Rob Bell loves Jesus, and he wants as many people as possible to do the same. Perhaps this book will help. Indeed, there are passages in Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne) [two stars], that should give the most stubborn pagan pause. Bell is a pastor with a substantial following not only at his Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids (with some 10,000 in weekly attendance) but all across North America. And he is at his usual best here, casting fresh light on biblical truths, engaging readers with the compelling metaphor, turning the arresting phrase, and reminding all that the love of God is more powerful and sweeping than we can imagine.
Along the way, he raises a host of theological issues upon which the proclamation of the gospel as good news hinges. Bell also proposes solutions, and it's those proposals that raise other questions not just for evangelicals, but for anyone who wants to see more and more people follow Jesus.
For one thing, the title! Love Wins. That's what we all want and hope for. He says in the preface, "I've written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, 'I would never be a part of that.'" The book should give such readers reason to reexamine the story of Jesus.
He sets that story in its largest context, but without minimizing its individual dimension. He says it's true that Jesus came to die on the Cross so that we can have a relationship with God. "But … for the first Christians," he says, "the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander. More massive. … God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus' resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything." Later he adds, "A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feels small." Indeed.
He also has the knack for making Christ's presence a powerful and gracious reality. At one point, he rehearses Paul's teaching that the rock that Moses struck in the wilderness, the rock that gushed water, was Jesus. Bell says:
According to Paul,
Jesus was there.
Without anybody using his name.
Without anybody saying that it was him.
Without anybody acknowledging just what—or more precisely, who—it was.
Paul's interpretation … raises the question:
Where else has Christ been present?
With who else?
This stuff will preach. Before you know it, you think you're seeing Jesus everywhere.
Such lyrical passages will carry many readers along, inclining them to sympathize with Bell when he says that substitutionary atonement, for example, can be "toxic," making people think that Jesus saves us from God. His rhetoric touches on something uncomfortably true about how this doctrine is sometimes taught. Bell, in fact, is a master of asking the pointed question that throws doubt on traditional doctrines. But what does that look like when his personal assertions are in play?
The prepublication buzz centered on Bell's flirtation with universalism. He makes the universalist case most fully in one chapter, while avoiding the word universalist. He points out the many New Testament passages that point in this direction, like "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor. 5:19), and Jesus' statement, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). He adds to that verses about God's omnipotence and God's desire that all should be saved. And then he asks the arresting question, "Will God get what he wants?"
It's rhetorically compelling, but he misleads at points. He says this theme has a "long tradition" and "an untold number" of devout Christians have believed it. Well, only a tiny minority of Christians have espoused it in 20 centuries. The church has consistently rejected it because the arguments for it have never been compelling. Bell doesn't wrestle with counter-arguments, other than to suggest that to believe in eternal judgment is to believe that history is tragic and that God doesn't get his way. But of course, proponents of eternal judgment think no such things.
After reading the book, it's hard for me to believe that Bell doesn't espouse universalism, but to be fair, he never formally affirms such belief. And in later passages, he does allude to hellish consequences for unbelief. In the end, he says he is raising the issue only to show that we "must leave plenty of room" for that possibility.
Perhaps, but in raising such momentous issues, he has raised crucial questions that also must be asked. If universal salvation is true, why does Jesus not showcase it? Why is Jesus' teaching characterized instead by a relentless focus on the last judgment? Sayings like "do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28, ESV) come up repeatedly in the Gospels. Jesus spends more time on this eternal judgment than all the other New Testament voices combined. Bell is not unusual in wondering how God's love, justice, and omnipotence can be reconciled in the end—this is a long-standing theological mystery. But doesn't universalism succumb to the theological temptation to explain exactly how God will show himself loving, just, and omnipotent at the end of history?
The fact that Scripture refuses to solve the dilemma should give us pause. There are in Scripture clear statements that suggest universal reconciliation. But aren't there other verses that teach the finality of the final judgment? Doesn't the Bible teach that the decisions we make in this life have consequences more sobering and eternal than we can imagine, and that history is ultimately more gracious than we, left to our own imaginations, would ever hope? Might it be better to avoid speculating about things not revealed, and leave history's destiny in God's hands? Rather than risk sentimentalizing the gospel with a barbless universalism, might it be wiser to call people to repentance, warning them of the eternal rewards and consequences of following Jesus—as Jesus did?
Bell asks questions of other doctrines that are even more problematic. Take his understanding of Jesus' death. Like many contemporaries, Bell notes the many biblical metaphors that describe what Christ's death accomplishes—a ransom, a reconciliation, an acquittal, a sacrifice, and so forth. He's most taken with the idea that in the resurrection, "the powers of death and destruction have been defeated" and that this "inaugurates a movement to … renew, restore, and reconcile all things." But he is vague about how this happens. While clearly favoring the one metaphor—defeat of death—he says the point is not to "narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. … The point, then as it is now, is Jesus."
