The hype devoted to this book was not worth it, and I suspect, had John Piper not tweeted his now-infamous tweet (Farewell, Rob Bell), not much would have been said about it. It was a poorly exegeted sermon full of half quotes, assumptions, out of context statements, proof texting, and hope. Bell barely scratches the surface of the Scripture and in the end, leaves us only with a few catch phrases which, as I put down the book, finished, they escape my attention.
The prose is simply beautiful. It is a sermon captured in poetic form, filled with stanzas, choruses, quotable quotes, and narratives and narrations. Love Wins is the fruit of a sermon delivered a few years ago at Bell’s Michigan church, and I would imagine much of it remains. If you have watched a video of Bell, or heard Bell in any way, his voice and delivery will be stuck in your head and as you read this work, often times, supplanting your own. This is a high point of the book, as it allows the reader to pick the book up, and within no time, reach the meat of the subject, find him or herself so enthralled with it, that before they know it, they have closed the back cover. Give Bell credit for his ability to spin words. His musical background comes forward well in his writing style.
There is nothing in this book which has not been covered before, either by early Christian writers, von Balthasar, Wright or Willimon. To compare Bell to Origen, however, is unfair, as what Bell has done is to take pastoral concerns and questions and instead of giving the answer of a seasoned theologian, sang a sermon. Where as Wright (not a universalist) supports his theological notions with exegetical work, Bell leaves much of his foundation as something to be assumed or guessed at. His ability to cite or source his thoughts is nothing short than a first semester seminarian. Noting his background at Wheaton and Fuller, I am surprised that he lacks what seems to be the ability to connect his thoughts and words to solid, supported, theology and give any support to himself other than pulls words out of thin air and placing them on paper (or, perhaps, a computer screen). For example, he mentions an ancient belief of universal reconciliation among such towering figures as Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa (p107) and yet, there are not statements or sources of statements by those early Christian writers to judge Bell’s thoughts by. Further, on the opposite page, Bell quotes Martin Luther who is seemingly suggesting that God could, after death, give someone faith to believe and thus be reconciled to God. Yet, upon further research, this thought is adamantly opposed by Luther, not in another letter or work, but in the very same letter mentioned by Bell, and within just a line or two. We are led to just trust his Greek (p91) and history, especially when it comes to Gehenna. What is equally bothersome is Bell’s quoting of Scripture. Generally, it is a chapter. Not a chapter and a verse, but merely a chapter. When you issue ‘new’ theological statements or seek to challenge, at the very least, long standing ones, you must endeavor to be as scriptural and exegetically correct as possible. Finally, his use of Scripture amounts to little more than proof-texting, in which he gives lists of verses to support his stance, which is nothing more than a topical use of Scripture. Bell simply provides no support for his thoughts and again, I turn to the fact that this is not a theological work, but a sermon simply fleshed out and placed on paper for all to read.
As I have said, this book is pastoral. Rob Bell is, simply, a pastor. His writing exudes a pastor’s plight to deal with questions, prejudices, and misunderstandings of the Christian faith. As he notes in the introductory video and is found on the pages of this book, Christianity in the West has come to present the Gospel as a story in which Jesus rescues a small group of believers from a very wrathful God who has no other intention but to see people burn. This is not a fundamental aspect of Christianity, but it is our fault for not presenting Christianity properly. Bell is also correct that often times, we posit Christianity as an us-them, with the ‘us’ aspect of that relationship becoming a very arrogant stance. His care and concern for the Gospel and for people come across, but so does his refusal to take a stance on a very key issue in the debate on universal reconciliation, and that of the image of God. He only asks questions, which seems to be both the highlight and the methodology of his theological inquiry. Further, he is correct that Christians set boundaries which are not present in scripture, and most notable is that damnable prayer which many have taken as the be-all, end-all, of the Christian experience and the only boundary one needs. He expresses, more than adequately, the correct stance that often times the bible has confusing standards of what is required to be a believer, and that perhaps, he suggests and I paraphrase, we are more boundary specific than Scripture. Again, his pastoral concern is that we do not so easily set boundaries on who will be saved but allow that Christ may be working a mystery which we simply have no clue as to the end goal. Further, what he really expresses is that Christians will become Christians and show forth the love of God to every creature.
This book does not alleviate anyone from their sin or their final destination. The Gospel Coalition, John Piper, and others who so easily cast Bell aside for the mere title of this book have done a grave injustice to themselves and Bell, a Christian brother. Frankly, I was expecting justification for universalism or universal reconciliation. Instead, I found only the pastoral hope that Christ’s love is bigger than one set of doctrinal and dogmatic standards. What this book does is call for a relaxed understanding of the inclusivity found in Christ’s exclusivity. As a blogger who initially defended Bell against those who were accusing him of all sorts of heresies, I find that my original position was correct. Those who seek to make a judgment about Bell and his book should do so after they read it, and without any preconceived notions, as much as possible, about what Bell is saying.
This book will reach those who want something easy to read, but for those who seek something more in-depth, there are a host of books which deal with this topic more theologically.