*Editors’ note* This is one of three reviews available here. This review was written by Tim Brahm unedited except for formatting to make it more blog-friendly.
A review of Rob
Bell’s Love Wins
It concerns me that Rob Bell seems to be the current hip person for the good Christian to hate. Bringing up Rob Bell among a group of evangelical Christians is like bringing up Justin Bieber to any group that isn’t made up of young women. The pronouncements of disgust and revulsion are instantaneous. There are legitimate grounds for the strong reactions Bell is provoking, but I think the church should critique his terrible, terrible book without coming to strong conclusions about the author’s intentions or negative pronouncements of the state of his soul.
Is Rob Bell a false shepherd trying to lead the church astray? Maybe. If he is, that would certainly explain a great deal. But in this review I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt, and read it as charitably as I possibly can. Unfortunately for Bell, if I can’t explain what he’s up to in this book by suggesting he is evil, then the only way I can explain it is to say that Bell is grossly incompetent as a scholar and as a theologian. He might be a good pastor, a good husband and father, and a good friend, I don’t know. My only exposure to him is through watching a few interviews and reading his most recent book. I will critique his scholarship, or lack thereof, without any reference to him as a man, a pastor, a husband, etc.
Let me first say that his book did not have to be a failure. Bell raises many challenging questions that Christians should think about. If he had simply pointed out the difficult questions and wrestled with them honestly, I would have enjoyed the book even
if I disagreed with his conclusion. Unfortunately he raises these questions in a way that is incredibly condescending, smug and misleading. He does not present both sides; he argues for his side and then pokes fun at the other side, makes straw men arguments and sets up false dilemmas to make his side more compelling (examples listed below).
Even this could be overlooked if it had been written in someone’s personal prayer journal or diary. My private writings are not always well thought out or fair to both sides. If Love Wins was merely a catalogue of Bell’s struggles with his faith, and outlet for his frustration with the church and then it had been posthumously published by his family, it’d be legitimate exactly as it is.
But despite what he says in interviews, he is on a very clear mission. He is trying to persuade people that they should believe in the possibility of post-mortem salvation. This is not ambiguous. He is not just asking questions. He says on page 175,
“But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just
what kind of God is behind all this? Because if something is wrong with your
God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will
punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no
amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee
will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenably, unacceptable,
The standard Christian view, that God will punish people for eternity by sending them to hell is, to Bell, untenable and unacceptable. Given his mission then, the misleading arguments, dishonest questions and unfair characterizations of the opposing view are glaring problems.
Here are some specific examples of the kinds of objectionable things Bell does in his book.
Bell mischaracterizes people who disagree with him. For instance, on page viii, he says:
“A staggering number of people have been taught
that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful,
joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in
torment and punishment in hell with no change for anything better.” (emphasis
This is a straw man. Many people have been taught that only people with faith in Jesus will go to heaven, and the rest of humanity goes to hell. But the number of people that go to heaven is extremely high. It may be less than half of the people in history that have lived, but to characterize it as a select few is very misleading, and Bell repeats this fallacy over and over.
Another way he mischaracterizes his opponents is by setting up false dilemmas, implying either you agree with me, or you agree with them. These false dilemmas abound throughout this book. Here are just a few examples:
Page 97: “How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great.”
Page 102: “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth? Is our future uncertain, or will God take care of
us? Are we safe? Are we secure? Or are we on our own?”
Page 102: “Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father—or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father?”
Bell reveals very early on that he cannot be trusted to argue in a straightforward way. He will twist statements and take them out of context. I am assuming he thinks it is rhetorically effective. To some it might be, but to me it just put me on my guard early on because I knew I could not trust him at his word.
The first example of this is on page 3. He says:
“Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car
accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her, “So there’s no hope then.” No hope? Is that the Christian message? “No hope”? Is that what Jesus offers the world?”
This Christian who suggested then that there is no hope for the young man was callous and rude. That is not a helpful thing to say to someone who is grieving. But Bell does not point that out. Rather, he jumps from the statement that there is no hope
for the atheist who had just died, to implying that if you believe the rude Christian was right, then that you believe that the Christian message is no hope, and that no hope is what Jesus offers the world.