Yes, what happened on the cross is richer than any one metaphor can comprehend. Yes, the point is Jesus. But when Bell suggests that Jesus (and similarly, the whole New Testament) doesn't say "how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him"—well, it's hard to know what he's talking about. What is Romans 3-8 if not an explanation of such? Does the fact that there are a variety of ways of understanding that "mechanism" mean that some of the explanations aren't fuller and more inclusive? In fact, as we've argued in the pages of the magazine, there are strong reasons for substitutionary atonement being the controlling biblical metaphor, and the other metaphors only make sense in light of it.
To suggest that the Cross's effectiveness is ultimately a mystery does not mean that we can explain nothing. And Bell agrees. While he writes eloquently of the cosmic scale of redemption, it's his understanding of the personal dimension that reveals the most about his theology. The Cross is "a reminder, a sign, a glimpse, an icon that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be part of a new creation." And Jesus' "giving act on the cross" shows us that "he is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires."
This of course is the classic exemplar model of atonement—Christ's self-giving death inspires us to live the Christian life. The emphasis is not on how that death atones for our sins or reconciles us to God. It's about how it inspires us to change. It's been a standard of liberal Protestantism, and is true as far as it goes. One would hope Christ's self-giving inspires! But according to the New Testament, doesn't it also accomplish something objective? Doesn't it say, among other things, that before Christ's death on the cross, we were "dead in our trespasses and sins," "children of wrath," and that Christ's death and resurrection—the result of "God being rich in mercy" (not Jesus saving us from God!)—"made us alive together in Christ" and "raised us up with him" (Eph. 2:1-7)?
Again, Bell says Christ's death and resurrection have cosmic, universal effects, but it was never clear to this reviewer how or why they have these effects. To be fair, he says he doesn't reject substitutionary atonement outright. But in this book, he apparently thinks it unimportant or uninteresting.
He certainly thinks it is culturally irrelevant. After rehearsing the various New Testament ideas surrounding sacrifice and blood atonement, he relegates them all to the history shelves: "Those are powerful metaphors. But we don't live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods." We have to understand that the first Christian writers were doing "brilliant, creative work" by putting "the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand."
In fact, he says, both Jesus' death and resurrection can be understood in ways that make perfect sense to modern ears. For Bell, the Cross is "a symbol of an elemental reality, one we all experience," and the Resurrection is not a new concept, but "something that has always been true. It's how the world works." He's referring to that pattern of death and rebirth.
One has to ask, then, if Jesus' death and resurrection are merely an expression of "how the universe works," why all the bother? Why do we need Jesus to come and die and rise when this is something we see daily in the fabric of the universe, a knowledge that, as Bell suggests, we have instinctively sensed all along? On the one hand, he says here and there that in Jesus "God was doing something new in human history," but it's unclear what exactly he means by that. When he explains what Jesus did, it's mostly about "the flesh and blood exposure of an eternal reality" about death and rebirth.
That Jesus is divine is crucial for Bell. And he does a wonderful job of challenging the skepticism of those who find the incarnation impossible to believe. And he has no intellectual concerns about the reality of Christ's bodily resurrection.
But it's here that we run up against Bell's hermeneutic, that is, the principle by which he decides if a biblical teaching is relevant. Why, for example, is blood atonement a time-bound explanation of the Cross, but the divinity of Christ is a deep mystery we shouldn't shun? Why are Paul's statements about the universality of salvation taken literally, but his teaching on substitutionary atonement as mere creative writing?
If there is a criterion driving these distinctions, it seems to be based on what Bell thinks contemporary people can swallow. I couldn't see any other criteria at play. Given the complete lack of quotes from any other writer or tradition, one is led to the unfortunate conclusion that what makes one extraordinary biblical claim a time-bound metaphor and another literal truth is that Bell says so.
He correctly notes in the preface that many have taught what he teaches or hints at in the book. Names that come immediately to mind include Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. Schleiermacher was keen on mining our innate religious sensibilities (the things we've intuited are true) to ground Christian faith. Ritschl celebrated the kingdom ethics of Jesus. Bultmann argued that first-century metaphors and worldviews should be abandoned. Tillich wrote of faith as accepting our acceptance. All these themes run through Bell's book, sometimes in compelling ways.
These thinkers, of course, are all representatives of the tradition called liberal Protestantism. By associating Bell with this tradition, I'm not suggesting that he is beyond the pale or that he holds no orthodox views. I'm trying to place him in theological context. Liberalism is a tradition that has enriched the church in many ways. It has shown a willingness to entertain hard questions; a desire to integrate science and theology; a sophisticated approach to engaging culture; a passion for social justice. Many inspirational world figures—Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., to name three—come out of this tradition.
