In this last installment of this series, I will highlight some of the insights and flaws of the last few chapters of Love Wins.
Chapter five, entitled “Dying to Live,” deals with the doctrine of the atonement. Bell points out that there are multiple theories about the atonement—that is, various accounts about what the work of Christ exactly accomplished in order to achieve salvation for human beings. These include the Ransom theory (Christ’s death paid a price to free us from bondage to devil), the Christus Victor theory (Christ’s death and resurrection demonstrated God’s triumph over sin and evil), and the Penal-Substitutionary theory (Christ’s death served to pay the penalty for sin on our behalf), among others (125-129). Bell correctly suggests that each of the theories has its insights and biblical warrant.
In chapter six, “There are Rocks Everywhere,” Bell explores how Christ is redemptively active across all times and cultures and that no people group can claim him as exclusively their own. Moreover, Bell correctly observes that it is possible for someone to become “anaesthetized to Jesus” through lifelong, routine Christian religious practices. Consequently, one’s “’nearness’ can actually produce distance” (152). Bell also wisely cautions us against “making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies” (160).
And in chapter seven, “The Good News is Better Than That,” Bell again reminds us that the Gospel is not merely about getting us to heaven. This, he says, “reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club” (178). This “entrance understanding of the Gospel,” Bell adds, “does not inspire good art or imagination. It’s a cheap view of the world, because it’s a cheap view of God. It’s a shriveled imagination” (179-180). These are strong, and I think insightful, words. However, it should be noted that Bell is being rather dogmatic and judgmental here. Not that there’s anything wrong with making strong judgments. But given Bell’s repeated calls to oppose dogma and judgmentalism, such assertions are, well, a bit ironic.
There are also several logical fallacies in the last few chapters. Here are some of them:
1. False Dichotomy (or Begging the Question) on page 129: After noting the variety of ways that Scripture speaks of the atoning work of Christ, Bell concludes: “The point, then isn’t to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a ‘correct’ or ‘right’ one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors” (129). Here Bell mistakenly assumes that one must either affirm a particular atonement theory as exclusively true while completely rejecting the others or else accept them all as equally valid (which is to diminish them as mere interpretive images). But why assume this? Why not take a more nuanced view that affirms one theory—say, the penal-substitutionary view—as providing the primary explanation and affirms some or all of the others as capturing secondary functions of the work of Christ?
2. Begging the Question (or Non Sequitur) on pages 173-174: Towards the end of the book, Bell returns to the issue of hell to give the traditional view one more spanking. He notes that on this view God may lovingly yearn for a person to turn to Him, but if, say, that person dies in a car accident, then God suddenly must (hatefully) condemn them to hell. Bell complains that this implies a “volatile” God who is “loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become a cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye” (174). But notice that Bell’s rant here presupposes (1) that God loves everyone—something that Calvinists firmly deny—and (2) that God changes and is bound by time such that His emotions and attitudes alter according to events that occur in the world. Now, of course, it is conceivable that each of these assumptions is true. But since both are rather controversial theological ideas, it is incumbent on Bell to defend them or, at the least, explicitly assert what he is taking for granted. Otherwise, he runs the risk of hoodwinking the unsuspecting reader.
3. Overlooking Alternatives on pages 181 ff.: Towards the end of the book Bell extensively contrasts the “entrance understanding” of the Gospel (as just concerned with getting us to heaven) with what he calls the “enjoyment” view, which sees life as ultimately about “thriving in God’s good world. Its about stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world” (179). Astonishingly, throughout the chapter these are the only views he entertains. What Bell never considers is the deeply biblical emphasis on personal transformation that is essential to heavenly existence (See 2 Cor. 3:18 and Phil. 3:20-21, for example). Bell is rightly critical of the “entrance” view but by preferring the “enjoyment” view, he has merely affirmed another perspective that emphasizes personal, subjective experience while ignoring the sanctifying end of objective, abiding change of character. Will heaven be a condition of ineffable joy, peace, creativity, and learning, as Bell proposes? Of course. But this will only be possible because we will be made new, perfected in our humanity. We will experience what theologians call “glorification”—our final transformation into the likeness of our Savior. And this lasting change is why we will be able to experience both entrance into heaven and find enjoyment in all that heaven entails. So here, it seems, Bell is the one guilty of being exclusionary when it comes to apparently competing views. Given the more fundamental concept of personal transformation (sanctification culminating in glorification) we may affirm the insights of both the entrance and enjoyment views.
Bell’s oversight regarding the need for personal transformation is not an isolated problem with Love Wins. It is an overarching issue and, I would say, its biggest doctrinal flaw. In short, Bell teaches what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a gospel void of the call to repentance. This is evident in the fact that Bell never identifies turning from sin as a condition for salvation. It is also evident in such passages as this: “God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up—God has already done it” (189). Thus, Bell adds, “The only thing left to do is trust” (190). Well, not according to Scripture, which places a strong emphasis on repentance (e.g. Isa. 30:15, Mt. 3:8, Mk. 1:4, Lk. 24:47, Acts 20:21, Acts, 26:20, 2 Pet. 3:9) and obedience (e.g., Jn. 14:15-24, Heb. 5:9, 1 Pet. 4:17, 2 Jn. 6). For all of the controversy over Love Wins regarding the doctrine of hell, it is Bell’s penchant for cheap grace that should be the real scandal. And the fact that his harshest critics—for whom doctrinal orthodoxy is professedly paramount—have missed this point is itself cause for concern.