Another example is on page 84, where Bell says:
[Jesus] tells highly committed, pious, religious people that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than them on judgment day? There’s still hope? And if there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, what does that say about all of the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs? (emphasis added)
How does one jump from the statement that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than another group on the day of judgment, to the conclusion that there is hope for Sodom and Gomorrah? The only implication of hope for Sodom and Gomorrah in Jesus’ statement is that they can hope to not be the ones that are the most severely punished. That’s it.
Unfortunately, the examples of Bell’s poor biblical exegesis abound throughout his book. On page 47 he says,
“In Matthew 20 the mother of two of Jesus’s disciples says to Jesus, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at
your right and other at your left in your kingdom.” She doesn’t want bigger mansions or larger piles of gold for them, because static images of wealth and prosperity were not what filled people’s heads when they thought of heaven in her day. She understood heaven to be about partnering with God to make a new and better world, one with increasingly complex and expansive expressions and dimensions of shalom, creativity, beauty, and design.” (emphasis added)
Huh? How in the world does Bell know that this woman understood heaven to be about partnering with God to make a new and better world? It’s convenient for him to speculate that, and maybe it’s the kind of statement that sounds good in a sermon, but he does not have any justification for this claim. As my dad pointed out when he read this paragraph, many who followed Jesus expected that his kingdom would mean the overthrow of the Roman occupation. Their disappointment during passion week
had a lot to do with the Jewish rulers being able to turn them against Jesus. Even the faithful were still confused about the kingdom in Acts 1:6. Why should we think James and John’s mother had it all figured out?
Bell makes a similar exegetical blunder a few pages later on page 55. He says,
“[The thief on the cross] wants to be a part of it. Of course. Jesus assures him that he’ll be with him in paradise…that day.
The man hadn’t asked about today; he had asked about that day. He believes that God is doing something new through Jesus and he wants to be a part of it, whenever it is.” (emphasis added)
Again, how do you know that this is what the thief on the cross believed? Where is your evidence for this claim? If you are going to cite biblical characters as support for whatever view you’re arguing for, you cannot just say that they agreed with you. You have to give evidence that they agreed with you.
His failures to support his claims with evidence are my strongest objections to his book. He claims to be a respectable part of Christian orthodoxy over and over, but presents almost no evidence that this is true. He says on page x,
“I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times.
That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith.”
And on page 108,
“To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and truste that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.”
And we should believe that because Rob Bell says so?
The only evidence he provides for this assertion is on page 107, where he says,
“In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the
fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believe this as well. In their day, Jerome claimed that “most people,” Basil said the “mass of men,” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all
people to God.”
I was thrilled when I first read this, and immediately jumped to the back of the book to find his bibliography. I am no expert on church history, so I am honestly not sure how legitimate and orthodox his view is (though I think it’s pretty obviously
unbiblical). Then I went to the back of the book and found nothing. No citations. No bibliography. He has an extremely vague list of books for further reading, but nothing by any of the early church scholars he just referenced.
Bell should have written a chapter with a historical analysis of this discussion, with reference to prominent people on both sides and a bit on the church councils. He should have demonstrated that his view is orthodox Christian theology that people
legitimately disagree about, like how Calvinists and Arminians disagree but (usually) don’t call each other heretics. If whether or not we can be saved post-mortem is in the same category of theological disagreement as Calvinism vs Arminianism, that would incredibly strengthen Bell’s argument. But no. He asserts it to be the case and leaves his reader with nothing other than his word to back up his claim. Honestly, after all of the ways Bell has argued dishonestly throughout his book, I cannot trust him.
When I was in college, I spent a great deal of time reading my classmate’s essays and giving them feedback. The difference between a freshman’s ability to write a persuasive essay and a senior’s ability to write a persuasive essay is remarkable (I hope
no one ever finds my freshman year papers, I am so ashamed of them). I have never even seen a freshman namedrop like Bell does and not back it up with sources. No one would ever get away with that. I have never seen a freshman try to get away with rhetorical moves like Bell does, with false dilemmas and cheap shots. I have never seen a freshman refuse to present both sides of the argument before making his own argument (and instead make fun of the opposing view). So why does Rob Bell, a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, make all of these indefensible mistakes, and why does he
think he can get away with it?
– Tim Brahm