But for evangelicals, liberalism presents two problems. First, liberals tend to relativize the particularity of the gospel. They believe it is no longer reasonable to hold to one or (usually) more core teachings of the New Testament. For some it's blood atonement, for others Jesus' divinity, or Jesus' bodily resurrection, or miracles, or the Last Judgment. Instead, liberals tend to make Jesus sound like an expression of something all reasonable people already believe or intuit. Adolf Von Harnack, a product of 19th century bourgeois European society, said that Jesus taught the congenial doctrines of "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man." Bultmann reinterpreted the New Testament as existential philosophy. Rob Bell, at least in Love Wins, questions the relevance of substitutionary atonement and the Last Judgment, and argues that Jesus is the vivid image of the eternal reality we all experience.
What novelist John Updike, in his poem "Seven Stanzas at Easter," said about the Resurrection applies to all the central teachings of the New Testament, as least as far as evangelicals are concerned:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
Since the days of Schleiermacher, liberals have striven to make the gospel relevant to "the cultured despisers" of religion, a key phrase in the title of his groundbreaking book. Liberals are evangelists at heart; they do want people to follow Jesus. The problem is methods and conclusions. For liberals, the sensibilities of the age trump biblical revelation. Personal opinion outranks the consensus of the church. Fondness for metaphor and parable sabotage the particularity of the gospel.
To be fair, many liberal themes have found their way into evangelical life. Our yearning to make Jesus relevant, our fascination with religious experience, our recurring commitment to live by Jesus' kingdom vision and ethics all tempt us to move in the same direction as Bell. And why not? These themes have biblical roots and can be handled in ways that preserve the richness of orthodoxy. In some ways, though, Bell is taking such ideas to the next logical step. The question evangelicals have to ask is, Has he gone a step too far? Can we adopt his ideas and not drift into classical Protestant liberalism?
This brings us to the other problem with liberalism: Ironically, its passion to make Jesus more accessible to the contemporary mind ends up making Jesus less interesting. To be fair, many people become Christians as a result of hearing the liberal gospel. And one suspects that Bell's book will have this effect for some. But liberalism has never been able to win a large following for Jesus. Too often, its Jesus sounds like an ideal people already believe in, so why bother? Just in this generation, we've witnessed the steady and dramatic shrinking of liberal Protestant churches, while Pentecostal and evangelicals churches—which preach substitutionary atonement, hell, and other doctrines supposedly offensive to modern ears—have been exploding in growth worldwide. Aside from the attraction of the occasional charismatic liberal (like Harry Emerson Fosdick and William Sloan Coffin), they have struggled to gain a strong following.
Evangelicals suspect that this is so, in part, because people who become Christians see not only something both culturally exotic in the biblical faith, but something strangely appealing partly because it is culturally exotic. They also see a certain coherence. All the various parts—sin and forgiveness, Cross and Resurrection, judgment and grace, heaven and hell, wrath and love—work together and hold together in a way that makes sense. Most Christians grasp that to demythologize one doctrine is to make the others less coherent. They recognize that a Christianity that teaches about "a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross" (H. Richard Niebuhr's classic summary of liberalism) does not reflect the thickness of biblical revelation nor lived reality. And they see that when all is said and done, there is no painful contradiction between the love and justice of God. That in the end, not only does love win, but justice, too.
On his way to making Jesus more attractive to unbelievers, Bell has raised crucial questions that evangelicals have been whispering about for some years. We should thank him for bringing these issues to light, so we can openly examine them afresh today. Is the Bible mostly creative human thinking or the revelation of God's Word? Has blood atonement become too bloody for modern ears? What does the Cross actually accomplish? Is liberalism the way of the future or just a tempting rabbit trail? How do we talk about the gospel so it is unmistakably good news? And so on.
I happen to believe that the center will hold, that orthodoxy will show again that it has the truer and thicker grasp of the Bible and of life. Still, we would be foolish to ignore the questions Bell has raised, because the ensuing conversation will force us to find fresh ways to talk about all this. That being said, it is also right to ask, in return, if Bell's answers take into account the whole counsel of God's revealed Word, and if his approach will in fact fulfill our shared evangelistic hopes.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. This article was based on a pre-publication review copy of the book.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Love Wins and the related controversy include:
Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers | How social media changed theological debate. (March 11, 2011)
Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context | He's not the first to try to resolve old biblical tensions in new ways. (March 2, 2011)
Rob Bell's Upcoming Book on Heaven & Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism | Justin Taylor's blog post on a book that hasn't been released yet highlights a theological debate on universalism. (February 26, 2011)
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