This week I finished reading Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins.
Having spent the last ten years wrestling through some tough questions related to faith, heaven, hell, and salvation, I really appreciate the personal way in which Bell frames the conversation, asking the very questions I was so afraid to ask all those years and proclaiming the same hope I only dared believe—that God doesn’t give up on people, that he is ever-loving, ever-redeeming, ever pursuing.
There’s nothing radical or unorthodox in this book, which is profoundly Christ-centered and packed with biblical references. (It’s basically a remix of C.S. Lewis, NT Wright, and Richard Rohr.) Bell does exactly what a good pastor should do. He takes complex theological concepts and makes them simple, personal, and practical. He gives faces and names to the people we often dismiss as “unsaved.”He provides tangible examples of how we can choose to engage in heaven or hell right now, this very minute. He reintroduces us to Bible stories we thought we knew.
And although Bell’s writings style
I applaud him for saying some old things in a new way, and for introducing these ideas to a larger audience.
My biggest objection to Love Wins is that, in addition to abandoning the use of the paragraph, Bell seems unconcerned with citing his source material and has therefore left us with some homework to do.
Call me a nerd, but I like footnotes. An author can’t just say that “in Jesus’s day, one of the ways people got around actually saying the name of God was to substitute the word ‘heaven’” without telling me how he knows that to be true! By leaving out this important information and by failing to seriously explore those biblical passages that, at least at first glance, don’t seem to support his thesis, Bell has left his readers ill-equipped to deal with challenges from those who don’t agree with these ideas.
In other words, Love Wins serves as a good starting point for engaging in better conversations about heaven and hell, but a poor ending point. I would heartily recommend this book, but not without these seven suggestions:
1. If you loved the book, read through some negative reviews. If you hated the book, read through some positive reviews. It’s always good to get a second opinion from a reader who might have noticed some things that you didn’t. Exposing yourself to a variety of opinions will help you develop your own with more clarity, integrity, and charity.
2. Follow up on your questions. As I read, I like to mark up my books with underlines, notes, and question marks and then return to them later. For example, I scribbled a question mark next to this sentence on page 177 of Love Wins: “God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone.” As much as I long for this to be true, it seems incompatible with the God who instructed Joshua to kill every man, woman, and child in Jericho. Rather than ignoring this or using it to dismiss the rest of Bell’s points, I plan to explore it further, maybe finally get around to reading Is God a Moral Monster?
3. Read more. Check out Bell’s “Further Reading” (page 201) as well as our list of resources on heaven and hell.
4. Talk things through with friends. Consider starting a book club or hosting a dinner party in which you can discuss the ideas in Love Wins with a variety of people coming from a variety of different perspectives.
5. Avoid slapping a “Love Wins” bumper sticker on your car or wearing a “Team John” T-shirt to church…(says the girl with an unrelated “love wins” bumper sticker on her car—more on that later!) When we reduce this complex and important conversation to two “sides,” as though it were some kind of college football rivalry, we do such an injustice to the Bible, to Christian history, and to the millions upon millions of real people whose lives and whose futures we are discussing. This is not about taking sides. It’s not about shouting each other down. It’s not about black vs. white, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad. There’s too much at stake to try and force Christianity’s cacophony of voices into two competing tones. We must embrace the complexity—within the Bible, within Christianity, and within one another—and avoid the temptation of turning this conversation into “my team” vs. “your team.”
6. Let love win in you. I can’t imagine that anyone could read Love Wins and take issue with Bell’s conclusion that as Christians we should busy ourselves with providing clean water, championing human rights, participating in microfinance, pursuing peace, practicing forgiveness, and celebrating beauty and art. There is common ground to be found here, and the best “apologetic” for a God of unconditional love is a person of unconditional love.
7. Leave a brief review/response here! Sometimes it helps just to write out your thoughts. Feel free to share them in the comments or link to your own review. Also, if there’s a quote or a topic that you would like to discuss further, let me know.
So, what did you think of Love Wins?