Nick Richtsmeier's Reviews > Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

Love Wins by Rob Bell
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Apr 12, 2011

it was ok
Read in April, 2011

From the department of misleading titles comes Rob Bell’s latest passive-aggressive assault on American cultural Christianity. Bell, like many of his “emergent” peers loves a little anti-evangelical shot across the bow as much as the next guy, but also like his peers doesn’t want to be hundred percent ostracized for the cannon fodder he makes of the American fundamentalist sacred cows. Wins is neither as controversial as everyone expects it to be nor is it as revolutionary as Bell would like it to be. In the end, it is an interesting and somewhat thoughtful gloss on the Biblical references to heaven and hell with a dash of quantum physics for flavor.

As with most things Rob Bell, it is easier to nail down what Love Wins isn’t than to frame up what it is. Love Wins is not a scholarly work. It borrows from reasonable scholarship and like most Bell it grabs from N.T. Wright-ian first century Judaic reference, but Bell’s attempt at scholarship is not scholarly. If you are looking for a thoughtful, Biblically relevant exegesis on the now/not yet of heaven, Wright’s Surprised by Hope is a much better read.

Love Wins is also not a logical book. Rob does not begin with the premises of an argument in order to effectively draw the reader to a conclusion. Instead, Rob stands up the somewhat accurate straw man of fundamentalist event-based conversion. He induces us all to look in the face of that ugly-as-sin gunny sack of chaff while he from a safe distance points fingers whispering, “Isn’t that ugly?” Let’s be honest, we all—to some degree—know that there are substantial cracks in the façade of pray-the-prayer conversions. Any self-respecting evangelical has wondered about kids who die “too young” (whenever that is) or people who have “prayed the prayer” and turn away later in life. But the weak logic of transactional get-out-of-hell prayers is not a foundation for universalist theology. We do not come to a logical and Biblically inspired vision of the Trinitarian God by starting from the premise that somebody else’s vision doesn’t feel good. The flaws in fundamentalist evangelicalism do not a logical premise make.

Finally, Love Wins is not a thorough book. Weighing in at about 107 pages of content, it makes for about an hour long read, depending on your reading speed. If Rob intends to woo the uncertain throngs of post-foundationalist evangelicals to his brand of pseudo-universalism, it will take more than 100 pages of loosely tied together anecdotes and Biblical references. I can only assume that Rob did not intend to change anyone’s mind about anything but rather to appease the minds of any evangelical who doesn’t like how their current brand of evangelicalism feels. To anyone who has ever squirmed in an evangelism training class, to anyone who has walked down the aisle to Just As I Am a few too many times, Bell’s rhetorical sigh relief is for you.

So what does Bell give us, if not a thorough scholarly logic of Christian universalism? In many ways this is a feeling book occasionally populated by thorough ideas. At its best moments, Love Wins taunts us with thoughtful reminders that the simplest and most mundane versions of Western Christianity probably lack Biblical defensibility. He borrows from writers more robust and less popular than him to hint at an intensely superior Christian vision of God and humanity than most American churches have never even wondered at. A vision where God by His Spirit is actively at work in every human moment, refining us by the redemptive fire of his loving judgment, training us to be more uncomfortable with the saccharine of sin and more enamored with the flavorful balanced meal of Trinitarian Love. Such a vision is not only Biblical it is also historically more consistent with the great thinkers and God-lovers who came before us. Christ-followers who preceded the revivalist distortions the American “awekenings” and the theological distortions that followed would recognize some of the better thoughts in Love Wins as resonant of transformative faith, and we would be wise to do the same.

But these ancestors of the faith would not recognize the great jump that follows. They would not and did not come to the firm conclusion that an actively redeeming God who is reforming every human life requires the absence of post-humous punishment. Moreso, they would not recognize Rob’s basic formula:

Evangelical Formulas for going to Heaven Feel Bad
+
Lots of long-dead Christians thought other more interesting things about being saved
+
The Thought of God Letting Everyone into Eternal Paradise Feels Good
=
Eternal Conscious Punishment Cannot Exist.

In the end, Bell's intimations of robust soteriology degrade into a needless line in the sand. Apparently, we cannot say that “Love Wins,” as Rob has in sermons and bumper stickers for more than a decade, unless God’s Love eventually convinces everyone to love God back. If one person succeeds in walking away from God’s love with eyes wide open, then God fails in His Eternal Creative Endeavor and Love Loses or at best Love Ties or goes into extra innings.

As I have seen in spades with the rising tide of Christian Universalists, they stand under the banner of “love” and challenge anyone to defy them. For the rest of us who are not yet convinced that that Trinitarian Love requires that there are not eternal consequences for human choice, we (as implied by Bell, Peter Hiett of Denver and so many others) only believe in some not-so-nice, not-so-pretty version of love, and one of these days we’ll come around to the side of the Winners, to the side where Love Wins as long as we all wholesale agree with the Christian Universalists who know said love so much better than the rest of us.
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