A Few Preliminaries
Before going any further with a critique, a number of preliminary comments are in order. A few opening remarks may help put this critical review in context and encourage productive responses.
One, although Bell asks a lot of questions (350 by one count), we should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising. Bell did not write an entire book because he was looking for some good resources on heaven and hell. This isn’t the thirteen-year-old in your youth group asking her teacher, “How can a good God send people to hell?” Any pastor worth his covenant salt will welcome sincere questions like this. (“Good question, Jenny, let’s see what the Bible says about that.”) But Bell is a popular teacher of a huge church with a huge following. This book is not an invitation to talk. It’s him telling us what he thinks (nothing wrong with that). As Bell himself writes, “But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (19).
Two, we should notice the obvious: this is a book. It is a book with lots of Scripture references. It is a book that draws from history and personal experience. It makes a case for something. It purports one story of Christianity to be better than another. Bell means to persuade. He wants to convince us of something. He is a teacher teaching. This book is not a poem. It is not a piece of art. This is a theological book by a pastor trying to impart a different way of looking at heaven and hell. Whether Bell is creative or a provocateur is beside the point. If Bell is inconsistent, unclear, or inaccurate, claiming the “artist” mantle is no help.
Three, I’m sure that many people looking to defend Bell will be drawn to a couple escape hatches he launches along the way. As you’ll see, the book is a sustained attack on the idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins. This is the traditional Christianity he finds “misguided and toxic” (viii). But in one or two places Bell seems more agnostic.
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. (115)
These are strange sentences because they fall in the chapter where Bell argues that God wants everyone to be saved and God gets what God wants. He tells us that “never-ending punishment” does not give God glory, and “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts” (108). So it’s unclear where the sudden agnosticism comes from. Is Bell wrestling with himself? Did a friend or editor ask him to throw in a few caveats? Is he simply inconsistent?
Similarly, at the end Bell argues, rather out of the blue, that we need to trust God in the present, that our choices here and now “matter more than we can begin to imagine” because we can miss out on rewards and celebrations (197). This almost looks like an old-fashioned call to turn to Christ before it’s too late. When you look more carefully, however, you see that Bell is not saying what evangelicals might think. He wants us to make the most of life because “while we may get other opportunities, we won’t get the one right in front of us again” (197). In other words, there are consequences for our actions, in this life and in the next, and we can’t get this moment back; but there will always be more chances. If you don’t live life to the fullest and choose love now, you may initially miss out on some good things in the life to come, but in the end love wins (197-198).
For anyone tempted to take these few lines and make Bell sound orthodox, I encourage you to read the whole book more carefully. Likewise, before you rush to accept that Bell believes in hell and believes Christ is the only way, pay attention to his conception of hell and in what way he thinks Jesus is the only way. Bad theology usually sneaks in under the guise of familiar language. There’s a reason he’s written 200 pages on why you must be deluded to think people end up in eternal conscious punishment under the just wrath of God. Words mean something, even when some of them seem forced or out of place. Take the book as a whole to get Bell’s whole message.
Four, it is possible that I (like other critics) am mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel. But voicing strong disagreement does not automatically make me any of these. Judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments. The same Jesus who said “do not judge” in Matthew 7:1 calls his opponents dogs and pigs in Matthew 7:6. Paul pronounces an anathema on those who preach a false gospel (Gal. 1:8). Disagreement among professing Christians is not a plague on the church. In fact, it is sometimes necessary. The whole Bible is full of evaluation and encourages the faithful to be discerning and make their own evaluations. What’s tricky is that some fights are stupid, and some judgments are unfair and judgmental. But this must be proven, not assumed. Bell feels strongly about this matter of heaven and hell. So do a lot of other people. Strong language and forceful arguments are appropriate.
Five, I am not against conversation. What I am against is false teaching. I did not go to the trouble of writing a review because I worry that God can’t handle our questions. The question is never whether God can handle our honest reappraisals of traditional Christianity, but whether he likes them.
On the subject of conversation, it’s worth pointing out that this book actually mitigates against further conversation. For starters, there’s the McLarenesque complaint about the close-minded traditionalists who don’t allow for questions, change, and maturity (ix). This is a kind of pre-emptive “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” approach to conversation (cf. 183). In essence, “Let’s talk, but I know already that the benighted and violent will hate my theology.” That hardly invites further dialogue. More practically, Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when he is less than careful in backing them up.
Six, this is not an evangelistic work, not in the traditional sense anyway. The primary intended audience appears to be not so much secularists with objections to Christianity (á la Keller’s Reason for God), but disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with. Bell writes for the “growing number” who have become aware that the Christian story has been “hijacked” (vii). Love Wins is for those who have heard a version of the gospel that now makes their stomachs churn and their pulses rise, and makes them cry out, “I would never be a part of that” (viii). This is a book for people like Bell, people who grew up in an evangelical environment and don’t want to leave it completely, but want to change it, grow up out of it, and transcend it. The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.
Over and over, Bell refers to the “staggering number” of people just like him, people who can’t believe the message they used to believe, people who want nothing to do with traditional Christianity, people who don’t want to leave the faith but can’t live in the faith they once embraced. I have no doubt there are many people like this inside and outside our churches. Some will leave the faith altogether. Others—and they are in the worse position—will opt for liberalism, which has always seen itself as a halfway house between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief.
