Why We Need to Listen to the Message of “Love Wins”

By Dustin Fulton

There has been no shortage of controversy in Evangelical circles surrounding the release of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins. One of the blogs I read hailed it as an “instant classic” (she was a self-proclaimed friend of his from college, with a picture to prove it), while others have called it “complete heresy” and labeled him a Universalist (apparently they weren’t his friends in college!).

While Bell certainly didn’t shy away from publicity on this one, I think we ought to be a bit more careful of jumping on or off the bandwagon so quickly. In fact, I think we should take a different approach: we should listen.

 

My Frustration

Don’t get me wrong. I am not endorsing everything Bell says in the book. Quite frankly, the book frustrates me. Just like Bell’s other works, it is choppy and seems as if he threw it together over an extended weekend, though I trust he didn’t.

There isn’t a single footnote in the entire book. This is especially frustrating to me when he claims “an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts” (p. 108).

That comment really interested me. In fact, it interested me so much I wanted to hear some examples. But none was given. Unfortunately, such claims serve only as ammunition for both sides without providing any evidence at all. Some will accept it as gospel truth simply because Rob Bell said it. Others will reject it as absolute heresy because—you guessed it—Rob Bell said it.

He also takes shots here and there that seem aimed at a certain type of Christian. For example, he references the “woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews” (p. 10) as if it were a proven fact a woman wrote that book. In reality, no one knows who wrote it. If a woman actually wrote that letter, I don’t have a problem with it. In fact, I think it would be great. But to make such a statement was clearly a jab at more conservative Christians, as if what he says in the rest of the book weren’t going to bother them enough. Sadly, this seems much more antagonistic than pastoral.

So when I suggest we should listen, I am not suggesting that he is completely right about everything. I think we should listen because he is a product of the Evangelical world in which he was raised, and clearly he has had a prophetic influence back into that world. And let’s face it: while Evangelicalism in America has seen numerical success, the movement has never succeeded in breaking free from its Fundamentalist roots—and those roots are now choking the movement.

While the movement has made subtle progress for good in our country, it has watered down the gospel of Christ to a set of propositions that we believe in order to be saved, yet never takes seriously the call of discipleship. It often has called the church to be separate from the world without ever calling the church to be holy. It has placed importance on what happens for the rest of eternity while turning a blind eye to the real problems the world faces today. It has fueled radically individualistic lifestyles in America, while showing little value for communities of faith.

 

My Challenge

Brothers and sisters, this is simply unacceptable. So I would challenge you to at least listen to what Bell says about the following areas:

• Listen to what he says about Heaven.

Bell speaks for a younger generation when he declares “Here is the new there.” By this he is suggesting our view of Heaven as a foreign place where we eventually go to escape this world is unbiblical—and he is absolutely correct.

The biblical picture of Heaven is of a kingdom where God reigns, and the good news is we don’t have to go there. Rather, the kingdom of Heaven is coming here—and to some degree, it already has!

While what we see now is but a shadow of what is to come, this understanding forces us to engage the world as Jesus did. It does not allow us to hide from any issue or to allow any room for Christians who refuse to engage the world. This is what the younger generation is longing for—a Christianity with hands and feet.

It also speaks to a revitalized importance of the resurrection of all believers. Too often Evangelicals have watered down Heaven to a place where your spirit goes when you die—with absolutely no mention of the resurrection! We have placed such an importance on the role of the human spirit that we have nearly forgotten the promise of resurrection applies to us too! That is the hope Paul reinforces in 1 Corinthians 15. Christ has risen, and so will we!

• Listen to what he says about Hell.

When the Bible speaks of Hell, it uses very dark imagery and metaphors. The only thing really clear about Hell is that it is very much a mystery. Bell correctly points out that Jesus simply refers to the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. It was a miserable place where fire was always burning.

It reminds me of my visit to the Philippines in 1998 where I was introduced to “squatter colonies.” These colonies were often found in garbage dumps, and the inhabitants burned a fire to keep themselves warm at night. There were no records of their births or deaths. They were not educated. Their only contact with the rest of the world was when the garbage trucks arrived with food scraps and cardboard boxes, their food and shelter.

Shortly after returning home, I read an article about a tragedy that killed several thousand squatters outside of Manila. Apparently, one of the larger colonies had been burning a fire for several weeks that somehow burned downward through the dump and caused a massive collapse that killed thousands of squatters. This is exactly the type of life Jesus was referring to when he spoke of Hell, or Gehenna.

Is there Hell on earth? Yes. Is it just on earth? No. Bell doesn’t seem to think so either. He is calling the church to more of a balance—not just a conservative or liberal view, but balance. He says, “Often the people most concerned about others going to Hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about Hell after death” (pp. 78, 79). We must take both Hells very seriously.

• Listen to what he says about God’s restoring love.

This is again where the Bible gets way too murky for us. We want it all settled here on earth before we die. Bell argues that God will continue to restore the fallen even after he returns to earth. While I struggle to completely reconcile this thought with my traditionally held beliefs, I do hope he’s right.

I must acknowledge that a lot of my beliefs are merely speculation on Scripture’s gray areas. What does John mean when he says the gates of the heavenly city will never be shut? What is he referring to when he says the leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations? None of us can answer these questions completely, and John probably couldn’t either. That’s why he gave us these beautiful images.

