Love Wins – the book review

This post is a followup to my thoughts on the controversy that preceded the release of this book.  You can read those thought on the wandering road  here, and on YAR  here.  This post is also on the MWR blog here.

An artist is, first and foremost, someone who sees the world differently than other people and helps others to see the world in that way.

Rob Bell is not a theologian; he’s an artist.

Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of every person who ever lived should be first and foremost understood as a work of art. From the vivid imagery and stories that he uses, down to the careful arrangement of words on the page for visual effect, Bell does a masterful job of evoking questions, providing insights and causing the reader to see age-old questions in new ways.

That said, Love Wins contains theology, most of which isn’t particularly new. Bell even says as much in the preface. The theology that is included, while worded differently, often resonates with many Anabaptist understandings of faith.

One of Rob’s central theses is that heaven and hell are real, but that they are more of a state of being than a physical place – heaven and hell are not reserved for some time in the future but have already begun.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of the Anabaptist understanding of the kingdom of heaven – that the kingdom of heaven has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that it has not yet fully been completed. Bell’s understanding and the Anabaptist understanding necessitate participation on the part of humans. Overall, many of the core theological concepts that Bell raises or alludes to can be found within various Anabaptist scholars and leaders and have, at some point, been taught at all of our church colleges.

Controversy has surrounded this book, even before it was released, and has mainly centered on the doctrine of hell. However, what seemed more challenging to me was the chapter on different biblical images of atonement.

Bell describes the plethora of images found in the New Testament to describe and understand Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Bell challenges the idea that there is one clean, simple way to understand the atonement of Jesus. This seems far more controversial and important than whether or not we have a precise understanding of hell – yet it feels as though this has been overshadowed in the controversy about the book.

Ultimately, Bell provides a provocative book that is adding fuel to an age-old fire. So if you’re looking for a well-footnoted, systematic theological treatise, this isn’t it. It is, however, biblically-based and rooted in scripture.

The book challenges certain understandings of the doctrine of hell, heaven and atonement. But I think these doctrines are more human constructs than biblical truth and rightly should be questioned. Even if Bell challenges beliefs that are seen as “orthodox,” this should not scare off Anabaptists. If it were not for challenging the orthodox doctrines of infant baptism, church and state relationships and faith-based violence, we Anabaptists would not be here today.

For those of us who grew up singing I John 4:7-8 at a church camp, and have grown to have a deep, tested, and sincere belief that these words are true, then Love Wins should be familiar territory for us. At the very least, it raises deeply important questions to our existence as humans and causes us to see ourselves and God in a new way. But then again, great art always does that.

For the first and best response to his critics, see Bell’s interview from March 14 here.  P.S.  Nothing happens until about 10 minutes in so skip ahead.

Comments (6)

  1. ethel

    Thanks for the review. Find here an insightful article by Brian McLaren on this subject.

  2. Teacherinquebec

    The ‘art’ card? Whether or not he is an artist or the book is a work of art is irrelevant, because he is received by the majority of his popular audience (and he knows this) as a Christian teacher. Such a popular audience will read him with the same open eyes as they read Yancey or Lucado or any of the other writers in the current North American ‘canon’ of popular Xian books and popular theology. Because this is his audience, and he is not just questioning orthodoxy, but putting forth some relatively clear (and unorthodox) doctrines, he both misuses his position as a popular and accepted evangelical teacher and he appropriates the language and cosmology of the broader culture to do so. Our Anabaptist friend, the late John Howard Yoder wrote plenty about the ethics of doing such things. James 3 makes me, as a teacher, wary of what I say to those who will believe me – I tread carefully. And I do not think Bell has trodden carefully, either in the use of his position or in his extremely ‘uncareful’ language.

  3. joe

    @Teacherinquebec I don’t really understand your point. Theories about the atonement have been around for more than a thousand years – it is only fairly recently that penal substitutionary atonement has been considered by some to be the only answer to the question.

    Moreover, I don’t think it is possible to suggest that evangelicalism can be considered to be orthodox or even that it owns a shared orthodoxy.

    Finally, he is hardly the first popular Christian writer to publish an off-beam book which gets criticised by evangelicals. In my view, CS Lewis wrote far more radical stuff than this.

    So again, please explain exactly how Rob Bell is ‘misusing’ his position and why it matters to the anabaptist – who is presumably not an evangelical anyway.

  4. AlanS (Post author)

    (This isn’t really a response to any of the comments above, it’s just a followup thought and I needed to lodge it somewhere.)

    In the last day or so, as I’ve been watching the fallout from this book I’ve noticed a couple of recurring themes in the criticism.

    1) the people who are claiming to hold an “orthodox” doctrinal belief are most certainly not orthodox themselves. There is a recurring critique that Bell is promoting or saying something unorthodox. However, the people leveling this critique seem to be (mostly) in the modern day evangelical stream of Christianity, and to think that this stream is orthodox in any way shape or form is just simply wrong. This is a stream built on challenging the orthodox positions of the church. About the only people have the right to call themselves orthodox are…well….the Orthodox Church. And maybe the Catholics, depending on which side of the great schism you’re standing on.

    2) The other critique that has been leveled consistently against Bell is that he’s saying what you do now ultimately doesn’t effect what happens after you die. But the catch here is how you define “what you do now”. The people leveling the critique are fairly narrowly speaking about a profession of faith, or even more specifically, “accepting Jesus into your heart”. Bell on the other hand says that, no, it matters immensely what you do, that is how you actually live out your faith, in this life because by living in a new way you can already begin to experience heaven now and that this heaven will continue into the next life. Bell is most certainly saying that it matters what you do in this life, he’s just not saying that “what you do” is limited to a simple verbal profession of faith, and that is deeply irritating to many people. You can see this dynamic at work in this interview from MSNBC.

    In many ways, this feels a bit like the works vs. faith argument that Anabaptists have been having for hundreds of years. Is it possible that this whole debate is really just coming down to this question? If so, then the Anabaptists would be exponentially closer to Bell. Anabaptists have sided with James 2 and have basically said that faith without works is dead. If you don’t live in the way of the kingdom of heaven here and now then there is good cause to say, maybe you don’t really have faith at all. It feels like the critics of Bell are saying that a verbal profession of faith is important because it effects what you do after you die, and Bell is saying that true faith is important because it effects what you do before and after you die. And in this sense, I think Anabaptists are much closer to Bell than his critics.

    Well those are my thoughts.

  5. Ron Krumpos

    Here and Now

    My comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

    Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within.” If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.

  6. Gary

    “Rob Bell is not a theologian; he’s an artist.”

    Exactly what I thought when reading it. And Calvinists don’t have any respect for art (“works of man”), and wouldn’t for the original, honest, creative presentation of the content in the book.

    However I don’t see that as an excuse for spreading heresy, and some of it smells like heresy to me.

    Still I hope the controversy brings the Reformers beliefs (and practices!) into the light at the same time.

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