrasted to the superior enlightenment and love of Bell and his circle of thought. All the while, Bell continues to paint the traditional, orthodox views of atonement, judgment, and salvation as outdated and abusive.

It makes sense that this book has blown up the internet. There is now a solid and respected voice telling the world what it has wanted to hear for so long. Not that Christians are exclusive, but that Christians truly are shallow in their thinking, judgmental in their world view, and only care about themselves and not the values of “good” people like social justice, the environment, and the poor.

The anecdotal attacks are not fair:

After wrestling with my feelings for a couple of days, I realized why I was so angry. It wasn’t because a fellow Christian was questioning the theology of Hell. Anyone with a heart wrestles with this concept. What got me so upset was that this was a brother in Christ, a fellow Christian intentionally blowing up part of the body of Christ in an incredibly unfair way.

And the sad thing was that when Christians responded out of anger and fear, it only proves the point of the Bell book, which traditional Christianity is only for the narrow minded. But what really happened was that Bell threw down the gauntlet first. He was the one who comes of judgmental and arrogant fist. He paints it in beauty and art and love. But what he is really doing is lighting up the traditional church and their traditional theology. And when they respond, he gets to sit back and use the attacks to only further his point.

This is a great strategy to promote a book and to get sales. But this strategy continues to reinforce the cultural story that Christians are judgmental, close-minded, hypocrites.

A little grace for those who reacted:

Rob Bell is an incredibly intelligent and articulate person. He had the pleasure of spending years on this book with editors and friends to process his thoughts and makes sure he communicated accurately his point of view. Most people when they respond do so out of anger and frustration and end up saying stupid things. And several times in the first few chapters I wanted to do just that.

Heaven and hell was just the hook:

As I read, it became more and more clear as to what Bell was trying to communicate. Heaven and Hell are just his hook to paint a fresh picture of God’s love. He clearly communicates that he is not a universalist and clearly communicates that there is a heaven and hell after we die. But all this gets clouded by his mind numbing questions, which he doesn’t answer. I am impressed with the way that Bell himself artfully danced around the difficult answers to the questions of heaven, hell, sin and judgment. And with the skill of a great lawyer, he managed to walk the fence, giving enough evidence to the reader to have Bell agree with your view.

Like I said, these questions and these issues are really just the hook for the main thesis of this book, which is that Jesus is at work everywhere, even when we don’t realize it or name it. And his work is the redemption of all of creation motivated by love. We are invited into this love relationship with the father, and we can easily miss it. We can miss it if we are on the path of death and destruction, and we can miss it if we are on the narrow, self-righteous path. Both paths miss out on the father’s love.

The last half of the book is as brilliant as any that Bell has written. He is passionate and creative. The way he comments on 1 Corinthians 10 when Paul talks about how Jesus was present when Moses drew water from the rock and his retelling of the prodigal son story is amazing! By the time I had finished the book, I was greatly encouraged in my faith and in my understanding of God’s love toward me.

Can we stop blowing up the church to make our points better:

Rob Bell is an amazing communicator and he proves that again in this book. By using such a lighting rod as a hook might have caused more damage than good. I can totally understand the need to help Christians, especially traditional, fundamentalist ones, to understand the larger calling of Christ to be partners in redemption, we need this message. But to paint the church in such a negative light only adds unneeded fuel to the fire in a culture that already doesn’t respect the church and holds it in contempt.

The church, with all its diversity is the bride of Christ. We can not say to part of the body that it is of lesser value. Just like in human relationships, we can not make the church better by publicly mocking and rebuking them. If there is correction, which of course there is in the church, we must do that in a way that edifies the church and doesn’t divide it.

Unfortunately for me, this book goes into the pile with all the other emerging books that have tried to paint a more compelling and beautiful picture of Christianity at the expense of the church. To take the worst parts of the church, highlight them, and then define yourself against that is a disservice and is actually the easy way out. It is a much more difficult task to paint a beautiful picture of the redemptive story of Christianity, using the story itself. N.T. Wright does this magnificently in his book, Surprised by Hope.

If we are going to make inroads in our context for the gospel, it must start and end with love. Bell is right that love does win. When our sisters and brothers are missing it, we must correct them in love. We will be much for effective when we see that the church is wide and diverse, just like Bell said. So we can be gracious with each other as each community works out the gospel faithfully in their context, the way that God has directed them. And may we all be open for correction as we collectively work for the redemption of all of creation for all of eternity.

“May you experience this vast,

expansive, infinite, indestructible love

that has been yours all along.

May you discover that this love is as wide

as the sky and as small as the cracks in

your heart no one else knows about.

And may you know

deep in your bones,

that love wins.” -Rob Bell