Listening doesn’t mean agreeing, but it means we allow our assumptions to be challenged. If we’re wise, we’ll walk away from a book like this with a greater emphasis toward God’s mission of reconciling the world to himself. That means we’ll be very passionate about winning souls in the classical evangelical sense, but it also means we’ll engage the current problems of this world with great intensity and hope, because we know along with Paul that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.

 

Dustin Fulton is preaching minister at Jefferson Street Christian Church in Lincoln, Illinois.

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8 Comments

  1. June 21, 2011 at 6:07 am

    I have not read Rob Bell’s book, but I can recommend Randy Alcorn’s book “Heaven”. It addressed the same topics as Mr. Bell did. It was very thoughtful and biblically-informed.

  2. June 21, 2011 at 9:11 am

    I’ve read Love Wins, and would agree wholeheartedly with most of your assessment (especially on the footnoting). Since the book’s publication, he’s done a number of long Q&A’s at Christian seminaries and similar venues, where he addressed some of the same points you bring up:

    See http://www.denverseminary.edu/news/a-discussion-with-rob-bell/ (Also, if you just want to direct-download the mp3, here’s the link: http://www.denverseminary.edu/media/rob-bell-4-8-11.mp3 )

    In it, he also notes that his Hebrews author comment is a long-running joke (which I’ve heard him use w/ his congregation in podcasts over the years), and not meant to be serious. Alcorn’s book, “Heaven” brings up a number of the points Bell does, though from a systematic theological (Reformed) angle. One of the best books I’m familiar with on the subject (and the one Bell probably pulled most of the Heaven material from) is N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”.

  3. Chad L
    June 21, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Not sure I agree here. I mean, it is true that we should be aware of our cultural context and understand various ideas that are being dispersed through popular teachers. However, should we really be pressed to take seriously Rob Bell’s teachings? Joel Osteen also has a large following and sold bestsellers, but does it mean we need to listen to what he says about faith and prosperity? I understand that Rob Bell poses interesting questions at times and parts of the books are compelling. However, very significant sections of the book are so troubling and misleading that I do not understand why we should respond to a call to join others flocking to his feet to listen to his teachings. There are so many more sound teachers (past and present) that address the same challenging questions, but do so in an orthodox way.

  4. June 21, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Joel Osteen also has a large following and sold bestsellers, but does it mean we need to listen to what he says about faith and prosperity?

    Nothing like an ad homenim comparison to make your point. Bell is nothing like Osteen and the prosperity gospel.

    If we can’t preach the Gospel without certitude of a specific view of hell – or if our Gospel centered around post-mortem evacuation, perhaps we’re heretics (as Dick Alexander wrote in CS back in May https://christianstandard.com/2011/05/confronting-our-own-heresy/ ).

    There are so many more sound teachers (past and present) that address the same challenging questions, but do so in an orthodox way.

    Like Billy Graham?

    Well, maybe not, since Bell’s view of exclusive inclusivism is a mirror image of Graham’s stated view.

    Maybe C.S. Lewis?

    Well, maybe not, since Lewis’ Great Divorce posited a view that one’s state of salvation might not be permanently determined at the time of death (which Bell describes as one possible option, though he doesn’t choose any of them).

    Maybe N.T. Wright?

    Well, maybe not, since Bell’s view of Heaven is basically a Cliff’s Notes version of Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”.

    Maybe Tim Keller?

    Oops. (Keller’s Calvinism aside), Bell’s chapter “The Good News is Better than That” is basically a rehash of Keller’s “Prodigal God”.

    Bottom line: while Love Wins is far from perfect, it asks a number of valid questions and its key theses, as Dustin points out, are completely valid. I’m not sure why Bell is such a threat to some Christians, but he’s certainly no threat to Orthodoxy.

  5. Clarence
    June 22, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Glad to read a review that isn’t obsessively either one way or the other. Having serious concerns or reasonably agreeing are both fine but the dramatic vehement perspectives one particular way or another haven’t helped anyone. Thanks for your reasoned approach…

  6. Patty
    June 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    I haven’t read the book, but have read this article. My concern is that any statements made of God, creation, Heaven or Hell must be able to be backed up with scripture. If it can’t, then it’s one man’s opinion. If it aligns with scripture, then take it seriously. The purpose we have here is to love our neighbors and our enemies and show them Christ, so that they can live in freedom. If you want to know what God says, read His word….best book I’ve ever read!!!

  7. David Miller
    June 26, 2011 at 10:09 am

    I have not read “Love Wins”. But I do realize now, more than ever that we who preach and teach must be careful not to “over speculate” on the “gray areas” of God’s word. The implication that all will be saved ( an Implication not a direct statement by Bell ) is troubling. We must be careful not to take general statements in the scripture and make them directives ( ie: Romans 10:9 ) It sounds as if many of his observations are certainly worthy of our attention. However, we must stay within the scriptural context and always interpret scripture within the light of scripture. I do appreciate his passion and obvious love for the Lord and people. Nice article, wish it had been more detailed.

  8. Dustin Fulton
    July 3, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for all of your feedback! I would agree that N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope is a great resource. It is definitely a huge stretch to put Rob Bell in the same camp as Osteen. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the article I was unable to be more thorough. Both Francis Chan and Mark Galli (CT’s editor) are coming out with books in response to Love Wins. I will be curious to see what they have to say.

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