Bell’s Hells: A ‘Love Wins’ book review

Unless you have just returned from a Virgin Intergalactic flight, you are probably aware of the controversy surrounding the new book Love Wins by pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Michigan. (Not to be confused with the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington and its pastor Mark Driscoll who is probably plotting at this very moment how to get Rob Bell inside the octagon and beat him to a sniveling, bloody pulp.)

Even before its recent release, Bell’s publisher, HarperCollins, had leaked a very juicy summary strongly indicating the nature of the book. Love Wins would present, in the words of one editorial, “a deeply biblical vision for rediscovering a richer, grander, truer, and more spiritually satisfying way of understanding heaven, hell, God, Jesus, salvation, and repentance. The result is the discovery that the ‘good news’ is much, much better than we ever imagined.”

Early reviews began popping up from Justin Taylor (which generated 1,500 comments and 30k Facebook “recommends”), Al Mohler, Greg Boyd, Kevin DeYoung’s epic, 20-page tome, followed by later reviews from Joey Jernigan, Relevant Magazine (a shockingly good review) and 185 respondents on the book’s page on Amazon. My intent was to not read the book, but I could not be satisfied to have it pass by me, so I broke down yesterday morning and downloaded to my Kindle. Trust me when I say that this review could easily have been three or four times as long. There are plenty of, “Dude, seriously?” moments in the book. I just do not have time to cover all of the 50 sections I highlighted while reading.

First, Love Wins is not all bad, not all heretical and not all varying degrees of bad theology. Second, it has much that is good, true and biblically accurate. Third, the good is good, but the bad is terrible.

Sub-titled Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell’s work is ambitiously named, but is not able to thoroughly address either of its three proposed topics. This is not to say any of them are ignored, but the length of the book and his writing style (short sentences, plentiful use of the return key, and a superfluity of questions) do not lend themselves to the scrupulousness required to explore them at more than surface depth. If the subject was cancer, then the good Dr. Bell merely sprayed it with Bactine and declared, “Antibiotics win!” This is especially disappointing since Bell claims it to be a book of answers. Less than a book of answers, it is a wide ranging book of questions and thoughts about heaven and hell as he sometimes redefines them without going to the trouble of letting the undiscerning reader know that he’s redefined them.

Bell does good in reminding us that Christ’s followers are responsible to exhibit heaven on earth. He writes (pg. 45):

Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere. Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water. People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come. That’s what happens when the future is dragged into the present.

This is nothing less than the kingdom present with an implicit repudiation of post-millennialism. Similarly, he asserts (pg. 55):

According to Jesus, then, heaven is as far away as that day when heaven and earth become one again and as close as a few hours. The apostle Paul writes to the Philippians that either he would go on living, or he would be killed and immediately be with Christ (chap. 1). Paul believed that there is a dimension of creation, a place, a space, a realm beyond the one we currently inhabit and yet near and connected with it.

He clearly is not is step with Belinda Carlisle here, as he holds that heaven is an actual place.

He also equates hell to the reality of sin (pg. 72):

So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word “sin,” my first response is to ask, “Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?”

Despite muddling the doctrine of hell later, he does not question its existence as related by Jesus, even providing this sterling insight:

Second, note what it is the man wants in hell: he wants Lazarus to get him water. When you get someone water, you’re serving them. The rich man wants Lazarus to serve him. In their previous life, the rich man saw himself as better than Lazarus, and now, in hell, the rich man still sees himself as above Lazarus. It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart! It hasn’t changed, even in death and torment and agony. He’s still clinging to the old hierarchy. He still thinks he’s better.

A real dilemma comes when Bell tries to explain away any kind of meaningful (ie, biblically sound) doctrine of eternal punishment. It’s here especially that he veers into heresy only rarely getting even two wheels on the road. It’s as if, given his revulsion for the course charted by the church for 2,000 years, he plots a new course, but, rather than using a GPS, he simply decides to spin the wheel. Bell goes to the trouble of pointing out that having a “personal relationship” with Jesus is not in the Bible, but seems blind to the fact that “love wins” makes no appearance either. Spotty hermeneutics and shoddy church history do little to help his case. It seems for him that Christianity is a religion of mystery of which questions are the core, but, historically, Christianity has been seen as a religion of revelation of which questions are a part.

Nowhere is Bell’s disdain for a doctrine of eternal justice toward sin more evident than his handling of scripture regarding who will be saved. Using a method of cherry picking that would make any migrant worker proud, Bell “proves” that “all” will eventually be drawn to heaven. With complete disregard for any context at all, verses that are directed to Israel, verses that refer to only believers, and verses that directed to another specific group are combined into a theological witches’ brew the odor of which should ward off any serious truth seeker. Even the aforementioned review of at Relevant magazine, noting “Bell’s seeming refusal in Love Wins to wrestle with the explicit difficulties in the biblical text,” concluded:

It would be easy to imagine a new Christian assuming Love Wins is an all-encompassing view of God, and then being dreadfully confused when they read Judges for the first time. Bell’s summation is at least as non-holistic as Mark Driscoll’s “My Jesus beats people up” image. It’s disappointing to see Bell fall into the same trap as Driscoll and some of his contemporaries, when the complexity and paradox in the character of God seem to be overlooked in the chase to gain points.

His belief that “love wins” becomes so completely skewed that he ultimately interprets verses that teach the depth of judgment on those who reject Christ as “there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah.” It is a breathtaking display of eisegetical gymnastics. At least a 9.5.

