*Editors Note* This review is one of three posted and available here. It was written by Rich Brahm, and edited only to make it fit better for blogging.
Love Wins: A Toxic Message
Reading this book was an excruciating experience. I went from being incredulous to disgusted, to livid, and finally heart-broken. The way Bell distorts scripture and slants his presentation of historic Christianity is, well – let’s use one of his favorite words: toxic.
Bell raises a lot of questions in the book, several of which are actually questions that I would like to see the church grapple with, but I’m afraid will be lost in the larger controversy over his quasi-universalism. Among these are questions about what to think of people who recite some form of the so-called “sinner’s prayer” at some point, but for whom it now means nothing today. The whole way that many evangelical churches dole out assurance of salvation on the basis of someone simply reciting a prayer deserves a lot of scrutiny, and if Love Wins causes some people to give that some serious thought, then we can at least rejoice in that.
Bell seems to be very concerned about how the Christian message is perceived by our culture, and rightly so. As David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, pointed out in his book unChristian a few years ago, we have a definite perception problem in today’s society. The predominant view of present-day Christianity is that we are essentially judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-homosexual. Not a very loving picture. Love Wins represents a well-meaning desire to recast Christianity in a more favorable light. Unfortunately, Bell goes about his project all wrong.
You get a sense early on that you’re dealing with someone who’s not a straight shooter, who will be pulling any tricks he can get away with, as he quickly gets off two very devilish, emotionally manipulative jabs in the first three pages. First we have the story of the art show and the ungracious note tacked onto the artwork with the Ghandi quote. He uses our revulsion over the lack of tact in not only posting a note like this on someone’s artwork, but also the way the note was worded, to hopefully bolster his case. Then again, on the next page, he recounts the story of the funeral for an atheist and in a very smarmy way, twists the thought that there was no hope for an atheist after death to say that the standard evangelical message is that Jesus offers the world no hope. This is just despicable, but at least you know right away that you’re going to need to stay on your toes because this guy is not going to be trustworthy.
Bell blatantly distorts scripture. Of course, you can’t build a case that goes against the consensus of thousands of years of Christian scholarship and ecumenical church councils without twisting some verses, but Bell deserves some kind of award for the spin he manages to apply while keeping a straight face. He repeatedly states that “forever is not a category the biblical writers used.” (p. 58, 92) This is in both his chapters on heaven and hell. To back this up, on page 92 he states that “the closest the Hebrew writers come to a word for ‘forever’ is the word olam.” He goes on to say that in the passages that don’t describe God, “it has very different meanings” (other than forever). He uses the example from Jonah 2:5-6, when Jonah says “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.” (Side note: Bell doesn’t actually quote the passage, he only alludes to it. In fact, throughout the book, he never gives verse numbers – and in this case, doesn’t even give the chapter. Looking up the actual verses consistently erodes his case, so he apparently prefers to make it just a little harder to do.) Rob says “Olam, in this instance, turns out to be three days.” Does he really think Jonah was expressing a three-day period of time? Doesn’t he know how to read Hebrew poetry? I think he does, but he is perverting the meaning here to suit his purpose. He goes on to say “It’s a versatile, pliable word, in most occurrences referring to a particular period of time.” That is flat out false. Let’s look at how Olam is actually used:
Olam is Strong’s Hebrew word #5769. It is translated as the following words into the NASV with the following number of occurrences: “all successive” (1); “always” (1); “ancient” (13); “ancient times” (3); “continual” (1); “eternal” (2); “eternity” (3); “ever” (7); “everlasting” (112); “for ages” (1); “forever” (136); “forever *” (65); “forevermore *” (1); “from of old” (4)”; “lasting” (1); “long” (2); “long ago” (3); “long past” (1); “long time” (3); “more *” (2); “never *” (16); “of old” (8); “permanent” (10); “permanently” (1); “perpetual” (29); “perpetually” (1).
Here are some examples, none of which are describing God:
Gen 9:12: God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations.
Psalm 73:12: Behold, these are the wicked;
And always at ease, they have increased in wealth.
Job 22:15: Will you keep to the ancient path
Which wicked men have trod,
Isaiah 33:14: Sinners in Zion are terrified;
Trembling has seized the godless
“Who among us can live with the consuming fire?
Who among us can live with continual burning?”
Eccl 12:5: Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street.
Isa 45:17: Israel has been saved by the LORD
With an everlasting salvation;
You will not be put to shame or humiliated
To all eternity.
Jer 7:7: then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.
Psalm 78:66: He drove His adversaries backward;
He put on them an everlasting reproach.
Eccl 1:10: Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.
Gen 3:22: Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever“—
Psalm 9:5: You have rebuked the nations, You have destroyed the wicked;
You have blotted out their name forever and ever.
Isaiah 9:7: There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness
From then on and forevermore
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.
Eccl 2:16: For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten And how the wise man and the fool alike die!
Psalm 77:5: I have considered the days of old,
The years of long ago.
Ezek 27:36: ‘The merchants among the peoples hiss at you;
You have become terrified
And you will be no more.
Deut 23:6: You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days.
Deut 32:7: Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of all generations.
Ask your father, and he will inform you,
Your elders, and they will tell you.
Exod 12:14: ‘Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance.
Exod 21:6: then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.
Exod 27:21: In the tent of meeting, outside the veil which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall keep it in order from evening to morning before the LORD; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout their generations for the sons of Israel.
Lev 10:15: “The thigh offered by lifting up and the breast offered by waving they shall bring along with the offerings by fire of the portions of fat, to present as a wave offering before the LORD; so it shall be a thing perpetually due you and your sons with you, just as the LORD has commanded.”