Another excellent post, and a lot to think about. Here are my thoughts on your thoughts.
1. I agree that Bell would be remiss to deny the possibility of one atonement theory being primary and others being secondary, as if only one can be true or they all have to be equal. However, how often do you walk into churches where they preach more than one view of the atonement? It has been my experience (in my limited life span thus far) that, even if one did not deny that other views of the atonement are valid, one will still affirm and proclaim one and only one view that really matters (for instance, penal substitution). Once a year, I see churches affirming Christus Victor (in their Easter service), but rarely if ever do I hear anything that sounds like Ransom Theory or Moral Influence Theory. It seems to me that Bible Belt churches affirm Penal Substitution and tend to ignore all other views. It is for this reason that I like Bell’s argument here–even if all it serves to do is get people thinking and realizing that the atonement may not be as cut-and-dry as they thought.
2. As I’ve stated previously, I am under the impression that Bell is implicitly assuming the Arminian position, since that seems to be the predominant position among churches. If someone were to make Calvinist-based arguments against his book, it would require a whole new book. I’m not sure what to make about the second assumption, though. We are taught that God never changes etc., but we are also given plenty of examples throughout the Old and New Testaments of God (and his apparent emotional state, if he has such a thing) reacting to things that happened or things that people have done. From our point of view, then, it would seem that God reacts to events and that his emotional state could “change”, for instance at death. What that looks like from God’s perspective instead of ours, however, I don’t think I could begin to understand.
3. Aha, and here is where the crux of the matter is, as you say. The ultimate questions are, What is heaven? How do we get there? How important is “getting there”? And, what do we do in the meantime? Bell seems to be deemphasizing the need to “get there” because “there is the new here”, or something like that. I really do like Bell’s paradigm shift that seeks to move the emphasis away from doing petty things so as to get to some ethereal domain. However, one cannot ignore the clear need for personal transformation, including repentance. I don’t want to speak for Rob Bell (as I seem to have done considerably already), but I doubt he would deny these things. I don’t know if he’s a true Universalist or a hopeful Universalist, but as a true Universalist, I completely agree with these sentiments. I regard Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. I also affirm that communion with the Father (or, “getting to heaven”, though I hate that phrase) requires a certain amount of personal transformation, repentance, and obedience. I also believe that total personal transformation (perhaps we should call this sanctification) is not something that I can accomplish. Whether or not I can do any of it on my own is up for debate, but surely I cannot transform and renew my mind to sufficient quality to achieve holy eternal communion with God. This is where God steps in and does it for me. I doubt I have done anything “good enough” to deserve such sanctification, but God nevertheless gives it to me and walks with me through the lifelong process. In this regard, “the only thing left to do is trust.” Does it require effort on my part? I’m sure it does, and I doubt Rob Bell would deny that. But is it dependent on my effort, as if it matters? I would say no. (Such is the paradox of God’s grace. I look at it as a father helping his young son build a treehouse. Is the result dependent on the son’s effort? No, as the father could build his son a treehouse in a short amount of time with little effort. But does the result require the son’s effort? Yes, as the father is loving and wants to accomplish the goal alongside his son instead of independently of him. If the son put forth no effort into building the treehouse, neither would the father, since the whole point is not in the building of the treehouse but in the building of it together.)
I’ve enjoyed your unique analysis of Bell’s book. I haven’t read the book yet, but I was wondering if Bell appealed to or interacted with the work of contemporary Christian philosophers who are Universalists, such as Thomas Talbott and Keith DeRose.
I wanted to make a brief comment on something you wrote above, but it’s a peripheral point, so I hope that’s all right.
>> “But notice that Bell’s rant here presupposes (1) that God loves everyone—something that Calvinists firmly deny . . .”
Though I recently discussed this matter with a thoughtful Calvinist, I wasn’t aware that this is typically affirmed by Calvinists. I guess I had assumed that the belief that God is essentially perfectly loving—or that He essentially has the property being perfectly loving—is a component of classical theism. So when I read the above sentence in your post, I figured I ought to ask you about it.
In my recent discussion, one of the worries I expressed was that if God only loves (humans) contingently, then there might be possible worlds which are at least somewhat similar to ours but in which God passionately hates everyone. But that, to my mind, seems implausible, and, presumably, not befitting of a maximally or absolutely perfect being (or of a being described by Scripture as loving the world, and as love.) I suppose that one may attempt to resist this conclusion by suggesting that there are no possible worlds in which God hates everyone, for there are no possible worlds in which (i) human persons exists and (ii) there are no elect persons – the exclusive objects of God’s love. Perhaps (i) and (ii) are incompossible by virtue of other properties God has, like being perfectly morally good. But the denial that God is essentially loving appears to allow for the possibility that there’s a world in which God hates everyone. (I suggested to my discussant that it might be plausible that being perfectly good entails being perfectly loving, with which he didn’t appear inclined to agree.)
Another worry I raised concerns the assumption that unconditional love is superior to conditional love, and that if being perfectly unconditionally loving is a great-making property, then, given certain Anselmian considerations, it would seem to follow that God has this property essentially. Someone might object that essentially having the property being perfectly unconditionally loving doesn’t obviously entail that God loves everyone, but then it becomes difficult to understand precisely why God would withhold His love from a person.
What are your thoughts? And what sources would you recommend regarding the view that God doesn’t love everyone? As always, thanks.
This series was fun. I especially liked this post. Just yesterday I was catching up with an old bud, and it was a boon to the convo to mention this review, its angle, so thanks.