Since Rob Bell is so concerned that billions and billions of people will go to hell, perhaps he should write a book challenging western Christians’ view of evangelism, rather than letting us off the hook by implying that all but the most hardened sinners will wind up in heaven anyway. Why should we spend one second of time and even one dollar to tell the lost about Christ when

The writers of scripture consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family. What we have in common—regardless of our tribe, language, customs, beliefs, or religion—outweighs our differences. This is why God wants ‘all people to be saved.’ (pg. 99)

Sorry, Rob. Being in the same family is the result of salvation not the root of it.

Perhaps most disconcerting of all is his caricaturing of what most people would call “historic theology.” His complaint about the many “Jesuses” that have told a toxic story to the masses, is hardly helped by his overly simplistic, baldly inadequate description on page 173:

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

Nothing about the goodness of God leading to repentance. Nothing about unbelief. Nothing about sin separating from God. Bell’s comment would make Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens stand and applaud. It’s a ludicrous, stupid parody of God.

Reading portions of Love Wins I cannot help but think of a scene from the 1995 movie version of A Little Princess where the school girls had endured a lengthy read from some intolerably dull novel. As Sarah Crewe took her turn she immediately woke up everyone with a rousing portion that had every girl and one of the ladies swooning. Upon being reprimanded for changing the story, the adventurous Crewe replied, “I just couldn’t bear to think of her running off with that awful man, so I imagined it another way.” Bell’s conclusions about heaven are informative, about hell are less so, and about the fate of every person who ever lived? It seems he’s just imagined it another, unbiblical, way.

As a friend of mine (who loved the book) said of Love Wins, “This isn’t Bell’s best.” I would go so far as to say there are other books that are far less problematic than this one that are far more effective in teaching what Bell is attempting to say. This is far and away a fan club book.

If you want to read on the unimaginable love of God, please check out The Ragamuffin Gospel. If you want to read about our role with God in bringing justice to the world, read Good News About Injustice. For a far better treatment on helping the poor and providing clean drinking water, see When Helping Hurts. For an much more in depth exploration of heaven, try Randy Alcorn’s Heaven. For the best treatment on the prodigal son in your lifetime, you need The Prodigal God

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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  • Finally! Excellent review!

    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Linda.

  • Excellent review Marty! Expected nothing less from you!

    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Steve.

  • Good review. Thanks.

    This says it all to me: “…God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. “

    An inescapable conclusion from that statement is that God has no choice but to let the believer into Heaven. As far as I am concerned, saving faith is not a vehicle which “out-maneuvers God”, so to speak; rather, God is simply faithful to keep His promises.

    But it’s still His choice to do so. And, unlike us, He always keeps them.

    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Bob. Agreed.

  • Jay

    “If the subject was cancer, then the good Dr. Bell merely sprayed it with Bactine and declared, ‘Antibiotics win!'”


    • Marty Duren

      Thx, dude.

  • Thad Brasfield

    After hearing so much about this book I really enjoyed your review of this work but also your entire web site! I have not had an opportunity to “browse” the last six months and find it filled with great information, as well as an open dialogue you allow from those who decide to comment. I appreciate your insight and opinion. As far as Rob Bell is concerned – Should I read the book, in all probability I would come to the many conclusions you have; however, I think that the Chrisitian community can easily dismisses how difficult it can be to grasp the great mystery of Christ and what he accomplished on the cross. That road is truly narrow, especially for those of us who were inspired with inquisitivness. I think faith comes easier for some than others. It seems to me as Mr. Bell may be trying to make it easy for everyone. In essence it is, but in reality, is it?

    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Thad, for commenting.

      Over the years, Rob Bell has done a yeoman’s task of trying to remove unnecessary obstacles to the gospel. God knows we have done a very sufficient job of erecting tall barriers to the gospel with our extra-biblical requirements and un-biblical living. The answer, however, is not to make the biblical teaching of eternal punishment/separation from God more palatable. The cross is a stumbling block and will always be so. Lessening that offense, and its corollary doctrine of judgment, is to weaken the hope God offers, not to make it more attractive.

  • Marty
    Outstanding review. Most articulate and kind in spirit.

    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Rick. And thanks for stopping by the site.

  • Paul 5

    I agree with what you had to say for the most part. I was disappointed there wasn’t something more substantial.

    However, I fear that you tread some of the same ground in your review. Not everyone in church history embraced the doctrine of eternal punishment. How the church established Hell as a place of eternal punishment is an interesting study.

    Even if you believe in hell as eternal state of punishment you need to be honest about the dissenters within the church.

  • Marty Duren

    Thx for your comment. The older I get the more amazed I am at how much in church history was decided by bloodshed rather than prayer and study of the Word. I didn’t deny that there have been dissenters, but that wasn’t the primary subject of this post. Bell claims that he is “swimming in a wide stream” in his thoughts, yet the evidence he proffers is questionable.

  • Thanks for your review Marty, well written!

    I will say that although your point about it being a fan club book may be accurate, I would say that this book has a lot more weight when you’ve listened to a lot of Rob in the past, read his other books and read the people he reads and his peers (Rollins, & Rohr as ones I have read). It didn’t seem far fetched to me because of those items, but again I have read a lot before hand. I am a great fan of Rob and I think he is saying what a lot have thought and have known for a long time, which is very encouraging.

    • Marty Duren

      Your point is actually the point of my next post on Monday *crosses fingers*

  • I try to keep up with Bell. I think he is a gifted teacher and speaker. It is baffling to me that he could go sideways from the truth. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but your review brings up some important points. Thanks for taking the time to point these out.

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