If you like books surrounded in controversy, then this book is for you. This book created controversy before it was even released. The debate started when John Piper, tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell” (suggesting he had left the confines of orthodox Christianity) with his new book Love Wins. His tweet, terribly premature, was based on an incomplete review based on pre-release publisher’s notes from a blog posting here by Justin Taylor. However premature, that tweet was a harbinger of what was to come. The controversy is simply this. Many are wondering if mega-church pastor and popular author Rob Bell has become a Universalist.
I have to admit upfront that I did not like this book very much but not because of the controversy or the fact that the author came to conclusions that differ from mine. Some of my favourite books are ones that I disagree with. Whether I agree with a writer or not, I expect a book, especially from someone of this stature with his platform and influence, on a topic as controversial as this one, to be well written with solid argumentation. I was very disappointed in the quality of the book.
Bell seems guilty of first-year-Bible-college positioning: put the worst possible spin on your opponent’s view as if that will make your position look better. He presents a historical view of many Bible teachers as emphasizing only judgment and punishment born from an distorted view of God. So if the stakes have become high in this discussion Rob Bell has contributed. He didn’t just say those who differ from him have a differing theological opinion. He says those who differ from him have a wrong view of God. He calls this kind of teaching “toxic” among many other things. He seems oblivious to the fact that those who preach the judgement and justice of God also preach the love of God but struggle with the tension between the two. I, like every other pastor for at least the past few hundred years, have struggled to bring balance to those two things. It is very difficult. I am disappointed that he did not position the view of those who differ from him with greater respect and balance. Summarily put, in my opinion this book does not have intellectual strength.
Is Bell a Universalist (or perhaps a pluralist)? I don’t know. He doesn’t say. I can see why many people will say yes he is a Universalist because he seems to be saying that in many places in the book. It is difficult to not read this book and think he is saying everyone will get to heaven … eventually because “love wins.” In fairness, I can see why people say that he isn’t a Universalist as he refers to just enough concepts of judgment to leave that door open, although slightly in my opinion. He does believe in hell but it does not seem to be permanent in Bell’s view. Historically, a Universalist was one who held the belief that there was no literally place such as hell. So, Bell, if he is a Universalist, is perhaps a new breed. I am not interested in labelling him, but like every other person who reads this book, I want to draw conclusions about points of agreement and disagreement.
There are things I like about this book. I think his motivation is evangelism. He is deeply concerned for those who have a wrong version of the gospel and have rejected Jesus as a result. I admire his love and concern for those people. I feel the same passion. My concern though is this: as much as I want to make the Bible and Jesus more understandable, I don’t want to make the Bible more palpable than it should be.
Something important that Bell points out is his emphasis on making the Good News truly good. On this point I am in one hundred percent agreement. The message of Jesus is GOOD NEWS. In fact, as I say all the time, good news is a gross understatement. How do we successfully communicate that Good News to the unbelieving world? This book brings this issue to our attention and it should. I grew up in church in a time when the Good News sounded like bad news too often. But in fairness, I would never once have said, that I was not taught about the love of God. And people need to also know God is holy and just. In fact, that is also good news if you understand it properly. It seems to me that tone, both personally and ecclesiastically, is most often our point of failure on this topic of presenting the Good news as the really good news that it is. No question, there is errant theology being taught that becomes mean spirited in presentation and polemic but that seems to belong to a minority of people on the evangelical extreme.
I am sure there are mounting opinions on this book so let me know what you think. I would be glad to have a discussion on this among our church family.