Love Wins: Preliminary Thoughts

I have been working my way through Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, over the course of the last few days. The book has sparked an insane amount of controversy in the blogging world, and it seems that everyone with a blog has something to say about it. I haven’t finished the book yet, and so cannot comment on the book as a whole. Instead, I intend to offer some initial impressions and a few comments on the debate.

Before I began reading the book, I was expecting that I would disagree with Bell, but find his method of asking questions to be interesting and helpful to Evangelical circles. Asking questions, especially the right ones, is almost always a good thing. I did not know much about Bell before this, except that many people disagreed with him, and some found him extremely profound. This is the first book I have read by Bell, so keep that in mind as I get into the book sometime next week.

The debate has been raging since long before the book came out. After Bell released his promotional video for the book, people immediately began labeling him a Universalist. After touching on Bell’s book, this seems a bit over-zealous, even if I end up thinking Bell’s conclusions are wrong. He may even believe some things Universalists believe, but his views do not align with what most people think of Universalism. People who attacked this particular work before it was released jumped the gun, even if their conclusions end up being correct.

After reading the first few chapters, the thing that struck me the most was that Bell keeps asking rhetorical questions, attempting to anticipate my answer, and his next sentences demonstrate that I did not mentally answer the way he wanted me to. I wondered a few times if my reaction was problematic; if perhaps I was supposed to feel the way Bell expected me to, or if the problem lay in his expectations. After I responded contrary to Bell’s clear expectations many times, I began to suspect that Bell and I simply think about the world in different ways. This will color the way I read the book, but if I can get around his implications by simply answering his questions in a different way than he does, what weight does the book hold? Only a full read will tell.

My other initial impression is that, in general, his exegesis of Scripture is simply off-base on many counts. I recognize that Bell’s intention here is not to write a systematic defense of a particular theological stance, Universalist or otherwise, but rather to raise questions and provoke people into asking those same questions. If he were seeking to make a full-fledged defense, he would have begun with exegesis of Scripture and moved on to questions provoked by Scripture. Instead, his goal is to raise questions based on the understanding of Jesus and Hell that Evangelicals of today often hold. This involves using Scripture, but his primary purpose is not exegesis, commentary, or systematic theology. This does not excuse the poor interpretation of Scriptures, but perhaps makes that complaint less viable when discussing Bell’s book on its own terms.

Within the next week or two, I will finish off the book and write up my thoughts.

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    • Stephen Hale
    • April 27th, 2011

    ” If he were seeking to make a full-fledged defense, he would have begun with exegesis of Scripture and moved on to questions provoked by Scripture. Instead, his goal is to raise questions based on the understanding of Jesus and Hell that Evangelicals of today often hold.” YES! Exactly. This is Bell’s goal.

    He’s capable of exegesis. I’m taking the same classes he took, and he knows how to exegete. But this isn’t his goal. There are, I think, a couple places where he makes exegetical-lite claims (talking about olam and the gk equivalent in the NT), but he doesn’t really get into it as a true exegetical argument would.

    I’m curious to hear some specifics of the things you mentioned above, especially:

    “After reading the first few chapters, the thing that struck me the most was that Bell keeps asking rhetorical questions, attempting to anticipate my answer, and his next sentences demonstrate that I did not mentally answer the way he wanted me to.”

    and

    “My other initial impression is that, in general, his exegesis of Scripture is simply off-base on many counts.”

    I tend to agree with much of what he says, particularly not living eternally in heaven, but in a new earth, etc.

    However, when he discusses what many would expect to be universalism, I think he’s expressing a view similar to Lewis’ in the Great Divorce.

    Great post for push of pikes!

    -Stephen

  1. I do think a lot of what Bell says about the new Earth is admirable.

    However, I do think that Bell’s making a much stronger, more daring statement than Lewis is in the Great Divorce.

    In the Great Divorce, Lewis speculates that the damned in hell are shown the love of heaven, and could be redeemed if they accepted and understood it. But notably, in the novella, none of the damned actually convert. They all go back to hell at the end. Their final state is rather unclear.

    Bell definitively and unambiguously believes that every person will go to heaven, without exception. Lewis never states that, that I have seen.

    Regardless, the Great Divorce is a parable that’s written to show the differences between good and evil — it’s not actually trying to make any claim about whether the damned can be saved; the story is just a framework for the moral. So it’s not a fair comparison.

      • Stephen Hale
      • April 27th, 2011

      Really? “Definitively and unambiguously?” I’ve only finished ~half the book, but I haven’t noticed that. If you wouldn’t mind citing page # for that…I’d appreciate it, anyway. I don’t want to miss something of that monument. ‘Specially since he doesn’t argue people go to heaven anyway (though I s’pect you just didn’t mean that wee bit precisely, so no worries).

      OTOH, your reading of The Great Divorce is very helpful. I was 15 when I read it last, and not particularly theologically astute, if you hear me…. 🙂

      -Stephen

      • I can’t give a page number at the moment, since I returned the book to the person I borrowed it from. However, it’s his entire thesis. His whole idea is that people may go to hell when they die, but eventually will ask for forgiveness and will still be allowed in heaven after they die: it doesn’t matter whether you’re alive or not when you ask for forgiveness. And so, eventually, even if it takes a billion years, every person in hell will ask God for forgiveness, one by one, until hell is empty and every single person is saved. Because in the end, love wins.

  2. Regardless of his position, it does not excuse poor interpretation of Scripture. Just wanted to reiterate that.

    As for an example of a rhetorical question Bell asks that I do not answer in the same way he expects me to, look at the first major question he asks in the first chapter (if I’m remembering where it is correctly; forgive me if I’m not, as it is late and the book is not within arm’s reach): “Gandhi is in hell? Really?”

    His expected response is something like “Wow, I guess that is crazy to believe, that a great man like Gandhi is in hell!” My response is “Well, maybe. I don’t know the man’s heart, but Jesus proclaimed a singular way to Paradise.”

    I think what Bell says about Hell on earth and about us dwelling in New Earth, and not Heaven primarily, is fantastic. There were multiple moments in the chapter on Hell when I was thrilled with what he said. The idea that we get a real taste of hell and a real taste of heaven here on earth is precisely right, I think. This doesn’t mean I agree with his thesis, but that he does say good things.

    As far as his exegesis/understanding of Scripture, the one that comes to mind is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Bell’s interpretation is that the reason that Lazarus couldn’t bring water down to the Rich Man was that the Rich Man was asking Lazarus to serve him. I’m not sure I would ever say that a man who is burning up and asking for water is doing anything but calling out for mercy, as opposed to service. It was not the Rich Man’s pride or heart that was in the way here, as Bell argues. It’s a pretty poor understanding of the story. Regardless of what it means to have a Rich Man in this hell-ish place, it’s a strange interpretation of what is going on.

    I’ll provide more specifics and more details in my full-on response. Just thought I’d give a bit more of a primer.

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