My overall reaction? There are places where I thought Rob was brilliant and others where I found myself asking the same questions as some of his critics. So if you’re a hardcore Calvinist or a hardcore universalist, you may not like what I have to say any more than you liked Rob’s book.
This review is for those of us caught in the middle.
But first, a word to Rob’s critics. Some of you have bristled at charges of being mean-spirited and uncharitable in your critiques of Love Wins. You note that Rob threw himself into this conversation, and insist you have every right to engage his ideas (see here and here, for example).
And you know what? You’re right.
Love Wins was not written in a vacuum. It’s one guy’s very public take on heaven, hell, judgment, and salvation. If you have a different perspective, you have every right to express it. If you part company with Rob, you have a right to say why. (There are even a few points, though by no means all of them, where I might join you.)
A line has to be drawn somewhere, though. And judging someone’s motives falls on the wrong side of it. At least one reviewer accuses Rob of “manipulating” Scripture, for example. To be fair, there were places where I questioned Rob’s reading of the text (stay tuned). But that doesn’t give me the authority to comment on his motives. “Manipulate” is a loaded word. It says you presume to judge intent as well as actions.
You can judge Rob’s content all you want. Tear it apart. Refute it. Rebut it. Go ahead, I’m pretty sure Rob can take it. (And if he can’t, well, he shouldn’t be in the book business.) But leave it at that…unless, of course, you’re happy to let God apply the same standard to you.
OK, the book itself. I’m going to spend the rest of this post unpacking what I think Rob is saying. Because let’s face it: just pinning down what Rob believes on heaven and hell is cause for debate. (See, for example, this and this.)
Anyway, spoiler alert: if you want to read Rob’s book for yourself before reading other people’s summaries or critiques (and you should), then stop here.
Observation #1: After reading Love Wins, I still don’t think Rob Bell is a full-blown, 100% committed universalist. (Did I qualify that enough to cover my own butt?)
For one thing, Rob has denied being a universalist at least three times since Monday. Yes, he qualified each denial with some version of “depending on how you define ‘universalist.’ ” And yes, I know that to a lot of people, Rob sounds like a universalist. But when somebody rejects a particular label as not representing them, I think we should use caution before applying that label in spite of their protests. At least that’s how I’d want to be treated.
Second, Rob is committed to the belief that God gives us freedom to accept or reject him. Which means that people might go on rejecting God after death, even if given the chance to repent. Rob says it pretty clearly on p. 114 of Love Wins:
Will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility. People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future.
It’s one thing to think people are given a second chance after death. It’s one thing to hope that everyone eventually says yes to God. And I think Rob advocates for both in Love Wins.
But if you believe in human freedom, you can never be absolutely, 100% sure that everyone everywhere will embrace God, given enough time.
That’s why, in response to the question, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish?” Rob ultimately concludes that we can’t give a definite answer (p. 115).
You might disagree with his conclusion, but his is something less than full-blown universalism.
Observation #2: Rob DOES seem to be what you might call a “hopeful universalist.” That is, someone who embraces the possibility that everyone might be saved in the end…and one who really, really hopes that’s how the story turns out.
At the very least, Rob argues that universalism is a legitimate strand within the Christian tradition. He quotes (his critics argue he misquotes) several early church leaders who seem to endorse or at least acknowledge the idea of Christian universalism.
In the end, Rob stops short of saying, “I think this is the right way to understand salvation.” But he wants us to view universalism as a valid option and not a heretical distortion, as others maintain.
Observation #3: Rob seems to embrace “Christian pluralism.” More details to come, but for now, see pages 154-155 of Love Wins.
Now, words are important here. So is the distinction between Christian pluralism and plain old religious pluralism.
Religious pluralism says, in effect, all paths lead to God. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, you name it. They’re all valid expressions of the divine.
Christian pluralism says that Christ is the only means of salvation, but accepts that some might be saved without realizing (until later) that it was Christ who saved them. They will, in effect, come face-to-face with Christ in the age to come, smack their foreheads, and say, “So it was YOU!”
The validity of Christian pluralism is something we can (and should) debate. But it is of a different order than plain old religious pluralism.
And if you plan to write off all Christian pluralists as heretics, then I hope you’re prepared to denounce such luminaries as C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard.
Observation #4: Rob believes in hell. Granted, Rob would rather talk about the hell we create here on earth when we “abandon all that is good and right.” But he also insists, “There is a hell now and a hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”
OK, so it’s not much to work with if you were expecting some deep insight into what hell-the-place-where-sin-is-judged looks like. But proponents of Rob’s view would argue the Bible itself is less than clear on what that hell is like. It’s worth noting, as Rob does, that Jesus primarily talked about hell by way of a metaphorical reference to Gehenna, a smoldering trash dump outside Jerusalem.
That doesn’t mean hell isn’t real or that we shouldn’t talk about it. But let’s at least acknowledge that the Bible didn’t set out to provide a comprehensive treatise on the nature of hell.
Observation #5: Rob believes in other things that are important to most Christians, like original sin and the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t mention this to downplay the importance of his views on heaven and hell. Only to caution against the caricature of Rob as someone who doesn’t give a crap about the “revealed truth” embraced by most Christians.
On p. 39, Rob acknowledges each person’s “role in corrupting this world.”
On p. 133, he insists that Jesus’ resurrection marks the first day of a new creation.
And because Rob stands in the tradition of N.T. Wright (at least in this respect), he insists that this world in all its physicality matters immensely to God. We’re not destined for a disembodied existence on a cloud somewhere.
When that’s your view of the world, it only makes sense to think of the resurrection in bodily terms, as Christians have for centuries.
So that’s my summary of where I think Rob stands in all of this. Next up, a critical assessment, starting with chapter 1: “What about the flat tire?”