But before we let Bell and others write the present story, we must remember that there are also a “staggering number” of young people who want the straight up, unvarnished truth. They want doctrinal edges and traditional orthodoxy. They want no-holds-barred preaching. They don’t want to leave traditional Christianity. They are ready to go deeper into it.
Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.
Where to Begin?
With those as preliminaries, you know this won’t be a brief review. The hard part is knowing where to begin. Love Wins is such a departure from historic Christianity, that there’s no easy way to tackle it. You can’t point to two or three main problems or three or four exegetical missteps. This is a markedly different telling of the gospel from start to finish. To fully engage the material would require not only deconstruction, but a full reconstruction of orthodoxy theology. A book review, however, is not the place to build a systematic theology. So where to begin?
I want to approach Love Wins by looking at seven areas: Bell’s view of traditional evangelical theology, history, exegesis, eschatology, Christology, gospel, and God.
1. Not Your Grandmother’s Christianity
Perhaps the best place to start is to show that Bell routinely disparages the faith of traditional evangelicalism.
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 chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (viii)
At least Bell is honest. In the next chapter, not even his grandmother gets off unscathed. Bell reminisces about the scary picture in her house of a floating cross-bridge to heaven. He likens it to a joint project from Thomas Kinkade and Dante or like Dungeons and Dragons, Billy Graham, and a barbecue pit rolled into one (22-23). He and his sister were freaked out. This story of leaving earth to go to heaven by means of faith in Christ is not the story he wants to promote anymore.
Later, Bell allows that traditionalists can believe their story of heaven and hell, but “it isn’t a very good story” (110). Traditional Christians have inferior news to share because in their story so many people end up in hell. “That’s why the Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties” (179). Not only are they bad at parties, traditionalists are bad at art: “An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation. Or a number of other things. It’s a cheap view of the world because it’s a cheap view of God. It’s a shriveled imagination” (180). So much for finding beauty or delight in Western civilization. I’ll leave it to the art critics and the partygoers to determine if it’s true that, second to blondes, universalists have more fun.
What’s interesting is that Bell struggles to leave his evangelical upbringing behind. He knows the temptation to be embarrassed that “we were so ‘simple’ or ‘naïve,’ or ‘brainwashed’ or whatever terms arise when we haven’t come to terms with our own story” (194). And yet, he believes it’s important to embrace past understanding of the faith, even if people like him were shaped by a certain environment and reared in certain experiences that can be easily deconstructed (e.g., praying the sinner’s prayer) (193-95). Again, we sense Bell is trying to reconcile an earlier faith with his present trajectory. The result is an awkward attempt to claim his past while still wanting to evolve out of it. This presumes, of course, that the Christian faith is not a deposit to guard or a tradition that must not change (2 Tim. 1:14; 2 Thess. 2:15). Much of Bell’s polemic fails if there is a core of apostolic teaching that we are called, not just to embrace as part of our journey, but to protect from deviation and defend against false teaching (Acts 20:29-31).
2. Historical Problems
Bell maintains he is not saying anything new. And that’s right. The problem is he makes it sound like his everyone-ends-up-restored-and-reconciled-to-God theology is smack dab in the center of the Christian tradition.
And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a “renewal of all things,” Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will “restore everything,” and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ “God was pleased to. . . .reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (107, ellipsis in original)
It’s important to Bell that he falls within the “deep, wide, diverse stream” of “historic, orthodox Christian faith” (ix-x). Therefore, he argues that “at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church has been the insistence that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins” (109).
This bold claim flies in the face of Richard Bauckham’s historical survey:
Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated. . . . Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of the universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. (“Universalism: A Historical Survey,” Themelios 4.2 [September 1978]: 47-54)
Universalism (though in a different form than Bell’s and for different reasons) has been present in the church since Origen, but it was never in the center of the tradition. Origen’s theology was partly anticipated by his fellow Platonist Clement of Alexandria and later shows up in the Cappadocian Gregory of Nyssa. But according to William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, Gregory’s theology of hell is hard to pin down. He makes much of God being “all in all” and evil being eradicated, but he also warns of the final judgment and the flames ready to engulf the wicked (NPNF ser. 2, 5:16). Whatever Origen’s influence on the Cappadocian fathers (and it was considerable), Origen’s views were later refuted by Augustine and, as Bauckham notes, condemned in 543 in a council at Constantinople.
Bell also mentions Jerome, Basil, and Augustine because they claimed many people in their day believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God (107). But listing all the heavyweights who took time to refute the position you are now espousing is not a point in your favor. Most egregiously, Bell calls on Martin Luther in support of post-mortem salvation (106). But as Carl Trueman has pointed out, anyone familiar with Luther’s creedal statements and overall writing, not to mention the actual quotation in question, will quickly see that Luther is not on Bell’s side.
Universalism has been around a long time. But so has every other heresy. Arius rejected the full deity of Christ and many people followed him. This hardly makes Arianism part of the wide, diverse stream of Christian orthodoxy. Every point of Christian doctrine has been contested, but some have been deemed heterodox. Universalism, traditionally, was considered one of those points. True, many recent liberal theologians have argued for versions of universalism—and this is where Bell stands, not in the center of the historic Christian tradition.
Part two incoming.