Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Further Reflections On 'Love Wins'

There is a well-written response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins in the May 2011 edition of Christianity magazine.  The article explores the accusation of universalism, considering various expressions of universalism and noting that Bell clearly rejects ‘universal universalism’ (the belief that God will sweep up everyone into heaven regardless, as a scandalous act of unmerited grace) and ‘religious pluralism’ (the belief that all religions lead to God); while being open to ‘post mortem evangelism’ (the belief that there is the possibility to encounter and respond to Jesus after death) and ‘anonymous Christianity’ (the belief – influential within Roman Catholicism since Vatican II, and shared by the present Pope, who is generally considered to be extremely conservative – that people within religious paradigms other than Christianity may encounter and respond rightly to Jesus without knowing his name or his story.  Significantly, like Bell, Pope Benedict XVI does not see belief in anonymous Christianity as negating the urgent responsibility of Christians to proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus and call people to respond to him).

The article points out that such a position raises more questions than it answers: in particular, questions regarding evangelism, and salvation, and also our understanding of the end of the world (eschatology), and of the nature of the church.

I think it is a mistake to conclude that openness to post mortem evangelism and anonymous Christianity result in a loss of confidence in, and commitment to, evangelism now.  It does, however, open the possibility of asking important questions of our understanding of the nature of evangelism.  In my view, conversion, as both event and process, is a work of the Holy Spirit; whereas the related-but-distinct charge on the church is to make disciples.  Too often, churches have abdicated their responsibility to make disciples, while trying to do the Holy Spirit’s work instead.  For me, the obvious answer to the question “Why bother with evangelism?” is that we are sent out by Jesus to call and teach people to not only recognise him but to follow him in the world, and in so doing to usher-in and to populate the future kingdom of heaven which is breaking into the present.

Such an answer has an impact on our eschatology: the future is breaking into the present; moreover, our response in the present has a bearing on the responsibilities entrusted to us in shaping the future;

on our ecclesiology: the call on the church is to make disciples, and to model what it looks like to live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven among the kingdoms of the world;

and on our understanding of salvation: we are not only saved from something, but saved for something: set free from slavery to sin and death, as expressed through a wide variety of manifestations, in order to be formed into a chosen people who set others free (regardless of whatever else Jesus might be doing).

There is far more to be explored in relation to these questions than has yet been explored – but the good news is that there are people exploring.  Bell’s latest contribution is best seen within the wider context of a rediscovery of the centrality of Jesus, and a questioning of Christendom, evident in several current conversations (such as Anabaptist writers), engaged by participants who will find themselves in combinations of agreement and disagreement with each other’s thoughts.


  1. Anonymous1:58 am

    Satan got Eve to question what God had clearly said in the garden. She was emboldened to take what God had forbidden by the devil's clever insinuation and paid for it. It astounds me that in a book about heaven and hell that supposedly is teaching what the Bible says that Rob Bell would never even quote the clearest OT passages about the resurrection of the dead and the eternal damnation of sinners- Isaiah 66:22-24 and Daniel 12:2. And even more so, key NT passages like Luke 13:23-28, Mark 9:43-48, Romans 2:4-5, Romans 10:14-17, Luke 12:58-13:9, etc. These passages and others so perfectly refute the writer's conjectures that if he merely quoted them without explaining them away he would then have nothing to write about.

    The good news of the gospel is necessary because there is bad news, as Paul shows in Roman 1:18-3:20- our guilt before God and righteous condemnation of us on the day of judgment- if we're not made new creatures and forgiven in Christ. The Bible says "Flee from the wrath to come" and to bring forth fruits meet (fit) for repentance (Matthew 3:7-10). That is the response we must make to God's generous offer of mercy and grace through the death and resurrection of Christ.

    When we consider that Jesus himself warned his hearers to turn from sin or be punished in hell forever; and that he left a responsibility for us to do so in the limited time of our lives in this world in Mark 9:43-48, Luke 12:58-13:9, then anyone who claims to speak for Jesus and denies that warning and that urgency must be treated as a false teacher/prophet. Jesus loves us more than anyone else, and to deny and leave out what he has clearly said is to oppose him.

    What "Love Wins" does is give false comfort to those who have not turned from all sin and let Christ take his rightful hold on their lives (Psalm 2:10-12, Hebrews 5:9). The same type of false comfort the Serpent gave Eve in the garden.

    "Love Wins" also doesn't take into account that it is often more pleasurable SHORT-TERM to disobey God than to follow Christ. There is a pleasure to sin that is very uncomfortable to forsake to the point it can be called suffering to do so (See Hebrews 11:25, Romans 8:17). That goes against Bell's premise that hell is what we create for ourselves by disobeying God. Truly obeying God can be extremely unpleasant and only those who are totally convinced by Christ's total faithfulness and the sureness of his promises will actually be his disciples and walk the narrow way that leads to life. That is when God really does get glory. We have the privilege that we can go straight to the Bible to see those promises, the truth about heaven and hell, and the entire counsel of God regarding salvation. May all who read this not be deceived by preachers who say what appeals to the itching ears of people.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I am glad that you have a clearer grasp of what God's word has to say about heaven and hell than not only Rob Bell but a very many far better theologians than Rob Bell.

    It is a loss that we do not know your name.

    One does not have to agree with Bell's reading to believe that quoting texts without exegesis is unhelpful, and has led to a great many evils being committed in God's name.

  3. Here are, I think, two helpful responses:

    Andrew Jones: http://tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com/tallskinnykiwi/2011/03/rob-bell-new-generation-win-heaven-hell.html

    Eugene Peterson: http://www.patheos.com/community/loveandjudgment/2011/03/16/eugene-peterson-would-jesus-condemn-rob-bell/