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.