The Unorthodox Review of Rob Bell’s Latest

I finished reading Love Wins. Maybe I am more of an apostate than I thought I was, but I did not see anything Rob said that denied the orthodox views of the afterlife. What I did read was an earnest attempt by a very hip pastor to explain how something like hell and judgment can exist with a loving God.

Rob writes terrible prose. I am going to be honest. He does not write the style of prose we are used to reading and that makes him somewhat inaccessible to people who expect a pastor to write in the accepted manner. Because of his style, Rob opens himself up to a lot of misinterpretation. In fact, my assessment might itself be a misinterpretation – who knows?

At the core of Rob’s thesis, which he does not really get to until the last couple of chapters. Really, he has two primary ideas to convey.

Point 1 – It is not about creed or prayer

Rob is at great pains to explain that salvation is not about assenting to a creed or saying the right prayer. There is no magic trick to getting into heaven. In fact, getting into heaven is not the reason we should be coming to God in the first place.

The big controversy that surrounded this book comes down to Rob saying that you don’t have to believe in one person’s version of believing in Jesus. In other words, he’s saying that Jesus is bigger than our creeds and ideas. He is both narrow and universal. We can follow him without even knowing his name (and if you have a problem with that, you should consider the Old Testament since he isn’t named there once.)

Point 2 – Hell Is Our Own Sin

People essentially create their own hell by refusing to allow God to retell our story. What Rob calls ‘retell our story’ is equivalent to what most evangelicals would say as ‘accepting Jesus’.

We come to God with our version of our story. God has the true version. We have to trust God that his version of our story is the right one. When we don’t trust him, we are left in the hell of our false story. We can be in the midst of God’s glory and be in hell because we do not trust God.

What about this idea doesn’t jive with orthodox faith? If you believe in a literal hell, then people go there because of their sin. God saves us by telling us the story of redemption and meaning through Jesus. If we refuse that story, we choose to remain in our sin. While we would say that story is directly revealed in the Scriptures, even the apostle Paul believed that it existed in creation and was accessible to all men. (Romans 1)

Rob makes it plain. God is still righteous and loving. Those who do not trust him still go to hell. How Rob defines hell is a little different than how most evangelicals define it but it certainly is not a new idea. It is an idea that has existed throughout Christianity’s storied and varied history.

And if someone accepts the story God is telling but does not know all the names of the characters, are they not good enough? If Mother Theresa was a little confused about the role of her works but still accepted the story God was telling her, then does she go to hell for not conforming to the evangelical doctrinal statement?

If you ask me, all the controversy revolves around fear and misunderstanding. Rob approaches a difficult question or set of difficult questions with a style all his own. It is not my own way of telling it, but I did not see anything that made him an apostate. A bit theologically loopy? Yeah, I could say that. But I can’t find it in me to reject him because he tells the same story of redemption in postmodern language.

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4 thoughts on “The Unorthodox Review of Rob Bell’s Latest

  1. Hello Erik, thanks for the short post about Love Wins. Did you really think that Bell’s view of hell was not rather “unorthodox?” Hell, according to Bell, is not everlasting or eternal but is simply a re-framed form of Catholic purgatory where it is a “period of pruning” and an “intense experience of correction” where eventually every sinner will repent because “God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts.” (Love Wins, 91, 108) This is universalism obviously, and even though it is not a “new idea” I cannot find this in the Scriptures, nor in the weak biblical interpretations of Bell. Let me add that I have read Bell’s books, listened to many Podcasts and have defended him often…but not this time.

    • 1. Rob is notoriously under-edited. Editors tend to let his stuff stand because it is ‘art’, which creates a lot of problems for the reader. I think that if you read the last two chapters, you will find statements that contradict these statements. Had he been properly edited, I think those statements would have been rewritten to conform to his last chapters.

      Ultimately, Rob’s use of the two prodigal sons illustrates his view much better than his vague allusions and poor exegesis.

      2. I am not saying I agree with Rob on the purgative nature of hell, but his position is far from unique in the Christian streams.

      Personally, I think that Rob writes for the big idea rather than the minutiae. That means sometimes he missteps in the details. I can forgive him for that. He wants people to think. I get that. One of the challenges of dealing with a guy like Rob is that their thinking is always in motion. He hasn’t come down definitively – it can be both a strength and a weakness.

      Is he artsy and sometimes a bit condescending? Yes.

      Does he misinterpret some stuff? Yes.

      Does he make doctrinal errors? Yes, he does.

      Would I say to people, ‘Oh go get Rob Bell’s book, it explains everything’? No.

      Would I teach this way in our congregation? Absolutely not.

      Should his book be part of the conversation? Should we be able to read it without flying off the handle and consider his thoughts? Yes.

      Not everyone agrees, and that’s ok.

  2. Hey Erik, thanks for the response. I agree with what you said point by point with some additional thoughts. I did actually notice some typos in this book (Harper Collins fault perhaps–seeing Bell was declined for this book from his previous publisher Zondervan who must pay more attention to detail!) At any rate, the editing though of the various theological implications his theology poses cannot be overstated. That was something that surprised me in Love Wins and in his interviews. Did he actually think through these far reaching implications and where they revolve?: sin, heaven, hell, the Cross, Jesus, God’s nature–these are areas not really up for re-framing seeing the perspicuous nature of the essential details given of them in Scripture. Next, the prodigal son illustration he used was thoughtful for his “Great Divorce” (C.S. Lewis) framework but still, that parable wasn’t meant to have four legs and walk in any direction we would like it it go, especially according to Bell’s naive literalism of a story so obvious in its historical context and in its meaning. Also, I agree, the “purgative” view of hell is not unique in the streams, but this is more a testimony that Bell is offering up and slipping into simply a re-packaged form of classic theological liberalism and with the fish who swim in that pond. (Maclaren, Spong, Pagitt, Borg, even the Bishop of Durham , N.T. Wright on certain levels.) I agree also with what you said about his intentions in getting at “the big idea,” but surely in light of his recent theological purporting–the “devil [truly]is in the details.” Finally, I agree with your closing thoughts. We need these discussions and we need these opportunities to check ourselves, and where we are headed as believers in the post-modern matrix. What is really open for discussion as we reappraise our movement as followers of Jesus in 2011?
    I scanned your blog by the way and you and I have much in common about the way we see things from outside the box.
    Blessings to you, MJW

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