Rob Bell’s book Love Wins isn’t just popular. It’s a cultural phenomenon. With an extremely effective pre-publication ad campaign, the book sold like hotcakes weeks before its release. And since its release it has perched high on the New York Times bestseller list. But unlike most bestsellers, the book is the source of significant theological controversy, so much so that it prompted last week’s cover story in Time magazine. So what’s all the hullabaloo about? Well, that question itself is somewhat controversial. Fans insist that the book is encouraging, refreshing, and illuminating, while critics complain that Love Wins is an irresponsible, unbiblical, and even heretical espousal of universalism. Bell denies that he’s a universalist. But the accusations still fly, and given the many questions he asks and the claims he makes, it is easy to see why.
I’ve decided not to offer yet another review of Love Wins. The Internet is already swirling with them, some of the best of which include those by Mark Galli and Kevin DeYoung (on the critical side) and Julie Clawson and Richard Mouw (on the sympathetic side). I found myself torn in reading the book. I appreciate Bell’s sincerity and compassion for those for whom the doctrine of hell is a stumbling block, his courage to wade into such treacherous theological territory, and even his calling into question the notion that the damned are tormented forever. (I personally believe Scripture teaches that those in hell are indeed tormented but are ultimately annihilated, a view known as “conditional immortalism,” which has been affirmed by John Stott and Edward Fudge, among others.) At the same time, I am disappointed by Bell’s exegetical method, his distracting writing style, and, most of all, his many logical blunders. It is this last concern that will be the focus of my remarks about the book. And, unfortunately, the fallacies in Love Wins are so plenteous that I will need to make this a series. I will also affirm many of Bell’s insightful observations along the way, so that we don’t forget that, for all of his logical missteps, the book does have some good qualities.
There are several dozen fallacies in Love Wins, and I will highlight many of these, chapter by chapter. While some of them might seem insignificant or trivial given the context or the role a particular argument plays in his overall project, I would emphasize that logical errors are never trivial or insignificant. Why? Because they are indicative of a person’s general reliability when it comes to critical thinking and rational judgment. If a person is inclined to commit logical fallacies on lesser matters, then why should we regard him/her as trustworthy on bigger issues?
In the first chapter, Bell correctly notes that the necessary conditions for salvation, as far as the human response goes, are very difficult, if not impossible, to specify. Insist on a cognitive condition (such as “belief in” or conscious “acceptance of” Christ), and this seems to imply that all who die as infants or even as fetuses go straight to hell, not to mention those who’ve never heard of Christ, including everyone who lived before Jesus’ time. Add a behavioral condition (e.g., a certain degree of obedience) and this seems to make salvation a matter of works rather than faith (though such stipulations are apparently made in numerous passages, including Mt. 5:20, Mt. 18:35, 1 Cor. 6:9, and 1 Tim. 5:8). Then there’s the question of how much faith is necessary for salvation. Faith, after all, comes in degrees. One may have more or less faith. How much is enough? And how does one know when one has enough? Such are vexing questions, and Bell rightly shines the light on our ignorance about many of them.
Despite these insights, I counted five fallacies in the (very brief) first chapter. Here are three of them:
1. Non sequitur on page 4: A non sequitur is simply a conclusion that does not follow from the premise(s) of one’s argument. Bell rightly challenges the dubious extra-biblical notion of an “age of accountability,” something that is also a pet peeve of mine. But his critique of the idea is spurious, to say the least. He says, “If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve yeas of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever. Why run the risk?” What? His conclusion here doesn’t follow unless he makes several questionable assumptions: 1) that there aren’t significant upsides which would make this a worthwhile “risk” (after all, the positive value of eternal bliss in the presence of God is incalculable), 2) that there even is such a thing as “risk” when it comes to the providence of God and the ultimate eternal fate of human beings, and 3) that there isn’t much to be gained in terms of rewards in heaven by living a full life of obedience and faithful service as a Christian in this life.
2. Vacuous Claim on page 6: Bell also rightly challenges the idea that “all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven.” But then he says, “If that’s the gospel, the good news—if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else—then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life other than getting you what you need for the next one.” If Bell is saying that the “all-that-matters-is-heaven” view implies that our earthly existence is not meaningful at all, this does not follow since what we do here has a tremendous impact on our eternal condition. So this would be a non sequitur. However, he adds the phrase “other than getting you what you need for the next [life]” which does qualify his claim. But notice that this only qualifies it to the point of making it an empty claim, essentially this: Those who take the heaven-is-all-that-matters view believe that life on earth is only important to the extent that it impacts heaven. Well, yes. That is precisely what this view assumes. But Bell seems to think he is refuting the view somehow, rather than simply stating it, as evidenced by what he says afterwards: “Is that the best God can do?” As if using our earthly existence to eternally impact the heavenly condition of billions of people is a small thing.
3. Overlooking Alternatives on page 9: The fallacy of overlooking alternatives is committed when one draws a conclusion or makes an insinuation that fails to take into account a reasonable alternative view (e.g., “My hammer is missing from my workbench, so it must have been stolen.”). Bell commits this fallacy when he addresses the issue regarding those who do not hear the gospel. At one point he declares, “If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us—what happens if they don’t do their part?” And he goes on to raise “disturbing questions,” such as whether, then, our future is in someone else’s hands and whether the fate of others rests in our hands. These are disturbing questions only if one rules out a high view of the sovereignty of God. If God is truly sovereign in human salvation, then neither your fate nor anyone else’s is really in another human’s hands.
In my next post, I will discuss chapter two of Love Wins.