29 March 2011
Review of Love Wins
by Derek Tidball
I stand in awe of Rob Bell's well-established communication skills and wish others would share his passion to make God's love known. But now comes the controversial Love Wins (© 2011 HarperCollins) which was hyped up before it was even published.
Love Wins is full of confusing half-truths - and each of those words is important!
Love Wins contains truth. It's true that "the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality" and we're all "endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace and experience it". Much of what he says about the cross is straight out of the Bible. His criticism of some evangelicals for their superficial and misplaced judgmentalism rings true. He's right: biblical teaching on heaven and 'the age to come' is misrepresented if all it does is encourage some to boast, "I've got a ticket to heaven". The Bible presents Christ's work as much wider than the salvation of a few individuals. It is about the restoration and renewal of a fallen creation. Eternal life doesn't start "when we die but is about a quality of life lived now'. Amen to that. But I learned that in the Brethren Assembly where I grew up, many decades ago! There are many 'Jesuses' being spoken about and it's vital we get the authentic one and not one of our own creation. All this and much more is true.
Love Wins however only presents half the truth, which is disturbing to those who believe in the other half of the truth. Old Testament verses are strung together which speak of God's grace triumphing over Israel's sin and that their punishment will have a 'sale by' date. But he never mentions repentance in this connection as the prophets do, nor the fact that it was a remnant restored to the homeland. His teaching on hell ducks some hard issues while firing out a lot of questions of his own. God's wrath, and his holiness, is touched on only very inadequately and insubstantially. He says the sacrificial understanding of the cross belongs to a primitive cultural world we no longer inhabit, so he sidesteps a key understanding of the cross. He assumes that people will come round to accept God's love in the end, and doesn't see why death is the irreversible cut-off point. But why does he think people will 'repent' after death when they haven't done so before? He uses some parables that appear to fit his argument but ignores others and uses them all in a somewhat interesting way.
Bell is good at drawing on 'the hard cases' to make his point and ignoring the rest. He can be very emotive. He's very critical of evangelicalism for its lack of engagement in this world and ignores its huge and long-standing involvement in communities and in helping the poor. Many mission halls supported the vulnerable that others neglected. And the great and varied evangelical contribution to society in education, health, homelessness, youth work, drug rehabilitation, pregnancy crisis centres and so on is ignored. Perhaps the evangelicals he knows are nasty people. I know a few like that too, but I know many more who aren't.
Above all, Love Wins is confusing. I can see now why people are asking whether Rob Bell is a universalist (all will be saved in the end) or not, because it's unclear. Brilliant communication sometimes gets in the way. The book contains volleys of rapid-fire questions but isn't so good at giving answers, at least not clear ones. It confuses things like when he uses the parable of the prodigal sons as a parable about heaven and hell. Hell he says is the older brother going into the party and so hell is not about separation but integration. But didn't Jesus say…?
Much of what Bell writes is based selectively on the writings of Tom Wright and C. S. Lewis. But it is 'theology-lite' and people would be better served by reading those authors for themselves.
The style, which peppers the pages with moving stories and ever-lengthening lists or questions, would bedazzle you in if you were listening to it. In print, it doesn't work so well. It's very postmodern, which isn't a bad thing in itself. But its cultural fit does not exempt us from asking how true to the bible it is. It's a book to which I want to say 'Yes, but…' It's a book that is destined to punch above its weight. But those who wish to criticise this book need to earn the right to do so by being as passionate about sharing Christ's love as Bell himself is.