29 March 2011
Review of Love Wins
The Evangelical Alliance has responded to the publication of Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins, which has attracted widespread attention on account of its controversial views concerning the nature of hell. The Alliance's Theological and Public Policy Advisory Commission has discussed the book and has helped shape the Alliance's response. The Alliance is also concurrently publishing a review of Love Wins on its website written by Derek Tidball, a member of the Alliance's Board and Council (of which he was previously chair), and former principal of London School of Theology.
Rob Bell is a popular evangelical celebrity figure and widely appreciated as a pastor and inspiring speaker.
It is recognised that there may be strong feelings about Bell's alleged departure from the majority traditional view that heaven is reserved only for those who profess faith in Christ and, perhaps, for infants who die within the church community before being able to make such a profession. However, the Alliance is urging that debate about the book should be characterised by respect, humility and grace, particularly where Christians disagree with one another.
Love Wins, as its title suggests, is a positive and hopeful book written in Bell's customary winsome style which will strike sympathetic chords with many readers. However, it casts doubt on the traditional Christian understanding of hell and the fate of non-Christians. Though he does not state dogmatically that all will be saved in the end, Bell appears to adopt a view more akin to 'wider hope' theology which is optimistic that God will ultimately save the vast majority of people, or even, perhaps, all people.
The Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission points out that this type of theological debate is not new, reflecting especially 19th century concerns, and indeed goes back to debates among the early church fathers. However, over the centuries a minority of Christians have adopted such views and the Church has consistently rejected similar arguments. It is the personal profile of Rob Bell that is responsible for the current highlighting of issues that are familiar to centuries of previous theological debate. Therefore, the importance of an accurate historical perspective on these questions is crucial.
Anticipating such a debate, the Alliance clearly articulated its understanding of the evangelical position on this subject in its book The Nature of Hell published in 2000. Its conclusions are available on the Alliance's website but the following key points may be of help to the present discussion:
- In The Nature of Hell, the Alliance explicitly rejects universalism (pp.24-34; Conclusion 4, p.131)
- The Nature of Hell is open to a 'wider hope' for those who don't explicitly profess faith in Christ, citing as possible examples at least some of those who have never heard the gospel, children who die in infancy (including the unborn), and those whose mental incapacity makes such profession impossible. However, it is insistent that absolutist assertions that these and other categories of non-professing people are saved risk being at least as arrogant as absolutist assertions that they are damned. The destiny of such people is God's to determine, and it is determined by his grace alone. (pp.93-95; Conclusion 4, p.131)
- In The Nature of Hell, the Alliance recognises that certain reputable evangelical scholars have either embraced or entertained the possibility of 'second chance' repentance. However, having explored the exegetical arguments for this position, it finds them unconvincing (pp.89-92; Conclusion 4, p.131).
- The Nature of Hell also considers restitutionism - the teaching that some or all in hell will ultimately be translated to heaven - finds this teaching similarly unconvincing, and concludes that consignment to hell cannot be repealed (pp.81-89; Conclusion 5, pp.132-33).
The Alliance's position is also clearly set out in its Basis of Faith which makes clear orthodox evangelical Christian belief in:
"The personal and visible return of Jesus Christ to fulfil the purposes of God, who will raise all people to judgement, bring eternal life to the redeemed and eternal condemnation to the lost, and establish a new heaven and new earth."
Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, commented: "Rob Bell is a valued brother in Christ and has felt it important to raise publicly some difficult areas of Christian theology that many people feel uncomfortable with. The issues he raises reflect genuine but complex questions that Christian theologians have wrestled with over centuries. We hope that Christians who disagree with Rob will nevertheless model how good debate should be conducted."
The Alliance's key principles relating to how evangelicals should conduct their relationships with each other are set out in its Practical Resolutions.
Steve Clifford added: "There are deeper and perhaps more crucial questions which should be addressed as to the nature and character of the God that we worship and to his commitment to and care for the earth he created. I trust that in this biblical exploration we will discover that both love and justice win."
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Notes to Editors
The Evangelical Alliance
We are the largest and oldest body representing the UK’s two million evangelical Christians. For more than 165 years, we have been bringing Christians together and helping them listen to, and be heard by, the government, media and society. We’re here to connect people for a shared mission, whether it’s celebrating the Bible, making a difference in our communities or lobbying the government for a better society. From Skye to Southampton, from Coleraine to Cardiff, we work across 79 denominations, 3,500 churches, 750 organisations and thousands of individual members. And we're not just uniting Christians within the UK – we are a founding member of the World Evangelical Alliance, a global network of more than 600 million evangelical Christians. For more information, go to www.eauk.org.