(If you haven’t read the book yet, you may want to do that before reading my little article about it)
I finished reading Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, today. After reading, I have to say that it’s pretty much everything everyone said it was going to be: heretical, controversial, universalist-leaning, thought-provoking, vague, etc. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said and he reiterated a lot of beliefs that I’ve grown to accept over the past few years.
One of these was his perspective on the age of accountability (and by extension, abortion): “This belief raises a number of issues, one of them being the risk each new life faces. If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever. Why run the risk?” (4)
Another thing I found myself agreeing with him on was his assertion that certain “individuals’ rejection of church and the Christian faith they were presented with… may in fact be a sign of spiritual health” (8). Church can be a pretty poisonous environment if it is proclaimed there that God will soon torture you forever if you don’t accept that church’s doctrines.
I should just stop with those two things, because if I go through everything I agree with him about, I’ll be re-writing most of the book. However, to quickly sum up some other things I agree with:
- Most, if not all, of the scriptural references he presents to back up his views are references I’ve seen before in my studies in relation to God’s ultimate desire to reconcile all people back to Himself.
- Most of his comments on the translation of “aion” and its derivatives as well as the reference to “kolazo” are ideas I’ve seen before and come to accept with a hopeful heart.
- I have heard and believed his assertion that many leaders within the early Church either believed in Christ’s ultimate reconciliation of all things or acknowledged that many within Christianity believed in it.
The main problem I have with this book comes in Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants? He starts out well enough (from my perspective) with hopeful language of God’s combined love and sovereignty. He says on page 101, “The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.” He even goes so far as to ask some leading questions, such as, “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love?” (109) None of this is problematic for me.
The problem comes in towards the end of the chapter when he starts talking about choices and will. He says on page 117, “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option… If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.” After leading people to think, practically through the whole book, that he is going to conclude his thoughts with the assertion that God does indeed prevail upon the hearts of all people to turn to Him for salvation, he takes a bit of a left turn at the end of Chapter 4. He says, “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” (115, my emphasis). Doesn’t leaving questions like these intact, especially in the context of this book, defeat the purpose of trying to show how God’s love can overcome every heart? I understand that leaving room for questions is important and that it’s good to be open-minded, but the fact that he leaves something so crucial to his argument so open-ended can only be detrimental to what he’s trying to do with his book. This is noticed even by those who disagree with the entire concept of ultimate reconciliation:
Bell’s god is a small god, so bound by notions of radical free will that I wonder how Bell can be so confident God’s love will melt the hardest heart. If God’s grace is always, essentially, fundamentally, resistible (72, 103–4, 118–19), how do we know some sinners won’t suffer in their own hell for a million years? – (Kevin DeYoung, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/)
Bell says on page 116: “‘Does God get what God wants?’ is a good question, an interesting question, an important question that gives us much to discuss. But there’s a better question… It’s not ‘Does God get what God wants?’ but ‘Do we get what we want?’ And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes.” Despite having read the entirety of Kevin DeYoung’s rebuttal of Bell’s book and having disagreed with most of it, I nevertheless agree that Bell is “bound by notions of radical free will.” Bell mentions several times throughout Love Wins that love is all about choice. I would disagree. Love is not about choice, love is about wanting what is best for another person, whether that person wants that or not. Consider the following quotation:
What father holding his little daughter’s hand while crossing a busy street would ever let it go? The more she pulls, the tighter her dad squeezes. There’s no way she is going anywhere! Is God any different? – (Gerry Beauchemin)
In God’s eyes we are merely children. He knows what’s best for us. Would he be foolish enough to leave us entirely to our own devices? Bell says, “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced” (119). I agree with the idea that love cannot be forced, etc. What I disagree with is the notion that God does nothing to win us over to Himself and merely leaves us to choose for ourselves. He wins us over with His love. He doesn’t do any of the things Bell describes, but He is responsible for our change of heart. God changes hearts. He is in control of our lives whether we acknowledge it or not. He is not irresponsible enough to give us a free will that overpowers His own. If we reject God or disobey Him and suffer the consequences, it is because God wants it to happen. This is why I believe the more important question is “Does God get what God wants?” Why? Because God wants what’s best for us. We can trust Him. If we’re hell-bent on destroying ourselves or others, then God is not loving in allowing that to happen forever. He has the ability to change hearts. This is not force, manipulation, or coercion but the act of a loving Father wooing His children into His arms so that He can protect and care for them. He overcomes our wills with His love.
Rob Bell’s ideas on free will are nothing new. According to Jeff Cook:
There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, CS Lewis. (http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/03/23/rob-bell-and-c-s-lewis-by-jeff-cook/)
This is evident in Bell’s “Further Reading” list at the end of the book, as the sole book he lists for “On hell” is Lewis’s The Great Divorce (201). This is unfortunate, as Lewis’s book is largely fiction and speculation about how some people in hell will have the opportunity to change their minds, yet most won’t want to because of the degradation of their natures (or something; I haven’t read it in a while); indeed, their fates depend mostly on what their “free wills” dictate. I say it’s unfortunate because there are a number of other books on hell that Bell could have recommended that are much more hopeful and in line with his book’s positive tone, but I suppose listing those would associate him more with the “universalist” label, something he seems determined to avoid (If anyone wants a list of some of these, I’ll be happy to give it).
Later in his article, Cook says:
I see every reason to think that Rob has an identical ontology of hell to CS Lewis, Rob however has more faith in the ability of some to eventually repent, that is the only real difference between them—and it is a belief about people not about God and God’s desires.
Unfortunately, in both C.S. Lewis’s and Rob Bell’s writings, people’s wants and desires seem to be more powerful than God’s.
There seems to be a bit of contradiction within the book, though, as later (after Chapter 4) Bell states, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155). The question Bell seems to be asking in Chapter 4, though, is “Will He still do it if no one wants Him to?”
I, for one, hope He will anyway.