Sometimes Olam is used to describe a period of time in the ancient past, and other times it is used in the sense of forever, eternal, permanently. 318 of the 427 usages of Olam are translated “eternal”, “eternity”, “everlasting”, or “forever”. That’s over 74%. And that doesn’t count the times it is used for “ever” as in “forever and ever” or “never” or “permanent”. It’s overwhelmingly clear that this word consistently means an enduring long period of time, usually looking into the future with the normal sense of forever, but occasionally with a view to long past ages. It is absolutely false to say that “it’s a versatile, pliable word, in most occurrences referring to a particular period of time.” I couldn’t find even one of the 427 usages where Olam means a particular period of time, but Bell brazenly tells his followers that this is precisely what it means in most occurrences!
Does it really sound like the biblical writers didn’t have the concept of “forever”? Not to mention passages like 2 Cor 4:18 “while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” The term “eternal” here is clearly being contrasted with “temporal” and not meant to convey a “particularly intense experience,” as Bell would have his readers believe.
On page 74 Bell references Jesus’ story of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus who died; the rich man was in torment, while Lazarus was comforted in “Abraham’s side,” as Rob’s translation puts it (more commonly, “Abraham’s bosom”). Rob says this was “a Jewish way of talking about what we could call heaven.” No, it really wasn’t. He knows better than that. The concept was of Sheol, with a division between the place where the wicked went and where the righteous went until the judgment. Neither place was heaven nor hell. So then when Bell goes on in the story to where the rich man asks Abraham to have Lazarus get him some water, and then concludes: “People in hell can communicate with people in bliss?” He knows very well that he’s taken something from a parable about Sheol and created a doctrine that now he’s inappropriately applying to heaven and hell. But it’s very smooth and deceptive. He knows what he’s doing, but the majority of his readers won’t. It’s reprehensible.
In chapter 7, Bell puts a spin on the story of the prodigal son so that suddenly it’s about heaven and hell. Oh, you didn’t realize this was a story about heaven and hell? Don’t feel bad – not many people who have reflected on this, one of Jesus’ most beloved stories, in the past 2,000 years, have turned it into a parable of heaven and hell, either. Well, not the real heaven and hell – Bell doesn’t believe in those places. But in Bell’s integrated heaven/hell here-and-now mish-mash, the elder brother creates his own hell by rejecting the father’s love. That’s all that hell seems to be in Bell’s mixed up mess. “Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish. It’s not an image of separation, but one of integration.” (pp. 169-170).
He doesn’t stop at twisting scripture, though. He needs to portray his ideas as theologically mainstream. So he purposefully misquotes Martin Luther to make it seem like he supported the idea of a post-mortem second chance to believe in God. On page 106, Bell states: “In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: ‘Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?’” Then he builds on that to say, well, if there could be a second chance, why limit that to just one more chance – why not endless opportunities for as long as it takes. What he failed to mention was that the very next sentence in Luther’s letter was “But that He does this cannot be proved.” Luther never taught his followers that there was a second chance for the unrighteous who died without faith in Christ. Now, don’t you think Bell’s readers deserve to have the quote in context? Why would he make it look like Luther actually believed something that he didn’t? Well, you see, that wouldn’t fit Rob’s story nearly as well.
Bell claims that Jesus’ story has been “hijacked,” and he’s here to “reclaim” it (pp. vii, viii). And over and over he tries to present his beliefs as part of the broad stream of orthodox Christianity. He says in the preface “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. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.” Then in a section in pages 107-109 he states repeatedly that there is an “untold number” of “serious, orthodox followers of Jesus” beginning with the early church who have affirmed and trusted that “history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” “because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.” Yet, to support his assertion that this doctrine is part of orthodox Christianity, he drops the names of several prominent early church theologians – but never cites a single work of theirs that establishes that they actually taught that hell is not forever. I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for it, but after seeing what he’s done with the Bible and the Luther quote, I’m afraid he doesn’t have the credibility.
Back on page 3 he mockingly asked why is it that “whenever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed – and everybody else isn’t – why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in’?” My question is why is it that whenever someone comes along with a distortion of what Jesus taught, he claims to be reclaiming Jesus’ original message and insists that he is part of the orthodox mainstream?
In the preface to his book, Bell claims that “the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions” (ix). Yet he never deals with scriptures that directly contradict his universalism and promise of post-mortem chances. Scriptures such as Hebrews 9:27 (“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, …”) and Acts 4:12 (“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”) Or the big questions that his book is supposed to answer. Isn’t the subtitle of the book “A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived”? Well, then does he ultimately answer the big question, or skirt it? We find out on p. 115: “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
Rob Bell has a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College and a Master’s of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. I have no formal theological training – just a concordance and a Bible, and some stuff rattling around in my head from classes I took in a non-accredited Bible program that I attended decades ago. This isn’t a matter of not knowing what the Bible says. He seems as much like a false shepherd as anyone I’ve been exposed to. Paul warned that the time would come when people would not endure sound doctrine, but would accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires who will turn their ears from the truth and toward myths (2 Tim 4:3-4). Apparently that time has arrived, and it’s heart-breaking to see so many people drawn in by his distorted message – all in an effort to make God seem more palatable. To anyone who has not yet read this book, I’d advise you to save your money and your time.
– Rich Brahm
Rich Brahm grew up in California and moved to Georgia in 2002. He graduated from Cal State Northridge with a BS in Computer Science in the mid-1980’s and has worked in the dental practice management software industry for thirty years. Rich attended John MacArthur’s church from 1969 to 1982, where he met his lovely wife, Lisa. Together they have raised and home-schooled four incredible children, mostly to Lisa’s credit.